Lauren Beukes: 'Ideas for novels develop like a Polaroid'
Lauren Beukes is the author of Moxyland and Zoo City, both novels that look at South African society through a futuristic, dystopian lens. She is currently appearing at the Time of the Writer Festival, taking place in Durban.
Please tell me a bit about your writing style, and where your brand of urban sci-fi/ dystopian/ futuristic/ fantasy writing “fits” into the broader context of South African fiction
I try to write books that are inventive and surprising, that explore issues around our reliance on technology or segregation or xenophobia refracted through the lens of a slightly twisted version of reality with fantastical elements, whether it’s the high-tech hi-jinks of Moxyland or the inner-city slums infested with magic in Zoo City.
There’s a long precedent for this kind of speculative allegory in Southern African writing—just look at JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or Doris Lessing’s Mara. But I suspect mine is possibly more raucous, more deeply rooted in contemporary urban South Africa and the interesting spaces where technology and culture intersect.
There seems to be much more space to play in the publishing scene at the moment and I’m hugely excited about recent genre books like Lily Herne’s Deadlands, a zombie apocalypse in Cape Town which has a biting satirical edge, or SL Grey’s really very disturbing horror The Mall that dissects consumer culture or Adeline Radloff’s teen girl superhero novel, Side-Kick. They’re fun reads with a social conscience that never lose sight of their South Africanness. No Twilight-wannabes here.
Who influences your writing, structurally and stylistically? Do you have any local influences, or are they, as one would maybe expect, more international?
I read widely, from TC Boyle, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates and William Boys to David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood and William Gibson. For me it’s about compelling storytelling that tells you something about the world and who we are in it—and has the capacity to surprise you.
What is the reception like for female writers who stray into fantasy and sci-fi writing? Have you had any issues?
I get held up a lot as an example of that apparently rare specimen of “female science-fiction writer” which is a little irritating. I don’t like being neatly categorised and labelled and filed away in a cabinet of curiosities. I’m not a White South African Female Science Fiction/Fantasy Writer. I’m just a writer. Full stop.
Tell me a bit about the “interactive” approach to your work.
Because it’s fun. It’s good marketing, sure, but mainly it’s the perfect excuse to collaborate with amazing talent and see how they reinterpret my work in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. Both Moxyland and Zoo City have official soundtracks put together as a collaboration between me and African Dope’s HoneyB, featuring music by Tone Deaf Junkies, Markus Wormstorm, Spoek Mathambo and Ishmael among others. But I also had limited edition toys made for both books. The Moxy monsters designed by Joey Hi-Fi and Michelle Son raised R15 000 for a woman’s empowerment group in Montagu that we set up especially and the Zoo City Bares (vinyl toys hand-painted by awesome Cape Town illustrators like Willeen Le Roux) were auctioned online and raised R18 000 for the children’s refugee charity, The Suitcase Project.
Any ambitions for adaptation of your work into different formats?
We’ve had some movie interest, but nothing is signed yet. I’m keeping my expectations low. Ninety-nine percent of film projects never happen and if you do make it into that very rare and lucky 1%, it typically takes seven to 10 years years for the movie to actually get made. It’s an expensive and fraught process. I’d love to do a graphic novel of Zoo City and the audio books of both novels should be out later this year.
You work in other writing mediums. Does this affect the way you approach novels?
Definitely. Journalism taught me an eye for detail and an ear for how real people speak (thanks to hours and hours and HOURS of transcribing interviews). Script writing taught me to start the scene as late as possible, how to use quick cuts for pacing and to dump anything that gets in the way of the story. Writing satire for The Big Issue and Hayibo.com taught me how to twist things around as a way of getting a fresh take on tired issues.
William Gibson has spoken about how he is constantly connected to the internet and finding new ideas online while he writes, and you seem to post many links to interesting and bizarre things on Twitter. Is this an important part of the process? Where does one draw the line between inspiration and distraction?
I’m evangelical about Twitter as a way of connecting with interesting people, getting access to crowd-sourced expert advice (on where to dump a body in Johannesburg for example) and as a way of discovering amazing things about the world that I wouldn’t have found on my own through links that people like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling tweet. It’s heady stuff, but it’s also a huge time-suck. When I’m writing seriously, I unplug my modem to avoid temptation or go and work in a coffee shop with no free Wi-fi.
Iain M Banks once said in an interview that he used sci-fi as a way to look at people without all the “noise” that comes from learnt behaviour and societal influences. Is there any part of your writing, in placing characters in worlds that do not mimic our own, that is an attempt to do this?
I use science fiction to look at things from a different angle to get a fresh perspective, but it still, absolutely, has to be anchored to the real world if it is to have meaning and relevance. I just wrote a short story about a maggot-like alien being tortured in a war, for example, but I based it on the real-life atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib. It’s about one man losing his humanity in the things he does to an inhuman enemy.
Plot, character, and concept: What comes first? Does one ever lose out? How do you make sure a cool idea, an imagined world, translates to a gripping story, with fleshed out characters?
It’s very organic for me. I find that the ideas for novels develop like a Polaroid somewhere in my hindbrain. It’ll start with an image or a sentence of a voice and become clearer and clearer as I think about it and start working on it. Plot comes first for me and I always have my endings in mind, but the stuff that happens in between is driven by character and very often subverted by character! My novels never turn out exactly as I originally intended and I think they’re more interesting for that.
What does participating in Time of the Writer offer you as a creator of fiction (and other written work)? What do you hope to get out of it?
It’s getting to trade ideas and engage wits with fiercely relevant and fiercely opinionated writers from around the world. Some of it is professional commiseration, bitching about the publishing industry and lazy reviewers and the perils of academese, for example, but mostly it’s about connecting with sharp and interesting minds and better yet, audiences, during the panel discussions and especially in the school visits. It’s very prestigious, of course, but mainly it’s inspiring, getting to hang out with great people for a sustained and intense period.
South African writing is often criticised by young readers for being too caught up in politics, struggle, social issues. Is there room for writing that does adhere to this? Does it get a chance, without being labelled as eurocentric or the like?
They’re not reading the right books. There are a tonne of cool, new young writers tackling issues relevant to contemporary South Africa, from school killings in SA Patridge’s Fuse to hijacking in Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood and circumcision in Thando Mqolozana’s A Man Who Is Not A Man (and let’s not forget zombies in Lily Herne’s Deadlands!)
But yes, of course there’s still space for political novels, for apartheid novels. Or at least I hope there is—I’m working on one right now.
There is a perception that South African novels are still wallowing in heavy issues and wearing their agendas on the sleeves at the cost of the plot, but the books I’m reading are sharp, pacey, engaging and hugely entertaining stories that reflect where we are right now.
What does South African fiction need, to take it to the next level? Is there enough support for young writers of contemporary fiction?
The most important thing is to get people reading. Dump the tax on books, lower the cost of import duties, support libraries and organisations like help2read.co.za, support literacy initiatives like www.yoza.mobi which infects teens with a love of reading through short stories by great local writers delivered through their cellphones. And support writers. Buy books. Support ReadSA which is working hard to promote local literature. And set up more grants to allow us to take time off from our day jobs so we can actually spare some time to write or go to overseas festivals to promote South African lit. Corporate sponsors need to step up.
Lauren Beukes is a panelist at the Time of the Writer Festival. For more M&G books coverage, go to our special report.