Lauren Beukes is arguably fast becoming South Africa's first lady in fiction with an incredible string of successes since her debut novel Moxyland appeared in 2008. The former freelance journalist has since then delved even deeper into the psyche of the supernatural and with the release of The Shining Girls in 2013 cemented her reputation as a world class author. I had the privilege to speak to Lauren about her ideas, time travel and the magic of fiction.
Between yourself and District 9, South African writers have gained considerably more freedom to explore science fiction without too much focus on politics as a backdrop. Being one of the first, was it difficult to get the manuscript for Moxyland approved, how did you pitch it to the publishers?
Lauren: I would argue that my work and District 9 are very political. District 9 started as a short about xenophobia called Alive in Joburg which used Apartheid as a backdrop and context for an allegory about how we treat the other. I would also argue that I don’t just write science fiction, that while Moxyland is very SF, Zoo City is black magic noir, The Shining Girls is a socio-historical thriller with a time travel twist and Broken Monsters is somewhere between crime and horror.
It took a year to sell Moxyland and I had to rewrite it heavily. My favourite rejection was from Philip K Dick’s agent, who said it was “like having sex on a skateboard” which is, apparently, a bad thing. I sold it to Maggie Davey at Jacana, who read it on the plane on her way to the Frankfurt Book Fair. By the time she had landed, I had a book deal! It was a brave editorial decision because there wasn’t anything else it being published in SA. I hope it has opened the door for other books, but I suspect they would have found a market anyway, from Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now to Sam Wilson’s Zodiac, Rachel Zadok’s Sister Sister, Sarah Lotz’s The Three, Miranda Sherry’s Black Dog Summer, Alex Latimer’s The Space Race, Frank Owen’s South, just off the top of my head. The market was ready, Moxyland was just the first book through the gates.
“...My favourite rejection was from Philip K Dick’s agent, who said it was “like having sex on a skateboard” which is, apparently, a bad thing...” - Lauren Beukes
Time travel and science fiction are both fascinating topics, the implications and possibilities are almost endless. Why and how did you decide to use time travel as theme for The Shining Girls, and will you perhaps be using it in another way in future?
Lauren: I came up with the idea for the novel as a throwaway bit of banter on Twitter. “My next book is going to be about a time-travelling serial killer”. I quickly deleted the tweet when I realized that is exactly what my next book should be. As soon as I had the idea, I knew I didn’t want to do Bill and Ted’s Excellent Killing Spree Through Time. I was going to limit it to the 20th Century, to explore how much has changed, especially for women and also, depressingly, how history repeats itself, to use time travel as a way to talk about the mistakes and leaps of progress, violence against women and to give the victims a voice. It was really important for me to make sure the internal logic of the House worked, the jumps between time were all connected and made sense. For example, Harper, the killer, wouldn’t have the tennis ball in his possession until after he tried to kill Kirby. If he had a broken jaw in the 1950s, it would take long weeks for it to heal, and any jumps during that time would have him still wounded. I don’t have any time travel specific novel ideas right now, but I won’t rule out returning to it.
You are also quite heavily involved in the comic book scene, how did you get into this side of the business and how different is the process to develop a comic book story versus a novel?
Lauren: I grew up reading everything from Asterix to Barbarella and Misty and 2000AD and it had a huge influence on the way I write. Especially that punk SF British comic, which used characters like Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha as allegory for social issues and malevolent nanny states. I worked in kids animation for five years as head writer at URBO: The Adventures of Pax Afrika, and also wrote for Florrie’s Dragons and Mouk, which taught me the art of snappy dialogue that propels the plot or reveals character, and writing descriptively and clearly because some poor bastard has to draw it.
I got my first break into comics thanks to Bill Willingham, who I met at a convention in Toronto, and he approached me after to write a guest storyline set in his Fables universe, which became a Japanese-horror infused version of Rapunzel with art by Inaki Miranda. (It’s all about the hair). Since then, I have done a number of shorts, including a Wonder Woman story set in Soweto, about the power of the imagination and finding your inner heroine (spoilers: it’s about a little girl in Orlando West playing Wonder Woman with her sister’s dolls) and gone on to write Survivors’ Club with my favourite co-writer, Dale Halvorsen – an adult-themed horror comic with art by Ryan Kelly.
It is more fun working on a comic than a novel, because it is collaborative. The entire plot isn’t sitting hard on your shoulders, you are working to refine it with your artist and your editor and your co-writer. There are a number of locals doing good in the comic scene, including Joburg-based artist Jason Masters, who recently completed a run on James Bond with Warren Ellis.
“...I wanted to do a realistic portrayal of a serial killer – that they are not deeply fascinating, diabolically brilliant superhuman monsters, but loathsome, pathetic, stunted little men...” - Lauren Beukes
Visually, how clear do you need to see your characters before you start the writing process and which personality traits do you find the easiest/most juicy to portray?
Lauren: I sometimes create a mood board of images which speak to some quality in the character. It is not an exact casting, because that would be boring, but finding images of people, ideally not movie stars, who reflect some aspect of the people I am writing about. I try to write my characters as deep and as true as possible, so there is never only one personality trait. I struggled to write Harper in The Shining Girls, because he is so awful. It made me feel sick having to return to him, but I also wanted to do a realistic portrayal of a serial killer – that they are not deeply fascinating, diabolically brilliant superhuman monsters, but loathsome, pathetic, stunted little men.
People seem to be more inclined to read a story about complex social issues when they are portrayed in strange settings such as dystopia, horror or science fiction. What is your theory for the motivation behind all this?
Lauren: We have issue fatigue. The world is too much. We look to fiction for escapism. Dystopias and zombie apocalypses are comforting as a point of comparison to the real world, because hey, State Capture and Trump and little girls and teenagers killed by a pipe bomb at a concert, but at least we’re not living la vida Walking Dead just yet. Although the Handmaid’s Tale is proving to be way too close to home right now.
We can handle terrible social ills in fiction if it is slightly distorted, to give us a little distance, while plunging us deep into someone else’s head and experiences. It is a hectic dose of imaginative empathy. And of course, that is the magic of fiction, that by allowing us into other worlds, other people, stories allow us to be more than we are.