[Welcome to Rue Morgue's newest column, Hell's Shelves. Novelist and journalist Alan Kelly will use his hard-won chunk of our unreal estate to explore the best in genre fiction, from the small-press to the experimental to the mainstream. In the first installment, Alan chats up Lauren Beukes, author of Moxyland and Zoo City.]
If South African writer Lauren Beukes hasn’t already attracted a cult following with her debut novel Moxyland, she is sure to score a big hit with her follow-up Zoo City. A book with all the hardboiled trappings of Mickey Spillane spliced with the deadly, ethereal edge of Caitlín R. Kiernan and the socio-political bent of Margaret Atwood, Zoo City is a genre-defying, post-modern gallimaufry of shamanism, spiritual familiars, guilt, redemption and social isolation, packaged with more than enough violent grit and eye-watering shocks to appeal to even the most jaded of horror aficionados.
The Arthur C. Clarke award-winning novel has been hailed by genre writers and critics alike as one of the finest novels published in years. Not that we’d want to blow smoke up a writer’s ass, but with Zoo City, Beukes has deftly earned her place alongside the forefathers of thought-provoking, cleverly crafted urban fantasy fare. Her writing sits comfortably beside work from the likes of China Miéville, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Christian Matheson and George Orwell.
Beukes has an MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town (she penned Moxyland during her time there). Her work as a freelance journalist (she has contributed to Sunday Times, Colors, The Hollywood Reporter, Nature Medicine, Marie Claire and The Big Issue) has stood her in good stead for a career in writing. Along with her fiction, Beukes has also published a collection of biographies called Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past. She has written dozens of articles investigating provocative issues – everything from homeless sex workers to teen vampires to electricity thieves – and moonlights as head writer on the animated show URBO: The Adventures of Pax Afrika.
Below, Lauren talks about her tough-as-nails protagonist Zenzi December, collaborations with other writers, and the fan-interaction element of her work…
With Zoo City, you conducted a lot of hard research and it has really paid off. Is your research mostly preliminary (before you start) or do you begin your investigations while working away at the story?
Most of it is preliminary. I always know how the story begins and how it will end – it’s filling in the middle bit that’s the hard work and most research-intensive. With Zoo City that included visiting the slums of Hillbrow, interviewing refugees at the Central Methodist Church, hanging out at cool music venues in Brixton, consulting a sangoma at the Mai Mai healer’s market and getting bounced from the Rand Club. I’ll also look at photo sets of the locations, watch documentaries and movies and read as much as I can. Then, while I’m writing, I’ll research stuff as it comes up, online or asking the expert hive-mind on Twitter for those unGoogle-able queries like “what’s the best place to dump a body in Johannesburg?” (Troyeville, apparently).
At the novel’s core is the scam-writer-for-hire, finder of lost things and convicted killer Zinzi December – a bad-ass, self-assured and pragmatic young woman who has slipped through the cracks and now resides in a dangerous ghetto called Zoo City. How much does character need to reflect setting for you as a writer?
Who we are is determined by where we come from, in terms of our cultural and economic background, race, gender, [and] sexuality as well as the physical space. Zinzi is absolutely South African, absolutely a Joburg girl.
Zoo City has invited comparison with Philip Pullman’s young adult trilogy His Dark Materials, but whereas Pullman’s Daemon “familiar,” or animal spirit, was a constant in his character’s lives, your animals are born once an individual commits an atrocity. Guilt and redemption are the biggest themes in the book; do you think a writer needs to like their characters?
I like writing conflicted characters. Straight good and evil is tedious. We’re all shaded by ambivalence, by contradictions in our personality. I do like all my characters – and I think writers should, even the really nasty ones. Zinzi is damaged and cynical and jagged ’round the edges, but she likes to think she’s more hardcore than she really is. It’s the subtext of her vulnerability and compassion that she’s trying so hard to repress that makes her interesting.
Your publisher, Angry Robot, ran a competition with Authonomy.com to write a short story based around Moxyland (the winning stories are presented at the end of Zoo City). Any plans to do something similar with Zoo City?
Not officially, but I love fan fic and fan art. It makes my day (apart from the really creepy stuff). Artists Jonno Cohen and Werner Diedericks have done some beautiful Zoo City-inspired art, and my favourite Moxyland-inspired creation was someone who adapted the official Moxy graffiti stencil for in-game use in Halo.
Three chapters of Zoo City were written by different writers: the profile on fictional music producer Odi Huron (by music journo Evan Milton); the psychology paper on the sentient dark force known as “the undertow” (by Charlie Human); and The Prison Papers (by Sam Wilson). Can you tell me a bit about these collaborations and about the social network element of your fan interaction?
I’ve always enjoyed collaborating, especially in my long-time day job as a TV scriptwriter. Other people add dimensions to your world you wouldn’t have come up with on your own. I was so impressed and excited with the Moxyland short story competition, by other minds at play in my setting and with my characters, that it seemed natural to ask the winning writers – and acclaimed South African music journo, Evan Milton – if they wanted to guest-write background chapters for Zoo City. I briefed them carefully and we discussed what they were going to do and I tweaked all the chapters afterward to make sure that they fit into the world and the plot, but the ideas and the writing were all their own.
When I was doing a tour around South Africa to celebrate the Arthur C. Clarke win, my publisher asked if I could do something special and I approached restorative justice programme, Khulisa, to participate. They arranged ex-offenders who had been through their programme to do a guest-reading of the prison diaries chapter by Sam Wilson. It was remarkable and moving to have people with real experience of prison read imagined fiction about same.
You’ve recently had your first comic, “All the Pretty Ponies,” published in Vertigo’s Strange Adventures anthology. Zoo City would make an awesome graphic novel. What was this transition like, from writing in the long-form to working on a comic?
I’ve had a lot of practice in thinking visually working at an animation studio writing on major children’s series over the last five years. Comics are slightly trickier, though. Dialogue has to work very hard and the sheer variety of panel layouts you can play with is a little daunting at first. I was lucky to work with a fantastic editor, Shelly Bond, and a brilliant artist, Inaki Miranda, who held my hand through the figuring-out of it.
With Moxyland and Zoo City, you compiled a list of gritty South African tunes with DJ Honey B. Do you think a good playlist is beneficial to the working writer?
We put together the albums after I’d written the books, but they’re very much in keeping with the mood and tone of the novels, and music I was listening to at the time. My best working music is upbeat electronica that’s lush and dark and melodic but also has verve and energy. Lyrics distract me.
Any talk yet of a film adaptation?
We’re considering some serious offers from some high profile South African producers at the moment.
I can really see you run and run with the Zooniverse you created here. Will you return to these characters in the future?
I have some other projects I want to do right now, but I’d definitely consider returning to Zoo City.
Any contemporary writers you’d like to recommend to our readers and why?
I’m going to focus on the explosion of South African genre writers. I’m a huge fan of SL Grey’s deeply disturbing consumertopia hell, The Mall; Lily Herne’s scathingly satirical zombie apocalypse YA, Deadlands; and Sidekick, Adeline Radloff’s slim but punchy YA about a teen henchgirl to a time-travelling superhero, set in Cape Town. And I’m very excited about upcoming talent, including Charlie Human, Liam Kruger, Andrew Salomon and Sam Wilson, whose publishing deals are imminent.
Alan Kelly is the author of the pulp fiction novel Let Me Die a Woman and the European Liaison for the Viscera Film Festival. A horror and alt.cult fanatic, he has worked for many print and online magazines, including GCN (Gay Community News), This is Horror, Planet Fury, Film Ireland, Butcher Queers, and Bookslut. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland and is hard at work on his second book.