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Alumna’s novel, featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, follows a 16-year-old who fakes her way through gay conversion therapy and discovers a sense of self

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Three-time VCU graduate Michele Young-Stone's latest novel, "Lost in the Beehive" follows a young woman growing up in the 1960s as she navigates her sexuality. (Photos courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Michele Young-Stone could not have known it at the time, but the inspiration for her third novel came from a beach trip she took more than 30 years ago.

“I was 16. My best friend and I went on vacation to the Outer Banks and we met these boys from Minnesota who were graduating high school,” Young-Stone said. “And one of the boys confessed to us that he was gay and that none of his friends knew the truth. He didn't feel like he could tell them because he thought they wouldn't be his friend, or that they would be afraid of him.”

More than 20 years later, as Young-Stone attempted to write a love story about two young women, she found a character repeatedly showing up in her notes. That character became Sheffield Schoeffler, a young man who is gay and who is both friend and field guide for protagonist Gloria Ricci as she navigates her own sexuality and sense of self in “Lost in the Beehive” (Simon & Schuster 2018), Young-Stone’s novel about a young woman growing up in the 1960s who fakes her way through gay conversion therapy and charts a path to becoming her own person.

“I didn’t realize [the boy on the beach] was so much inspiration for the novel until I finished writing — it wasn't until the book was getting ready to print that I understood where Sheffield Schoeffler came from,” Young-Stone said. “This happens in every one of my books — some character will show up and kind of shift the whole focus.”

“Lost in the Beehive” has received critical praise since its April release and this month is featured in O, The Oprah Magazine’s spring reading list. Young-Stone, a three-time Virginia Commonwealth University graduate, spoke about the book, her career and her circuitous but rewarding writing process in an interview with VCU News:

At its core, “Lost in the Beehive” is about having the courage to be who you were born to be. Why did you set the book in the 1960s, and how did you use setting to drive the narrative?

Part of it is personal. My mother’s family is Catholic and she was brought up in New Jersey in the 1960s like my main character. And even though the world was changing so radically, people were trying hard to hold on to these ideals. I wanted to deal with those two worlds at odds with each other.

I had always heard stories in my mom’s family — and I use this in the book — [that] she had a cousin whose wife cheated on him, and because he got divorced he was shunned. If people came to my grandparents’ house he would have to go upstairs, he was not to be seen. It wasn’t his fault that his wife cheated on him, but divorce wasn’t tolerated and there were so many lies told and things that were hidden from people. I was fascinated by that. And while I was at VCU I took a class on the 1950s and that really influenced me. I always wanted to delve into that time period and how people interpreted it differently.

I liked the idea, too, of investigating not just Gloria trying to accept her sexuality and who she is, but also going back a generation to her mother, who makes the decision to marry the Steady Eddie guy with the good job even though she at one point was in love with somebody else who was “nontraditional.” I wanted to have that juxtaposition of both women struggling with the same question: This is what society expects of me but how do I journey forth? What decision am I going to make?

You mention that Sheffield Schoeffler changes the focus of the story. What was the process like writing this book?

I think I started it in 2008 or 2009, so it's been a long process. I wanted to write a book about a love story between two young women. And as I was writing, Sheffield came onto the page and I didn’t really understand why he was there. I discovered that the love story actually existed between Sheffield and Gloria, and it was a platonic relationship. Everything shifted from there.

I didn’t realize [the boy on the beach] was so much inspiration for the novel until I finished writing. This happens in every one of my books — some character will show up and kind of shift the whole focus.

I get a tattoo for every novel I finish at Absolute Art Tattoo on Grace Street [in Richmond]. I have a tattoo for “Lost in the Beehive” that absolutely makes no sense, because everything represented in the tattoo ended up being cut from the novel. The original title was “Perfect Birds,” and the tattoo is a silver moon charm and it’s based on a gift that a character was given. But after I realized Sheffield was the focus of the novel it all ended up being backstory. So I have this tattoo that at one time was in the book but it didn’t make the final cut. I think I’ll keep the tattoo as a reminder that writing is a process. But I need to add some bees now.

Speaking of bees, why did you title the book “Lost in the Beehive?”

I went to this woman’s house to research energy healing for the novel. I had my eyes closed laying on this table and I kept hearing this buzzing sound — it was really annoying. After the session was done, the woman told me that out of thin air these bees had appeared and they were buzzing around my head. Very strange.

When I was a young girl I got attacked by a hive of yellowjackets. I was thinking about this metaphor for bees and bee stings and how you feel that surge of poison and are reminded you are alive. And it ended up fitting into the narrative that Gloria is stung by bees at these moments in her life; throughout the novel bees appear and affect Gloria — sometimes good, sometimes not. But they are a reminder that she needs to pay attention and live life actively. She gets stung when she’s getting married. And the guy she marries is a terrible person and it’s like the bees are trying to tell her, “Wake up — what the hell are you doing?” I felt like Gloria was lost in this beehive and needed to find her way.

Are you a different writer today than you were when you started writing the book 10 years ago?

I am a different writer, but I’m also the same writer. I’ve always wanted to be able to outline and simplify the process, but I’m still a writer who has to write 1,000 words for every 100 words I keep. I always wish I could know where I’m going but it never works out that way — it’s always an act of discovery for me. But I’ve also learned to accept that and be respectful of it, in the fact that it takes time because I’m not completely in control but my subconscious is.

She gets stung when she’s getting married. And the guy she marries is a terrible person and it’s like the bees are trying to tell her, 'Wake up — what the hell are you doing?' I felt like Gloria was lost in this beehive and needed to find her way.

When did you learn “Lost in the Beehive” was going to be featured in O, The Oprah Magazine’s spring reading list?

My publicist told me she heard from O Magazine that it was under consideration. But she warned me not to get too excited because it didn’t mean it would be in there — they don’t tell you in advance. One day I heard the new issue was out, so that morning I drove around to stores looking for a copy. I ended up at a Food Lion and they had it. I opened it and saw the book and I freaked out and showed all the people who work at Food Lion. I was so excited. I bought like five issues. And I still carry the magazine around with me. I just went to a writer's festival in Greensboro [North Carolina] this weekend and I was like, “Hey, my book is in O Magazine.” And people said, “If I were you I’d get that laminated and wear it around my neck.”

Is it meaningful to you?

Yes, very. Somebody said it’s like being anointed. I grew up with Oprah — I love Oprah. I think she has great journalistic integrity and is really intelligent and a great actress and humanitarian. It's very meaningful to me — I guess in the same way that I never wanted to self-publish and always wanted to have somebody love my work enough to put it out there and pay to have it out there. I think I got about 1,000 rejections when I was trying to first find a literary agent and people would ask why I didn’t just self-publish. It was really important to me to know that other people felt my work was important enough to be out in the world.