Lauren Beukes – Using Words to Break Down Barriers

On the sunny evening of Friday 23rd August, South African novelist Lauren Beukes was attending the Edinburgh Book Festival to talk about her acclaimed new novel The Shining Girls, and was gracious enough to spend a few minutes with Geek Chocolate to talk about that, Zoo City which won the 2011 Arthur C Clarke award, currently being developed as a feature film, her work in the world of comics on Fables and her love of women in comics.

2014pt2_LB_lb shining Geek Chocolate – Reading The Shining Girls, I loved the vast cast of characters, many of whom we only meet in their featured chapter, a range of women from across a century, oppressed women, determined women, working to better their own lives, on behalf of their children, on behalf of other women, all of them given unique voices. Was that a specific aim of the novel, to represent such a cross section of humanity and the experience of women?

Lauren Beukes – It definitely was. I was looking at how women’s roles have changed, specifically over the course of the 20th century, because there was radical change, and I wanted to look at how that made a difference to women on an individual level, because so often time travel focuses on the upper class, or it’s a single white guy’s experience, usually a college kid. I’m specifically thinking, obviously, of Bill and Ted. And I was tempted to write that book, the Bill and Ted killing spree through time, which would have been quite fun, I must say that.

But yes, I wanted to represent different women’s experiences, and different racial experiences, different sexuality experiences, and how history changed individual women on a very normal level, and these women shine, they are bright sparks in the darkness but in a way that’s achievable. They’re not superheroes, they’re not going to grow up to be the next president of the United States, but they are kicking back against convention in their times.

GC Zoo City is a metropolis crumbling down, and Shining Girls tells the story of a city being built up over decades. Which was more satisfying to create?

LB – Wow, that’s a tough one. Johannesburg versus Chicago, nice, pit me against my favourites.

GC – You can say both.

LB – I think Johannesburg in Zoo City because there was so much magic in there, and to really create it absolutely correctly, that is the real Johannesburg, it’s just with a layer of magic on top. It was really exciting, and to have people respond to that, be like “I didn’t know Johannesburg was like that,” and the Johannesburg tourism council actually have me on their reading list, which is amazing.

2014pt2_LB_lb zooBut Chicago was fun to research, it was great to get into the history of it.

GC – Speaking of research, there are phenomenal number of names and very specific thanks to your research team on Shining Girls, with details of how each assisted you. How much was the book reshaped by what they came back to you with?

LB – They would come back to me with interesting details. I was specifically looking for the details, and they would come back to me with the nitty-gritty, like how you would treat a ripped tendon in 1931? How much would it cost, and what did the hospitals look like, and what did the doctors wear, because I need to be able to be able to put in one line of dialogue which shows that I know what I’m talking about.

And my researcher came back with this amazing article about a real life glow girl who danced in radium paint and had radiation burns in hospital, and I was like, I have to use that, that’s amazing.

So the entire book was mine, and I already had specific stories and eras that I was interested in, and I said to one of my research assistants I want women’s movements in the seventies, please find me one, and she found me Jane, and I used everything that she found, it was absolutely phenomenal. They were like attack dogs, I would send them on missions to track stuff down.

GC – When Harper Curtis flits back and forth through time, there is a cut-off point beyond which he doesn’t travel. Was the time frame chosen because it is just before the era of mass mobile communication, bane of many a writer trying to put a character in danger, or did you have another reason in mind?

LB – It wasn’t that I was trying to avoid cellphones, which is the bane of every thriller writer everywhere, it was avoiding the Internet, it was avoiding Reddit. Kirby has to solve the mystery by putting up notices in the supermarket and advertising in the classifieds in the newspaper, she can’t just go on a bulletin board.

2014pt2_LB_lb moxyEven in ’96 you would be able to go onto a bulletin board, you would be able to access the Something Awful forums, and I needed to get her disconnected from that, because if there was any hint of a time travelling serial killer, the Internet would go batshit, so I really needed to stay away from the Internet.

GC – Curtis follows his trail through time hunting for objects, the same way that Zinzi connects with lost objects in Zoo City, tracking them and returning them to their owners. Did those ideas spring from the same place, or were there quite different inspirations?

LB – I think that it’s a theme that I’m interested in. I’m interested in what our possessions say about us and what physical objects represent in the world. It was a way of exploring that. I didn’t mean to have it, it was just the most obvious clue that he would leave these atemporal objects on the bodies and that would be the only way to solve this crime, and it just happened to tie in. It’s interesting as a writer to see those themes emerge when you’re not necessarily planning them.

GC – There is a specific scene in Zoo City, which I’m reading second, where they’re on the street, there’s gunfire, and a women comes out not expecting the gunfire, and you make a comment as if she was expecting to walk out of the house into a different reality, and of course that made me think Shining Girls.

LB – That’s interesting.

2014pt2_LB_lb brokenGCThe Shining Girls has been optioned for television by Media Rights Captial, who have given us work diverse as Babel, House of Cards, Elysium and the forthcoming Riddick and Appian Way who gave us The Aviator and Shutter Island. You have experience in television production yourself, having written for several shows across genres. Will you be involved in any way with The Shining Girls, or is that in someone else’s hands now?

LB – It’s going to be up to the director, and it’s also very early days. They’re shopping it around at the moment trying to find a director to attach to the project, so it really depends who that is and how much input they want, but I am on board as a creative consultant and executive producer, so hopefully I will get to have some input.

GC – Do you know if the plan is to do a direct adaptation of the novel as a miniseries, or to expand it, open it up to allow an ongoing show?

LB – Again, this depends on the director, but I think already we’ve been talking about options for both, like how would you expand it beyond where the book finishes?

GC – You yourself are working on the script for Zoo City for producer Helena Spring, who has almost thirty titles credited in twenty years. What is your approach to the script and how is it going?

LB – It’s going great. Lena’s shopping it around at the moment, again, a lot of shopping around in the film industry as you know, it usually takes around four to ten years for anything to happen, and it’s going great. It’s been so nice to revisit that world, it’s been amazing to just get back into Zinzi’s head, and she’s a very different character to Kirby in The Shining Girls.

It’s been interesting to think about how to do it more visually, because a lot of what Zinzi does is email scams, and that’s all obviously typed, so how do you represent that visually, how do you bring in the relationship much more, and I’ve really been playing with those elements. Some of the stuff I’ve changed, I kind of want to go back and change the book, because it’s really good! I know, I should have thought of this the first time.

GC – Sequels!

LB – I know, well I want to do a sequel at some point.

2014pt2_LB_lb afroGC – It’s very unusual to see science fiction produced in South Africa, the only two which I can think of being Neill Blomkamp’s hugely successful District 9 and the television show Charlie Jade, both of which were predominantly white and male dominated. In Zoo City you tend to describe the characters by personality rather than colour, with the only clue to many of the ethnicities being their names, but casting will set it in stone. In many ways, this really could be a groundbreaking project. Are you up for the challenge?

LB – Always! You know the only character I describe by skin colour in Zoo City is Gio, who is Zinzi’s ex-boyfriend, and he has a peach complexion, because so often in books, characters are described as “she had a wonderful mocha skin.” They need to clue you into the fact that she’s black, and I just don’t believe in that. It is about who they are as people.

GC – And there’s one fat white kid. But they’re ten a penny.

LB – I know, definitely. But most of the characters in Zoo City are black, and I think there’s much more room for us to actually play with that. It does make it more difficult with the Hollywood machine because they believe black led movies don’t work. I think the one we saw most recently was Red Tails.

GC – Number one film in America last weekend, The Butler, black led, written by Danny Strong who is writing the third Hunger Games movie and used to be Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and once played Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Edinburgh Fringe.

LB – Wow. That is amazing. I’m so excited. That’s really encouraging.

GC – Speaking of encouraging, there was a time when women writing in comics was very rare, usually only in small press independents, niche interest titles –

LB – I think that time is still happening.

GC – But you’ve written for Vertigo, as has G Willow Wilson before she moved onto Superman, and even that most manly of characters, Judge Dredd, has been written by Emma Beeby. You’re late to a party that was previously held in a boys only club. How have you been received in the world of comics?

2014pt2_LB_lb witchingLB – Actually, wonderfully. You know I was introduced by men, Bill Willingham got me in to write Fairest, and it’s been really great. And it’s been interesting working with Inaki Miranda because we specifically love to add sexuality and violence which are both very much in the Rapunzel comic that I wrote, it’s kind of a J-horror Rapunzel set in Tokyo, and we talked very carefully about how to handle it. How do you do sex so that it’s not the boobs popping out of the costume, and the fact that she has a lesbian love affair and how that was handled how to make it not gratuitous or tits and ass.

But also the violence, because Rapunzel has the crap beaten out of her at one point, and it was really important to me that we felt the effect of that. The same with Shining Girls, I needed to feel, because action movies have inured us to violence. We don’t feel it any more, it means nothing.

It’s empty, a punch to the face means nothing, some guy gets shot in the head, we don’t care, but actually that’s somebody’s life has just been destroyed, so I really need you to feel the violence, and Inaki drew is so beautifully in the comic. You really get a sense of what she’s going through.

2014pt2_LB_lb fairestGC – Do you hope to continue working in comics?

I have a new short comic coming out, The Witching Hour from Vertigo in October, just in time for Hallowe’en, and it’s amazing, because there’s a South African illustrator whose work I really admire, Gerhard Human.

Greg Lockhart, the editor, asked who I wanted to work with, I said “well, I know he’s a brand new artist and he’s only done one comic, but I think he’d be amazing, would you try him out?” and Greg was like “absolutely, his stuff is fantastic, I love it, let’s go.” He just pulled it out in such a big way. It was so beautiful.

It’s called Birdie, it’s about a witch who lives on the dumps in a near future Cape Town, and again, objects, the seagulls bring her objects which mean something. They’re messages from the dead, and it all goes horribly wrong.

GC – I was never a big comics reader myself, though one of the characters who I instantly connected with and still adore was a driven young woman who decided to get out, ironically written by a man. You recently wrote a new introduction to Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s The Ballad of Halo Jones. What does she mean to you?

LB – She was one of my formative influences. I wanted to grow up to be Halo. And it was so great to find a comic about women, and Alan Moore has done that constantly. A lot of his heroes have been female characters.

I grew up on 2000AD. There was Judge Anderson who was kick-ass and amazing and I could never get enough of her, and Durham Red, but there really weren’t a lot of other female characters, and it was so inspiring and cool to have someone who was also this beautifully balanced character. Halo wasn’t a kick-ass superhero, she was an ordinary girl who got catapulted into world events, and that was so phenomenal.

GC – The thing she did was that she never took her eye off where she wanted to be. She didn’t even know where it was, she just knew it was somewhere else.

2014pt2_LB_lb haloLB – Definitely. She needed to get to get out of here, and that determination, that will, was phenomenal, especially as everything crumbled around her and everything worked against her, and the tragic end. It’s beautiful, it’s amazing, and I think it’s perfect where it ended. I know they had plans for, like another five books, but I really like it as a trilogy.

GC – You’ve already brought her up, another key figure from that period of 2000AD was Judge Cassandra Anderson, again, from two gentlemen, John Wagner and Brian Bolland, who finally made it so the screen in last year’s brilliant Dredd, filmed in Cape Town. Although it didn’t perform as well as it should have, what did you think of it?

LB – I thought it was great. I loved the fact that it was low key, I loved that it was gritty and grimy, and it felt like Mega City One, it really did, and it was so great that it was in Cape Town. I recognised some of the locations and friends of mine were extras in it. It really captured the spirit of 2000AD and I’d love to see a whole bunch more exactly like that, rough and ready and real.

GC – And Karl Urban is up for it.

LB – And the villain, she was great, she was wonderful.

GC – The title for your next book is Broken Monsters. How is it going, what can you tell us, and where do you find the time?

LB – Well, I’m a full time novelist now, which is a huge privilege.

GC – And a full time mommy.

LB – Well, not a full time mommy, I have a nanny and a really supportive husband. I’ve been travelling so much on tour it’s been really difficult, we’re thirty one weeks into the year and I’ve spent eleven of those out of the country, and it’s long flights every time because South Africa is in the middle of nowhere, so it’s tough.

But Broken Monsters is about weird half human/half animal bodies turning up in Detroit, and the poor police detective, Gabi Versado, who has to figure out what the hell is going on, and it’s also very much about her relationship with her teenage daughter. I don’t know if I’m going to pull it off but I’m aiming for Jennifer Egan meets Stephen King. Lots of pop culture rich emotional resonance but also some really dark, nasty horror.

GC – Speaking of Stephen King, it was complete coincidence, because a novel takes so long to write, so many stages, and there’s no communication with the outside world like on a film, where there are constantly people observing you –

LB – Apart from Twitter!

GC – Yet Shining Girls came out almost simultaneously with N0S-4R2 by Joe Hill, King’s son, another novel of a person who hops through dimensional gates, a serial killer tracking objects. It was just so bizarre that the two of you would come up with that concept separately, nor did it help that I read the two of them back to back. The style, the detail of them, is different, but just encapsulated in that idea, they’re almost the same book. How did that feel?

LB – You know, we’re obviously both channeling the same good mojo – or the same dark mojo.

2014pt2_LB_lb maverickGC – You won the Clarke for Zoo City, an honour you share with Margaret Atwood, Pat Cadigan, Jane Rogers, and with novels, comics, television and soon a film to your name you’ve become a multimedia voice for women working in genre and the characters they write.

In certain circles, particularly online gaming, there has been a lot or resistance to women, some of the anger ironically more degrading to the idiots who opened their bigoted mouths in the first place than those it was directed at. What message would you like to send out to our sisters in scifi who are still fighting to be heard against the tide?

LB – It’s not up to them and it’s not their problem, they’re doing all they can, they’re doing all the right things. I would say, don’t give up. To the asshats and losers who are trolling and causing shit and being so bigoted and stupid, I would stop being so lame. I would say that’s the message which really needs to go out.

GC – Excellent. Lauren Beukes, it has been a pleasure to meet you, thank you so much.

LB – Thank you so much.

Lauren’s previous novel, The Shining Girls, is reviewed here, and her new novel Broken Monsters will be released summer 2014

Special thanks to the Book Festival press team and Louise at Harper Collins for arranging the interview, and of course Lauren for her time, and apologies to all for the delay in posting



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