Lauren Beukes is a South African author, scriptwriter and comics writer. Her novel, Zoo City (2010) which the New York Times described as “an energetic phantasmagorical noir” won the 2010 Arthur C Clarke Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle.
She is also the author of Moxyland, a dystopian consumertopia thriller and a non-fiction, Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past.
As a screenwriter, she is currently adapting Zoo City for South African producer Helena Spring. She’s previously worked on the satirical political puppet show, Z News and the travelogue of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: The South African Story.
In 2010, she directed the documentary Glitterboys & Ganglands, about Cape Town’s biggest female impersonation beauty pageant. The film won best LGBT at the San Diego Black Film Festival.
FBS: Zoo City is a unique novel that has received a justifiably fantastic reception. Did you ever expect it to be so big?
LB: I was just excited to get a two book deal and an advance that would allow me some time off my day job to be able to write it. I don’t write with a target audience in mind, I write the book that’s nagging at me, that would be the kind of story I’d like to read – in this case a twisty magical noir in the city I grew up in with all its dissonances.
It’s been amazing to have so many people connect with it, in huge part thanks to winning the Arthur C Clarke Award (which was a total shock) and the insanely beautiful, provocative cover by Joey Hi-Fi.
FBS: Animal companions have always featured heavily in literature, normally as something of a supportive sidekick. The animals in Zoo City, however, are more a physical representation of emotional guilt – how did that idea come about?
LB: Most of my books start with a strong image that comes into focus the more I think about it. I had a very vivid image of a young woman going to a closet in a tenement slum in inner city Joburg and opening it to reveal a sloth that clambered onto her back. I knew it was a burden, a reminder of something terrible she’d done, but also the possibility of redemption.
The idea expanded from there, remixing mythologies about totem animals and scapegoats and the South African mashavi – lost spirits of the ancestors that inhabit animals. It was also a way of exploring ideas around crime, punishment, redemption and how to live with the legacy of the past in a fantastical way that short-circuits issue fatigue.
FBS: How did you choose which characters to match with which animals?
LB: It was intuitive, seat-of-my-pants stuff. The fun part of writing is when your subconscious comes out to play.
FBS: Zoo City, like Moxyland, features a strong female lead. Is there someone who inspired her creation or did this stem from a bit of a drought in independent women characters in fantasy literature?
LB: I like writing women. I like writing men too. I don’t write female protagonists with any kind of agenda in mind or as a reaction to the marketplace. It’s just the way it works out.
She’s entirely her own person, but I do have some friends who have very Zinzi-ish qualities like Zukiswa Wanner and Gorata Mugudamani. Fast-talking, charming, stylish Jozi girl hustler queens. Although, as far as I know, they’ve never been involved in any criminal activities.
FBS: 419 scams and muti (traditional medicine) are some pretty scary themes that feature in the book. How did you research them?
LB: I wrote two features stories on 419 scams for Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan which gave me the opportunity to interview the head of the anti-419 unit in Johannesburg, the organisers of ScamWarners.com and scam-baiters 419Eater.com.
I could talk to victims who ranged from a terribly naïve young woman, who thought Coite d’Ivoire was in France, to an educated Mexican woman, who had been taken in by very sophisticated scammers renting fake offices and believed the story because her mother had to flee Chile under Pinochet and leave everything behind.
So I was able to get quite a lot of insight, even though I couldn’t get any actual scammers to reply to my emails.
With muti, I consulted a sangoma (traditional healer) at the MaiMai market and spoke to a friend of mine who became a twasa (initiate) several years ago. It was important to get it right, particularly as traditional healing and consulting the spirits of the ancestors is so much a part of so many South Africans lives.
I also interviewed the head of South Africa’s Investigative Pyschology Unit about muti murders (where human body parts are used for black magic), which he reckons happens at a rate of about one a month in South Africa, particularly in very rural areas.
FBS: Johannesburg has several different faces, many of which you include in your novel. How did you choose your settings?
LB: I grew up in Johannesburg, so I have a very good sense of the city and the sharp clashes within it. But I also went on a location scout with a fixer who acted as facilitator, translator and security, through Hillbrow, visited the Central Methodist Church where some 3000 refugees were taking shelter, that bastion of colonialism, the Rand Club, House of Nsako in Brixton and remixed it with locations I already knew.
FBS: Female fantasy/sci-fi authors are few and far between. How have you found your reception in the genre?
LB: They’re really not! I can name a ton of female SF and fantasy authors without even getting into paranormal romance, from Kameron Hurley and Tricia Sullivan to Kaaron Warren, Pat Cadigan, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Aliette de Bodard, Madeline Ashby, Sarah Newton and Sarah Lotz writing as SL Grey and Lily Herne (with Louis Greenberg and her daughter Savannah respectively) off the top of my head.
FBS: Tell us about the Arthur C. Clarke award. How did you find out you had received it and how did you find the response?
LB: I was at the gala event in London with my brother as my plus one. I’d just resigned myself to not winning and was actually giving myself the pep talk in my head (honour just to be nominated, if you’re going to lose, lose to greatness) when China Mieville opened the envelope and read out “Zoo City.”
I was so shocked that my brother had to yank me out of my seat and shove me at the stage – without the speech I’d written in the pub half an hour before, just in case.
It was overwhelming and absolutely unexpected. My hands shook for half an hour afterwards. Mainly I felt this huge gratitude to everyone who had helped me get here, given me a break along the way, bought the book, encouraged me to write, but for weeks afterwards I’d get flashbacks of gleeful disbelief too.
FBS: You’ve been described as Jeff Noon meets Raymond Chandler. Are they specific influences or do you have other inspirations?
LB: They’re both writers I adore and having recently re-read Jeff Noon’s Vurt, it was a little scary to see how much influence that book had on me writing Moxyland (Jeff says he’s glad he could be part of the root system). But I read widely.
Major influences are William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, Alan Moore, Lorrie Moore, TC Boyle, William Boyd, Joyce Carol Oates, David Mitchell. And some of my favourite new authors that I read in the last year include Patrick Ness, Jesse Bullington, Christopher Priest and Jennifer Egan.
FBS: So, what’s next?
LB: I’ve just finished the major edits on my new novel, The Shining Girls about a time-travelling serial killer who is unstoppable until one of his victims survives. That’ll be out in May/June 2013 worldwide.
My debut comic miniseries, Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom kicks off its first issue on 3 October – a reimagining of Rapunzel in Japan, set in Bill Willingham’s Fables universe, for Vertigo comics.
I’m working on the Zoo City screenplay for producer Helena Spring, who has optioned the book, and I should start thinking about my new novel, Broken Monsters, about dreams and murder in Detroit.
(Photograph of Lauren Beukes by Casey Crawford)