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Finding Lauren

Lauren-Beukes-by-Casey-Crafford

Photo: Casey Crafford

Woodstock on a Friday morning is a crowded, bustling place, all grungy metal-working industry and rough, greasy men stalking the streets with deadened eyes. I’m supposed to be meeting Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls, for an interview. She’s directed me to the studio where she works at her craft during the day, but locating it proves decidedly challenging. The first destination my electronic navigator confidently sends me to, a building with a tumbledown house and a bottle store on either side of it, is not the place I’m looking for. Nor is the second destination. I’m beginning to wonder if it exists at all.

Having established that Beukes was not to be found on the premises of the Foundry and Cylinderhead works where I was standing, I backtracked up Albert Street to the Woodstock Exchange, where she retains a studio. It is not where one expects to find an author, but then it’s fair to say that Beukes occupies a rather unique place on the South African literary milieu. Vaulting over all the usual clichés about low readership figures and niche markets, Beukes is a celebrity, with a solid and ever-burgeoning global readership.

I meet her on the first floor, where we grab a coffee from the appropriately artisanal Rosetta Roastery, before she leads me on a whirlwind tour of the Exchange. Beukes is a conversational joy, cogently pre-empting my cynicism where the Woodstock Exchange is concerned by conceding “It’s gentrification of course, but what can you do?” She compares it with what’s going on in Joburg’s Maboneng district, and already my impression is that she’s properly clued-up on what’s happening in the country at the moment.

Then it’s up to the second floor, via a secret-agent style biometrics-guarded entranceway. We discuss the controversial revelations occurring in the Griekwastad farm murder case as we march up the concrete staircase. She tells me how the building sits uncomfortably in the area, relating this to a robbery in which a gang of well-dressed men swished up in an Audi, walked in and ransacked the creative hives upstairs, stealing a veritable fortune in Mac computers.

As I set up for our interview, I ask Lauren what it’s like to write in this country, where writers need a second job to pay the bills. “Yeah, I mean, I nearly lost my house.” She’s no longer in danger of losing her house, with her fourth novel, The Shining Girls a roaring success, and a fifth, Broken Monsters, well on the way, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road ahead. For the next hour, we banter about the pressures and tribulations of her writing life, discuss the intricacies of representing violence in South Africa, and many other interesting things.

WM: So if I were to meet you at a swanky publisher’s cocktail party (assuming such things exist) what things would I learn about Lauren Beukes in the first five minutes?

LB: That I find literary celebrity very uncomfortable, and I would really like it if you had something to say other than “OMG I love your work so much!” or “I hate your work so much” as the case may be. Let’s talk about other people’s books because I really don’t want to talk about my own, ever again! (laughs)

WM: Do you often find yourself being bombarded with people asking you about your work?

LB: Well … I do the same. I met David Simon [creator of The Wire – Ed] and the first thing I said to him was “I’m such a big fan!”, but where do you go from there? It’s a conversational dead end. I do get people engaging me – they want to talk about the book and I don’t want to talk about the book because it makes me feel self-conscious.

WM: That would make for rather limited conversation.

LB: I’ve written the book, I’ve done a thousand interviews on the book, I’m done with the book. I’d like to tell you about other books I’ve just read, or ones you’ve read, or find out what you do. I’m much more interested in you because I talk about myself all the time and I’m really bored with myself.

WM: Well, talk about yourself anyway.

LB: I write high-concept thrillers, and I’m very socially aware and politically engaged in my work. And … um … I’m very interested in charity and how stories can change the world – maybe not change the world. That’s too ambitious. I’m interested in how we experience the world through story –

WM: Yes.

LB: And how story tells us who we are.

WM: Alright. What were you working on before I showed up?

LB: I was checking my Twitter.

WM: As we all do.

LB: It’s how I spend most mornings. But before that I was giving a talk at my brother’s ad agency, about the power of storytelling and how really imaginative, crazy ideas are a good way to short-circuit issue-fatigue.

WM: That’s true.

LB: There’s so much stuff it’s too exhausting and breaking to talk about, like violence against women or xenophobia, and I use fiction as a way of getting through that. I had my little KeyNote presentation and everything.

WM: You mentioned Twitter. A lot of writers seem to flick-flack about whether Twitter is a useful tool –

LB: You’re talking about Jonathan Franzen? (laughs)

WM: Yes! Him, for example

LB: He hates everything! Except for birds.

WM: He’s a bit of a curmudgeon…

LB: But an entertaining curmudgeon.

WM: An entertaining curmudgeon indeed. What is your take on Twitter?

LB: I love Twitter. It’s a wonderful tool for exposing yourself to the world, the same way journalism was for me. I rely on Twitter heavily – for inspiration, for contacts … I’ve used it for all my books. Zoo City – I made friends on Twitter with Nechama Brodie, who wrote the Joburg book, and because we were friends on Twitter she would send me annotated maps of the route that Zinzi would walk through to get from Hillbrow to Killarney, for example. And I asked my followers for UnGoogleable information – like where’s a good place to dump a body. Troyeville apparently.

WM: And for The Shining Girls? Did it come in handy there?

LB: I used Twitter to make connections with Joe the Cop in Chicago, who consulted on The Shining Girls and is also consulting on Broken Monsters; connected with a ghost-hunting young historian; a zine museum curator and specifically asked for Chicago connections. [Twitter] is like being at the best cocktail party in the world. You have to curate your guests very carefully.

WM: Definitely.

LB: And at the same time you, a random stranger can poke their head in and join the conversation. So it’s not a closed-off space. It’s a cocktail party in the park. You have to follow the most interesting people. Not necessarily the writers – some of the writers I love the most are terrible on Twitter.

WM: Unfortunately. Some writers just can’t get to grips with it.

LB: But people have interesting things to say, amazing observations. And the nice thing is that you can approach people on Twitter in the moment. You can see when they’re approachable. If I send a favourite writer a fan-girl email, you know, their cat might have just died. On Twitter, you can see when someone is open to engagement and you can chirp back. I also enjoy being able to see what people are saying about your book, so you can personally say thank you for a kind or insightful review, or you can quietly slink away when someone hates it.

WM: Do you get people hating your book?

LB: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve only had one or two tweet @ me directly to say how much they didn’t enjoy it, which is a little nasty. But I do see what people say in my search streams. I don’t mind if you didn’t like it. It’s subjective. As a writer, you want strong opinions. You want people to either love it or hate it, not the middle ground of mediocrity. You want people to be like “OMG that was the best book I’ve ever read!” or “OMG! What a piece of overhyped shit.” The ratio of positive tweets to negative ones is pretty good, though.

WM: So you’re not one of those writers who sort of fobs it off and goes “Oh no, I never read the reviews or engage with the critical material?”

LB: Well, I’ll engage with the academics because they are making pronouncements on my books, and if they’re wrong it’s actually quite important.

WM: Yes, of course. And the reviews?

LB: Reviews I don’t engage with. If it’s a nice review on a blog, I’ll retweet it – I try not to do it too much but it’s a way of saying thank you and driving traffic to people’s blogs. I do read the reviews but I’ve gotten good at skimming them to see if it’s good or bad, and if it’s bad I’ll just stop, because it’s the “death by a 1000 paper cuts.” You can’t help but take it to heart, and even if it’s a good review, if there’s one negative comment that’s the one that you’ll take away.

WM: I get that.

LB: The thing is to take the work seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously. But in the beginning, of course you read everything because you don’t know what to expect. You want to see how people respond to your work. But it’s been six months (since the release of The Shining Girls) and I’m at the point where I can skim the reviews.

WM: You are in a rather exclusive circle, being a celebrity South African writer in a country where conventional wisdom says we don’t really read that much. But you have a sizeable fan base, you get FB mentions from Arianna Huffington and things like that. How do you find that changes your engagement with the rest of the SA writing community? Who are your writing friends?

LB: My writing friends are Sarah Lotz, and Sam Wilson and Deon Meyer, Helen Moffet, Jamala Safari, Zukiswa Wanner … I’m friendly with a lot of people. We have a tight-knit and supportive community, which I really like. I’ve just started this thing called The Spark to highlight African fiction – where writers talk about what inspired their novels. There’s so much international attention on me, and I get so mad when people say “your book’s just not like a South African novel at all”, and I’m like “wtf do you mean? Have you read any South African novels?” South African literature is so exciting and it’s in such a good space – from Ivan Vladislavic’s literary origami puzzles that you have to unfold, to Charlie Human’s mad, wonderful, dark fantasy – and it really makes me mad when people say that.

WM: Yes. People are still stuck thinking of SA lit as it was in the 90s.

LB: And I want people to read more South African fiction. I want people to recognise the incredible talent that we have here.

WM: And your success?

LB: It’s hard to talk around that without sounding arrogant. It’s been a shock and it feels strange and the pressure has been intense. I feel very lucky to be in a position where I can write full time. I think there are some people who feel my success is only because I’m writing about America and that I’ve somehow sold out. And, yes, the extent of the commercial success IS only because I’m writing about America.

WM: Let the haters hate?

LB: Yeah. But I didn’t write about America for commercial success. I wrote exactly the book I wanted to write. And because it was about time travel and because it was about the 20th century, I knew I couldn’t set it here because that would limit it to being an Apartheid story. I wanted a much broader canvas to play on, to talk about the issues I wanted to, which range from women’s reproductive rights to traffic to the echoes of the Red Scare with the War on Terror. I’ve lived in Chicago and it has a lot in common with Johannesburg, including corruption, crime and segregation. That’s why I chose America. And nobody tells David Mitchell that he can’t write about Japan – that he only has to write about England. I mean, come on!

WM: Yeah.

LB: It’s amazing to be recognised on a global scale, and to have that kind of success. And if I can use my platform to create awareness about South African/African writing, then that’s exactly what I want to do.

WM: Who excites you? Who are you reading at the moment?

LB: I’ve just got Kgebetli Moele’s new book

WM: Untitled? That’s a great book, isn’t it?

LB: Untitled, yes. I loved Room 207 – I think it was phenomenal. I know people say it’s badly edited. I didn’t think that at all. I loved the tension – I loved the sentences, I think it worked really well. It didn’t fit into that neat little box that everybody likes, but I think that’s what makes him an exciting writer.

WM: There was a really interesting panel at the OBF, where Kgebetli was in conversation with his editor James Woodhouse and it was about exactly this topic. It was a wonderful thing to have happen in that space. Who else are you fond of?

LB: Sarah Lotz is really amazing. And Henrietta Rose-Innes, Diane Awerbuck, Siphiwo Mahala, Thando Mgqolozana and Mary Watson. I’m really looking forward to Zukiswa Wanner’s new book – she’s still one of us! [Wanner lives in Kenya – Ed].

WM: So what do you look for?

LB: I look for a story I can inhabit. Something surprising, beautifully written, with plot and character. It has to have all those things. I get fed up with the argument that a book can be character-driven or plot-driven. If you have gorgeously-drawn characters sitting on their asses, it’s boring. If you have a killer plot peopled with empty mannequins, it’s a Michael Bay movie. They might as well all die, you don’t care. You need great characters who do something in a way that’s effortlessly supported by the writing. (And oh so much effort to make it look effortless)

I just read Alex Latimer’s new book, The Space Race, and it was fantastic: Some beautiful sentences and some beautiful insights into people, but also just this really fun romp of a thriller about an old secret apartheid space programme that gets hijacked. I love books that can tell a story while also engaging with social issues. We see that a lot in SA genre fiction.

WM: Like Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now-Now.

LB: Charlie Human was actually my MA student. It’s really fun and I think it’s going to turn a lot of young people on to South African fiction. And it’s still political – it’s interesting when Charlie and Sarah (Lotz) say “my books aren’t political”…

WM: Everything is political.

LB: Charlie has Apartheid chemists and corrupt politicians, and Sarah’s dealing with corrective rape in a YA. You can’t get away from the political: you trip over it in the street.

WM: There’s this commonly-held misconception that South African literature is Apartheid literature. I would say that, if anything, the new crop of South African writers have moved away from that. Are you comfortable with being labelled a South African writer?

LB: Absolutely. It limits me only when people think I can only write about South Africa, and I’m like “Fuck off!”

WM: I think we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into new ways of engaging with our literature, whether we like it or not.

LB: I’ll never get away from the South African perspective, and I’ll always see things through a South African lens. So Chicago is a stand-in for Joburg and Detroit is a stand-in for Hillbrow, and it’s looking at those things from that perspective, being socially aware, seeing how the ghosts of history haunt our present, how racism hurts us, how reconciliation is possible, how we can have a sense of humour about terrible things. I don’t think that should be limiting. I hope that’s what makes my work more interesting in the world – that South African viewpoint.

WM: So your books are political, then?

LB: Of course they are. [MAJOR SPOILER] It is a fucking white crocodile at the end of Zoo City for a reason – and the sins of the fathers being passed on to a new generation. I thought I was being very unsubtle, but people have missed it. Zoo City is also about xenophobia and crime and redemption and how we are supposed to reconcile with our history – what’s been done to us and the things we’ve done, on a personal and historical level. We’ve cut down the poison tree of apartheid, but the roots are still there, and we trip over them every day (or they lurk in dark waters and erupt to try and eat us alive). The Shining Girls is about violence against women and the loops of history, everything that has changed and the things that come back to haunt us again and again.

WM: How do you find academics engage with your work? Do you get outlandish post-Lacanian readings of your work, and things like that?

LB: There are bubbles in any industry. So for example Imraan Coovadia and Ian Glenn’s little tiff – nobody outside of SLiPnet readers and Bookslive readers and a few academics knew or cared about that. It’s such a small circle. I did have words with an academic recently where he sent me a paper he’d written on Zoo City, and he got one fact blatantly wrong about the Zoo City sound track. He complained that it was a white person’s idea of what black music is, because a lot of it is old school Kwaito. All he had to do was pick up the phone. The soundtrack was put together with zero budget and good will working with independent labels including Ghetto Ruff and African Dope, with no money upfront, which limited what we had access to. It was so frustrating because I wanted to include Spoek Mathambo’s Gwababa (Don’t Be Scared) but he’d just signed with a major label, who wanted a fortune, so we couldn’t access it. It wasn’t because I think black music ended in the nineties.

WM: He could’ve just asked you.

LB: He could’ve asked, you know? Please, academics, just ask me. There was another that suggested the ending was neo-colonial [SPOILERS] and that Zinzi was setting off to conquer the dark continent or something. I don’t know how anyone could think that. If I ever write that part of the story, where [SPOILER] Zinzi goes looking for Benoit’s family, it would be a real (fantastical) depiction of the places her journey took her. Refugee camps, sure, ultimately, because that’s where his family are, but I’d bring in the nightlife in Nairobi or the trend spotters on the streets in Lagos or Ugandan honey collectors or Ghanaian electronics dumps or deluded Trustafarian kids trying to catch Kony or rehabilitate Somali pirates, and politics and people. If I wrote that part of the story, it would be to subvert all the easy cliches about Africa (that Zinzi plays off in the scam scene in the novel) and that journey would change her.

WM: So basically…

LB: Get your facts right. If there’s something you need to check, phone me or email me. I’m on Twitter every day.

WM: We are currently sitting in a very interesting and unusual space in downtown Woodstock where you share a studio with illustrators and designers. People often have this idea of the noble writer closeted away or waking up at 3am to write. But you do something rather different, it seems?

LB: Part of it is habit and routine, because I had a day job for so long (it’s so hard to make a living as a full-time writer in SA, and I do feel that I’ve lucked out), but also because otherwise I’m stuck in my head all day long with imaginary people. I got a grant in 2008 from the National Arts Council to help me write Moxyland. I stopped all the journalism I was doing, and I stayed at home and I supposedly wrote – but what I did was avoid writing and feel stricken and guilty about it. Then I would punish myself because I hadn’t written anything yet, so I wasn’t allowed to go for coffee with a friend, and I just stagnated. It was terrible.

I need to have other people around, I need that stimulus. And Twitter might have changed that, but I also think it’s important to be out in the world, and to interact with people.

WM: So it’s useful to your work regimen?

LB: These guys work very hard, and everyone’s doing their own really interesting creative projects, but we can all watch a silly YouTube video or have lunch together, and that makes such a difference.

WM: You’re not just a writer in the conventional sense. You also dabble in comics and animation.

LB: I think in SA we have to be generalists. You can’t be a deep specialist because there just isn’t the market for that. So I was a journalist for a really long time, and then I worked in animation, and animation led me into comics. This is why it’s so important for writers to get out there, to go to conventions and meet other artists and professionals, even if only to bitch about your publisher (laughs), which is what most writers do when they get together, because you make connections, with publishers and editors and other writers that can open other opportunities.

WM: So what’s been the most exciting moment on your journey through the realm of comics?

LB: I met Bill Willingham at a convention. I love his Fables series of reinvented fairytales. He forced me to go and pitch something to his editor at Vertigo Comics in New York. I’d always wanted to do it, but I didn’t have any ideas and I felt really intimidated, but I went to the meeting, sent through some pitches and now my spin-off graphic novel, Fairest; The Hidden Kingdom, set in Bill’s world, with a Japanese horror take on Rapunzel, has made the New York Times bestseller list!

This comes back to my life philosophy: be cheeky. Ask for what you want. The worst anybody is ever going to say is no. Try.

WM: So who have you worked with?

LB: Inaki Miranda was the artist on Fairest. He’s a genius and we really riff off each other. I’d love to work with him again.

I recently did a piece with Gerard Human, after one of my studio mates showed me some of his work. I thought – this is amazing. When I was assigned a new comic to do for a Halloween special, The Witching Hour, I put him forward as the artist I wanted to work with. It was so great working with a South African, because the story, Birdie, is set in Cape Town. It’s a little 8-pager about a strandloper witch who gets messages from the dead. He got the cultural context and it was really nice to give a fellow South African a break into DC comics.

WM: You’ve just come back from an international tour to promote The Shining Girls. How was that?

LB: It’s a huge privilege and really fun. It is also exhausting. I’ve done 42 flights and have seen the interior of a limousine car service 23 times this year. No exaggeration and two more to go – to the Courmayeur Noir Festival in Italy. I’ve been away for 14 weeks, out of this year, across 4 continents. I’m pretty fragged.

WM: That must’ve been exhausting.

LB: Yeah. You have to be on show, and you have to be the best possible version of yourself, even when you’re jet-lagged and exhausted and you’re saying the exact stuff you said the previous night…

WM: It becomes well-worn.

LB: It becomes like a comedy routine. You’re telling the same anecdotes, and sometimes they’re very sad so you have to wait for the audience to appreciate the sadness. Or you make a joke, and you have to laugh at yourself and wait for the audience to laugh. I have so much more respect for comedians – being able to deliver the same material with the same enthusiasm. But it’s also amazing to meet fans and have people engage with your work. One of the best experiences I had was in New York when a woman waited until the very end of the signing to come and talk to me. And I was being rushed out of the book store so I didn’t get to talk to her for long, but she said, “I have to tell you. I was expecting this book to affect me. Because of what I went through. But I wasn’t expecting it to affect me so deeply. So thank you.” That was the most moving moment – that one reader made everything worth it.

WM: That’s touching. You wield a lot of power as a writer.

LB: It comes with a lot of pressure and the celebrity factor is fucking weird, and quite disturbing. People think you’re more than you are, because of your fame. The nice thing about working in the studio with my friends is that these guys keep me grounded. As soon as I get a big head they just cut me down at the knees. It’s also nice having a five-year-old, because she doesn’t give a damn about awards or festivals, or anything else.

WM: So it’s not the Californication-style writer’s life of sex drugs and alcohol?

LB: Oh God no! The festivals are amazing, and it’s really fun. If I could just do those it would be great, without ever having to write again, because writing is hard in-your-head work, and lonely, and often very frustrating. But I’ve also realised that I’m so sick of talking about my book that I’m going to have to write something, just so I have something new to talk about. The jet-lag is debilitating, and you still have to write the book. It doesn’t get easier, four books down. I’m still scared. Every single day I have to sit and write – that’s why I spend my mornings on Twitter. It’s building up the courage to face the page.

WM: The terror of the blinking cursor?

LB: Completely. It doesn’t go away. The only thing is that you know you’ve done it before, so it must be possible. There is physical evidence that you have actually done this before, that you can actually finish a book! You just have to sit down and do it.

WM: So what was your first experience as a writer? That first moment when you thought “hey, I can write”?

LB: Well, I first wanted to be a writer when I was five, when I realised you could be paid to make up stories for a living. It’s only taken me 30 years to get to the point where I can do that full time.

WM: You were at the Open Book Festival. You participated in a number of panels. How was that experience?

LB: I loved the OBF. It’s one of my favourite festivals. The fact that it’s in Cape Town, that it’s accessible, that the events are reasonably affordable means you get a diverse audience.

WM: And Franschhoek?

LB: Franschoek is a lovely festival, but it’s very expensive and it has a very specific demographic. Because of the pricing and the location it makes it much harder to break that demographic open, and I think that’s really unfortunate. They are trying, I think. I don’t want to get into the politics of festivals, but I think OB’s centrality makes it more accessible. And they’re really pushing it hard. The quality of the writers both Franschhoek and OB bring in is really exciting.

WM: That’s very true, especially this year. Something I’ve noticed, is that there seems to be a book circuit that frequents launches especially in the city, people who are only there because it’s something to do, or for the free wine. Does that irk you?

LB: Not so much. There certainly is a book circuit, but in contrast I have super-fans who come to all of my events, and that’s really nice. And they do buy the books. Somewhere like The Book Lounge, which is my home ground…

WM: And a wonderfully hospitable space for writers…

LB: It is. I’ll get 100 to 200 people at a launch there, and a fair number will buy a book. If they don’t buy mine, hopefully they’ll buy someone else’s book. They’re supporting the Book Lounge, and that’s really important. It’s keeping the industry alive.

WM: Hear, hear. What about Piracy?

LB: Someone came up to me at my brother’s ad agency and said “I’m such a big fan! I pirated all your books!” And I said “dude, come on! The ebooks are R76 at Exclusive Books!” That’s probably less than he spent on breakfast that morning. Books are too expensive in this country, so I do understand the culture of piracy, but if it’s readily available and affordable and you have disposable income, then there’s no excuse to pirate.

WM: How do we boost accessibility, though?

LB: I was talking to Sifiso Mzobe about this – his book is set in Umlazi, and people there want to buy his book, but there are no book stores. They should be selling them from spaza stores – it doesn’t have to be a pretty book. Make it cheap and affordable to people. I think that’s where ebooks and cellphone reading projects become so important. I’d love to see a cell phone ebook project where you could opt to pay R10 extra for this novel and the publisher will donate a free e-dition to a school that needs it or an e-book library programme. We’d need someone brilliant to work out the logistics of that though.

WM: I was talking to Siphiwo Mahala at an event we had at the City Library, and he told this anecdote about an old woman in Grahamstown who approached him to say she’d bought his book, but she couldn’t read it because it was only available in English. That for me highlighted the importance of translation in this country.

LB: Absolutely. I remember struggling through Afrikaans fiction in school. If it’s not your home language, the words get in the way. You’re sitting and translating rather than losing yourself in the story and reading is ALL about losing yourself in the story. We need more books in more South African languages – but again, the business model is a bitch. I would love to translate my works. Cory Doctorow (from Boing-Boing) open-sources his books for translation. I think that’s a wonderful idea. I’d have to get my publishers to agree to it, though. To get one of my novels translated into, say, Setswana, would be wonderful.

WM: What would you say was the most difficult book for you to write?

LB: This one. Broken Monsters, the one I’m working on at the moment. Some of that is due to the pressure, after the success of the Shining Girls. I want to be more ambitious with every book. The only audience I’m writing for is me, but I’m really demanding. I didn’t just want to write the same sort of book. I think that’s why my books are all so radically different from each other.

WM: If you had to point to any writer who has influenced your writing style, or what you read, who would it be?

LB: Alan Moore, Margaret Atwood, William Gibson, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan. Writers who write what they want to write. They all deal with social issues and who we are in the world, but in ways that are surprising and inventive.

WM: The Shining Girls, then. Obviously, a large part of the plot has to do with the vulnerability of women, and violence against women. Given that SA is a country that historically has always (and continues to) battle with this problematic, was it a focal point in the thematic when you were planning the novel?

LB: Of course. It’s about how we talk about violence against women, how women are reduced in the news, or in fiction, to their bodies. The serial killer is glorified, and the woman is reduced to a bloody puzzle. She is the sum of her wounds – it’s about what was done to her, not who she was, and what was lost, and what she meant to the people around her. I talked about it in my essay All The Pretty Corpses. I wanted to make a book that shows you what violence means, which has, by necessity, to remind you of how shocking and horrific it is. We’re inured to it because we see people getting their heads blown off on TV all the time. We lose perspective on what it means, so I try to write the violence from the victim’s perspective, so you are with them at the end. You are not complicit, or riding on the killer’s shoulder

WM: That’s an interesting point. Critics have suggested that what troubles them with The Shining Girls is the lavish details of the violence meted out. I find that quite revealing, in a year where we’ve seen an almost pornographic attention to women like Anene Booyens and Reeva Steenkamp.

LB: I think people aren’t used to being confronted with the emotional impact of violence. Gore-porn is easy – it’s easy to write about popping out an eyeball with an ice-cream scoop, or flaying the flesh off someone. You can write about these things in great detail. If you read my book carefully, there are horrible details, sure, but it’s only one or two sentences (apart from Kirby’s scene, where I needed you to feel the full impact of what this did to her and why it’s derailed her life). And those details are horrible, it’s true. I needed to punch you in the face with them, to remind you of what real violence is and what it does to us. We have to confront the reality of it. It’s not a pretty dead girl with her legs dangling out the car boot. It’s that she was terrified and furious and it is absolute horror. As a writer, your job is to tackle the horrific and the reality and, of course, the beauty and the lightness and the whimsy of being human. But we have to face the monsters, to drag them out of the dark and reveal them for what they are. Which, unfortunately, is us.

WM: Final thoughts?

LB: I was really chuffed with The Shining Girls charity art show. I’ve done a charity initiative of a different kind with each of my novels. I hooked up with a curator friend of mine, Jackie Lang, and she came up with the idea of ripping pages out of the book and getting artists to do whatever they wanted to on the page. And some of the artists did the most incredible, beautiful, playful evocative work that engaged with the book or played with a work on the page. It didn’t matter who the artist was, student or Zapiro, everything was democratically sold at R1000. I wanted to make the price point easy, to make it accessible so that people could actually own something by an artist they really loved. And we raised money for Rape Crisis – they do really amazing work. We had people queuing down four flights of stairs to get in. We raised R100 000, and it was for a great cause.

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