With her latest novel starting an immediate bidding war for film rights, Lauren Beukes talks to Vicky Carr about being the crime world’s rising star.
Lauren Beukes’s career to date is nothing if not varied.
She started out as a journalist, before moving into writing for children’s television and comics. Just to add another string to her bow, she has also directed documentaries for the small screen.
Although she admits her first love is fiction, she believes the other outlets for her talents have contributed to her success.
“They really are all different,” she says. “I was a journalist for a very long time and then got into children’s TV. It’s just different sides of my personality – it’s great to be able to do different things.
“Writing for youngsters has taught me a lot about writing in general. You don’t have time to mess around. The dialogue has to work really hard to move the plot forward.”
That experience has clearly stood her in good stead. The Johannesburg-born writer’s second novel, Zoo City, was given the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011, making her the first South African winner – but The Shining Girls seems to have taken Beukes, who will be appearing at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July, to a new level of fame.
Oddly, the idea for the book came from a small seed – just 140 characters, in fact. She was having a conversation on the social network Twitter when she made a throw-away comment about a criminal being able to travel through time.
From there, the characters and the plot were born, although Beukes was savvy enough to go back and delete the original tweet to ensure nobody else was similarly inspired.
With an active presence on Twitter, Beukes knows the interest in her new book has been beyond anything she has experienced before. Enthusiasm for crime fiction never seems to wane, but The Shining Girls is different: not only is the identity of the perpetrator, Harper, known from the outset, the crimes take place across a period of more than half a century thanks to his ability to travel through time.
Although in many ways this unusual element removes a lot of the restrictions which traditional crime writers face, Beukes was clear that introducing time travel did not mean that she could simply make up anything she wanted.
“I really tried to tie it all together. It ruins your enjoyment if it doesn’t make sense,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with having to think about things afterwards, but we have to be able to trust the story teller.”
The result feels like a cross between The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Talented Mr Ripley. Given that both books have been turned into films, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that the rights to The Shining Girls were subject to a bidding war as soon as the novel was released.
“We’ve got four offers on the table at the moment and we’re hoping to announce soon,” says Beukes. “It’s really amazing to have such interest in it so soon.”
Since she spoke to the Yorkshire Post, the rights have been bought by Leonardo DiCaprio’s company, Appian, which plans to turn the story into a television series.
The novel, which sees Harper travel through time by opening the door of a house onto different eras in Chicago’s history to find his victims, has the scale and ambition of a film and feels as though it would translate well onto the screen.
However, there will be some problems in bringing aspects of the book to life. Beukes has not shied away from the most graphic details of her characters’ murders. However, those who don’t have the stomach for gore fear not. While the crimes are shocking, Beukes is not one for lingering and quickly moves the story on to focuses on each victim’s story.
The way those scenes are transferred to the screen is one of the aspects which Beukes was most concerned about when she considered offers for the rights.
“It depends how they handle the violence,” she says. “It has to be realistic but sensitive. I think that will be really important to me – how the director handles the violence.”
The huge time frame of the novel – from the late 1920s to the early 1990s – meant Beukes had to do an enormous amount of research in order to make sure all of her characters were realistic depictions of their time, and that murderer Harper could slip into the city in any year.
“I took... I don’t know, 3,000 photographs in Chicago,” she says. “The amount of research that had to go into one detail was incredible.”
In order to keep track of the many strands of the novel, she filled a wall with pictures and notes, linked together with pieces of string.
“I mapped everything out very carefully. It looks like a crazy person’s wall,” she says, laughing. “I’m not a huge time travel fan specifically or a serial killer fan, but I’ve read books and seen movies in both genres. The rules have to apply; it has to make sense.”
The heroine of the story is teenager Kirby Mazrachi. She survived Harper’s murder attempt in the late 1980s and, a few years later, is determined to do what the police could not: find and stop her attacker.
Despite her confidence and sharp tongue, it is clear Kirby has been deeply affected by the experience and is unable to move on until Harper has been caught.In all of the victims, Beukes has created vibrant, individual women whose personalities and histories shine through the pages – something she was very keen to focus on.
“I was looking back against this idea of the pretty dead corpse on the slab – that a victim becomes a statistic and a summary of her wounds,” says Beukes. “I wanted to give them breath and life and show that this was not just someone’s mother, daughter, sister. How horrible it is that someone’s taken that away from her.
“With Kirby, it’s just the way I write; some of my characters are gutsy and also damaged – having to live with this thing that’s happened to her. Her obsession is just as damaging.
“I was very interested in how you come to terms with things and how you let things go. With this, Kirby isn’t prepared to let it go and she doesn’t think anyone else should either.”
The early success of The Shining Girls means that Beukes has never been in such high demand.
Speaking from her home in South Africa, she reels off a list of the places she will be visiting over the coming weeks and months. Following trips to New Zealand and the United States, she will be making her first appearance at the Harrogate festival next month.
“I’m really excited,” she says. “I’ve booked in for the whole week even though I’ve only got one event. I’ve done quite a few festivals and conventions – it’s so nice to be able to meet readers and hang out with people.
“It’s really nice when you meet someone who’s really connected with your book.”
Beukes will be appearing as part of a panel discussion about using settings south of the equator in crime novels, alongside Helen Fitzgerald, Michael Robotham and MD Villiers, with the discussion chaired by Paul Johnston.
She has been chosen for the panel because, although her current novel is set in North America, much of her previous work has been against the backdrop of apartheid. For The Shining Girls, however, Beukes was clear that it had to be set elsewhere.
“I didn’t want it to be set in South Africa. If you do a 20th-century story about history it immediately becomes about the struggle,” she says.
The trip to Harrogate is her first and will be followed by more appearances around Europe over the summer.
Despite her hectic schedule, Beukes already has several other projects lined up for when she eventually gets time to write – and has ideas for future novels jostling for attention in her head.
“I think I’m going to take a break and maybe do a kids’ book or maybe a comic. If The Shining Girls movie comes into play, I won’t be writing the script or anything but I’ll be consulting on that,” she says. “It’s really tricky. You will be immersed in one project and then something else comes into your head.
“It has been nice for me before this to do multiple things at the same time. The next novels are always buzzing around begging to be done.”
Experience has taught her, however, that there is no way of dealing with those ideas other than to start writing.
Even as a successful author, Beukes still has to find the time to put her ideas on paper – but she has experience of the discipline she will need.
“I used to write with a full-time job and a newborn baby. I know one writer who did her novel in her car during her lunch break,” she says. “You want the magic motivation fairy to come and make things better and carry you through in this glow of inspiration. It doesn’t exist. At some point, you’ve just got to sit down and write.”
Lauren Beukes will be appearing at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on July 20. The event runs from July 18 to 21 and for a full programme call 01423 502303 or online at www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com