Lauren Beukes has established herself as one of modern science fiction’s most exciting voices with her multi-award winning novels Zoo City and Moxyland. We talked to the author about time travel, serial killers, the importance of research, and how Twitter helped her with her new novel The Shining Girls.
How did the idea for The Shining Girls come about?
It was a random tweet, I was having a twitter conversation with someone and I threw out the idea of a time-travelling serial killer, and I quickly deleted it because I realised that was going to be my next book. Power of Twitter!
Yeah, that age-old question of where your ideas come from, it’s from everywhere. And I think your subconcsious needs time to play. I think of my brain like a crazy hoarder house full of pretty shiny things I picked up off the street, or from commercials, or reading a Wired magazine or just everywhere. And occasionally it kind of mutates in the back room and comes out as something interesting. So it’s allowing your subconscious time to play and throw stuff out. Once I had the idea I had a very strong sense of the characters, of Harper, who is the time-travelling serial killer, and Kirby, who is one of his victims who survives.
Had you been wanting to write something set in the US?
It was specifically this book. If I had set this book in South Africa it would have automatically become an apartheid novel, and I do want to write an apartheid novel but not this one. You know, I wanted to explore issues of how much the world has changed, how cars and highways have reshaped cities, how women’s rights have changed. And also how things repeat on themselves as well.
It starts in the Great Depression and we’re in a depression, or supposedly coming out of a depression, at the moment. And looking at abortion rights, and there’s a chapter set in the 50s during the height of McCarthyism, which absolutely echoes the war on terror now. And that kind of paranoia and the ridiculous measures that were in place. It was very nice to kind of find those historical echoes and to do that more broadly with more resonance about the state of the world right now I had to set it outside of South Africa. I’d lived in Chicago so it seemed like the obvious place to do it.
The descriptions of Chicago in different time periods are so vivid, was there a lot of research involved?
Yeah, the amount of research I would do just for of sentence of description was ridiculous but I had a couple of researchers working with me. I had a guy in the States, I had a researcher in South Africa, I just had friendly amazing people who I met through Twitter or in person. I went back to Chicago to talk to some historians and walk around and location scout. As a friend of mine said it was like a murder play-date. And they fact-checked stuff for me and they read through the whole novel and I had Chicago friends read through it and make sure everything was accurate, not just the history but Chicago now and American terms and everything else.
The research was really, really intensive and I think it comes from my background as a journalist. But again, you know, it’s the real details which make something. And having been a journalist, real life is often a lot more surprising and inventive than anything you could make up. Maybe not China Miéville, maybe anything I can make up!
But there was a real-life radium girl, who danced in radium paint. You know, and that was a real detail. And later on there’s a young activist who works for an abortion group called Jane and that was based on a real organisation called Jane. And finding these interesting threads of history and being able to play with them was really cool. But I did dig deep, I’ve read so many books and listened to lots of podcasts and oral histories and that’s just the history stuff, that’s not getting into the serial killer mentality stuff.
I don’t know, there were a lot of people who were angry with me about the ending of Zoo City! [laughs]
Were you wanting to write something in the horror genre?
I don’t set out to write anything in particular, the books come out the way they are. And people then tell me afterwards. It’s interesting, I think this is a common writing experience but you don’t know what you’re writing until it’s out in the world and people are saying it back to you, and you’re like “Ah yes, I can see that would be steampunk or phantasmogorical noir,” or whatever else.
With Zoo City I specifically set out to write noir, with this, I don’t know if it was horror, it was just the way it came out. I’d love to say that it was with great intent and I knew exactly what I was doing but it was just the way it kind of evolved. But I think what I was interested in was real violence, and if you want to talk about horror that is the horror of real violence and what serial killers actually are, and they’re not sophisticated Hannibal Lecter-kind of monsters, they’re just hideous men. Hideous, pathetic men, and I really want to get at the heart of that.
Was it difficult to split the book between the perspectives of Harper and Kirby? Would you write a lot in one voice then the other or would you switch between them?
I was switching between them as the story was moving forward. And it was actually very easy, you know, it was the same in Moxyland where I had four first-person narratives. And then I would have to stop and do a lot of intensive research for the particular shining girls who get killed along the way. You know, I would stop and research the welder in 1943, and look at everything to do with ship building and read books on Rosie the Riveter and that kind of thing, and then write that chapter, and then get back to the main story.
But I did shuffle stuff around a lot by the end of it. Which was a nightmare because I had to keep track of three different time lines, I had Harper’s timeline, of couse looking at a serial killer’s M.O. as well, generally they get more violent and more disorganised, and so I had to keep track of that. So he would be more violent in 1954 and less violent in 1983 because that’s not his timeline. So I had to keep track of all of that, I had to keep track of all his injuries because he gets hurt a lot and then I had to manage Kirby’s timeline and the actual historical timeline and then I basically have this murder wall above my desk, tracking all these different timelines and which object he’s leaving on which body and which girl he got it from, and making sure everything is absolutely consistent and makes sense. It was very important to me to have a time travel narrative that makes sense.
Did you have it all mapped out before you started?
I did. I had to go back and revise stuff and I used Scrivener which has been absolutely amazing because you can just drag and drop chapters around which helps a lot. To be able to reorganise them and just visually see where everything is at a glance. I had everything pretty much planned out but there were things that changed in the writing. And I think again, if you want to talk about writing process, it’s very exciting to have htings go, to veer off from your carefully laid plans. There’s a magic which happens in that subconscious moment, when you are writing and suddenly something happens that you hadn’t exactly been planning on or your character veers off in a slightly different direction. And usually it’s more interesting, usually it’s your subconscious nudging you towards a better book. Sometimes you just go off the rails and you have to throw the train back on and get back into gear!
It’s going great, the penultimate issue just came out. I just received it in the mail this morning and it’s a six-parter, it’s all about Rapunzel but it’s a very very dark, twisted quite horror Rapunzel, really. And it echoes a lot of themes, there are themes that come up in my work again and again which is…I managed to slip in some apartheid allegories, which is cool, I don’t know if anyone apart from South Africans will pick that up.
But I’m very interested in artificial divisions between people, I’m interested in social inequalities, and I’m interested in how the past comes back to haunt you. And in this particular arc, it’s called The Hidden Kingdom and it’s Rapunzel’s very very dark past and the children she thought were lost, who have come back and she’s trying to go find them in Tokyo, and it goes horribly horribly wrong. And there are yokai who are Japanese monsters and there are yakuza and it plays off a lot of Japanese fairytales and mythology and ghost stories as well as more contemporary horror tropes and it’s been so much fun to do.
But yeah, tons of research, I’ve had so much fun with Inaki Miranda. But we’ll go to such depths for one panel. I made him watch like five videos on YouTube of pachinko parlours, so that he could draw one panel set in a pachinko parlor. And we talked about Manga and and we obviously referenced Miyazaki. And I was very interested in the Yakuza workings, which again doesn’t come heavily into the story, it is part of the story but it’s not a Yakuza book. But I read Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice to really immerse myself in Japanese culture. And obviously ate a lot of sushi and drank Japanese whisky because that helps.
So what’s next?
I’m into my new novel which is Broken Monsters which is set in Detroit…and I don’t really want to talk too much about that because I’m still working on it.