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Interview: Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes is a South African author and filmmaker. Her novels include Zoo City and Moxyland. She also wrote a story arc for the graphic novel series Fairest, a spinoff of Bill Willingham’s Fables. Her latest novel, The Shining Girls, is about a time-traveling serial killer and has been optioned for TV by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company Appian Way.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Your new book is called The Shining Girls. What’s that about?

It’s about a time-traveling serial killer who is absolutely impossible to stop until one of his victims survives and turns the hunt around. It’s set in Chicago between 1931 and 1993, and I specifically head it off at 1993 so I could avoid the Internet, Reddit, CCTV cameras, Google Earth, and everything else which would basically wrap up the case in two days.

There’s a violent drifter in 1931, Harper Curtis, who stumbles upon a house that opens onto other times. Upstairs there is a wall in the bedroom which is covered with these strange artifacts and girls’ names that have been carved into the wall and written over and over and over again in his handwriting. He knows that these are the shining girls, and that he’s going to have to go through time to find them and kill them. His M.O. is all over the place. He’s more violent in 1993 and less violent in 1984, which makes it impossible for any detective to try and put that together. He’s completely untraceable. Until Kirby survives the attack in 1989. Her life derails, and she becomes completely obsessed with finding the man who did this to her and stopping him.

You said that you got the idea from Twitter?

I got the idea on Twitter. I was messing around, as you do, when you’re supposed to be writing, and I threw it out in the middle of a conversation. It was banter with a random stranger that I should write a book about a time-traveling serial killer. I was like, “No, wait! I really should, that would be amazing. I could do something really fun with that.”

I didn’t want to do a “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Killing Spree through Time.” I wanted to do something a bit more serious. I like using fantastical elements in fiction to look at social issues. I was very interested in the 20th century, and specifically how much has changed particularly for women.

I quickly deleted the tweet because I didn’t want anyone else to come across the idea. I think it’s bad form to put your best ideas out there in the world.

I immediately knew that I couldn’t set the book in South Africa, just because the story of South Africa in the 20th century is the story of apartheid. That would have overshadowed everything else I wanted to talk about. Both Moxyland and Zoo City, which are my previous novels, are allegorical apartheids anyway, so I felt like I could get away with writing something different.

I started writing it on the plane. The story just came through very strongly. It starts with a man limping across the grass to a little girl in 1974, and he gives her an impossible present—a My Little Pony from 1982, and he tells her that he’ll come back to get it. And when he does, several years later, it’s when he tries to kill her.

Time travel is a favorite theme of science fiction writers and fans, so what are some of the main things that you have to keep in mind when you’re writing a time travel story?

It’s fine to have loops and paradoxes—it’s time travel, that’s the nature of the beast. I wanted to play with Greek Tragedy time travel, where your destiny is laid in stone, everything you try to do to resist it just puts in motion everything that will bring it about. It’s very Oedipus or Macbeth, but it’s also kind of Sisyphus or Prometheus, stuck in a loop, forced to come back and repeat the same actions again and again.

I had to map it all out very carefully. I have a murder wall above my desk, which tracks all of the different timelines. There’s Harper’s killing timeline, there’s the actual historical timeline of the murders, and then there’s the novel’s timeline which jumps between the shining girls’ perspectives, Harper’s perspective, Kirby’s perspective, her sidekick, Dan, and crisscrossing all of this are these red threads tracking the murders, black threads to track the objects that Harper leaves behind on the girls, yellow threads to track the objects that he takes from the girls, and all the reference pictures that I took on my research trip to Chicago. It was very important to me that everything did make sense, that there weren’t these throw-away explanations, that if you concentrate and track it out, everything will hold together.

If people want to see the picture of Lauren in front of her murder wall, that will be the picture on our blog post, so you can go check that out. But it really does make it look like you’re a serial killer; did you ever worry that people would come over to your house and think maybe you were a serial killer?

A lot of people have asked my husband how he can sleep in the same bed with me at night. He says, “Well, I think she gets most of it out on the page.” But yeah, it looks like I’m a crazy person. I look completely nuts. I’m either clearly a serial killer, or some kind of wannabe Homeland or The Wire detective, which is probably true. I would love to be a detective. If I could step into any universe it would be Pattern Recognition, Narnia, or The Wire.

What was it about the idea of a serial killer that made you want to base a book around it?

I don’t have a particular interest in serial killers. I’m not a fundie. I’m not a junky. I have enjoyed serial killer movies like Zodiac, Silence of the Lambs, or Se7en. I think when you do it cleverly it’s very interesting, but often serial killers are represented in popular culture as these sexy, glamorous, sophisticated apex predators who are sipping chianti while diabolically planning out attacks, and messing with the detective’s minds.

I did a lot of research into real serial killers and true crime, which was absolutely the most devastating part of writing the book, having to delve into these people’s heads. There’s not a lot going on in there, they generally don’t have a lot of empathy, obviously, but they also don’t have a lot of insight into why they’re doing what they’re doing. A lot of them have major issues with impotence in the world, whether that’s actual sexual dysfunction or feelings of powerlessness. They’re actually just violent losers, and that’s not as interesting as Hannibal, but I thought I wanted to portray a serial killer as they (often) truly are, and to make it much more about the victims, to focus on the shining girls.

It was important to me, coming from South Africa, which has a terrible femicide rate, and having seen a family close to me suffer terribly through the murder of their 23-year-old daughter, and the way the police bungled the case. If there’s a murder reported in the news, then there was real horror and there was real violence there.

Could you say more about this real life case that you were involved in? How did you get involved in that and why did things go so wrong with the investigation and the aftermath?

I have a cleaning lady who comes to my house once a week and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d known since she was about 14 or 15, was murdered by her boyfriend. Her name was Thomokazi Zazayokwe. Her abusive boyfriend stabbed her, poured boiling water over her head, and then he locked his shack and walked away. Five days later the neighbors finally responded to the moaning and got the police to come in and break down the door. It was horrific. She was rushed to the hospital. She had third degree burns that had become infected, there were flies thick on her skin, and she was in absolute agony. She was in and out of the hospital over the next four months until finally she died from her injuries.

The family didn’t know that they had legal recourse, they didn’t know what their rights were. They’re poor and black, and I tried to help them as much as I could. I took them to the women’s legal center and tried to get them legal counsel and to get the hospital records. But it was like China Mieville’s The City and the City. We live in parallel universes. If you’re middle-class, you have more rights, more access to justice, to medicine, to everything. It was devastating to see that play out in real life, but it was especially devastating when I accompanied Thomokazi’s sister to the court hearing four months after she died.

We saw the boyfriend outside on the bench in the waiting area, with his new 19-year-old girlfriend. The prosecutor called us into the office and he told us that he couldn’t prosecute the case. He showed us the single sheet of paper that was the police file, and he said, “This is the worst bit of investigating I’ve ever seen. The only person they bothered to interview was the victim, and she’s dead. This guy can stand up in court, and he can say absolutely anything he wants, and he’ll get away with it. I will have to believe him because I have no evidence to the contrary. I’m going to throw it out of court now, but you can reopen the case, you can go back to the police, you can appeal to the justice minister, and take it to the newspapers, and see what you can do.”

I just burst into tears in the middle of his office. I’m not really prone to that kind of thing, but I was so angry that this guy was going to get away with this, that there wasn’t justice, that the system doesn’t work. You’re raised with all these fairytales of justice on American TV shows from Matlock and Murder She Wrote to Law and Order and it’s not real.

Because I’m middle class, and I have a voice and I know how to use it, and I have friends who are journalists, I got the story covered by major newspapers. I did manage to get the case reopened. But the family phoned me a week later, and told me, “We can’t face going through it again. We want you to let it go.”

It was very, very hard for me to let it go. It wasn’t my decision to make and it wasn’t my fight to have, so I did. I guess this novel is, in part, a way of exorcising that, but also just generally, the terrible violence against women and men that we see in society.

Another classic example is what’s recently happened in South Africa with our paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius, who murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. All the publicity and press has been about him, and she’s nothing but a pretty corpse. I wanted to write a book that was about real women and not about pretty corpses.

Could you talk about how you did that? This is a book that pays much more attention to the victims than crime books typically do.

Serial killers often have a type. Ted Bundy was into young women with brown hair and middle parting, for example. I thought, “What if Harper’s type was actually not physical, but something within the girls? Some burning potential, some fire inside them? What if he was a twisted Prometheus intent on stealing their fire to try and fill the hollowness inside himself?”

There’s a range of different characters, from a young architect in the 1950s who’s accused of being a dirty commie, to a burlesque dancer with a terrible secret, to an activist working in the 1970s providing backstreet abortions safely and humanely to women in desperate need, through to a young woman who dances in radium paint (based on a real incident in the ’30s of a dancer hospitalized with radiation burns), an African-American welder in World War 2, and Kirby, of course, who only really starts to shine after she’s been attacked.

It was really important to me to be able to explore their lives in detail. They’re all kicking back against their context in their time, they’re all extraordinary in normal ways. It’s not like any of them are going to grow up to be the next president of the United States, or that the economics student is going to stop the 2008 crash if only she’d lived, but they’re all going to make some contribution. They’re curious, engaged, smart, and full of fire. Most of the chapter is focused on their lives, who they are, their ambitions, hopes, and fears, and where they’re going. Then right at the end Harper comes for them.

The attacks aren’t (usually) written from Harper’s perspective, where you’re on his shoulder, accompanying him, along for the ride, and getting off on the same twisted, sick thrills. You’re with the victim, and she is afraid, angry, outraged, hopeless, and can’t believe this is happening to her. It’s much more about the emotion of that moment.

A lot of people have reacted very strongly to the violence in the book, and I think it’s because I’ve made it emotional. I’d like to think that it’s not gratuitous. I specifically have tried to avoid writing torture porn. My editor, Dr. Helen Moffett, is one of the leading experts in violence against women in South Africa, so if she said a scene was okay, I felt it was probably okay.

Could you talk about your research method? How did you research these characters and their time periods?

The research was really fun on this book.

I lived in Chicago in 2000 and 2001. I went back on a research trip, and I interviewed a police detective to find out what access to the case Kirby would have had. We went through boxes of old evidence files, which was completely crazy, and I took lots of photographs. I interviewed an old Chicago Sun Times journalist. I interviewed musicians from the ’90s who were very involved in the punk scenes. I interviewed the head of the ’Zine museum because Kirby starts writing for the ’zines, which were obviously a big part of the ’90s punk scene as well. A Chicago historian fact-checked everything for me and triple-checked it. He was amazing. I went on location scouts. I went to Montrose Beach, which is where Kirby’s attack happens, and I kind of choreographed it. I snuck around through the back corridors of Congress Hotel with a ghost hunter. I really just got a feel for the city and the different time periods. I think this comes from having been a journalist. You find that the real, amazing details are actually in the real world. If you can hang your fantastic fiction on those real details it makes it more credible and believable.

I also worked with two young researchers, Adam Maxwell in Denver, Colorado, and Zara Trafford in South Africa. Mainly they were dealing with the nitty-gritty stuff. I would ask Adam for details on a 1931 hospital, for example, because the way I deal with writing Harper was to fuck him up at every opportunity. So, I rip his tendon, I break his jaw, I get him bitten by a dog, and I get him stung by a bee. It’s the little victories that count. That meant I had to keep track of all his injuries, but I also had to know how you would treat those injuries in the 1930s because he always returns to his homebase in 1931.

Adam dug into the details, like what does a 1931 hospital look like? How much would they charge? How would they fix a ripped tendon? What would the doctors wear? How is the Great Depression affecting hospital wards at that time? He sent me back a ton of information with links to everything from oral history reports about hospitals at that time, to photographs of what doctors were wearing, to links to eBay if I wanted to buy creepy medical equipment from the 1930s, which I really, really don’t. It was fun to have that. And then he sent me this article that he found from 1936 from the Milwaukee Sentinel about a young woman who was dancing to her death in radium paint, and it was about this burlesque dancer who danced in radioactive paint and what this was doing to her. The article was so amazing. It was full of this really rich descriptive language, and she speaks in this crazy French accent, she says, “Tell ze boys zey should not be frightened of me, zey should be frightened of ze radiation. It is zat which is poisonous.”

I should probably never do a French accent.

One thing I heard you say that I thought was funny was that when you were interviewing people to be research assistants, Adam said something like he named his company after one of your books, and that helped him get the job.

Again, Twitter is amazing. I advertised for the position of research assistant on Twitter and both my researchers came from there. Adam, aka @snipehunter, approached me and told me he’d named his game development company Skyward Star, named for a character in Moxyland. It was amazing to have someone who knew me and my work and what I was interested in, and that’s exactly why he kicked up that article on the radium girl. That was incredibly valuable.

I often turn to Twitter for information. I got one thing wrong, which luckily one of my editors caught. (I’m sure people are going to find other mistakes, but I’m pretty sure, 99% sure that we got most of them covered.) One of my characters, Zora, was too young in 1932 when I had her playing with a truck, so I had to age her up to have her making paper planes for her little brother. I was like, wait, did they even have paper planes in 1932? I Googled, and I went through about five pages of search results, and I couldn’t find anything, so I asked Twitter. Within five minutes somebody had responded with a Daily Mail article about paper darts recovered from the eves of a chapel in 1899. The hivemind is phenomenal.

Is the protagonist, Kirby, is she named after Jack Kirby, or Kirby the videogame character, or anything like that?

Obviously there are those pop-culture resonances. Building research and building a convincing time period absolutely relies on getting the pop-culture right, the advertising, music, movies, and everything that was happening at that time. Kirby’s name was inspired by a real-life Kirby I met, who happens to be @thebestkirby on Twitter. I met her years ago, she is the sister of somebody who interned for me. I was like, “That’s it. I’m stealing your sister’s name. I’m saving that for the right character when she comes along.”

I heard you say that part of your research involved listening to podcasts. I was wondering which podcasts are the best for your purposes.

True Murder: The Most Shocking Killers in True Crime History and Authors that have Written about Them. My South African cover designer, Joey Hi-Fi, dug them up for me. He does have a major interest in serial killers, and because he’s a designer he listens to a lot of podcasts while he’s working. I can’t do that because I can’t compete with the words in my head.

I also heard you say that serial killers are fond of puns.

I was hanging out with Ed Brubaker in Los Angeles. He’s one of my favorite comic writers, and his series Criminal is impeccable. It’s the most beautiful storytelling. It’s the first time I’ve ever stopped after I’ve read something and had to Google the hell out of someone to find out who this guy is. Who could this person be that could write this story? We made friends on Twitter, I sent him a copy of my book, and we hooked up in L.A. I went out for dinner with him, his wife, and a game designer friend. They were driving me home, and he was telling me that a profiler friend of his had told him that serial killers are apparently really into puns. It’s one of the senses of humor that they can kind of understand, and that they use to show that they do have empathy and a sense of humor. So, if you like puns, you might have some latent tendencies.

Puns make me want to kill people, to be honest.

[Laughter] Absolutely, that too.

I thought it was interesting that you do so much research, and you read all of this true crime, but you also said that you don’t watch the news. That’s an interesting paradox, almost.

I find the news often very depressing and often very local. It’s really irritating that CNN, like my novel, loops back on itself within fifteen minutes. At least my novel gets four hundred pages. It’s crazy, and there’s so much of the world that we’re missing out on. I find Twitter is a much more interesting and diverse way of connecting with the world. I can follow up on the stories that I’m interested in. Of course, the problem is that you’re creating an echo chamber, which is only feeding you the news that you want to hear. I think I have fairly broad tastes, and I follow some really interesting curators who do tweet a lot of interesting stuff about the world. I do have a better sense of the world from Twitter than I would if I was watching the news.

You just got back from your book tour for this book. Could you talk about what reactions you’re getting to the book from readers and people you talk to?

It’s been amazing. The book keeps getting compared to Gone Girl, but Gillian Flynn actually wrote a review in O Magazine saying that she really enjoyed it, and that she knew me from my comics work, which just blew my mind. Obviously I have other writer friends who really liked it, William Gibson loved it, and Richard Kadrey. Tana French said it “scared the bejesus out of her,” which was really gratifying. It’s good to scare the bejesus out of Tana French.

People’s reactions have been generally very positive. There have been some people who find the violence very hectic or gratuitous, which is the one criticism that really cuts me deep. I tried very hard not to make it so.

And on the other hand, I had a young woman wait until the very end of my New York signing to come up and talk to me, and she didn’t say so outright, but she implied that something bad had happened to her, and that she said that she expected the book to affect her, but she hadn’t expected it to cut so deep, and she said, “Thank you.” I think out of all the responses I’ve had that that meant the most to me. That I am actually speaking, somehow, to the survivor’s experience in a meaningful way that resonates with them.

Have you ever had any funny experiences on this past tour, or any of your previous book tours?

I had the one guy who came up to me at a con and said, “Your hair is looking much better today.” I was like, “Thanks, random stranger.” That’s great. I don’t know, none in particular. I’ve met really amazing people, and demanded that the people take me out for drinks, like in Houston, for example, where I found someone who had been at the reading on Twitter and tweeted at her, “Are you still in the area, please come pick me up and take me for a drink, I’m bored and lonely.” And she did. It was amazing. Again, the power of Twitter, it’s phenomenal.

It was just recently announced that there’s going to be a TV adaptation of The Shining Girls, do you want to tell us about that?

The Shining Girls has been optioned by Appian Way, which is Leonardo DiCaprio’s company, and MRC, who made House of Cards, which was directed by David Fincher and starred Kevin Spacey, and very interestingly, and I think this is what sold me on them, it went straight to Netflix. MRC has an interesting funding model, which isn’t based on making a pilot. It’s based on finding the right people and getting the right script. Then, if that works out, they’re all systems go. When I was looking at the different options, with four different companies pitching on the book, it really came down to that, the fact that they were so forward-thinking. It really feels like the future of television.

For example, I was taking my four-year-old to school this morning, and one of the songs from Wreck-It Ralph came on the radio, and she demanded that I play it again. I couldn’t explain to her that radio was not on demand. She has no concept of media that is not on demand. That’s absolutely the way we’re heading, and to think otherwise is very foolish, and there’s a reason Game of Thrones is the most pirated TV show on Earth. If HBO would just make it possible for people to buy it, I think it would change those statistics massively. There would still obviously be pirates, but there are a lot of people who want to pay for that kind of contact, but don’t have any access to it.

I was excited about MRC and Appian as prospective partners in that regard, and how they sold me on the idea of a TV series—by telling me to think of it as a 13-hour movie. Which would really allow you to get deeply into the characters because otherwise you’d run the risk of the girls just being pretty corpses. You’d get such a short snapshot of their lives in two hours that they might be reduced to exactly what I was trying to avoid.

You’re saying they’re not going to do a pilot? They’re going straight to series and it’s going to be on Netflix, or . . .?

No, I’m not saying any of that. I’m saying that’s what they’ve done previously. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to work. The ink is barely dry on the paper, so they’re going to try and attach a director, then try and find a really great scriptwriter, but they don’t spend money making a pilot. Everyone makes pilots for HBO, and then they see if they’ll pick up the pilot. Then you end up with crazy stuff like polar bears, which are never explained and never make sense ever again.

They’re much more about writing a strong script, getting great talent attached, and then raising the money based on that, rather than messing around trying to make a pilot which you’re then stuck with. I might be misrepresenting their business model, but that’s my understanding of it.

You have a background in TV and film, do you expect to be involved at all with the production?

I am on board as a consultant. It really depends on the director and how much input they need. I’d love to be involved. It’s an adaptation, so it’s a completely different animal, and it also becomes a collaborative vision that’s no longer mine, and that’s absolutely fine.

Speaking of TV, I thought it was funny that you said growing up that it was difficult for you to watch the TV show V in South Africa.

During apartheid there was a lot of censorship, which is how an evil, dictatorial, racist regime maintains power—by keeping people in the dark as to what’s actually going on. They took it to crazy lengths. Sometimes defiant newspaper editors would put out a paper with a blank front page, or a front page covered with black censor bars to show how much they were being censored. The kind of footage that the rest of the world saw on TV, on the news, we weren’t exposed to. We weren’t seeing the same kind of violence, and the craziness in the townships, and the activists being killed. It was super restricted.

This went to ridiculous lengths. The TV series V came on in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and it’s a mini-series. The first episode aired, and I was really excited because it was science fiction, and there were aliens, and it was really cool. The next thing I know, it’s being pushed to a late time slot. It was primetime, something like Fridays at 7 p.m. and suddenly it got moved to Wednesdays at 11:30, which meant that because I was a school kid I couldn’t stay up and watch it. I was lucky to grow up with liberal parents who didn’t believe in apartheid and when I asked them why, they explained it was because the show had freedom fighters—which was a word the government associated with the ANC.

I only found out years later that the real reason it got pushed to such a late time slot when no one could see it was because the state president, P.W. Botha, whose nickname was the “Big Crocodile,” had freaked out completely, phoned the head of the South African Broadcasting Corporation immediately after the first episode had aired, and demanded that it be taken off air immediately because the aliens were reptiles. He was so vain that he thought this TV show was actually about him.

The whole apartheid regime was terrible, and we’re going to be tripping up over its legacy for years and years and years to come. There’s no easy fix to what happened in this country. It was devastating. People were killed, there were apartheid assassination squads, death camps, a chemical weapons program that was trying to make black people sterile. It was horrific. Every dictatorship also has its ridiculous eccentricities, and that was an example of one of them—this absolutely absurd moment amongst all the violence.

Did that extend outside of television to written science fiction as well? What has the written science fiction scene been like in South Africa for the past few decades?

J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is very much a science fiction novel that came out in the ’80s, about a totalitarian regime and the futility and absurdity of it. The apartheid government absolutely missed the allegory there.

They banned other stupid things; for example, they actually banned the book Black Beauty, about the horse, because it had the words “black beauty,” and they were like, “No, no, no, we can’t have black people thinking that way. Those two words in combination, that’s terrible.”

But they missed the allegories, like an Afrikaans novel ostensibly about the Irish revolution and hiding rebel leaders. South African writers found ways of talking about apartheid without writing about it directly because that would get you banned, or put under house arrest or exiled or killed. It was a shocking time.

Then apartheid ended, and our local literature was struggling to find its feet. To generalize terribly, there were a lot of “I grew up under apartheid” memoirs. It’s only been in the past five to seven years that the scene has opened up to fiction that addresses current issues of what it means to be South African, and to just let people play across genres.

The science fiction scene is really exploding now. It started with District 9, and then when Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke award, it showed people that it was possible to write that kind of story and that there was an audience for it.

There’s some exciting stuff happening at the moment. I mentored a young writer, Charlie Human, whose book Apocalypse Now Now is coming out in July, and it’s just mental. It’s this crazy, batshit, amazing urban fantasy set in Cape Town with lots of magic and monsters, but also some apartheid legacy stuff, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

Sarah Lotz is making huge waves. She’s got a major thriller coming out next year, but she’s been writing very smart, nuanced horror as S. L. Grey together with Louis Greenberg, looking at consumerism, hospitals, and education, but in a really fun, dark, creepy way, with this alternate underworld.

Are there science fiction conventions, magazines, workshops, and stuff like that in South Africa?

There are some small ’zines and electronic anthologies, including Science Fiction South Africa, Something Wicked Magazine, and Jungle Jim, which is a wonderful pulp magazine. Bloody Parchment puts together horror anthologies and has an annual competition. It’s all very small and very few people are actually making a real living out of it. It’s certainly not the same status that it is in the States or in the U.K.

You mentioned District 9 and Neill Blomkamp; what do you think about his upcoming movie Elysium?

I love the way that he brings his South African perspective to bear on bigger issues. He’s said that he’s based it on veterans from the war in Angola, I believe, and obviously you can see the influence in the extremities of the divided society. The rich live up in space. It’s absolutely fascinating. I cannot wait to see it. I’ve avoided the trailers because I don’t want any spoilers. I want to go into it absolutely cold, not knowing anything about it. What I think is amazing about Neill Blomkamp, and South African genre fiction in general, is that he takes a major issue and by making it science fictional and putting this fantastic spin on it, it gives you a new way of seeing it and a new way of talking about it. Had District 9 just been about refugees, it would have been Hotel Rwanda, and if it had just been about aliens, it would have been Battlefield Earth, probably directed by Michael Bay. The fact that he brought those two things together was what it made it so exciting. I think that’s what a lot of genre fiction in South Africa is doing. Twisting reality slightly so that we can get a fresh perspective on it, especially tired issues like xenophobia, violence against women, or stratified society and neo-apartheid systems based on economics.

Have there been other filmmakers coming out of South Africa picking up the torch after Neill Blomkamp?

They’re trying. I think it helps to have a personal relationship with Peter Jackson. Neill Blomkamp was very much his protégé, and it’s very hard to get a movie made in this country, especially if you’re talking about big special effects. Neill Blomkamp, he’s an outlier, he was an amazing animator doing incredible stuff. If you look at his original short Alive in Joburg, it’s just phenomenal. All the foundation for District 9 was already there, and he probably could have made it by himself, using his animation skills, but the fact that he was able to tie in with Peter Jackson, and the fact that the Halo movie fell through and he was able to do his own project, I think was actually the best thing that could have happened to him. I think it’s also a hard thing to follow up on. You can’t say, “Okay, I’m just going to do what Neill Blomkamp did.” You have to have all those factors. It’s about hard work and determination, but so much of it is also about pure, bloody luck.

We mentioned that you have a background in both animation and directing. One thing I thought was interesting was that in The Shining Girls there’s a transgender character who hides the fact that she has a male body and works as a burlesque dancer, and you did a documentary called Glitterboys and Ganglands, and I was wondering if that helped inspire that character at all.

The documentary definitely helped inspire that character. Spending time with the girls gave me a real feel for what they go through and the everyday issues that they have to tackle. You can draw a pretty direct line between The Shining Girls and my first book, which is a non-fiction, Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past, which is all short chapters about extraordinary women who had to deal with hardship in their lives, fighting against their social context, and were often dogged by terrible tragedy, but also fought through. Those were real historical women. That set a precedent, and that was partly where this book was coming from.

I’ve always used my journalism and scriptwriting and comics to feed into my fiction. With Zoo City, I used a lot of previous journalism that I’d done on 419 email scammers, for example, or on “rehab safaris,” where people come to South Africa for cheap rehab that’s a tenth of the price and then go on holiday after. I threaded that through the narrative.

I don’t know if you’ve ever played the Rift pen and paper roleplaying game—it’s this science fiction game—but it made me think of it because they have these characters named Glitterboys, do you know what I’m talking about?

I’ve never played it, but that’s cool.

The Glitterboys are these gigantic robot, power-armor suits with diamond armor that deflects laser beams, and they have these gigantic rail guns that are so powerful that when you shoot them you have to have these pylons shoot fifteen feet into the ground out of your boots to brace you from the recoil.

That’s amazing. That’s awesome.

Since you like Glitterboys, I thought maybe you would like to make a documentary about that next.

I would totally like to make a documentary about that. That sounds incredible. Have you got a mech suit? I’m all about giant robots.

I’m sure my co-host, John Joseph Adams, would want us to mention his anthology Armored that you contributed a story to. Do you want to talk about that story?

Giant robots are cool. I played Mech Warrior when I was a kid and Robotech was one of my formative influences, especially where they just killed characters way before George R.R. Martin was doing it. It was a kid’s cartoon and they were killing characters.

So, I was really excited to write a story about a power suit or a mecha, but I wanted to do a really dark twist on it. Inatec Biologica (the morally dubious bio-tech company from Moxyland) have established a space operation that’s specifically harvesting new forms of organic life to synthesize as drugs for medication, which is something we’re seeing in the real world now. And then something goes horribly wrong.

There are dead harvesters who are being kept alive by this really creepy algae. They’re half dead and half alive inside the power suits, and it’s one harvester’s mission to try and confront what’s going on and to find out the truth . . . the terrible truth.

John was just telling me that you also have a story coming up in his Wastelands II anthology.

“Chislehurst Messiah,” which was partly inspired by the London riots. It was fascinating being in London just after that happened because we’d seen so much hectic footage on TV, and the South African embassy had issued a warning advising South African citizens not to travel to the UK, so I’m in London, and I’m tip-toeing around, texting my friends, saying, “Where is it safe to go?” And they’re just laughing at me because the London riots were bad, but they’d also been blown out of proportion the same way South African crime always gets blown out of proportion, and it was really interesting to be on the other side of that. To be the scared tourist, as opposed to the local who’s just like, “Oh, God, really, do you really feel that way?”

“Chislehurt Messiah” is about a rich tosser who thinks he’s the last human alive, and then he starts finding YouTube videos of other survivors. He realizes that he’s the only one over thirty-five, and that he must surely bring his wisdom to the people, to save them. Of course, things devolve horribly from there.

Do you have any other projects that you want to mention? You have all sorts of stuff going on that’s almost too much to keep track of: graphic novels, screenplays, and everything.

My graphic novel, Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom, which is a spinoff of Bill Willingham’s Fables. Bill specifically asked me to pitch on Rapunzel, what I would do with her, and I took her to Japan. I figured that Rapunzel’s all about the hair, and Japanese horror is all about the hair, and this can’t be a coincidence.

I was able to explore all the Japanese fairy tales, and again do a ton of research into how the Yakuza work, and the different kind of Yokai. I worked with Inaki Miranda, who is a phenomenal artist and who was totally up for it. For example, I made him watch five videos on Pachinko for one page, just so he could draw the Pachinko Parlor right, and so that we could get the authenticity of it down.

It’s important. I read a comic a while ago where the characters fly to Cape Town, and if you do one Google image search on Cape Town you will see an amazing, bright, beautiful, cosmopolitan city in front of Table Mountain, and the comic artist had drawn generic street scenes, and an airport that looked like it was in rural Rwanda, with long grass, and acacia trees and elephants, and I was like, “No, seriously, please, we have a major international airport. We are a vibrant and amazing city. Please, don’t do this.” I think that’s partly why I’m obsessed with getting the details right. I want locals to be able to read my work and say, “Yeah, she did a pretty good job.”

My new novel is Broken Monsters, set in Detroit. It’s about weird bodies turning up in abandoned places, and the police detective investigating it and her relationship with her daughter. That’s coming out next year.

You’re also doing a screenplay adaptation of Zoo City, right?

I am, and that’s on hold at the moment because I have to finish the novel. It’s been really fun to revisit that universe, and that really makes me feel like I would like to do a sequel at some point.

An adaptation is naturally a different animal. It has to be because it has to be more visual and to mess with the story a little bit. The core story will stay the same, but I’ve rearranged the scenes and written it up to bring through the relationship between Zinzi and Benoit much more strongly so that he’s more present throughout, and it was fun figuring out how to represent the email scams on screen. There’s stuff that I put into the screenplay that I kind of almost wish I could go back and put into the book, so it’s worked out pretty well. It’s a long, slow process, developing something as a feature film. It might take four to ten years, we’ll see. Hopefully four. Raising that pesky thirty million dollars is such a pain in the ass. If you know anyone who has thirty million dollars, please send them my way.

I’m sure one of our listeners probably has thirty million dollars.

Oh, absolutely.

It’s all taken care of. Now that you’ve been on Geeks Guide to the Galaxy all your problems are solved.

Fantastic.

I think we’ll wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Lauren Beukes. Her new book is called The Shining Girls. Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much. It’s been awesome.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.