18 Aug Creative Women: Lauren Beukes
The award-winning novelist Lauren Beukes twists genre by merging reality with fantasy, telling dark and enthralling tales of the chaos and humanity of cities, how we’re haunted by history and how we find a way to live with ourselves. Her fourth and most recent novel, Broken Monsters, is a supernatural detective story set in contemporary Detroit, where a disturbed killer is trying to remake the world in his image.
Lauren’s previous novels include The Shining Girls (about a time-travelling serial killer and the survivor who turns the hunt around), Zoo City (which explores the primal electricity that statics beneath the streets of a grimy, dystopian Johannesburg) and Moxyland (her first book, a dystopian corporate-apartheid political thriller). With a background in journalism she also writes comics, has written for TV shows and, as a screenwriter, is currently working on an adaption of Zoo City for South African producer Helena Spring.
In an interview for our annual Creative Women series we spoke to Lauren about the literature that left an impression on her growing up, the lengths she’s gone to in pursuit of a story, and how her approach as a writer has developed over the years.
What type of environment did you grow up in? Was creativity something that was actively encouraged?
I grew up in a very liberal home during a very awful time in our history. We travelled a lot and we grew up in a huge house with a garden and a pool and my parents always encouraged us to do whatever we wanted, to be creative and to think differently. The best gift they gave me was social engagement through their work with Habitat for Humanity and bringing my brother Thabo into our family. My mom would make up games and stories and encourage us to get lost in fairy tales and comics and fantasy. My dad was into light philosophy, cool brain hacks like using songs or pictures or mindmaps to study and pushing us into doing challenging things, like abseiling out of the tree in the garden. They taught me curiosity, conviction, compassion and the confidence to pursue my, frankly ridiculous, ambition of being a novelist.
What is your earliest memory related to literature?
Reading The Hobbit when I was six or so. We had a beautiful illustrated edition, but I got impatient waiting for my parents to read it to me at night, so I read it myself and, total book desecration here, marked all the words I didn’t understand with a yellow highlighter, which my dad would then explain to me at storytime.
What originally led you to pursue a career in journalism and, what lasting impact has your experience in this field had on you as a novelist?
I fell into journalism by accident as a way of getting paid to write, kicking off by doing kids’ game reviews for SA Computer Magazine. I joined the magazine industry a little later, as Deputy Editor and then as Editor on the lifestyle and technology magazine, @home (no relation to the furniture store). I quit to go freelance and write about more interesting things in 1999 and never looked back. It’s been a backstage pass to the world, an open invitation to follow my curiosity.
In pursuit of a story, I’ve spent time with electricity cable thieves and township vigilantes, but also got to interview Aids activists, doll collectors and one lisping dominatrix, dive with sharks, hang out at fancy rehabs and jump out of a plane.
It was awesome and I miss it – although I use the skills I picked up for my novels. Transcribing hours of interviews teaches you how people speak and what dialogue sings, because the line tells you deeper things about the person or their perspective on the world. I make a point of visiting the places I’m writing about and trying to get as deep as I can into them.
Visiting a location is a billion times better than looking it up on GoogleMaps because you can experience it; the smell and the way the sunlight falls through a broken window and the nip in the air and the texture of a rotten curtain in a theatre and black squirrels scampering through the weeds and you get to meet people and talk to them.
The stories people tell you are richer and more inventive than anything you could make up and they will always surprise you. I’m always very cheeky (but nice) and ask people I’m interviewing to drive me around, to show me where they live or how they work or the best parts of the city for them.
When it comes to your writing process, what type of balance do you endeavour to strike between structure and spontaneity?
I always know my beginnings and my endings, but it’s more of a hand-drawn treasure map than a carefully plotted GPS route. I know the major waypoints I have to hit, but how I get there is open for exploration. And that’s where the magic happens for me in writing – the subconscious flow, the things that emerge, the way characters veer off the path and it’s better.
Does the physical environment in which you write play an important role in your process?
I find that writing is very lonely, stuck in my head with imaginary people. I was sharing a studio space with lovely designer and illustrator friends while I was writing the last two books, but I’ve been travelling so much recently that it’s become uneconomical. When this book tour settles, I’ll probably look for a desk space to rent again in a space with cool, funny, interesting creative people. Right now I’m working from home or coffee shops and restaurants which don’t have free wi-fi! (The Internet is very bad for me).
Broken Monsters trailer written and directed by Marc Sidelsky, produced by Mr Alexander and edited by Marcelle Mouton from Deepend Post.
You’re able to ground fantasy in reality in mind-bending ways. How does this come through in your latest novel, Broken Monsters?
Yeesh. I can’t really get into that without revealing major spoilers. There’s something uncanny happening in Detroit – strange hybrid bodies are turning up, half-animal, half-human and the story follows five characters whose lives get sucked into the orbit of the killings; detective Gabi Versado, her teenage daughter Layla, who is in over her head catfishing online, TK, trying to make a living on the streets, Clayton, an artist full of terrible ambition and Jonno, a blogger hunting down his big break, who may be full of even MORE terrible ambition. It’s about who we are, how we’re all broken but it’s how we deal with it that reveals us, how the monsters don’t work, creativity, ambition, the Internet, the birth and death and resurrection of the American dream, the bright against the blight.
Over the course of writing Moxyland, Zoo City, The Shining Girls and most recently Broken Monsters; how do you think your approach has changed or developed?
It just gets harder! I wish it didn’t. I try to push myself with every book. I try to make every book better and I write them as a way of exploring who we are in the world and issues I’m curious about, partly as a way of figuring out how I feel about them. Some people go to see shrinks, I get it out on the page.
You’re currently adapting Zoo City for South African producer Helena Spring. Tell us about this experience so far.
Helena’s an amazingly passionate and committed producer who totally gets the heart of the story and how much it means to people. It’s in development, which means nailing the script and raising the capital. If you know anyone with $30 million to spare, please send ‘em over.
What are the dominant or recurring themes in your work?
How we’re haunted by history, the chaos and humanity of cities, compassion, violence, how we find a way to live with ourselves.
What sparks your imagination?
Everything. Conversations, a billboard I drive past on the highway, stuff I read online, visiting new places, talking to people. I keep notes on my phone. Some of them are very peculiar and only mean something to me. Most recent example “sex corpse”.
What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far? Alternately, which aspects have been challenging?
Gah! Always with the hard questions. Finding an audience has been the most rewarding part. When I won the Arthur C Clarke Award, it was a mash-up of being hugely humbled that anyone reads my books at all and absolute gratitude to everyone who does – and everyone who has encouraged me with a kind word or who took a chance and gave me a break along the way.
Challenging: success. Success is a bitch. There’s nothing to make you doubt yourself or that you have anything to say so much as people expecting you to pull it off again. That said, the person who has the most unreasonable expectations, who is mean and impatient and hard on me is… me.
It’s good because I don’t think you should be complacent, you should work harder, push more. It’s better to be ambitious and fail than play it safe. But I am trying to be kinder on myself and not let exercise and eating well and my social life fall by the wayside because I’m under deadline pressure. It’s balance, yo.
Who are the creative women who inspire you?
Brave, interesting women who engage with or take on the world. Writers like Margaret Atwood and Lorrie Moore and Jennifer Egan who can reveal the world through words and stories, JK Rowling, who donates most of her money to charity, heroes like Malala Yousafzai, journalists like Rebecca Davis and Laurie Penny, friends like Emma Cook, Willeen le Roux, Meredith Yayanos, Zukiswa Wanner, Sarah Lotz. Okay, I can’t start listing them all. All of my friends. Every single one of them is inspiring and awesome. They know who they are.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?
I’m working writing a comic with genius cover designer (and canny story collaborator) Joey Hi-Fi aka Dale Halvorsen and pitching new novel ideas to my editors. I’d really like to do a kids book too, when I’m done with this epic four continent book tour.
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