Q&A with Lauren Beukes

I've been wanting to do a Q&A with Lauren Beukes ever since I read The Shining Girls (which, when I try to type it, always starts out as The Shing Girls). I managed to nab a pre-publication copy (because I'm cheeky in bookshops and I just ask for them), and I was hooked. Lauren is known as a science fiction writer; her first two books, Moxyland and Zoo City, are set in South Africa; but she didn't want the story of The Shining Girls to be overshadowed by apartheid, so she moved the setting of that one to Chicago, a place she was already familiar with. Her latest novel, Broken Monsters, will be published in the UK in July.

Lauren kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Brighton Plot Bunnies.

PB: What are your thoughts on the place of spoilers given the nature of The Shining Girls? Given that the "Ghost Ship Moment" happens early enough in the book, do you consider it something which needs to be hidden from readers until they experience it themselves? If so, do you have any say on marketing it without any potential spoilers?

LB:I tipped my hat on page one that this is an incredibly fishy scenario; this man in old-fashioned jeans giving a little girl an impossible toy that hasn’t been invented yet as a keepsake. So I don’t think I need to hide it from readers. The ending, what the house is and WHY the house is able to do what it does is another matter. I loved the UK hardback release which only had the young women’s names on the back and Kirby, the survivor’s name, glowing.

My new book Broken Monsters is a whole different animal. I don’t reveal what’s going on until you’re a ways into the book. You may have your suspicions, but the truth is only revealed later. We’re all trying to keep that out of the marketing and the back cover copy as much as possible. There’s something weird going on for sure, but you’re going to have to find out what it is.

PB: The Shining Girls is very different in pace to Moxyland. Did you need to create a kind of writing ritual to get you into the necessarily different headspace that The Shining Girls required?

LB:If by writing ritual you mean furious typing in sick panic at a looming deadline? Yeah, I totally do that. Nothing motivates you like contracts with lawyers on the other end.

Switching style and content has never been a hassle for me – it comes out of freelance journalism and having to write a serious piece on golfing conference venues for a business magazine on one day, followed by a first person account of copper helmet diving in the shark tank for a tourism magazine the next, and an effortlessly chatty and concise investigative story for Cosmopolitan on 419 scammers in the afternoon.

PB: Has a critic ever written something “insightful” about one of your books, only for you to think they’ve totally missed the point you were trying to make? And has anyone ever seen something in your work - a quote, a paragraph, even just a single word - and interpreted it as a subliminal message that you hadn’t even realised was there?

LB: Oh gosh, of course. My favourite was the academic who thought that Zoo City’s ending was “neo-colonial”. I don’t even know where to begin with that. I do read reviews and I do consider criticism. Sometimes, you know what, they’re totally right and I did make a mistake or there’s something I could do better. Other times, you can only laugh at how much someone has missed the point (while quietly murdering your stress ball under your desk).

PB: What was the last book - fiction or non-fiction - that completely blew your socks off? And what was the last thing you read that made you think, “Bugger me, I wish I’d written that”?

LB: Gah. So many. Recently: Jeff vanderMeer’s Annihiliation, Meg Abbot’s The Fever, Max Barry’s Lexicon. Ooh, ooh, wait, I know. The one that knocked me flat was Sara Gran’s Claire de Witt and the City of the Dead. Oh, and Ed Brubaker’s Criminal. Oh, wait and Joe Hill’s Locke & Key. Dammit. All these books I wish I’d written, but couldn’t have, actually, and that’s the magic – that these are things I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, that novels plunge you into someone else’s head and it’s a-maz-ing in there.

PB: What’s your take on writing manuals? Can they help new writers, or do you think they have the opposite effect and make the writing stiff and formulaic?

LB: Step-by-step plot manuals like The Hero’s Journey for script-writing physically hurt me. “Was there an inciting event from the mentor character on page 9? No? You’re doing it wrong.” Stories are flexible, they can take infinite form. Creative writing guides (not manuals) I can recommend, that leave a lot of space for you to figure it out on your own, while still offering up invaluable advice and insight into the creative process, are Stephen King’s On Writing, Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog and his ebooks and Jeff vanderMeer’s Wonderbook which is both a beautiful object and a very useful thing.

PB: Have you ever been part of a writers’ group? If so, did you get anything out of it?

LB: I did my MA in Creative Writing at UCT which gave me a paid writer’s group, which was probably the most useful part of the degree – seeing how other people made mistakes and how you would have handled it differently, and also how they pulled something off with bells on it and why it worked so well. There’s the camaraderie of suffering through a novel together, the self-doubt, the day job, the golden glow of when it just works and the whole room stirs when you read something aloud. The right writing groups (supportive, tough, constructive) are a very good thing.

PB: Have Angry Robot ever asked you to change the title of a book? If so, what was your response?

LB: Well, Moxyland was originally Branded and Zoo City was originally [SPOILER ALERT] Pale Crocodile Waiting. I wanted to change Branded and Marco didn’t want to go with PCW and the final titles evolved from the finished book. It was organic and we were all very happy.

PB: What would be your advice to writers thinking of giving up after years of getting nowhere with publishers?

LB: I’d refer them to Richard Kadrey’s essay about his 20-year overnight success and this line in particular: “If you want to be professional writer get yourself a truckful of guts but a shot glass of ego and maybe you’ll make it. You’re not dead until you decide you’re dead.”

This business is 10% talent, 10% sheer bloody luck, 80% guts and bloody-minded determination. You’re going to get rejected, for years maybe. But if this is what you really want, you have to find a way.  

PB: Kendra and Kirby are similar characters: slightly quirky, a little confused, determined to cut through bullshit and heavy on the attitude - but both fit their respective books perfectly and both are very likable. Were these similarities deliberate, and do you feel the two girls would like each other were they to meet outside Fiction Land?

LB: Kirby probably has more in common with Zoo City’s Zinzi. They’re both young women who have lived through a terrible event and been damaged in the process. Zinzi’s more willing to make compromises, but she’s trying to be a better person. Kirby is single-minded, if she could let this go, she could have a better life, but she can’t and I admire her for that, even though it’s also tragic. They both deal with the shit they’ve had to go through with dark biting humour. I think you have to.

Kendra on the other hand is more of a naif. She’s hungry and talented, but she’s still figuring stuff out, she’s a dreamy idealist, a bit melancholic, but finds her strength at the worst possible moment.

I think she’d want to photograph Kirby and Kirby might be attracted by her softer side.

PB: We'd like to invite you to become an honorary Plot Bunny. Do you accept?

LB: Hells yeah. Do I get a badge? Is there a secret handshake? A clubhouse?

So, Lauren Beukes is now an honorary Plot Bunny, welcome at meetings if she's ever in the area.

The best way to thank Lauren for her time is to go out and buy one of her books. Details of all of them can be found on her website.