Lauren Beukes is the author of Zoo City, a pseudo-fantastical, hardboiled and gritty thriller about crime, magic, the music industry, refugees and redemption set in a re-imagined Johannesburg. It has been nominated for both the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2010 BSFA. The novel already won the Kitchies Red Tentacle for the 2010 book that “best elevates the tone of geek culture.” Moxyland, her first novel, set in a not-so-distant futuristic Cape Town (where she lives), is a haunting vision of what corporatocracy can be. Her non-fiction Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past (Oshun 2005) was long-listed for the 2006 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award, and tell the real-life stories of raconteurs and renegades, writers, poets, provocateurs and pop stars, artists and activists and a cross-dressing doctor.
Ms Beukes was kind enough to answer a few questions about her novels.
EJ: First, let me congratulate you on the Red Tentacle, and the nominations for the Clarke and BSFA awards. Both your novels have received wide acclaim and rave reviews. Was this anything like you expected when you wrote them?
LB: You always hope, nervously, that your books are going to be able to hold their own when you send the scrappy little darlings out on their own into the big bad world. But it’s tremendously gratifying – and humbling – when the reception is so overwhelmingly positive. (And grounding when it’s not – as was the case at my mother-in-law’s 75th birthday when one of her very nice elderly friends turned to me and said, “I did try to read your book, but it was really just impossible.”)
EJ: Which authors and what books have most influenced your writing, structurally and stylistically?
LB: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx & Crake, Alan Moore’s Ballad of Halo Jones, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Lorrie Moore’s short stories, TC Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Paul Hoffmann’s The Wisdom of Crocodiles, Joyce Carol Oates’s anything, William Boyd, Haruki Murakami.
I think what those things have in common is gorgeous writing serving smart, inventive and ultimately surprising stories.
EJ: Both Moxyland and Zoo City are first-person narratives – in fact Moxyland has 4 different first-person perspectives. How did you decide you were going to write in first-person? Do you have a preference for first-person narratives in your own reading?
LB: It just happened that way. I like the immediacy and presence of first person fiction. It’s not something I actively seek out in my reading or my writing. I think the new book is going to be third person, but we’ll see.
EJ: Moxyland was your debut novel, but not your first book. In 2005 you published Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past. What inspired you to switch gears from history to science fiction? Do any of your fictional characters borrow from the historical figures you’ve written about? Zinzi is most assuredly an extraordinary woman.
LB: I was commissioned to write Maverick by the publisher based on what she’d read of my journalism. But I’ve always loved history and it was great teasing out the narrative of these extraordinary women’s lives, particularly as I got to choose the line-up, which ranges from a street-fighting jazz chanteuse to a serial poisoner to a glam commie journo revolutionary.
I’m sure those histories have seeped into my subconscious, but I haven’t knowingly whipped them out.
Zinzi’s a mash-up of people I know and some parts of me and wholly herself.
EJ: Moxyland is a dystopian cyberpunk novel whereas Zoo City would be considered an urban fantasy. Both are novels that many would consider a hard sell in South Africa where much of the literature is dominated by the apartheid experience. How has apartheid affected or informed your fiction? Where does your brand of science fiction fit into the broader South African context? Is there a future for a uniquely South African brand of science fiction?
LB: Phew. I think traditionally they probably would have been a hard-sell. To generalize horribly; South African literature was very focused, necessarily on apartheid and it’s aftermath for a long time. I think we’ve got most of that out of our system, but that’s not to say it’s not still relevant. I think of both Moxyland and Zoo City as apartheid novels. Moxyland is a neo-apartheid state, a what-if about how easy it would be to slip back into that space. Zoo City deals with artificially imposed segregation of the animalled versus ordinary people, refugees and rich vs. poor, which is very much the state we’re in at the moment – economic apartheid between rich and poor with the divides growing bigger every day.
I don’t know where it fits in or even if it is a particular brand of science fiction. I hate labeling because it wedges books into boxes that immediately cuts off part of your potential audience who get freaked out by the shape of those boxes. Can I come up with my own labels? Zoo City is muti noir and Moxyland is future urban thriller.
I do think there is more space to play and I’m very excited by some of the new releases coming out of SA like Lily Herne’s slyly political YA zombie apocalypse novel, Deadlands or Adeline Radloff’s time-travelling superhero romp, Side-Kick or SL Grey’s horror, The Mall – all of which have a smart, subversive, socially-aware edge. It’s a necessary reflection of where we’re writing about, I think, that we’re all keenly aware of it.
EJ: Zoo City is a hardboiled stranger-than-fiction story with many layers and some proverbial “monkey on your back” symbolism. What is Zoo City really about? What do you want your readers to take away from your story?
LB: It’s about guilt and the possibility of redemption, how we’re burdened by the past and how that affects our future. It’s very much about crime, but again, also about apartheid. The thing at the end (no spoilers here) is that thing for a very particular reason and it ties in to our recent history.
EJ: What were the particular influences for Zoo City? I’m thinking in particular of the belief in mashavi, which not many international readers would be familiar with. Where did your research take you?
LB: Sjoe. I’m inspired by everything. I’m a pop culture sponge. I was very interested in the idea of crime and punishment, guilt and redemption, the music industry and pop factories that churn out wholesome teen pop stars and what that does to them (and here I raided some of Brenda Fassie’s history – one of the women of Maverick) and how different belief systems play out, especially muti (African magic – which can be benign herbalism or gruesome rituals performed with human body parts) and how South Africans would interpret a new global phenomenon in a uniquely South African way.
The idea of magical animals crops up in a lot of different cultures, from the ancient Israelites scape goats to the totem animals of some Native American tribes to Jiminy Cricket, the idea of the monkey on your back. I was reading a lot of South African mythology and I found the idea of mashavi. Ancestor-worship is a big part of traditional black South African beliefs and the mashavi are spirits that have become lost who manifest themselves as an animal that sometimes attaches itself to a person to good or ill effect.
In the book, everyone has a different theory about the animalled (as we have different theories in the real world about what happens after you die) but no real answers. Mashavi was an authentically South African take on that.
The research took me to some very interesting places, from visiting the Central Methodist Church to meet refugees sheltering there to walking round Hillbrow talking to people to interviewing music producers and having a consultation with a sangoma (or traditional healer) at the Mai Mai traditional healers market. She said I had a dark shadow over my life and prescribed the ritual sacrifice of a black chicken to get rid of it. I politely declined.
EJ: Your characters are very well developed. Zinzi December, in particular, is extremely well-written, with palpable conflicting desires and motivations. She’s often dishonest and she certainly doesn’t always make the best decisions. She gets run through the wringer on quite a few occasions – as do the characters in Moxyland. How attached do you get to your characters and do you ever feel bad about what you put them through? Did you know Zinzi’s fate when you started to write Zoo City?
LB: Thank you. I try to create complex, interesting, flawed characters. Sometimes the flaws make them frustrating – there were times I wanted to shake Tendeka in Moxyland, for example, for being so blinded by his self-righteous anger, but it’s true to the character.
And yeah, I do terrible things to my characters. I’ve had readers write me angry emails about Moxyland in particular, saying “how could you!” But I knew from the moment I started writing it which way it was going to go and what was going to happen to that character. It’s not my fault. The story demands it.
EJ: Your publisher, Angry Robot, is an up and coming genre specialist and Moxyland was one of their very first publications. Tell us a little about this history and your reasons for going with, what was then, a startup publishing house.
LB: I spent a year tentatively shopping Moxyland around to international agents and getting my soul crushed in the process. Then I took it to Jacana, South Africa’s most provocative and interesting and forward-thinking publisher who snapped it up right away, literally. The publisher, Maggie Davey read the manuscript on the plane on the way to the Frankfurt Book Fair and by the time she landed I had a book deal.
The book did well in South Africa and got some rave reviews, so I cowgirled up and started sending it out again. It was rejected by a slew of literary publishers who generally had very encouraging things to say and then it landed with Angry Robot who were then Harper Collins’ brand new edgy-as-fuck SF imprint who came back fast and hard with a two book deal.
I really liked the way they handled themselves in emails. There was no bullshit, no run-around and they really got the book. They’ve done wonders with it. I’m so impressed with their list generally and the way they’ve built an outspoken and loyal community through clever use of the Interwebs.
EJ: Moxyland and Zoo City each feature different covers for their South African and international editions. Did you have any say in their design? Are you satisfied that they relay the proper feeling and context of your stories?
LB: I was lucky to hand-pick my cover designers and I think they both did an amazing job in their very distinctive styles and really respected the spirit of the work and worked closely with me to get the right tone and feel. They were amazing to work with and gave me lots of opportunity to provide feedback. Interestingly, both were working from the same set of reference pictures – photographs I’d taken of Hillbrow on my cell phone camera and images of people I’d found online that I felt evoked a sense of the characters I’d written. Joey Hi-Fi’s black and white cover is evocatively beautiful and incredibly detailed with lots of Easter eggs about the plot within. John Picacio did an amazing job of portraying a kick-ass black female protagonist and he got Zinzi’s sass exactly right.
EJ: What can you tell us about any current projects you’re working on? What can we look forward to from here? Will you continue to set your fiction in South Africa?
LB: I’m working on a new novel – an apartheid thriller tied in to the real-life Occult Crimes Unit, with several other novels sitting on the backburner and practically boiling over already (really need to finish this one so I can get to them).
I just directed a documentary called Glitterboys & Ganglands about the biggest female impersonation pageant in South Africa, Miss Gay Western Cape, which will hopefully be debuting at the Encounters Festival in Cape Town.
And I’ve written my first comic (so excited), a nine pager for Vertigo’s Strange Adventures anthology due out May 25th.
EJ: I really appreciate your time in what I can only assume to be generally quite a hectic schedule. Thank you for participating in this interview and giving us further insights into your work. I for one am eagerly anticipating your next book and hold thumbs for a Hugo nomination in the near future. Judging by the laudable responses to Zoo City, I’m certain that possibility is not too presumptuous. The book is positively one of my favorite novels of all time and Moxyland a very close second.
LB: Thanks so much. I always get very shy around praise and my kneejerk response is to self-deprecate like crazy. But it’s the people who connect with your work who make it mean something. So thank you.
You can follow Lauren on twitter @laurenbeukes and stay up to date with her comings and goings by visiting http://laurenbeukes.book.co.za/