The write stuff

SERIAL THRILLER: Lauren Beukes mixes it up in her new book, The Shining Girls. PICTURE: CHRISTOF VAN DERWALT

SERIAL THRILLER: Lauren Beukes mixes it up in her new book, The Shining Girls. PICTURE: CHRISTOF VAN DERWALT

Published Jun 5, 2013


Lauren Beukes’s name has been on the lips of most bookish folk here in South Africa ever since she won the Arthur C Clarke Award for her novel, Zoo City, in 2011, as well as an entire host of awards and nominations.

More recently, her long-awaited, The Shining Girls, made quite a number of ripples in the literary pond. Beukes has been enjoying her success, which has had her attending various launches not only in South Africa, but abroad.

She says: “It has been a little mental lately around the launch of The Shining Girls, which has meant running between interviews and launches and events in Johannesburg, Cape Town and London and, next up, the United States.”

The Shining Girls offers quite a departure from Beukes’s usual offerings of edgy tales set in South Africa – and the novel’s creation required a lot of research.

Beukes elaborates: “I mixed it up. There were specific events and eras and movements I was interested in, so I would read everything I could get my hands on about the Red Scare, for example, especially first-person accounts, or the girly shows of the 1900s to 1940s, or watched 10 different videos on landing-ship tanks and the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company for a chapter on World War II. Studs Terkel’s oral histories were amazing, particularly on the Great Depression.

“I also worked with two young researchers, one in South Africa, Zara Trafford, and Adam Maxwell in Colorado, who I recruited through Twitter.

“The best parts of the book are based on real history. I asked Adam to dig up information on 1930s hospitals, how you treated a ripped tendon for example, or how much they would charge, what the doctors wore, what equipment they used.

“He sent descriptions in historical articles and books, photographs and links to eBay items, in case I wanted to buy a creepy wooden crutch like Harper uses, and an article he thought I might find interesting on a young burlesque dancer who performed in radium paint in 1936 and was in hospital for radiation poisoning.

“I stole the idea, fictionalised the details and used some of the original text from the article in the Milwaukee-Sentinel, with their permission.

“Likewise, when I asked Zara to find me something on a women’s organisation in Chicago in the 1960s or 1970s, she came back with the real-life organisation, Jane, an underground abortion operation that helped desperate women. It was such an amazing story that I had to use it.

“And, while I lived in Chicago, which gave me a sense of the city, I also decided to go back on a research trip. I connected with people via Twitter, like @joethecop, a Chicago detective and station commander who took me down to the cop shop and showed me through old evidence boxes, and @adamselzer, a ghost tour guide, author and young historian, who took me creeping through the maintenance corridors of the Congress Hotel, as well as Chicago friends who drove me around to location scout Englewood and Montrose Beach or hooked me up with ex-Chicago Sun-Times journalist Jim deRogatis.

“It gave me a much deeper feel for the people and places.”

The Shining Girl has its moments of bloodshed, which, although not always comfortable to read, do serve a purpose.

Beukes says: “A lot of crime fiction is written from the killer’s perspective, and it makes us complicit. I specifically chose to give the victim’s voice, and apart from the attack on Kirby (the determined young woman who survives the time-travelling killer’s attack and turns the hunt around), I kept the descriptions very short and tight. It’s usually hung on one detail, unflinching, but without lingering.

“It’s much more about the emotion than the gore, which might make it feel more upsetting to readers, because we’re so inured to violence. We’re so used to bodies as a sum of their wounds, a statistic, a sexy corpse that doesn’t mean anything.

“I want it to mean something. I want to get at the heart of what violence is, what it does to us, the ripples it sends out through society. It’s supposed to be shocking – because real violence is.”

The book comes out at a time when violence against women is a red-button topic in social media.

Whether her work has been informed by trending news topics, Beukes answers: “I wrote the novel before any of the recent events like the rape of Anene Booysen and the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. They’re the perfectly hideous real-life examples of what the book is about – victims denied a voice or even a real identity, young women cut down before they could live up to their hopes (assuming they were allowed to in life – there are other ways of snuffing out young women’s potential), sexualised violence, women objectified in death as they were in life, violence as an act of contempt, as contemptible.”

About setting her book in Chicago rather than the more familiar African setting, Beukes says: “I knew when I had the idea for a time-travelling serial killer novel that I wanted to play with the 20th century specifically, and how that has shaped who we are right now, the loops and twists of history, the stuff that comes up again and again, from women’s rights to depressions to repressive paranoid governments. If I’d set it in South Africa, apartheid would have overwhelmed the narrative.

“I’d lived in Chicago over 2000 and 2001, so I felt like I had some sense of the city, but I went back on a research trip to explore specific things I was interested in and interview everyone from police detectives to sports journalists.

“The city has a lot in common with Johannesburg. It’s very vibrant, multicultural, modern, but it has a very high crime rate, corruption, racial segregation – all the themes I’m interested in generally.”

Now that Beukes has broken out, it seems like the spotlight has fallen on South African genre fiction authors. Beukes adds: “There are incredibly exciting authors coming out of South Africa right now and making an impact internationally, from Sarah Lotz to Charlie Human.

“The way I think of it is that all of us who wanted to write genre fiction were in a white room together, stumbling around, and I happened to fall against the door, which was always there, waiting for someone to open it.

“The world is open to our stories, although succeeding internationally means, unfortunately, that you can’t limit your focus to only writing about South Africa,” she says.

Asked of her future, Beukes concludes: “A strange thriller set in Detroit (which has a lot in common with Hillbrow). I’m aiming for Stephen King meets Jennifer Egan. And hopefully more comics.”

* The Shining Girls was selected as Exclusive Books Boeke Prize book of the month for May.

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