The Spaces Between the Words: A Conversation with Lauren Beukes
South African novelist Lauren Beukes enjoys writing. And it shows in every word and on every page of her fiction.
"It's a great privilege to be able to play, to make up stuff, to see where it takes me," Beukes said. "I love the craft and assembly of it. I love how type on a page can carry you into someone's head, transport you somewhere unexpected. I love subverting language to my own diabolical purposes, making interesting things happen in the spaces between the words, in how something is said or in what's left unspoken."
Beukes writes non-fiction, TV scripts, and fiction. She's written for such publications as Elle, Marie Claire, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Sunday Times. Her two novels, both published by Angry Robot Books, are fiendishly dissimilar. Moxyland is a hip and shiny techno-thriller on fast forward, whereas Zoo City is a noirish slum tale filled with African magic, spirit animals, and great big wonderful ideas. Both novels share, as Beukes said, "Black humor, sharp wit, deep, underlying anger about social injustices, imaginative, inventive, often vicious."
Beukes' writing is musical and muscular, lyrical and layered, fast yet precise.
"I'd like to think that the most common characteristics of my writing are that it's sharp, dark, witty, vicious and playful," Beukes said when asked to describe her style.
Yes, it's playful—as playful as a mongoose with an offbeat sense of humor and great timing. The result is fiction that seethes with anger and wit, especially when she's poking the bad guys in the eye.
The heart of Beukes' fiction is her characters. Central, secondary, or walk on, Beukes brings out the best in the people who inhabit her novels.
Take, for instance, Zinzi of Zoo City.
"Zinzi's a hustler who uses her wits and her fast mouth to get herself out of (and sometimes into) trouble," said Beukes. "She's used to being selfish, at playing hard and cool, but it's a façade that's cracking and mostly she's lying to herself."
Below, Beukes and I talk about writing fiction, her native South Africa, and the limitless possibilities of speculative fiction.
How did/does your years of writing for magazines inform your novel writing?
Being a freelance writer taught me by necessity to be flexible. I'd be switching between a hard-nosed business feature on film industry financing issues for The Hollywood Reporter and a punchy profile on an all-girl hip-hop act for Dazed 'n' Confused. And I had to be able to make the most tedious story interesting — whether it was on small conference venues or color printers.
Transcribing hours and hours and hours of interview tapes taught me an ear for how real people speak — and speak differently.
But the best part of working as a journalist for so long was that it was like being handed a backstage pass to the city and a badge authorizing me to snoop around in interesting things, kinda like being a private investigator, only that people were (mostly) very willing to answer my questions.
I honestly don't think I would be the writer I am if it wasn't for journalism and those experiences, which took me everywhere from great white shark-infested ocean channels to garbage-filled alleyways between shacks, casing the joint with electricity cable thieves. I've had a lot of fun doing a lot of great things and interviewing bizarre and wonderful people, but I've also been directly exposed to some devastating realities and social injustices that make me very angry. You try to transmute the emotion into a story that will make other people care.
With a novel, what comes first — character, setting, plot, image, sight, sound, or something else? And how does it grow from there?
I find that the ideas for novels develop like a Polaroid somewhere in my hindbrain. It'll start with an image or a sentence of a voice and become clearer as I start working on it. Plot comes first for me and I always have my endings in mind, but the stuff that happens in between is driven by character and very often subverted by character. My novels never turn out exactly as I originally intended and I think they're more interesting for that.
I have a roadmap. I do outlines, I make lots of notes in notebooks, collect images that resonate, whether of people or places and Work Stuff Out on paper.
The play comes in the spaces in between.
In what ways is Zoo City a departure from Moxyland?
It's a completely different animal. They're not even in the same universe.
Zoo City is a muti noir that ties together technology and ideas of traditional African magic. It's about the burden of the past, guilt and redemption, magical spirit animals inspired by myth that may be the devil on your back or the guardian angel on your shoulder or the spirits of your ancestors manifested in furry form, about inner city slums and refugees and what society does with — and to — our outcasts. Zoo City is set right now in the dilapidated slums of Johannesburg.
Moxyland is a fast political techy thriller set in the near future Cape Town, in a bright 'n' shiny corporate apartheid state utopia where crime is practically extinct and the nasty problems of disease and poverty in the rural areas have been literally shut out. It's a political thriller about surveillance society and genetically modified art, gaming culture, culture-jamming, branding, smartphones used for social control and trading away our rights for convenience. Moxyland uses A Clockwork Orange-style slanguage, where I've pushed the way we currently use words and it's tech-heavy, which some readers, especially in my parent's generation, have struggled with.
Where does the speed come from in your fiction and how do you modulate it?
For the last five years I've been working as a TV scriptwriter and I bring a lot of that into my novel-writing too. I try to write filmically where you ditch anything that's not necessary and start the scenes as late as possible.
I like dialogue, it comes easily and it's fun. Script-writing taught me to make a single line work hard. Journalism taught me how people speak and speak differently. If there's a secret, I think it's listening to people. Take a notepad to a bar or a train and eavesdrop
Dialogue is hugely important, but so is revealing something without explicitly saying it out loud.
What do you mean by "filmically?
I've mainly been writing kids' animated TV shows, most recently Florrie's Dragons for Disney's Playhouse, and it's been a better crash course in writing sharp, fast dialogue and action than drama or soaps would have been.
You're writing 11 minute episodes. There's no time to waste. You get to plot as soon as possible. You start scenes as late as possible. Cut to the chase. Every line of dialogue has to serve a purpose and anything over two sentences long is pure waffle. Scenes can't go on for longer than a page.
You have to think visually because some poor bastard is going to have to draw and animate the scene you just described. Not just in terms of the action and where the characters are standing and what they're doing at any one time, but in terms of the cinematography and what's physically achievable for the animator too.
It's a discipline and I've brought a lot of that learning across to novel-writing.
About which element of fiction or the fiction writing process are you most ambivalent and why?
The middle bit. I heard a great metaphor for the writing process recently: that it's like going on a road trip at night. You know where you're leaving from, you know your destination and maybe some of the waypoints, but on the drive itself you can see 20 feet ahead of you in the headlights and the rest is darkness. Sometimes that driving in the darkness, blundering off the track onto a more interesting detour is cool, at other times it's exhausting staying on the road. I think it was William Gibson who said "I like having written but not writing."
You give great details without squeezing out the reader. Where is the balance between describing and letting the reader fill in the blanks?
Hey, this story as I wrote it is playing out in your head. And what's in there is probably more interesting and surprising and relevant to you than anything I could have come up with. It's a collaborative effort. Call it a telepathic remix.
It's about trusting the reader. Something blockbuster movies, for example, don't do — treating their audiences like lobotomized popcorn-chewing mouth breathers who need to be drip-fed a syrupy, explodey mush where the entire plot is evident in thirty seconds of trailer.
Finding the balance is tricky. Painfully explicit versus so-subtle-they-missed-it.
I thread the hints into the narrative that hopefully all makes sense by the end. The ending of Moxyland, for example, is revealed in the first chapter in something Toby says to Kendra. It's the same in Zoo City, it's all there, often dropped into casual conversation.
The risk is that the reader might miss it and I had at least one reviewer who loathed Zoo City the first time he read it and loved it the second, because this time round he caught the clues.
Not only are your two novels vastly different from each other, but within each novel you blend a wide variety of elements from a variety of genres. How far can you stretch the boundaries of science fiction?
I didn't especially set out to. I wrote the kind of novel I'd like to read.
It's fiction that asks hard questions about where we are now and who we are now using invented scenarios. It's a lens that, like satire or comedy, gives you a different perspective. It's stories that push the limits of the imagination while remaining anchored to reality.
In what ways does the culture and history of South Africa inspire you to write and shape your work?
Moxyland and Zoo City are both responses to being South African and what that means in the 21st century. They tackle the things that most frustrate me about living here, head-on, from how we're happily surrendering to surveillance society for the sake of convenience, how the government is pushing for control and repression of a free media, how corporations shut down cell phone networks on command to prevent food riots in Mozambique, for example, as happened recently.
I'm angry about the xenophobia by black South Africans against black Africans that spilled into horrific violence in 2008 and might yet again because the underlying tensions, which boil down not to racism but lack of opportunity, lack of jobs, lack of education — all apartheid-legacy stuff — are still there, still simmering.
I'm angry about the threat of crime that's always lurking in the background in everyone's lives, but especially the poor. I'm angry about how badly apartheid fucked up this country and furious with the people who won't admit that or how terrible it was — with government assassination squads and disappearances and freedom fighters committing their own atrocities.
I'm angry about how long it's going to take us to recover and that we seem to be heading in the wrong direction, the new regime replaying the corruption and nepotism and stupidities of the old regime like we're stuck on a loop.
But it's also a celebration of South Africa, of our multi-culturalism, of the spirit of reconciliation that is possible, that prevented this country from spilling into civil war during the democratic elections in 1994, for example, that prevails most days. It's a fairly amazing place.
How has it been working with the people at Angry Robot?
They're like flesh-eating terminators on cyborg amphetamines—smart and sharp and hungry! So just great—really. Marco and Lee are hugely ambitious with superb taste in inventive surprising fiction (not just mine, I'm really blown away by just about everything in their catalog) and they're probably the most forward-thinking publishers I know of in terms of ebooks and how they use the Internet for world domination. And they're fun guys.
What's next for you?
I'm working on a new novel (with several more on the backburner). I just finished a nine page comic for Vertigo's Strange Adventures anthology and hoping to do more comic work, and I just wrapped up the final edit on a documentary I directed, Glitterboys & Ganglands, which will be debuting later this year.
Any parting words?
I'd like to recommend the Moxyland and Zoo City soundtracks available from Africandope.co.za compiled by me and HoneyB.