We’re in Cape Town today, where there is weather and hills and the sea and all the things Joburg has not. And while Joburg does have its share of enormously talented and internationally renowned writers, the first thing we thought when we heard we were going to Cape Town was “Can we call in on Lauren Beukes?”
Beukes, if you didn’t know, is one of South Africa’s leading literary lights thanks to three excellent and incredibly speculative fiction novels: Moxyland; Zoo City; and The Shining Girls. Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke award when it was published, and The Shining Girls was picked up by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company for a potential TV series. Her writing is both dark and enlightening, sophisticated and rollocking good fun. It’s also unashamedly geeky, reflecting a career in journalism, comic book writing and – as it turns out – early experiences with smuggled sci-fi books.
And she has an amazingly nice office too.
The full interview has been uploaded to Soundcloud, so you can hear it here. Or you could just read the full transcript below.
htxt.africa: First of all, I wanted to ask you how the TV treatment for The Shining Girls is going?
Beukes: They are talking to some very interesting directors, and I’m not allowed to say anything…
What’s it like working with a US production company? Is it very different to your experiences in South Africa?
There’s really not much happening right now, it’s still so much in development. But they do work very differently. The way MRC (Media Rights Capital) and Appian Way work is that they try to get talent attached first and then raise the funding, so they’ll try and get a director, then they’ll write the script. And they don’t make pilots – if they decide to make a TV series they’ll write the first 13 episodes and raise money based on that, which I think is an incredibly exciting model because I think that pilots are dangerous: you put in polar bears and suddenly you’re stuck with them for the rest of the season and you can’t explain them…
I saw a great feature recently talking about British TV, which pointed out that the shows that are considered some of the best there took five or six seasons to get going and attract an audience. A luxury you don’t often have today where everything rests on the pilot.
It is very interesting. I don’t know the numbers exactly but there’s something like 155 pilots made every year in the US and only 20-odd that go into production. I don’t know the money that they spend on that, but it’s crazy. MRC also partnered with Netflix to make House of Cards and they released the whole season [online] at once. There was none of this weekly nonsense, and that really excited me. Just the way they’re thinking about how television works right now is exciting.
And of course House of Cards won an Emmy last week, so clearly they’re doing something right. I moved to South Africa a year ago and my cultural knowledge in terms of literature and books and TV is still very limited. I knew a lot about the politics before I moved, of course, but not so much about what people read or watch. The thing that strikes me is that you’ve got Neil Blomkamp, Charlie Human, the /Velocity/ comics guys and – of course – yourself all getting international recognition for sci-fi and speculative fiction…
Sarah Lotz is a one woman writing machine as well – she writes under her own name as well as SL Grey and as Lily Herne with her 21-year-old daughter.
…Is this the start of a movement? Is there a ‘South African school’ within the genre emerging?
I think there may be something to that, yes. There’s definitely been a genre explosion and the success of District 9, and the fact that Zoo City won the Clarke award showed publishers that there’s a market for it. They were very closed minded before that, and all ‘oh, no-one reads fantasy’, and then Twilight came along and 50 Shades… you know, we diss these books but they open up ways of writing things that are better, and pay for them as well. There’s no way my publisher would be able to buy my book if they didn’t have 50 Shades as well.
It’s interesting that you talk about the traditional publishing model like that – I came to your work via the Humble Book Bundle [Zoo City was included as part of a collection of titles distributed digitally without DRM under a pay what you like model]. Which is absolutely the opposite of the traditional way of using best sellers to subsidise new talent.
That was absolutely amazing, such an exciting way to reach out to new audiences.
Presumably a very successful one, too?
It was very successful, but it was carried by the big names. They didn’t buy that bundle for me, they bought it for Cory Doctorow and they bought it for Neil Gaiman and they bought it for John Scalzi… the fact that I was included in that meant that I was introduced to their audiences. It was phenomenal, and I’d love to see more ventures like that. And there are a lot of small authors who are playing around with that model for themselves too.
Then there are authors like Chuck Wendig and Charlie Stross as well, who use both models, they go the traditional publishing route and then they also self-publish. I have no interest in self publishing – I don’t need another excuse not to write. I like having someone pay for the editor and sort out the cover design and pay for the distribution and the formatting and all the rest of it, and that’s great.
I don’t think people realise how much work goes into the publishing side of things even if you’re publishing digitally…
Absolutely. And if you’re the boss… Look, you need an editor to push you to work, and if you’re the boss and you’re paying for it you can turn around and say to your editor ‘well you’re wrong’. I still have fights with my editor, and I still turn round and say ‘I’m the author and I have final say’, but the fact that they’re thinking of my publisher means that they’re pushing me to be better.
Have you seen any evidence of digital publishing opening up the South African audience at all? Or is it still quite early days?
The thing about South African books is that when they’re printed on paper, they don’t always make it overseas. Someone like Henrietta Rose-Innes, her book Nineveh has just been released, finally, as an e-book, and this opens her up to a huge new market. Otherwise you have to order it from South Africa and believe me, I’ve done that. The book costs you 200 rand and shipping costs you another 200 rand and it’s just not worth it.
So it’s definitely something young authors should be looking at?
The worst example is the Russian cover of Zoo City. It’s got a white girl on the cover. They looked at it and said ‘well, there’s no race in the book, why don’t you deal with race issues?’ – to which my reply was ‘well what do you mean, of course I deal with race issues, they’re all there.’ But they’re codified to South Africa, and you have to know South African names to understand.
A name like Zinzi [the lead character in Zoo City], for example, also sounds a bit like a sci-fi name, so some people have read her as being white. I specifically avoided that thing of describing her ‘caramel coloured skin’ or ‘coffee colour’ and so on – the only person who gets referred to specifically by skin colour is her peach-skinned ex-boyfriend. No-one else. Basically everyone in the book is black, you just have to figure that out.
But internationally, people get very excited by the fact it’s not set in London or New York or Tokyo. And then of course my next book [The Shining Girls] was based in Chicago, because there’s a familiarity to America and I specifically wrote The Shining Girls as not being set in South Africa because I wanted to look at the history of the 20th Century and how it’s shaped us, which in South Africa, of course, would be the story of apartheid. Which is fine, I want to do an apartheid thriller, but this is not it. This was meant to deal with broader issues and America made sense. And Chicago; Chicago is basically Joburg – high crime rates, high levels of violence, high segregation…
And violence against women is a very South African problem that we’re struggling to deal with…
Absolutely. And as the book came out we had Anene Booysens, Reeva Steenkamp, all these cases which were perfectly punctuating what I was trying to say in the book and it was horrible.
Do you think that the audience you’re finding in South Africa now – I shy away from using the word ‘geek’ but the sci-fi fans and speculative fiction fans – has that always existed here and simply never had a group of writers to voice it, or is it something new and emerging among the younger generation?
It’s always been here – we’ve had writers like David Freer who’ve published internationally, although it was all set internationally as well. I was part of an anime club when I was growing up, though, and we used to pirate videos because that was the only way we could get hold of them. We didn’t have the internet, we couldn’t actually buy anything.
And I role-played and I went to the only person who could actually get science fiction books… Most bookshops used to have a tiny little shelf for sci-fi with none of the books I wanted, and there was this guy who used to fly to America and fill a suitcase with books and then he’d send out a catalogue. You’d look at the catalogue, and you’d go to his house and you’d buy books off of his shelves, in his house. And that was how we did it. Reliance before the internet. There’s always been a strong geek community, it’s just that we haven’t had the connectivity and we haven’t had the voice and publishers haven’t been open to that sort of thing.
Lack of access to books, I think, is still a big historical legacy – paper books are still very expensive here.
They are and it’s hideous. We were so cut off from the rest of the world [due to apartheid and sanctions] and people forget that. I struggled to get hold of Nine Inch Nails albums. I had to specially import them. It was crazy.
I was chatting the other day to a guy who works for Diepsloot.com, and he does a lot of work in the schools there. He’s a journalist and a writer as well, and he said that the biggest issue he faces is that there’s simply no culture of reading in a lot of places in South Africa. Reading is simply not something people do for fun or to learn. Do you think genres like speculative fiction can help to bring in new readers, by telling fantasy stories that don’t leave young people feeling they’re being preached at?
I think that even within reading culture, within the middle class, there’s this belief that South African books are heavy, and political, and boring and that’s just not the case at all. There’s so much exciting stuff happening in the literary scene at the moment. And yes, there are beautiful elegant, origami-like puzzle books like Ivan Vladislavic, beauitful literary amazing books, which are also not heavy and political and everything else. But crime fiction and genre fiction is really budding right now and it’s really exciting, and it does give us access to a new market and to develop new readers. Especially people like Charlie Human – and Apocalypse Now Now is just crazy and fun and ridiculous – and Lily Herne’s Deadlands series. There’s some terrific books.
But I think that where we’ll develop more of a reading culture is by making books accessible and the only way to do that is through cellphones. And I was part of a cellphone project called Yoza, where they paid a whole bunch of South African writers to write short cellphone novels which were divided into 30 chapters of 400 words each, and it was the most amazing project. We got live feedback on all of the stories – we would release a new chapter a day – and the stories were 10 000 words long but generated 30 000 words in comments. Each story would end with a question like ‘what do you think the character should have done’, you know, a prompt. And kids responded with 30 000 words back. And they corrected our grammar in text speak. It was like “hey, on line 243 you missed a comma, lol”.
It showed me so much. It showed me there’s an appetite for South African stories that are relevant to their lives, that aren’t preaching to them and text-speak is not the death of language. It really isn’t.
I know there’s a Mxit story-telling thing going on right now and the thing is, every kid in the townships has a cellphone. If you can just get to them through that…
The other thing I think we should do – although I don’t know where we’d magically get the money to do this – but we should give everyone access to Kindles, or Kobos or any other e-reader. Then every time you go into a bookstore and buy a book, you pay 10 or 20 rand extra to donate a free copy to a Kindle in a reading program.
Or, just let them pirate. Obviously I would like people to pay for books because that’s how I make my living, but I’d rather have piracy that leads back to a culture of literacy which leads back to more people buying books in the future. But people who are living on R2 000 a month are not going to spend R200 on a book.
Have you come across the economist Ha-Joon Chang at all? He grew up in South Korea in the 50s and makes the same point – if he hadn’t been able to use photocopied maths text books, Korea wouldn’t have Samsung today.
Absolutely. There’s a friend of mine involved with a very interesting project called Paperight, which he started, through which you can download a book to any coffee shop and pay for it. It takes the whole textbook distribution nightmare out.
Look at the success of Spud. I’ve done talks in very poor schools and Spud is about a very privileged, mainly white upper-class school, but the fact that it’s about kids means that these children in desperately poor schools love it and think that it’s fun. It’s not necessarily a good book, but it’s a gateway drug. And it’s the same with Twilight and it’s the same with 50 Shades, they pay for other stuff and they’re gateway drugs.
You could put Harry Potter into the same category…
Except that Harry Potter is actually good…
We’ll agree to differ.
The first couple of books were OK. It’s a way of getting kids reading. I go into schools and the teachers ask what I think the kids should be reading, and they think I’m going to say Dickens or Andre Brink, and I’m like ‘read what you want to read, read what entertains you and makes you happy, read what entertains you and thrills you because you reading should give you pleasure’.
You mentioned the politics of writing about South Africa earlier, and one thing that was really apparent to me when reading Apocalypse Now Now was that I think it’s the first South African story I’ve read that wasn’t trying to make a metaphor about some aspect of the country’s history – and almost became political because of that. It’s a story about a rich, white middle class guy in Cape Town and it’s a statement that it’s OK to write about that now. You almost can’t get away from it, can you?
But Apocalypse Now Now does reference an apartheid chemist and also comes back to San mythology. I’ve just read recently Alex Latimer’s Space Race, a fantastic book, amazing. I started reading it thinking ‘ooh, that’s a bit dodgy’ because it’s about South Africa’s nuclear program and there’s one nuke left and the Afrikaaners have been building a secret spaceship to go and colonise a new planet to be the new Orania. But it’s terrific, it acknowledges all that and undermines it and the best character is this black cop and it’s really interesting and fun. It’s a fun, fast thriller. But as Skunk Anansie said, “everything is fucking political”.
Quite. Just quickly going back to the kids and their phones – you mentioned in an email that you’re daughter is quite a techie already, despite only being five-years-old.
Yes. The whole not ‘on demand’ thing? She doesn’t understand. She’ll ask me to play a song again that’s been on the radio and doesn’t understand when I can’t.
It’s going to be interesting as that generation grows up. I feel exactly the same way about my daughter. She has no concept of broadcast TV as it was up until five years ago. Do you worry that kids won’t get exposed to the same breadth of entertainment and information as we had because they can specialise their tastes so much?
That’s assuming that there was this golden glow of nostalgia when all TV was amazing. And it wasn’t. It was crap. And it’s still crap. I mean, the Discovery Channel doing things on Mermaids? Seriously?
I do think that there is a risk with all of us in that we’re able to filter out things we don’t like and that we could exist in this little bubble of positive feedback. I have friends on Twitter who specifically follow people that they know they can’t stand because they want to be exposed to other opinions. I’m not that generous, I can’t do it. But I think Twitter is better than the news, for example, because I get stuff popping up on my feed that CNN isn’t covering. CNN is covering ‘cronuts’ and meanwhile there’s a new island that’s formed because of a tsunami or earthquake. So I think there’s a risk of becoming enclosed but there’s so much space to play, and the internet lends itself to curiosity, and that’s the most important thing we have as a species.
Do you, as a writer, ever have to shut the internet off to…
Yes. I use Mac Freedom. And it’s great. It’s the only way I manage to get anything done. And my husband has to physically remove my cellphone. I have thought of getting a burner phone that could be an emergency phone if someone needs to call me and leave my cellphone at home.
Finally then, you mentioned you’re working on a new book…?
Yes – it’s due mid-2014, and I have to finish it by December, which is why I can’t do long interviews. It’s called Broken Monsters and it’s about dead bodies turning up in Detroit. Which is secretly my way of writing about Hillbrow again… You know, it’s a city that’s perceived as a desolate ruin from the outside with boarded up ruins and a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the country.
With the difference that Hillbrow never actually went bankrupt?
No, nor did it have to sell its art collection. Although it does occasionally get stolen.