The writer who tamed monsters

2012-08-24 14:17

The First Lady of dark urban fiction, Lauren Beukes, is going international very fast. Charl Blignaut tries to catch up

Lauren Beukes has Freedom. It’s an app for your computer that locks you out of the internet so you can do some damn work.

If that’s what’s helped her stick to a gruelling deadline schedule since she won the Arthur C Clarke Award for Zoo City last year, then Freedom should make her their spokesperson.

But I suspect it’s just a minor trick in the retrofuturist handbag of the new queen of South African speculative fiction. Or just queen, because I don’t recall one before her.

Zoo City shattered a mould. It cast a gritty universal fantasy over Joburg while retaining an authentic local idiom. In it, Hillbrow is a ghetto where, through a primal force, convicted murderers are coupled with an animal as a shackle and a guide. The heroine, Zinzi, has a bad attitude and a sloth.

Sound a bit silly? Read it.

The book’s assured reining in of the story monsters, its big ideas and its play with a near and parallel future, earned it instant attention and a cyber-reputation. She doesn’t call herself a sci-fi writer, but the future has been good to Beukes.

Zoo City is becoming a film and she is becoming rather accustomed to airplanes.

When I get hold of her in Cape Town, she’s locked out of the internet and busy with a final edit on her new novel, The Shining Girls.

She recently completed the first draft of the Zoo City screenplay and producer Helena Spring says the project “sparked a lot of interest at Cannes” this year.

Beukes, for her part, has been stalking actors. “I saw Giancarlo Esposito at a bar at Comic-Con and ambushed him. Idris Elba is in Cape Town shooting the Mandela movie, so I sent him a copy of the book.”

Rumour has it that Elba really enjoyed the read.

The new novel is out in March 2013 after a not-unglamorous bidding war won by HarperCollins with a two-book offer for “what is understood to be a high six-figure sum”, according to a news report.

So far it has been presold to 16 territories and will be translated into 13 languages. Read that sentence again slowly.

The most exciting thing for Beukes is that she’ll be published in Japan for the first time, a motherland for urban ghost hunters.

The Shining Girls is a time-travel thriller about a shudderingly creepy serial killer.

“I’m using it to explore how society has changed,” she says. “It’s set in Chicago and not South Africa because I lived there and I wanted to be able to play with history without it being an apartheid novel.”

Then there’s Broken Monsters, the novel after that. “It’s about the subconscious of cities – ghosts and dreams.” She’s just returned from Detroit where she was busy researching it.

That was after a visit to Comic-Con in New York because she’s also writing her first comic series for the much-loved Fables imprint. It’s an update on Rapunzel. To confront her dark past, she heads to Japan, the land of “shape-shifting yokai, ruthless yakuza and hungry ghosts”.

So have we lost Lauren Beukes to America? Is this Detroit and Chicago action just part of a cunning plan to conquer the planet and leave Zinzi stranded in Hillbrow?

The voice on the other end of the phone is not thrilled by my suggestion. “I wish I was savvy and chose the US for commercial reasons! It’s more that these are the books nagging to be written.

“And I do want to write an apartheid novel. I will definitely come back home. I have a comics pitch about local mythology and history mixed up with a contemporary crime story on my editor’s desk.” And then just maybe there will be a Zoo City sequel.

But next she’s off to the UK. At the Deconstruct conference she’ll deliver a presentation called Those Who Can’t Imagine the Future are Doomed to F**k It Up.

Oh, and she’ll be reading from The Shining Girls alongside legends Jeff Noon and Brian Aldiss – and judging awards with China Miéville. Only a hater would hate her for that.

“I’d like to be able to do what David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro or Margaret Atwood do,” she says, to set the matter to rest.

“Write what I want to and hopefully my audience will follow me, wherever it’s set.”

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