BY SOPHY KOHLER
A plot that can be summed up in a single sentence is one of the keys to the appeal, and widespread success, of Lauren Beukes’s latest novel, The Shining Girls. The idea, which Beukes reveals to be the result of a throwaway tweet, since deleted, is an “easy sell”, she tells me over cheesecake at Only Today, the Cape Town studio space she shares with a slew of the city’s finest creatives. “I also knew that I could do something really interesting with it,” says Beukes. “That it might have been a throwaway tweet but it wouldn’t be a throwaway book.”
But The Shining Girls was never going to be a throwaway book. In October 2011, Beukes earned herself a two-book deal with Mulholland Books in the US, an imprint of Little, Brown, on the strength of a 16 000 word partial manuscript and a killer idea. Heated contests to nab the new book from the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award winner were later won by HarperCollins in the UK and Australia, Random House Struik Umuzi in South Africa, and other fortunate imprints worldwide, all negotiated by Beukes’s agent Oliver Munson. She puts this down to the simplicity of the idea. The second book, provisionally titled Broken Monsters, is due for release in 2014.
Only Today is an open-plan studio space lost within the maze of the Woodstock Exchange. If you haven’t been there before, you will get lost. The atmosphere among studio mates Adam Hill, Daniel Ting Chong, Emma Cook, Jordan Metcalf and Jade Klara, is relaxed and friendly, but energetic. If you’ve ever thought Beukes’s exuberance a rare trait, it becomes almost measured in this context. Only Today has been here almost since the Woodstock Exchange set up its first scaffolds in 2011. When I visit, much of the scaffolding remains and with it the inevitable construction noises, mixed with collegial banter, that punctuate our conversation. To make up for the noise, there is the baked cheesecake from New York Bagels — there’s been a birthday.
Beukes praises Twitter as a medium for removing the stress of the ordinary work-space, being able to dismiss your inner-critic and allow your subconscious to play: “I think that moment of taking the pressure off and just playing, that’s where some really good ideas can come from,” she says. By following curators like @GammaCounter, she comes across things she wouldn’t ordinarily find in the course of her normal browsing. For Beukes, Twitter is a “giant feeder network of cool and interesting things from cool and interesting people.” In November last year, she was involved in the Twitter Fiction Festival, running a leg called #Litmash in which followers would ask her to create 140-character fiction mash-ups of genre and literary style. The example she gives me, of the top off her head, is “JG Ballard does Mills & Boon”.
Having a pitch that’s as short and sweet as a tweet is a relief for Beukes, who is used to having to explain the complicated plots of her previous novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, both of which require at least a paragraph. “It’s nice to have an elevator pitch for once,” she laughs. While Beukes knew that her idea was a good one, she was also aware that it was only a matter of time before somebody else thought of it: “I felt like I had to write it quickly before someone else came up with the idea,” she says, “because it is actually such an obvious idea.”
The story of The Shining Girls, frequently captured in the memorable slogan, “The girl who wouldn’t die. Hunting a serial killer who shouldn’t exist”, is more simply described as the story of a time-travelling serial killer. The killer who shouldn’t exist is a man named Harper Curtis — we meet him in 1930s Chicago where he discovers an abandoned house that opens up onto different decades. Inside the house is a list of names of his chosen “shining girls”, one of whom is Kirby Mazrachi, the girl who wouldn’t die. Kirby survives Harper’s attack by fluke, managing to break out of the closed time loop in which he and the other girls find themselves. Mazrachi sets about tracking down her killer, with the help of Dan, a former homicide reporter and her only ally.
Having been frustrated with films like Rian Johnson’s Looper, where the rules of time travel are dismissed as “too complicated to explain”, it was important to Beukes that everything made sense, that she had a set of rules to stick to, and that it was consistent. Interested in the echoes and loops of history, Beukes plays with a predestination paradox or causal loop: “The time travel model that I used is fatalistic,” she tells me. “It’s Greek tragedy, it’s Oedipus, it’s Macbeth. There is a prophecy and the more you try to avoid the prophecy, the more you will set in play the events which will bring it about.” Beukes therefore describes the book as a “whydunnit” rather than a whodunnit. “We know from the opening chapters, where Harper finds the list of names, that he’s going to find them and kill them. So there’s no mystery there, the mystery is how Kirby’s going to find him,” she explains.
While response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, both locally and internationally, Beukes has received criticism for her portrayal of violence, considered by some to be gratuitous. She understands this as a reaction to the emotion of these scenes: “I think why people find it so upsetting is that there’s emotion at the heart of it. We’re so used to bodies being dispensed with, gunned down with no repercussions and no feeling, and I think that because I brought emotion into it, because I was specifically giving the victims a voice and making them more than just a statistic, that’s why people find it really upsetting.” Possibly the most upsetting of these scenes is Harper’s attack on Kirby, which the reader is brought back to again and again. But Beukes intended this to be uncomfortable to read, she says. “Real violence is shocking and I’ve tried to write it as shockingly and realistically as possible. I wanted you to have to put the book down, walk away and come back, because I needed you to know what you’d been through.”
While there are those who would prefer that Beukes continue writing books in the vein of Moxyland and Zoo City, she has made active use of the spotlight offered by her Arthur C Clarke win to break out of this constraint, and write about what she wants to write about. While she prefers not to speak about her next book, for fear of “killing the buzz”, she will say that “it’s about weird bodies turning up in Detroit” and that “Detroit, like Chicago, is a filter for Johannesburg, with the same crime, the same corruption, the same violence.” The edge that Beukes is adding to whatever genre we choose to place her in, is that of surprise. She likes to keep us guessing in the same way that she likes to be kept guessing. “I hate it when you can see the ending coming,” she says. “I like reading and watching stuff which surprises me. But not in a Shyamalan kind of way.”
The Shining Girls is published by Umuzi, R180.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT