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Image: Flickr/happy.apple, used under the Creative Commons licence

Lauren Beukes is a South African novelist, scriptwriter and comics writer. Her latest novel, The Shining Girls, involves time travel, a ruthless serial killer, and an inexorable young woman who will stop at nothing to hunt her killer down. Most recently, it was announced that the book will be adapted for television. I spoke to Lauren at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013 about the art of storytelling and its role in her life.

The theme of the festival this year is storytelling and I was wondering – what kind of role did stories and storytellers have in your life, from childhood to now?

Writing stories is the way we understand the world. I think it’s the most important thing that we have – it’s probably the most important development to humanity, actually. And, you know, there are some writers who just want to write beautiful sentences and that’s fine, but unless they’re in service of a story, they’re decoration. It’s the pretty window settings when actually you need to build a house that you can inhabit. And stories should be something that you inhabit, that you can step into, that can transport you somewhere. So, you know, I grew up with fairy tales, mythology and comic books and it’s always been a massive part of my life. My husband’s wedding ring actually has the words ‘more than words’ inscribed on the inside, being that I love him more than words, but that’s not true [laughs].

Are there any particular storytellers that really stood out to you when you were a child, and how about now?

I loved Roald Dahl – I thought he was just amazing, and that kind of dark, sharp social conscience as well is really, really interesting. I grew into Philip K. Dick. I read a lot of fantasy as a kid, like Dragonlance and Elf Quest and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all that kind of stuff. I love how Philip K. Dick twisted reality and made you think about things in a very interesting way. Now, some of my favourite writers are William Gibson, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood… I love Jennifer Egan so much, she’s amazing. I like writers whose stories are a way of interrogating who we are in the world and that could be through a fantastical conceit or it could be a very straight story about everyday normal life. So I read very widely.

How would you compare your writing process for your previous novels to now? Has it changed vastly?

For my first one, I messed around for four years [laughs]. So it’s changed vastly, although I still mess around a little bit. At the fan fiction panel, we were talking about other influences and of course we always write as influenced by the shadows of the writers that we read. I recently wrote the blurb for the introduction for Jeff Noon’s Vurt, and I re-read the book for the first time in, I don’t know, fifteen years. And I realised how much of that core DNA was actually in Moxyland. I was just like, “Oh God!” It’s basically Vurt fan fiction – much more than it is William Gibson fan fiction. It was interesting to see that kind of core DNA.

My process is still the same. I write fairly lean. I’ll write a short first draft and then pad it out where it needs to be padded out. It’s really just about finding the story. You know, I always know my beginnings and endings and it’s just working towards them – and hopefully surprising yourself along the way. [For] Moxyland I had one of the characters completely surprise me; she went off in a completely different direction and that was great – it was so exciting to have that subconscious play and to see where it took you.

Why did you set The Shining Girls in Chicago?

Because I’d lived in Chicago, New York and London, and London didn’t feel right, and New York’s been done to death – and more authentically by people who live there a lot. Chicago’s just really interesting. It has a lot in common with South Africa; a lot of the social tensions that I’m interested in, which of course are present in New York as well, but the fact that Chicago is so racially divided by the geography and really dodgy housing practices back in the day; the fact that it has a high crime rate; that it has a lot of corruption and cronyism. You know, these are all part of the social fabric that I’m interested in anyway. And it was the Paris of the West at one point! It was the birth of the skyscraper and modernism. So there was everything I wanted to play with right there in a city which hasn’t been completely covered again and again.

I know you constructed a murder wall (which was disturbing and impressive) when writing The Shining Girls. How much of the writing process inhabits or seeps into your life?

I think it’s the other way around. I think my life seeps into the writing. When I step away from the keyboard, I’m done – although that’s not true; I will lie awake and think about the plot and pace around the house and try to figure stuff out. It’s… writing a horrible character like Harper [in The Shining Girls] – I know he’s a construct and I can step away from him. As soon as I fold down my laptop screen, he’s gone. I’m not haunted by him or worried about him. I know other people have had nightmares and I’m really sorry about that, but he’s never given me nightmares because I know he’s imaginary, which is a really great place to be in as the writer. But I will get upset and angry in the writing, especially when it came time to kill the woman.

Do you have a favourite literary heroine?

Halo Jones from Alan Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones, which is a graphic novel which came out in the late eighties, I think. It was a very feminist comic, which was very unusual at the time. It was brought out in 2000 AD. She was a slum-dweller and she had big ambitions and big dreams, and she managed to get out and work as a hostess on an airship and basically then got thrown into the middle of a war… She was just a really inspiring, interesting, kick-ass character – but very human and complicated and damaged, and she fucked up. And it was great to see that, because so often woman characters are so one-dimensional and it’s really painful. She was just fantastic on all kinds of levels. But I also really loved Cayce Pollard from Pattern Recognition. I haven’t wanted to step into a book so badly since Narnia.

What is the most gratifying thing about writing and telling stories?

Getting paid to make stuff up. And, you know, having people step into your world and get caught up in the characters, and having people live in your imagination. It’s such a huge privilege, it’s amazing. And when people respond to you and come and tell you they were very upset by one scene or they loved a particular character – it’s remarkable.

To read an excerpt of The Shining Girls, visit Lauren's official website.

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