Lauren Beukes, author of a variety of screen plays, comics, and two novels, is in the spotlight today for her newest creation, Zoo City, which won her the Arthur C. Clarke Award last year. And with a new novel on the horizon, Beukes refuses to slow down the momentum she’s created with her variety of well-deserved literary successes. We had to sprint to catch up with Beukes earlier this month, where she detailed for us the creative journey that led to Zoo City’s formation. Read on for inspired reflections, a killer soundtrack, and advice for writers across the globe.
ASP: How did you go about creating and shaping the sloth-laden character, Zinzi, and did you find yourself infusing any specific feminist ideologies within your protagonist?
Beukes: I never set out to write a specifically feminist character. I set out to write a smart, interesting, damaged human being who has made terrible mistakes and is trying to make up for them and do the right thing, even if she doesn’t always succeed, who is full of spark and attitude but also vulnerable, and selfish and generous and complicated. You know, like a real person.
ASP: The novel is interspersed with various news clippings, documentary synopsis, interviews, etc. that really expand the story’s borders, providing a solid world and a basis for truly understanding the “globality” of the zoos. These “glimpses” were some of the smartest things to include where you did because it highlighted and brought into perspective the world outside of Johannesburg and how said world has changed with the sudden onset of zoos. What was your reasoning for including these glimpses/analyses of the world as opposed to focusing solely on Zinzi and her situation?
Beukes: I needed to convey more information about the world but I didn’t want to do it in a painful heavily expository info-dump kind of way. You know, where one character sits another down in a bar and lays out The Way The World Is. I was inspired by filmic technique, where clues and hints and allegations are interlaced through the story: a recruitment poster or an ad on TV or an interaction between two people in the background that tells you a lot about the world without having to come out and say it. And it was inspired by the way we experience the world, the intertextual (or should that be intermedia) clues, from YouTube comments to psychology studies, that give you different perspectives.
ASP: Your “Acknowledgements” mention you roped in Charlie Human, Sam Wilson, and Evan Milton to include their own “glimpses” – the Undertow papers, the prison interviews, and Odi’s interview, respectively – all of which were equally powerful (the butterfly inmate still sticks with me…). Why did you reach out to these fellow writers for content? And do you think more global “glimpses” from their perspectives would have benefited the reader’s understanding of the world, or would it possibly have detracted from the heart of the story you set out to tell: Zinzi’s story?
Beukes: All three contributors, Sam, Charlie and journalist Evan Milton who “interviewed” music producer Odi Huron, are all South African, but they brought their own perspectives anyway. It’s the power of other minds, other imaginations. People come up with things you wouldn’t have expected or, in fact, been able to conceive on your own. It’s what I love about collaboration, seeing someone else take your idea and run with it in a way that’s entirely their own, that makes your world richer and deeper.
ASP: Music plays an enormous role in your novel – from Johnny Cash echoing tragically to Afro-pop to the chaining of genres I’ve never even heard of, such as the “high-wire kasi hip hop acrobatically riffing off maskandi folk” (I really am curious as to what this sounds like). If you could create a soundtrack to play alongside the novel, what would it consist of? Is that what you were listening to as you crafted this fine adventure?
Beukes: Aha! There actually is an official soundtrack from African Dope which I put together in collaboration with producer Honey-B, featuring a mix of electro, kwaito, hip-hop. It’s at www.africandope.co.za/zoocity
ASP: The novel is rife with slang my Kindle couldn’t even begin to decipher. However, as the novel progresses, the slang becomes contextually comprehensible, which is fantastic! Is the language in the book akin to what one might hear upon visiting South Africa or Johannesburg? Or did you invent the subcultural communication we read here?
Beukes That’s all real South African slang. It was a conscious decision not to include a glossary. You’re dumped into the language the same way you’re dumped into the world: head-first and you have to figure it out, but, hopefully, I provided enough context and clues that you still know what’s going on.
ASP: Speaking of Kindles, Zoo City was recently featured on the list of digital downloads available through the notoriously excellent HumbleBundle. How did you joining the Bundle come about? Did you find the experience positive? Stressful? Lucrative, perhaps? The DRM-Free aspect of the Bundle definitely appealed to a majority of its buyers. What are your thoughts on a DRM-Free world?
Beukes: It was amazing to be part of the Humble Bundle! Cory Doctorow invited me personally. I think that’s partly what made it such a success that it was very carefully curated to include a mix of very well established authors with serious geek cred and lesser knowns like me with a major award behind me.
I’m absolutely opposed to DRM. Pirates are going to pirate regardless. It only punishes legitimate consumers. It should be as easy as possible to buy and read books.
ASP: The idea of animal familiars attaching themselves to murderers is wildly original and executed magnificently in Zoo City. If anything, it’s indicative of the author’s very realized imagination. Where did the idea for Zoo City spawn from? And what were you doing when you thought, “I’m going to write a story about a girl and her sloth”?
Beukes: I have this darkroom of ideas in the back of my cluttered head somewhere, full of half-formed negatives that haven’t been developed yet. I take them down and swish them around in the chemical bath and see what comes out. I had a very clear image of a girl going to a cupboard in a ramshackle squat in a tenement slum and taking a sloth out and pulling it onto her shoulders like a backpack. I knew it was a burden and a reminder of something terrible she’d done and also the possibility of redemption – and that she would be drawn into a terrible mystery and who the other players were. I had to work the rest out from there, usually in the writing, although I always know my endings.
And of course, animal companions is an old idea, from witches’ familiars to totem animals to scapegoats to Jiminey Cricket to the Shona belief in mashavi, or lost spirits of the ancestors who take up residence in an animal.
ASP: Do you have any writerly advice for aspiring urban fiction writers? For folks who want to bring magic back to the cities.
Beukes: The magic is already there. Riff off the what-ifs. Fairies and orcs and vampires and werewolves are fairly well covered, I’d say (although always popular), so maybe play with other ideas? What makes a city different? For me, it’s the underlying ghosts of history, what lies beneath, the multi-culturalism, the press of people, social issues condensed and focused – and then add strangenesses on top of that.
Lauren Beukes is a South African novelist, short story writer, journalist and TV scriptwriter. For the sake of a story, she’s jumped out of planes and into shark-infested waters and got to hang out with AIDS activists and township vigilantes, Botswanan high court judges, electricity thieves in denial, homeless sex workers, racist nudists, reluctant base jumpers and teen vampires among other interesting folk. She lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa, with her husband and daughter. Check out her website here or follow her twitter @laurenbeukes