Cult South African author Laur

Cult South African author Lauren Beukes launches new novel

Lauren Beukes, award winning novelist of ‘Zoo City’ and ‘Moxyland’, has just released her latest novel, ‘The Shining Girls’, a nail-biting, heart-racing, time-travelling thriller. Sandi Thompson caught up with her in London during her book tour to talk about ‘The Shining Girls’.

Cult South African author Laur

Cult South African novelist, journalist and scriptwriter Lauren Beukes is tiny (pot calling kettle black, I know), but not to be underestimated.

Having devoured the unputdownable The Shining Girls, I had the privilege to sit down and talk with this award-winning writer about her latest novel, which is tipped to be the big summer read.

Why have you set The Shining Girls in Chicago?
I wanted to write a novel about a time travelling serial killer in the 20th century and if I did 20th century South Africa, it would automatically become an apartheid story – I wanted to talk about broader issues. Chicago has a lot in common with South Africa. The apartheid government actually went to Chicago in the ’50s to learn how to do segregation better. The issues are universal.

You have said, “I like to rugby-tackle social issues through film.” What did you want to tackle through this story?
It’s primarily a book about violence against women and how we look at women through crime and news media. They become a statistic, a body, an autopsy, and it’s another way of objectifying them. What I was interested in is who the women were before that? What were their hopes and dreams? It’s also about how the 20th century has shaped us. History holds resonances of today. The Great Depression in the ’30s resonates with the depression we’re in now; Hoovervilles of the 1930s absolutely echoes the shantytowns in South Africa. The chapter set during McCarthyism is resonant of apartheid. This resonates with the surveillance society of today and the war on terrorism. It was also interesting for me to look at how things have changed for women – the war for a woman’s right to control her own body is still on the table. It’s about the loops of history and how society keeps coming back to the same issues.

How is this a unique time travel story?
The social edge is interesting. It’s also fatalistic. It’s Oedipus, Greek Tragedy, Macbeth — the more you try and avoid your fate, the more you put into play all the elements that are going to bring it about. It’s a comment on free will versus determinism and Harper is trapped in his obsession. Harper is trapped by his fate, while Kirby breaks free of hers… but sets into play the things that drive Harper towards his.

How did you keep track of the timeline?
Apart from the software, Scrivener, I had a moda wall above my desk where I had three different timelines. There’s Harper’s killing timeline, which is all over the place and makes his M.O. almost impossible to track because serial killers get more elaborate over time. There is no way a detective could track Harper, but I had to track him. I had to track what he was doing with the objects because each object is linked to a different girl. Then there was the actual historical timeline, and the book’s timeline, which switches between Kirby, Dan, Harper and the girls. I used red strings to track the murders.

Which girl did you find hardest to kill off?
I really liked Zora. She had a family and that makes her death difficult. By the time we got to Jin-Suk, Harper and I were both sick of killing.

How do you get inside you characters’ heads or do you find that they begin to exist independently of you?
It’s a bit of both. You have to find a part of you that resonates with the character. I researched a lot of oral histories and tried to find the voices of the eras so that my characters could be as authentic as possible. There is also a lot of subconscious play and that’s the magic of writing – that moment between when the thought fires in your brain and your fingers hit the keyboard where something happens and the character will become something other than what you’d intended.

So what about Harper? How did you go about profiling him?
The useful thing about Harper is that he’s from the ’30s so his perspective shows you a lot about how the world has changed. But writing him was extremely difficult. I wanted to avoid the preconceived idea of a serial killer as an Apex Predator — the sophisticated Dexter, Hannibal Lecter type. My research on serial killers indicates it has a lot to do with impotence; whether that’s feeling impotent in your normal life or actual sexual dysfunction. He’s an awful, vile man. Violence is an act of contempt and we should hold those who do it, contemptible. I knew he was a construct and I could step away from the keyboard, but I had to go back to him the next day and the way I dealt with that was by hurting him. I hurt him at every possible opportunity. The only problem was that I had to track his injuries. Is his jaw still wired up? How has his leg healed? It was cathartic to hurt him.

How did you come up with the title?
It was originally called ‘The Killing Time’, which is a terrible pun so I didn’t stick with that. I had talked about the shining girls already in the book and the fact that they have this burning ambition and potential so it was a natural title.

Did you set out to write another science fiction novel?
I aspire first and foremost to write great fiction. Of course I want the social issues to come through, but it has to be secondary to a good story. It’s not strictly ‘science-fiction’. Science fiction is a vehicle – it’s a thriller, a historical and a romantic investigative story.
the shining girls