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Interviewing “The Beukes”

Photo: Matthew Brown

At the launch of Lauren Beukes’s new novel, The Shining Girls, we not only had Jack Daniels promotion girls (looking very out of place and huddling in a corner eventually – poor things) and burlesque girls (which you’ll understand if you’ve read Lauren’s new novel), but also got some inside info about the book and about Lauren. About Lauren we learned that her husband, Matthew Brown (who took the lovely photo), calls her “The Beukes”. I think that says something about her as a writer and a person. I suspect it’s something between sassy, tenacious, kind-hearted and loving. About the book we learned ten things we didn’t know. Lauren was so kind to let me interview her and ask her far too many questions and also gave me the speech with the “ten things” which you can read at the end of the interview.

Have you ever lied to the press about something?

I have lied about the number of zombie stalkers I have in my basement. I actually only have two of them, so, you know, the undead army uprising isn’t going so well right now.

Is this how you imagined your life would turn out?

It’s what I dreamed about since I was five years old. I imagined that I would get here faster, that the anxieties would go away and writing a book would become easier. I’m glad it worked out the way it did though. I couldn’t have planned it better in terms of where I am in my life or my headspace.

What was the first thing you wanted to be when you were a child?

I can’t remember what I first wanted to be. An astronaut maybe? But as soon as I found out, at five years old, that you could get paid to make up stories – that writing was a viable career – that’s all I’ve wanted to be: a full-time novelist.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I loved fairytales and mythology, but my favourite book was probably Roald Dahl’s The Witches. There was a great social conscience in all his kids’ books.

What are your five favourite books in the world now (not in any specific order).

Aaaagh. Just five? I hate you. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Look At Me by Jennifer Egan, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, Watchmen by Alan Moore, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

Where did the idea of the animal-human connection come from for Zoo City?

I had a very strong image of a young woman walking to a make-shift wardrobe in a tenement slum and pulling a sloth onto her shoulders like a backpack and I knew it was a burden and also the possibility of redemption. It riffed off animal familiars and totem animals and scapegoats and the monkey on your back; a visibile indicator of difference that would allow me to play with neo-apartheid.

How do you feel about animal rights?

As the dominant species we have a responsibility to the other inhabitants of the world. I’m a meat-eater and I wear leather, but I try to go for free range and humane farming and I’m so ready for vat-grown meat. I think it’s harder to care about people than blameless animals, and that’s partly what Zoo City was exploring. How do you forgive someone who has done something terrible? How do we find reconciliation?

If you were a character in Zoo City, what would your animal be?

I would have been a megaladon (which means “big tooth”) or a squirrel. The latter would be more practical I imagine. [I asked Joey Hifi, Lauren’s South African edition book designer, what he thought and he said she’d definitely be paired with a squirrel.]

What’s more important for you: plot or characters? Or do you think they go together? Your novels are very plot driven but you also spend a lot of time describing the characters – the complexity of individuals as being both good and bad sometimes (I really like this about your characters) – so I was wondering about that.

They’re inseparable. A great plot with empty people is a Michael Bay movie. Great characters with nothing to do may be even worse. I’m interested in writing people who are as real as I can make them, which means they’re flawed, they make mistakes, they don’t always do the right thing, but they try.

What is your favourite midnight snack?

Chorizo and blueberries.

Do you ever write in the nude?

Ha! Yes. And I have had to go and get dressed for Skype interviews when the other person wants to turn on the camera.

What do you hope most that your novels will achieve?

It’s about telling a great story and if I can use that as a way of exploring issues I’m passionate about and who we are in the world, then I’m happy.

Are you surprised by your celebrity status now and how has it influenced or changed your life? (Such a boring question, but them peoples want to know!)

It’s mostly strange and sometimes uncomfortable. I want people to be excited about the work, but it’s weird when they’re excited about meeting me. Because I’m pretty normal and hopelessly clumsy and I stay in a lot of nights and watch TV. It’s lovely to meet interesting people; I get excited too. I still find it very hard to deal with compliments in person. (I am learning to say “thank you” instead of self-deprecating like crazy and running away). My studio mates keep me grounded by teasing me relentlessly and my four-and-a-half year old daughter doesn’t give a damn about any of this – she just wants me to chase her around the park, laughing maniacally, pretending to be the wicked witch or a renegade pterodactyl or something.

What is your method for writing? Do you always write at the same time and in the same place?

I procrastinate as much as possible and then activate Freedom, a great app that locks me out of the Internet and get some solid hours in every day. I share a studio space with a collective of illustrators who are smart and funny and talented so I’m not stuck in my head with imaginary people all day.

What have you learned about life in general (if anything)?

That you should be cheeky and ask for what you want, but don’t be an ass-hat.

Do you like your own work? Do you have a favourite?

I do like my work. I’m proud of what I’ve done and I try to up my game with every book. It’s interesting to see that there are some die-hard “Moxylandes” or Zoo City fans who want me to write more of the same endlessly. There are books I’ve loved deeply and truly (ahem, Cloud Atlas) but the whole point of art is that you need space to play, to do different things. I’d like to come back to Zoo City for a sequel, but in the meantime there are other stories nagging at me.

What do you do when you’re not writing or travelling (i.e. for fun)?

Watch great TV like Breaking Bad and Girls or Game of Thrones, read books, mess around online, hang out with my family, have dinner and movie nights at home.

What matters most to you?

My family. Stories.

What saddens you most?

Sad and angry: bigotry, violence, intolerance, ignorance, willful stupidity that hurts people.

What is one of the most beautiful things you have ever seen or experienced?

The shock of my daughter nuzzling onto my chest, tiny and naked and alien.

You seem very interested in the dystopian. Any specific reason or inspiration for that?

I don’t know if that’s true. I’m interested in cities. And they’re as much about the slums as the gloss. I’m intersted in the spaces where those things intersect.

From what I’ve read you’re involved in many projects. Do you have a favourite genre of writing?

From my very limited experience of writing one six issue arc, comics are the most fun and easiest to write. It’s the collaboration, how the artist interprets the words in unexpected ways you couldn’t have imagined. I love working with other minds. They’re endlessly surprising. It’s hard to surprise yourself, although that’s the magic of novel-writing, when your subconscious slips something in that you weren’t intending. But back to the point: if you put a gun to my head and said choose one form for the rest of your life, it would be novels, for the depth and scope, and I really love dialogue and comics only let you have two lines max at a time.

Do you feel strongly about gender issues? This seems to be an underlying theme in your books and comics.

My writing is informed by my experience of living in the world as a woman. I believe in feminism, I believe girls shouldn’t have acid thrown in their faces because they dare to go to school, that they shouldn’t be stoned to death for being in a car with a man who is not a relative, that they shouldn’t be raped by their teachers or their peers or their neighbours, that we should care about the women who are murdered every day who are not celebrities or from nice middle class families, whose stories aren’t told and that women should have access to medical care and child care and have a say in when they want to have a baby. Yeah, I feel strongly about this.

If you were captured and told your entire history of memories would be taken from you, but that you’d be granted one memory to keep, what would you want to remember?

My daughter making up crazy stories to tell me while we play.

What is the attribute you like most about yourself and what is an attribute you wish you had?

I’m passionate, but I’m not patient. I wish I were more patient.

And here’s the bonus information about her new novel, The Shining Girls (a recommended read), that Lauren revealed at The Book Lounge launch:

1. It started with a tweet. For once messing around on Twitter paid off when I was bantering with someone and threw out the idea of a time-travelling serial killer. I immediately deleted the tweet, because I knew it was a great idea for a book and that I could do something really interesting with that.

2. I found my original story notes as I was leaving for the launch. It was originally called The Killing Time, Harper was originally called Edwin Baker and would carve a butterfly into his victims. He was a reclusive writer who would kill his assistants over the years when they found out too much. There's a rough note here, which I love, “He had an empty-eyed look. He was a half empty kinda guy. Made of empty. Running on empty.”

3. I nicked some of the other names from real people. When my one-time intern, Liam Kruger introduced me to his sister, Kirby, I told her I was stealing the name for a book. I hoard the best names. (Coincidentally, she was already “@thebestkirby” on Twitter).

4. I used Twitter for my research too and via Twitter friends met a real-life Harper, @harper, a.k.a Harper Reed, a.k.a the head of Obama's social media campaign. He introduced me to various other interesting people. I also connected with @joethecop, ghost tour guide, YA author, historian and HH Holmes expert, @adamselzer and former Chicago Sun-Times journalist, Jim deRogatis via Twitter friends. And I found my researchers, Zara Trafford @zarakatya and Adam Maxwell @snipehunter when I advertised for help on Twitter. It was great to have people working with me who already understood what I was interested in.

5. I knew as soon as I had the idea that I couldn't set it in South Africa, because apartheid would have overwhelmed the story and there were broader issues I wanted to talk about. I set it in Chicago because I'd lived there for a while in 2000 and 2001, so I went back to Chicago last year on a research trip to follow up on threads, research history in-depth and location scout, including a trip to Montrose Beach with my friend Katherine Fitzpatrick and her two-year old, who she describes as a “murder play-date.”

6. Chicago has a lot in common with South African cities like Joburg. It's had a long struggle with crime and corruption, but there's an energy and vibrancy there too. Hanging out at the police station, going through old evidence boxes with Joe the Cop, he told me a horror story about a young woman who was strangled to death with a gold necklace and when he returned the next day to the morgue to get the evidence, he found that all her gold jewellery had been stolen, including the murder weapon – the necklace. I asked him, “Are you sure that's not a South African story? Because that sounds like a South African story.” Chicago is also one of the most racially segregated cities in America. Apparently, the Apartheid Government went to Chicago in the 1950s to learn how to organise segregation better, which comes down to running a highway right through the middle of the slums to divide people. We forget these issues are universal.

7. I took a lot of photographs on my iPhone. The best ones made it onto the cover of the book. (I must have taken about 3000. There were 30 useable ones). The cover is, of course, by the brilliant Joey Hifi, who has designed all my South African covers and won the BSFA Award and the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire (the French award for speculative fiction) for his work on Zoo City. He's hidden easter eggs in the cover that will become clear as you read the novel.

8. The best parts of the book are based on real history. I asked Adam Maxwell to dig up information on 1930s hospitals, how you treated a ripped tendon for example, or how much they would charge, what the doctors wore, what equipment they used. He sent descriptions in historical articles and books, photographs and links to eBay items, in case I wanted to buy a creepy wooden crutch like Harper uses, and an article he thought I might find interesting on a young burlesque dancer who performed in radium paint in 1936 and was in hospital for radiation poisoning. I stole the idea, fictionalised the details and used some of the original text from the article in the Milwaukee-Sentinel, with their permission. Likewise, when I asked Zara Trafford to find me something on a women’s organisation in Chicago in the 1960s or 1970s, she came back with the real-life organisation, “Jane”, an underground abortion operation that helped desperate women. It was such an amazing story that I had to use it.

9. I managed the whole thing with a murder wall of the three different timelines above my desk, tracking the killings, the artefacts Harper takes from his victims and leaves on other bodies to create a “murder constellation through time”. I also had to track Kirby’s life and Harper’s injuries, because the only way I could deal with writing him was by fucking him up at every available opportunity.

10. It took a lot of people to make this book: my researchers Adam and Zara, helped out by Liam Kruger and Louisa Betteridge who dug up extra stuff for me; all the people I interviewed, who took time out to drive me around Chicago or give me pointers online or tell me about why sports matters; and everyone who believed in this book from the beginning, like Oli Munson, my agent, Fourie Botha and Frederik de Jager and Steve Connelly at Umuzi, my friends Munki and Sam Wilson who were brilliant time-travel advisors and Sarah Lotz and Helen Moffett, my editor, and especially my husband, Matthew Brown who has been crazily supportive and amazing, playing single dad when I’m travelling, and is the one who has to deal with the crises of faith and self-doubt and forces me to stop moaning and just sit down and write. Thanks to all, especially everyone I’ve just forgotten to mention.

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