Broken Monsters’ Lauren Beukes talks “the real Detroit”

Lauren Beukes on getting Detroit right and being more ambitious with each book

Lauren Beukes

Last year was huge for Lauren Beukes, as her brilliant time-travelling serial killer novel The Shining Girls was a tremendous success with readers and critics. Her latest book, Detroit-set serial killer tale Broken Monsters, is more ambitious, more challenging and just as compulsively readable.

We talked to the author about portraying the real Detroit, how we’re haunted by our social media presence and riding around in a mortuary wagon. 

There’s a huge range of issues addressed in Broken Monsters. One of the most powerful is that of social media; was that something that you were very keen to investigate?

Absolutely, I think with The Shining Girls I missed the current reality. Because I made a decision to cut The Shining Girls off at 1993 so that Reddit wouldn’t become involved and 4Chat wouldn’t become involved in trying to solve this mystery of a time travelling serial killer. And it was just so great to get back to current reality and the richness and depth and strangeness and awkwardness of social media and how our world is right now, which is unimaginable.

If you tried to imagine this in 1993 or whenever, it’s so strange and it’s so false and I’ve looked specifically at some sexual assault cases, this is a bit spoilery, but there have been a host of sexual assault cases in the States of teenage girls and how much it has derailed their entire lives because it’s not just the sexual assault, it’s how social media translates that and how cruelty manifests itself in social media and how easily it manifests. That was something I was really interested in exploring, and how we are no longer anonymous and we can’t leave our pasts behind us.

When I was backpacking in 1996 with my brother, I was 21 years old; there was this idea that you could reinvent yourself in every new city you arrived in, in every new place. You got on a Greyhound bus in Australia, or we were driving a 67 VW Beetle around America and you could make up a whole new narrative for yourself, you could make up a new story. But we don’t have that freedom anymore. We are haunted by our social media presence, by these other iterations of ourselves.

There’s that interesting contrast between any trace left for the police being vital for the case, and the history left by some of the characters online that they can’t get rid of.

Absolutely. But also of course your social media identity is something that is very carefully curated. And it’s not necessarily real life, the real life Detroit teenagers that I interviewed, we talked about the idea of Shakespeare and all the world’s a stage, and I was like, “Well, what’s the stage? Is the stage social media or is it your real life?” And they were like “No, no, social media is the stage where you present this idea of yourself. And real life is what happens in the wings.” And that’s the rehearsal. That was very interesting, that these kids were living their lives so absolutely on social media.

But what was also interesting was how savvy they were. With their permission I’ve been following some of them on Twitter, and none of them use their real names, they don’t have a Detroit location, they’re very very savvy, they subtweet all the time, I have no idea what’s going on ever unless I’m following like 20 of them and it’s very interesting, they’re actually really clued up.

There’s also the Jonno character; the burnt-out journalist who tries to get into vlogging and ends up getting in the way of the investigation. 

Well I think Jonno’s so out of his depth. I have video blogger friends, Casey Neistat who has done some stuff for the New York Times recently about his video blog with his kids; it’s a whole different world. I have gamer friends, there’s a South African guy that I don’t mention by name but he is mentioned kind of in passing and he has a million followers, he has groupies, he rocks up in a city and there are groupies waiting to meet him at the mall. And he makes money from his YouTube account and it’s a whole other world that’s hard for me to understand and it’s hard for Jonno to understand, this kind of new phase and new intimacy.

So I think, Jonno’s awkwardness trying to deal with this is I think a real world awkwardness as well, but of course I think it’s also an old trope, the journalist who’s willing to go as far as he can to get the story. So it’s just levels of compromise and how you do real fiction. It’s interesting because one of the other guys I met in Detroit was a guy called Drew Phillips and he’s a young journalist and he had done a long form story for Buzzfeed. And I didn’t even know that Buzzfeed did long form stories. So he did a 5000 word piece on renovating a house in Detroit and it’s a beautiful piece and it’s wonderfully written and it’s there on the Buzzfeed front page along with 10 ways to figure out which Game Of Thrones Transformer you would be. You know?

So it’s interesting to see that, and I think there’ll always be a capacity for storytelling in journalism and media but it’s also the idea of celebrity and fame and success and I think this idea of thwarted creative ambition is a strong theme in the book.

There are chapters in the book that have Reddit discussions and there are lots of pop culture references. Were you worried about how to include them?

No, you know, I just dumped it in there. I didn’t want to over explain it, I did put in a few hints for people who don’t know what those things are and I think if you don’t know the Nyan Cat reference it’s too bad. Some people will figure it out and like it and some people will hate it and other people will think it dates the book terribly but I don’t mind dating a book. I think books are a product of their time and this is very much a book about 2014. And that’s not a bad thing. American Psycho stands up because it is so much about the ‘80s and I think it’s totally OK to have a book that’s about its time and of its time. Dickens is of its time, you know!

Broken MonstersYou told us last year about how much research you did for The Shining Girls. Was the research process for Broken Monsters just as intensive?

It was, and it was terrible to have to leave stuff out. I made friends with a young artist who worked at pottery in Detroit which in the book I called Miswabik pottery, but he showed me around and he was really hilarious and funny and we went dancing until like 6 o’clock in the morning at these super hipster places in Eastern Market. He told me some of the stuff about the squats and the artist using sheep’s intestines from a kosher butchery next door on a painting. And that whole scene about, I mean I couldn’t really resist putting it in, it’s preposterous, but that whole thing about the artist who died and they’re having a séance with the guy who’s got the Ouija board tattooed on his chest. I didn’t make that up, that’s real Detroit, real Detroit is that strange! And I was like, come on, really?

And there really was a kind of huge dragon sculpture that was driven down Grassy street bellowing flames, I just put Clayton on it and changed the name of it, and they got pulled over by the cops and the cops were like “What are you doing? Why are you driving this dragon tank bellowing flames down the road?” And it’s just Detroit.

It’s just a strange fascinating city. And there’s an amazing artistic energy there, which doesn’t often get captured in all the articles about Detroit, which love to portray it as the end of America and a symbol of everything that’s wrong with America. But it’s also somewhere people live and it’s not just cool artists, it’s also people like TK, and I interviewed a person who I lifted some of the details of his life for TK with his permission and I paid him for it. But the story about the mom getting killed by her twin sister’s boyfriend, that’s from his real life and he really was an Abandomnium landlord and he told me all these crazy stories and they were too good not to use. I’ve never used so much real life in a book before.

But also, you know, the artist who was driving me around, Robert-David Jones, I came back to Detroit for a second research trip and he picked me up from the airport. He had to borrow a car because he was living in New York so he’d flown back to Detroit specifically to show me around, and he picked me up in a mortuary wagon, it was this kind of black A-Team van and it had a corpse in it 20 minutes before. It was amazing, it was really fun, and I hung out with Detroit homicide detectives and these theatre teens and went to all these cool arty places and went to the old abandoned buildings and went to an old theatre where the curtain’s rotting on the walls and worried about asbestos. It was amazing. It was really rich and real and fascinating.

It feels like we are seeing more of Detroit at the moment, with films like Only Lovers Left Alive

But very much about…Only Lovers Left Alive they basically seem to be the only people who live in Detroit. And it’s all ruin porn, it’s all abandoned buildings and kind of haunted and creepy. They don’t see any of the life in Detroit; that feels more of a stereotyped perspective of what we want Detroit to be, this blighted landscape, very evocative and kind of haunted, the haunted city. And of course I use that as well, my end game is set in an abandoned motor plant, so I’m not going to not use that, but I also wanted to get at all the rest of Detroit that we don’t see that people gloss over. There’s a lot more to the city.

Did you feel a big responsibility to avoid that kind of ruin-porn tourism?

Exactly, absolutely. And of course that’s what everyone gives Jonno shit about, “You’re just another ruin tourist, you’re just parachuting in to come and do the terrible stories that everyone does about Detroit.” But it’s interesting on that responsibility side, I’d done a lot of research and I read Charlie LeDove’s book about Detroit and he talks about the police station on Beaubien and how there are these horrible manky stains on the walls and none of the computers work and I wrote all that into the book.

And then I went to visit Detroit Homicide with a box of donuts and it’s a brand swanky new building, everyone has computers, they have their own gym with TVs and this sort of thing. I was like “Are you kidding?” It’s like cubicle city! It’s like this cubicle farm. And it’s cubicle city, it looks like a fucking Dilbert cartoon! And I’m like ‘No, no I don’t want this!’ But the detective took me to visit the old precinct and it’s beautiful, it’s got dappled glass windows, like real Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler stuff. Just beautiful, and they shot a TV series there recently, Low Winter Sun, which is a Detroit cop story and that is from the old precinct, but they don’t use that precinct anymore. And I felt a moral responsibility not to misrepresent the police. I could have said “Oh, we’re in the police station and it’s so fucked up and there’s stains on the floor and there’s this creepy interrogation room and there’s broken glass…” but that’s not the reality and I did feel a moral responsibility not to misrepresent Detroit like that.

Shining-GirlsWas it quite difficult to combine the more outlandish gory tableaus with portraying a realistic police investigation?

Yeah, look, the fact is that how many autopsy scenes have we seen? How many breaking the news to the parents scenes, all that stuff has become deep rooted pop culture cliché, so it wasn’t so much a matter of trying to make it stick to reality, I tried to make it as real as possible, even when it was strange and bizarre, and I talked to real homicide detectives and I ran through the case with them. And it was interesting to see one cop play it out in his head and it was great, he solved the case. So I did work quite carefully through the procedure, I’m sure cops will poke holes in it. I had my Chicago detective who consulted on The Shining Girls, read the whole manuscript and talked me through it, and I had a Detroit cop read the manuscript and talk me through it and kind of pick up minor mistakes.

So I think it’s fairly solid, some artistic license might have been taken, but the biggest thing for me was actually to write those scenes that we’ve seen a million times in a different way. And to try and find the emotional weighting of that, and the fact that lifting a boy’s arm up so you can see his armpit might be more of an invasive and more moving than the gash where his stomach used to be. And trying to find the humanity in police work and trying to find how people respond. Trying to write those scenes in a new way and also trying to find the humanity in them.

The horror does seem to be bubbling in the background; were you conscious of wanting to keep it from being too much of a “this is a serial killer novel”? 

Yeah, I was really interested in the characters and I think Layla in particular. Also it’s about dream and it’s about the subconscious and it’s about how we’re haunted by ourselves and it’s about how cities are haunted by industry and by our ideas of what things can be. So I really wanted the characters to be foregrounded and to have the subconscious stuff rising up slowly. It was a very slow build kind of thing.

Are there any other American cities that you’d be interested in exploring or was it that these two fit the stories you wanted to tell?

Well, I mean both of them are analogues for Johannesburg, really. Chicago is a bright shiny city but it has this very troubled past, it has a very high crime rate, it has a history of terrible corruption with ex-mayors in jail, it felt like writing about home, about Johannesburg. And Detroit has a lot in common with Hillbrough in Zoo City. Which is that from the outside it looks like a blighted ruined place and a symbol of everything that is wrong with this country, whether this country is South Africa looking at Hillbrough or America looking at Detroit. So again it felt like writing about familiar ground.

And I’m sure there are other cities in America, I don’t think I’d ever do New York just because it’s been so played, over-played, LA is interesting…you know, I don’t know. I’ve got a comic maybe, which kicks off in St Paul, Minneapolis; you know I think there are a lot of interesting places. I don’t know, I might write about a small town. I can’t really imagine that, but maybe I would.

It’s definitely places I have to go. Even though I’m restrained by the fact that I have a five year old daughter, ideally I would move to Detroit for a year and live there for a year, write about it for a year but I can’t because I have a kid. But I need to go there and I need to feel that I’ve got some depth of the city. That I’m not just parachuting in, that I really have a sense of it. And it’s also been really important to me to have native Detroiters read the book and say “Yep, you did it right.”

How has it been riding the wave of The Shining Girls‘ success?

It has been amazing, and it’s just won a major South African literary prize, which is the University of Johannesburg prize, and it’s our biggest literary prize. So to have the commercial success and then to also have the acknowledgement from critics, it’s just amazing. Of course it ups the ante considerably, and I’m terrified, for what I’m doing next. And of course I’m terrified, I try to better with every book, I try to push myself and be more ambitious and do more interesting things. So yeah, hopefully I haven’t hit a plateau! Or worse!

Are you working about anything you can tell us about?

Pitching a comic to Vertigo, which I’m really excited about, and I’ve got some new novel pitches that I’m sending to my agent any day now. I think he’s probably going to call me today and yell at me for not sending them yet. But yeah I’ve just been dealing with Broken Monsters and the come down of this very hectic amazing year with The Shining Girls. I toured Europe in March, and I’ve just now beginning to figure myself out and sort my life out again and starting to find things that I’m interested in again. And one of the things I’m considering is writing a sequel to Zoo City, and I’ve been doing some short stories, I had a short story in Wired Magazine, one for the BBC, one for MIT’s science fiction special magazine with stories from William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and Warren Ellis and all sorts of interesting people so I’ve got a really crazy story in that.

I’ve been kind of working on that and just finding my rhythm again and finding things that intrigue me and that I want to write about and that I want to commit a year of my life to writing about.

Broken Monsters is available to buy for £8 at Amazon.co.uk. You can read our review here and read more about Broken Monsters in the new issue of SciFiNow.