Lauren Beukes Revamps Stereotypical Serial Killers in 'The Shining Girls'
The Shining Girls lit up the summer of 2013, but Lauren Beukes wants readers to remember the girls and not the killer. Meticulous plotting, a murder wall in her home, and hours spent poring over real cases led Beukes to creating victims with honest voices and a killer lacking the charm of TV’s fictional psychopaths.
Bookish: You list your local independent bookstore as the place to go for signed copies of your book. What role do you think indie booksellers play in today’s market?
Lauren Beukes: Committed indies are the way forward for traditional book stores. The Book Lounge in Cape Town holds events practically every night of the week that bring in between 15 to 200 people depending on the author (of course it helps that we’re allowed to serve free wine at book events in South Africa). They’ve won best independent bookstore in South Africa four years running and they launched their own major literary festival. The staff care and it shows.
I’d say the two major models at the moment are convenience versus personal service.
E-books are more disposable, for me. I read manuscripts from friends or that I’ve been asked to blurb, research reading and books for traveling. It’s the convenience factor.
But if there’s a book I really want to read, I’ll want the physical object and I want it to be beautiful and covetable.
Same with book stores. I want knowledgeable staff with great taste who understand mine and will point me in the direction of novels I wouldn’t necessarily have found on my own.
Bookish: The novel jumps around to different points of view. Did you ever consider having a single narrator?
LB: I’d done a single narrator with my black magic noir, Zoo City, and it felt like this needed the multiplicity of perspectives, especially to give the victims a voice. Too often in crime fiction, the victims are reduced to pretty corpses or bloody puzzles, the sum of their wounds rather than their lives. I wanted to subvert the serial killer trope and get into their heads and make the book much more about them than the vile, violent loser who steals their future.
Bookish: Did you have a favorite view to write from or were there any characters you would’ve liked to spend more time exploring?
LB: I had a lot of fun with Dan in particular, as sidekick and foil to spiky, driven Kirby, but I also loved writing Willie Rose and Alice and Zora. I wish I could have spent more time with Nella, Zora’s daughter. There’s a novella there, I’d like to write. I think she would have started to piece the mystery together herself.
Bookish: You had what you called the Murder Wall in your home – a gigantic storyboard for the plot line of The Shining Girls. Have you ever mapped out a story in this way before?
LB: I’ve never done such detailed plotting before, but I’ve also never had to deal with such a complex plot. Zoo City was Chandleresque, but this was a whole other level, with three major intersecting timelines (not including the individual characters’ lifelines) and totem objects being moved between women and decades, taken from one, left on another. It was critical that I was able to keep track of everything.
Bookish: There are photographs, news clippings, floor plans—so many details! Where did it all come from?
LB: Normally, when I’m writing, I collect reference images that create a kind of mood board, photographs of locations I’ve visited personally, evocative images, people’s faces who have something of the spirit of my characters (I never cast exactly) and One Darnley Road, who created the UK book trailer made up a lot of props too – like the news story on the glow girl’s death or Jin-Sook’s murder, using the exact wording from the book, so I was able to add that in too. And it’s all interconnected with wool threads, red to track the murders, yellow and black to track the movement of the objects, across the timelines.
It was great to be able to glance up from my screen and have the whole book laid out in front of me, to be able to stand up and physically move a chapter or a plot point around if it needed to be. It helped a lot.
Bookish: In an io9 interview, you share that part of the inspiration behind the book was your reaction to the horrific death of a friend and the lack of justice she received. In your blog, when you tell her story, you end by saying you need to find a way to let go. Has writing Kirby’s story helped in any way?
LB: No. Thomokazi is still dead. Her boyfriend who poured boiling water over her and stabbed her and locked her in his shack and walked away, so that it took four months for her to die from her injuries, is still out there, probably with a new young girlfriend. And he probably beats her up too and yanks her hair out of her scalp. And there are thousands like him. Millions. Men whose first language is violence.
I wish fiction could fix the world. Maybe it can make us see it in new ways, maybe it means a journalist reporting a murder will talk a little more about the person we’ve lost and a little less about what was done to her, but it doesn’t change the tedious monotony of women being killed every day, not by serial killers, but by the people who supposedly love them.
So, yeah, still angry. Still not able to let this shit go. And we shouldn’t stand for it. We can’t.
Bookish: Kirby’s attack is vividly described and you’ve said, “I WANTED you to have to put it down and fortify yourself with a cup of tea or a double scotch, because real violence is shocking, it is upsetting, it’s devastating.” Reading that section was difficult – what was the writing process like for you?
LB: I wanted to get at the emotional heart of violence – what it does to us. I needed to have you with the victim not the killer. So often depictions of serial killers and murder are easy-peasy, trigger-squeezy, or worse, you’re riding with the killer, complicit, kinda getting off on this. I wanted to subvert all of that.
It was very difficult to write and very upsetting. What was more upsetting was the research. I based some of that scene on what I’d read of real survivor’s stories and one in particular, of a woman called Alison who was raped and attacked by a pair of young, white so-called Satanists in the 90s in South Africa. They strangled her, stabbed her, eviscerated her and cut her throat. She walked to the road because she didn’t want her mother to find her and to worry that she’s suffered. Somehow, miraculously, she survived and even more miraculously, unlike Kirby, was able to make peace with what happened to her and to forgive her attackers. It was terrible to read, worse that it was real.
But this is the reality. This is what violence means. This is what someone goes through; the pain, the shock, the terror, the outrage.
Don’t look away, you need to remember this.
Bookish: There’s a trend in novels, film, and television where serial killers are depicted as highly intellectual, sometimes handsome, and often fascinating individuals. Harper is none of those things – he’s closer to the opportunistic serial killers that exist in real life. Was this a conscious choice? Is the media glorifying serial killers?
LB: Oh absolutely. The sexy, diabolically brilliant serial killer who outwits the cops while serving up chianti and the victim’s spleen on a plate lightly sautéed in a bouillabaisse sauce, is a wonderful bit of invented high villainy. It’s great TV.
I’ve read a lot on true crime and listened extensively to podcasts and real serial killers are (mostly) violent losers with impotence problems who are cunning, disturbed, contemptible men, maybe sometimes brilliant, sometimes charming, caught up in a terrible compulsion. They have no real insight into why they did what they did. They’re not remotely fascinating. They’re empty, they’re broken, they’re pathetic.
This post originally appeared on Zola Books.
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