It is my crazy pleasure to have Lauren Beukes here to talk about what is genuinely my favorite book so far this year. Here’s what you’re going to do: you’re going to read this interview, and you’re going to nod and laugh at all the right parts, and then you’re going to go and visit your favorite meatspace or online book retailer and you’re going to get a copy of this book because it is that goddamn good. Now, hey! Here’s Lauren to talk about it.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
Jeez, that cues all kinds of metaphysical philosophical quandaries. Can I be a mismatch of atoms and carbon and mind thoughts in the restless dreaming of a post-dimensional crocodile god?
Okay, seriously, I’m a South African writer who is incredibly lucky to get paid to make up stories all day. It wasn’t always like this. Over the last 15 years, I’ve been a journalist, a TV scriptwriter, a documentary maker and a mom to a small and amazing daughter – and had to find time to write novels in between.
I guess I’m best known for winning the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Red Tentacle in 2011 for Zoo City, a black magic detective story set in Johannesburg about refugees, redemption, criminals with magical animals and the evils of autotune.
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH
Harper, a time-travelling serial killer is untraceable, unstoppable until one of his victims, Kirby, survives and turns the hunt around.
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
This is a little embarrassing. I was messing around on Twitter instead of writing (as you do) and threw out the idea in the middle of a random conversation. I immediately deleted the tweet because I was like, YES! That must be my next book! Quickly! Before someone else thinks of it!
But I think that’s often the way of interesting ideas – they come around when you’re least expecting them, in those moments when you’ve let your subconscious off the leash to romp in the grass.
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD HAVE WRITTEN?
There are a lot of social issues that leak through my novels. It comes from having grown up under a terrible repressive racist regime (aka apartheid) and ten years as a journalist, getting backstage in the world.
I could have done a Bill And Ted’s Excellent Killing Spree from the dinosaurs to the middle ages to killing Hitler, or a Jack The Ripper Doctor Who, but I wanted to mess with the conventions of both genres.
I wanted to use time travel as a way of exploring how much has changed (or, depressingly stayed the same) over the course of the 20th Century, especially for women, and subvert the serial killer genre by keeping the focus much more on the victims and examining what real violence is and what it does to us. The killer has a type, but it’s not a physical thing – he goes for women with fire in their guts, who kick back against the conventions of their time.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING THE SHINING GIRLS?
Keeping precise track of the multiple timelines was tricksy, but really the hardest thing was the killing. I wrote deep portraits of interesting women, from an African American World War Two single mom welder to a troublesome broad architect accused of pinko sympathies in the 50s to a gentle abortionist and a burlesque dancer with a terrible secret… and then I had to kill them.
The attacks usually happen from their perspective, so you’re not riding along with the killer, complicit in the murder, getting off on it. You’re with the women, feeling their fear and their outrage and grief and trauma and that was pretty hard to write, to make it more than a gratuitous murder, to get at the shock and emotion of it, because violence should be shocking. It should punch us in the face, that this is what it means when a murder is reported on the news or a woman turns up dead in a story. It was about creating characters rather than pretty corpses.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING THE SHINING GIRLS?
That history is amazing! Okay, I knew that already. But the resonances of stuff that happened then with stuff that is happening now was a little scary.
There are a lot of echoes, some of them obvious, like the Great Depression and our current recession, or the Red Scare’s tactics coming up again in the War on Terror, sneakily eroding our privacy and stirring up fear for political control, or the fact that women’s rights to control their bodies is apparently still up for debate, somehow? Which just makes me sad and mad.
But there were others that creeped me out, like the Motion Picture Association of America’s role in McCarthyism and politics which explains so much about their political clout now in trying to get people cut off from the Internet for illegally downloading a movie. Seriously. Losing access to the Internet, which the UN has determined is a basic human right and is pretty fundamental to the way we live now, because an entertainment company is pissy that you pirated The Hangover 3? Not okay. (Which is not to say I’m endorsing piracy – pay creators, kids, but that’s a lot of political power for a movie organization).
And a lot of amazing detail I just couldn’t fit in, except in passing, from the first labor case, by the women who painted undark dials on watches during World War One with radium paint and died horribly of radiation poisoning or how abortion got legalized in New York or the first nuclear fission in a lab under the University of Chicago’s football field. So. Much. Good. Stuff.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THE SHINING GIRLS?
The women. All of them, how they’re sharp and bright and curious and ready to set the world alight in some small way, and if they’re scared, they find a way to push through that. Especially Kirby. And I love her relationship with Dan. The love unfolding, if only she’d let it, if only she hadn’t let her whole life be derailed by her obsessive quest to find the man who did this to her.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
I really want to write Nella’s story. She’s the daughter of the African American welder who is killed in 1943 and starts trying to put the puzzle together before Kirby does, because Harper left an impossible clue on her mother’s body – a 1993 Jackie Robinson baseball card, but real life gets in her way and there are too many missing pieces, literally, as she develops Alzheimers and can’t keep track of the threads any more. I may still do it as a short story.
GIVE US YOUR FAVOURITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY.
Okay, it’s a long one. But it’s my favourite moment between Dan and Kirby. Shit’s getting real. Kirby, the determined-as-hell survivor and Dan, an ex-homicide reporter turned sports journalist are heading towards a terrible confrontation.
She is tense in the car. She keeps playing with the lighter. Flick. Flick-flick-flick. He doesn’t blame her. The pressure is unbearable. Flick. Catapulting towards something that can be averted. A car crash in slow motion. Not just an ordinary fender-bender either. This is like your ten-car pile-up halfway across the freeway with helicopters and firetrucks and people weeping in shock on the side of the road. Flick. Flick. Flick.
‘Can you stop that? Or at least stick a cigarette in the hot end? I could use one.’ He tries not to feel guilty about Rachel. About driving her daughter into danger.
‘Do you have one?’ she says eagerly.
‘Check the glove compartment.’
She pops the latch and the cubby dumps a bunch of crap in her lap. Assorted pens, condiments from Al’s Beef, a squashed soda cup. She crumples the empty packet of Marlboro Lights.
‘You know there’s still as much cancer-causing stuff in the light versions?’
‘Never figured cancer would be the thing to kill me.’
‘Where’s your gun?’
‘Under the seat.’
‘How do you know you’re not going to hit a bump and blow your ankle off?’
‘I don’t normally carry it around.’
‘I guess these are special circumstances.’
‘You freaked out?’
‘Out of my mind. I’m so scared, Dan. But this is it. My whole life. There’s no choice.’
‘We getting into free will now?’
‘I have to go back is all there is to it. If the police won’t.’
‘I think you’ll find that’s ‘we’, pal-face. You’re dragging me with you.’
‘Dragging is a strong word.’
‘So is “vigilantism”.’
‘You gonna be my Robin? You’d look good in yellow tights.’
‘Hold on there. I am definitely Batman. Which makes you Robin.’
‘I always liked the Joker more.’
‘It’s because you relate. You both have bad hair.’
‘Dan?’ she says, looking out the window at dusk creeping in over the empty lots and boarded-up houses and the rat-traps falling apart. Her face is reflected in the car window with the flame as she clicks the lighter again.
‘Yeah, kiddo?’ he says tenderly.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER
A novel set in Detroit, working title, Broken Monsters, about weird monstrous bodies turning up and a police detective’s relationship with her daughter and I can’t say more, because I’m still in the middle of it and talking too much steals the story’s soul.