May 19, 2018
Jay Ebben is an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He and his family lived in Slovenia for five months in 2011 and they have returned five times since. His experiences in Slovenia inspired him to write Painted Hives, a novel about a boy who travels to Ljubljana to take a beekeeping class.
When we moved to Ljubljana for five months in 2011, I kept a blog to share our pictures and experiences with family and friends back home. It was called Five Flew Over, and its tagline was “Don’t set your expectations too high, but please enjoy.” Most of the posts were about misadventures we had, like not being able to figure out how to work the card-activated garbage can outside our apartment (I was able to get the lid open but then couldn’t get it to close; meanwhile, everyone walking by gave odd looks to the guy standing on the street staring at a garbage can) and almost abandoning my family on a train platform in Ptuj when I struggled to get our strollers out the door and the train started leaving with me still in it (my wife somehow managed to get the conductor to stop the train, while I managed to break one of our strollers in my haste to get out the door after it stopped).
A row of card-operated garbage cans. Jay Ebben
As a professor who had never written anything other than boring, mundane academic articles, I found that I really enjoyed sitting down each night and reflecting on our day, taking the experiences we had and creating stories around them. That blog is still out there, by the way, and I’m sure you can find it with a little searching.
About halfway through our stay, my wife’s friend, Nicole, and her mother came to visit us (really to visit Slovenia – the fact that we were there was just an excuse to do it…). Nicole’s mom had been reading our blog and was raving about how much it made her laugh. “I just love your stories,” she said. “You should write a book.”
The native Carnolian Grey. Photo: Richard Bartz CC by 2.5
I suppose there’s a lesson in the power of encouragement here, because for whatever reason those words stuck with me. And a few months later, after we had returned home, I started crafting a story about a Minnesota boy who travels to Slovenia for a beekeeping class. My intent was to write something light and funny that captured the essence of my five months in Slovenia and how I grew from it. In a way, I think it was an attempt on my part to keep our Slovenia experience alive, as at the time we had no idea when or if we would ever return.
And it did keep it alive. I would stay up after my wife and kids went to bed and write for hours, and I felt like I was back in Ljubljana, experiencing all of it again for the first time: wandering past the cafes along the river, eating ice cream cones in Prešeren Square, gazing up at the Castle from the Triple Bridge. It was energizing, and I loved it. And a few months later, I had completed the first draft of Painted Hives.
Some painted hives. Photo: Alexander Yampolsky CC by 2.0
At the time, I was so nervous about letting anyone read it that publication wasn’t even on the radar screen. But I gave it to both my mom and my wife, and neither disowned me. My mom loved it unconditionally, of course (or at least she didn’t say otherwise), while my wife was brutally honest about everything that was wrong with it, especially how awful the ending was (“What do you mean? The ending is perfect!” I snapped, and then eventually came around to realize it wasn’t).
But she also said it was a story worth reading (if I fixed the ending, that is) and that she was sure someone would want to publish it. And so I started on a five-year journey to find that someone, a journey filled with rewrites and rejection letters, learning along the way that among other things I don’t respond well to getting turned down. Finally, one day in the fall of 2016, a little indie publisher in Oregon was gracious enough to give me the time of day. We hit it off and they liked the message and humor in the story, so they decided to take a chance on me (which is when it got really scary, because now anyone who wanted to was going to be able to read the book!!!). And the following May, Painted Hives was released.
The book itself
During those five years of tweaking and looking for a publisher, the purpose of the story became clearer to me: it was simply about the magic of exploration. If it inspired a reader to visit a country they had never heard of or to learn more about bees or to explore the world in some other manner, I would feel really good about that. And a week ago, my son’s teacher told me she bought a plane ticket to Europe this summer because of my book. Which is pretty cool.
It also became clear that one of the best parts of writing Painted Hives was going to be the people I would meet, from a little old woman who manages a Slovenian heritage library in Colorado to the Slovenian consular in Minnesota to a couple of fourth-grade classes in St. Paul Public schools. I also discovered a vibrant writing and bookselling community here in the Twin Cities that is incredibly supportive of authors who have no idea what they’re doing.
And while this was never about recognition, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel great to receive some. This past week, the 2018 Eric Hoffer indie book awards were announced, and Painted Hives received First-Runner-Up in the Young Adult category. Which is also pretty cool, and it makes me excited to see where this book will take me from here.
The native Carnolian Grey. Photo: Richard Bartz CC by 2.5
So, that is the “Story Behind the Book,” how a non-Slovene, non-beekeeper, non-author ended up writing and publishing a novel about beekeeping in Slovenia. Thank you for letting me share it, and I will leave you with three bits of unsolicited advice:
1) Whenever the opportunity presents itself, be a source of encouragement. You never know what it might inspire someone to do.
2) If you decide to read Painted Hives or to visit a country you’ve never heard of or to learn more about bees, don’t set your expectations too high. Just enjoy.
And, most importantly…
3) Go to Slovenia. I promise you won’t regret it.
If you want to take a closer look at Jay’s book, Painted Hives, then you can do on the related website, where there’s also a page that tells you where you can pick up a copy (and you can try the first few pages on Amazon or Barnes & Noble if you have a Kindle or similar device).