The Shining Girlby Bongani Kona / 29.05.2013
When she was in her mid-twenties, and by then a moderately successful freelance journalist, the writer Lauren Beukes moved from Cape Town to New York because of a romantic relationship which turned out to be “a complete disaster.” In the aftermath of a bitter break-up she switched cities again, this time landing in Chicago – the set of her most recent novel about a time-traveling serial killer, The Shining Girls – and stayed with friends for six months. When she finally made the journey back to South Africa, she returned with a hardened sense of resolve about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Journalism was one thing but what she really wanted to do was write novels. “I was like you know what? I’m 25 years old and I’m sick of messing around; I just actually want to write novels.”
It’s a languid Tuesday morning when I meet Beukes at Rosetta Roastery, an upmarket coffee shop at the Woodstock Exchange where she rents a desk in an office on the second floor. And by the time I arrive – 11 O’clock – she’s wrapping up another interview and she asks if I don’t mind waiting, “like five minutes.” They’re talking about her comics. Like her feisty heroines Beukes has a sharp wit. When we settle down to do the interview, she jokes that she’s looking forward to reading Mahala’s infamous comments section.
Still in her thirties, Beukes has had a remarkably productive career so far culminating with the world wide release of The Shining Girls. She’s written two novels, her debut Moxyland and Zoo City which won the Arthur C Clarke Award which in previous yeas has been awarded to luminaries such as Margret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. She’s also authored one book of non-fiction, Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past, which she says fed directly into The Shining Girls. Harper Curtis, the penniless serial killer from depression-era Chicago in The Shining Girls, teleports through time, from 1930 to 1993, hunting down extraordinary women from the city’s past.
Even as toddler Beukes says she was sure she wanted to make up stories for a living. “I was five years old and I found out that Enid Blyton had made a million pounds from writing. It wasn’t so much the number as the fact that you could get paid to make up stories and it was the first time that had crossed my mind; that being a novelist was a viable career.” She says, in-between sipping her cappuccino. “I just always loved stories and you know, like I would read comics and be like I want to write comics and I would watch TV and be like I want to write kids cartoons and I would play video games and be like I want to write video games. And just anything with a story in it I wanted to be able to do.”
And by the time she was 17 Beukes had written her first novel, Velta; an epic fantasy which was never published and is languishing in a drawer somewhere. “It had some nice bits in it.” She says. “I haven’t looked at it in like 15 years but you know, I think the hardest thing to do is to actually write a whole novel from start to finish. And it’s the most important thing to do; it’s to actually get the whole thing down because you don’t know what you have until you have the whole thing and then you can go back and try and fix it.” When an agent suggested to the teenage Beukes that she re-write parts of the novel she was too stubborn to re-work it and insisted that it was perfect. But the experience shaped her as a writer. “I think it’s good to have it out there; to have at least one shelved novel in the drawer. It’s very important.”
Following that Beukes worked at a computer shop as a games expert then she travelled overseas for a year and when she came back, she, “got into journalism by accident because of the video game connection.” She started writing game reviews for SA Computer magazine and after they hired her on staff she quickly worked her way up to become the deputy editor. Her next writing gig as a 22-year-old was the editorship of the now-defunct At Home magazine. “It was about music, technology and culture and all the interesting places technology and culture intersect. And I think that’s the major theme in my work, you know, what technology does to us and how we use it and what that says about us.” When the magazine folded because they couldn’t get any advertising Beukes was offered the editor position at SA Computer magazine and she turned it down, “because it was writing about what’s the best colour printer on the market at the moment and that’s just not what I was interested in.” So she went freelance.
The work varied, from inspiring to “shoot yourself in the head stuff”. Once, Beukes recalls, the editor of SL magazine asked her to write a 3 000 word feature on sex work in Cape Town. “So first thing I went to a local brothel in Sea Point which is now a hair salon and I was like ‘hi, I’m doing an article for a magazine can I talk to some people?’ and they were like ‘hell no, get out’. And then it got even worse, I went up to a woman on the street and I’m like ‘hi, I’m really sorry, I’m doing this article on street workers and I was wondering if I could talk to you?’ and she’s like ‘oh, that’s very nice but I’m actually not a street worker.'” In hindsight, she says, she learnt some valuable lessons from journalism, even more so from doing the crap stuff. “I think it was the best education I could have had because you have to be able to write that kind story in a way that makes you not want to shoot yourself and your reader not want to shoot themselves. You better find some way to make the story interesting so you’ve got to find the detail… You know how like basketball players practice with smaller hoops; it’s that kind of stuff. Taking the most boring story on earth and trying to make it interesting.” Moreover, she says journalism taught her about writing dialogue in fiction, because through speaking to different people she picked up an ear for how different people speak and she channeled most of those experiences into her debut, Moxyland.
After she returned from her American sojourn, determined to write novels, she signed up for a creative writing course at the University of Cape Town with the late poet Stephen Watson. Still, she found the going tough. “I was studying full time and I was working full time and it was almost impossible. Everything was coming out half-assed, my stories weren’t as good as they should have been and my assignments weren’t as good as they should have been.” Surprisingly though, Watson came to her at the end of the semester and told she was wasting her time with undergrad and offered to place her in the Creative Writing Masters programme. “Which was really amazing and then Moxyland became part of that but I took four years. I messed around… I just messed everything up, seriously. I was self-sabotaging like crazy.” She would spend whole days playing online computer games and then she was commissioned to write Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past; she did everything except finish Moxyland. Desperate to figure out why she was sabotaging herself Beukes decided to go and see a sports psychologist, who told her something she has never forgotten; “inspiration is overrated. If you want to write, just write.”
And write she did, in three months Moxyland was done and since then Beukes hasn’t had trouble writing. The Shining Girls has received a series of glowing reviews at home and abroad, from the Cape Times to The Guardian. I’m still midway through the book and I’m mesmerized by Beukes’ beautiful sentences. There is one scene in particular, when the black-hearted serial killer Harper Curtis is looking at sickly patients in the waiting room of a rundown hospital and is revolted by the sight. “The same look of resignation he’s seen in farm horses on their last legs, ribs as pronounced as the cracks and furrows in the dead earth they strain the plow against.” Beukes writes. “You shoot a horse like that.”
Its noon by the time I switch off my voice recorder and we say our goodbyes. I can hear the Metrorail trains in the distance as I turn and head for the station. It’s nearly winter.