Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Interview: Lauren Beukes

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Lauren Beukes is a recovering journalist, TV scriptwriter, award-winning columnist and writer (aka glorified typist). She’s the author of dystopian thriller Moxyland longlisted for the 2009 Sunday Times Fiction Prize Her previous book, Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past, a rollicking collection of biographies of real-life renegades and raconteurs, was nominated for the 2006 Alan Paton non-fiction award. Her short stories have been published in various anthologies, including Open, FAB, African Road: New Writing from Southern Africa, 180 Degrees, Urban 03, Novel Idea and Touch: Stories of Contact.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, when did you know you wanted to become a writer (be it a journalist, scriptwriter, or novelist)?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five and someone let on that Enid Blyton had made a million pounds from her books. Until then I hadn’t realised that writing could be a viable career. The idea that you could actually get paid to make up stories seemed too far-fetched.

I was set on books from the beginning, but reading Elf Quest and 2000AD and watching Thunder Cats and Gummi Bears and Robotech and playing games like Uninvited and Space Quest and New Zealand Story on my Commodore Amiga made me want to write all that stuff too.

Journalism happened by accident because I didn’t know how to get involved in all those other things. I started out as the reviews editor on South Africa’s biggest computer magazine, SA Computer Magazine went on to edit their sister magazine, a lifestyle and technology magazine called @home and then spent the next 10 years freelancing writing about anything from teen vampires to township vigilantes. Journalism taught me how to write, but it also taught me how to be interested in the world.

The scriptwriting happened again my a twist of fortune and ambition when Clockwork Zoo approached me looking for a writer to help develop a treatment for a South African sci-fi cartoon. It turned into SA’s biggest animated TV series that ran to 104 episodes over three years.

With regards to your nationality, do you see yourself as African, European, or something else entirely? How has this identity shaped your writing?

The question of identity is so fraught in South Africa, which is not unsurprising in a country still reeling from the shock of 46 years under an evil racist regime.

Of course that shapes who I am and what I write about.

I live in a country with shocking economic inequality (that’s both third world and first, sometimes within half a kilometre of each other) stricken by AIDS and corruption and crime. At the same time, there’s tremendous hope and optimism and a resilience. South Africa is an incredible place that has spent the last 20 years going through interesting times (as per the Chinese curse). It’s a fascinating place to be.

In answer to your question, I think of myself as South African full stop. Those European ties are so old, so frayed, they’re not even a sepia photograph, they’re a faded oil painting dating back 350 years when my family first came to this country.

Considering your previous job writing for SA Computer Magazine, @home, and the role technology plays in Moxyland, are you a big tech geek?

I wish. I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to be a real geek. Can I be a pop geek? Fascinated by the way technology and science and gaming affects society, culture and who we are as human beings without really understanding the ones and zeroes of it all?

Or to put it another way, I read Steven Johnson and Bruce Sterling and BoingBoing and Wired, but I can’t read a Tokyo Flash watch.

How has your previous experiences, including your careers as a journalist, scriptwriter, and columnist, aided you in writing short stories and a novel?

You see, this is where I should have read through all the questions first before I started answering them. Refer last line, answer to question 1.

Journalism taught me everything. It gave me 10 000 hours of practice sitting behind a keyboard corralling words, taught me how to be stylistically flexible and introduced me to situations and contexts and people I would have never encountered in my normal life, whether it was nuclear physicists or homeless sex workers. And transcribing hours and hours and hours of interviews is great instruction in how real people speak. And I’ve found that real-life is often more surprising and inventive than fiction. We’re a strange species capable of the most incredible innovations and atrocities.

I’ve channeled some of my journalism directly into fiction (like a short story on 419 scammers for the recent Touch: Stories of Contact anthology) but mainly I use it to create a context and broaden my own understanding of the world and people.

Scriptwriting has taught me to think in punchy scenes, to ditch what’s irrelevant and think more visually than I might otherwise. I’m most interested in dialogue (probably a side-effect of all that interview tape transcribing) which comes easily to me. It’s the descriptive detail I have to work at crafting.

What's the most rewarding experience when it comes to being a full time writer? Most frustrating?

Most rewarding is having someone respond to your work. Even if they hated it, they still spent several hours of their life immersed in a world you made up in your head. That’s curious and wonderful. And let’s face it, getting paid to write is a ridiculous privilege.

Most frustrating is time management and forcing myself to sit down and write when I could be doing equally important things like reading the Wonderland blog or hanging out with my kid or repacking my sock drawer. Hey no-one said that just cos it’s a privilege and a joy doesn’t also mean it’s work.

Your novel Moxyland has an interesting history. How did it end up getting published by Jacana? Angry Robot Books?

I wrote it as part of my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town and then spent a year trying to sell it overseas, efforts which may have been hampered in that it was written in a South African-ised Clockwork Orange-style slanguage that took some getting used to.

After getting some luminous rejections (including one that said the writing was like “Bret Easton-Ellis at his best” which I’m going to take to mean Lunar Park) I took the crit to heart and stripped out most of the invented lingo and gave it to South Africa’s most interesting and open-minded publisher, Jacana. The publishing director, Maggie Davey read the manuscript on the plane on her way to the Frankfurt Book Fair and sent me a text on landing that said “Fastest book deal ever. We’ll take it.”

Moxyland was released in April 2008 by Jacana and it did very well, got some great reviews and spun off into cool tie-ins and when we sent it to HarperCollins’ new SF/F/WTF imprint Angry Robot, they came back fast and hard with a two book deal that would make Moxyland one of their launch titles.

Moxyland has a couple of tie-ins, from soundtracks to toys. What made you decide to launch the book in several venues? What was it like collaborating with other people to produce the said commodities?

Blame Alan Moore. I’ve always been blown away by the way he tells a story through so many different formats, whether it’s a vaudeville showtune or a racy bit of historic erotica or a horror comic about pirates. I wanted to include different elements in the actual book, but that proved tricky.

So I took inspiration from Mark Danielewski (whose sister Poe wrote a soundtrack for his topsy-turvy novel House of Leaves) and approached local indie music producer African Dope to put together an official soundtrack. It required a lot of buy in from them because I didn’t have any budget to do it. Fortunately, they loved the idea and their distributor Soul Candi paid for the CD.

They were amazing, HoneyB gave me full access to their catalogue of 5000 songs and then advised me on a shortlist of dirty, gritty electronica and rock to suit the mood of the book. Fletcher mastered it, and Roach got it onto shelves and, more importantly, out to digital distributors. It helped that African Dope already has a major international following.

When I first saw the cute ‘n’ creepy Moxy cover toy from the original Jacana cover (conceived by Joey Hifi and made up by Michelle Son), it was immediately apparent that other people would want one.

My friends Sarah Lotz and Carol Walters set up a small women’s empowerment group in the rural community of Montagu, kitted them out with sewing machines and Michelle’s pattern and they set about making them. The first batch were decidedly mutant (and probably now highly collectible for those flaws) but the Montagu Sew & Sews have gotten much better at cloning the critters these days. 2/3rds of the price goes directly to the women’s group and putting bread on the table. We’ve raised R13000 for them so far.

And then there was the e-book, produced originally by Electric Bookworks, who figured out how to embed the African Dope soundtrack, which is, as far as we know, the first time anyone had done anything like this.

It was humbling and gratifying to have other people buy into the idea and the world and take this on themselves as a cross-pollinated creative collaboration.

What I really like about the spin-offs is how they’re absolutely in keeping with the book. Part-time DJ Toby would have loved the soundtrack. Tendeka would have approved of the (small) social upliftment the toy has provided and an evolved e-book with an embedded soundtrack was a natural complement.

What made you decide to write a novel? What's the charm of a thick book for you?

Moxyland originally started as a short story (a self-contained variation of the pool hall chapter) and while I was casting around for a subject for a whole novel, one of my lecturers in the MA in Creative Writing class presented the short to the class. It was peer pressure. They made me do it.

Levity aside, there’s an art to short stories and I’ll always love the succinctness of the format, but there’s a weight and a heft to the story in long form, more room to play.

And from a cycnical commercial perspective, short story anthologies don’t sell as well nor attract the same readership, which makes publishers more reluctant to take them on.

What were your goals in writing Moxyland? Do you think you've achieved them?

To write something that interested me that other people would hopefully be interested in too.

Of course, the novel has grand ambitions and themes, to raise questions about AIDS orphans and online identity and security theatre and surveillance society and scary epidemics and trading off privacy for the illusion of safety, corporate interference in government, privatization and the divides we construct between people and how apartheid might rise again in more insidious ways. I’d like to think I managed to get in at least some of those questions – if not the answers.

Technology has a big impact in Moxyland. In your opinion, how is technology affecting the culture around you, publishing, and life in general?

Technology affects everything we do, who we are – in how we use it.

What’s most interesting for me is not the innovation, whether it’s using deactivated HIV to attack cancer cells or Japanese cyborg suits, but what we do with it. I loved the refugee camps set up in Second Life to protest the genocide in Darfur, for example, or how Twitter has evolved in ways the developers never considered.

Technology provides scope for the imagination. It just depends which way your imagination twists. It could be towards greater freedom of speech as in the Twitter protests in Guatamala or to censorship, as with Amazon’s recent remote delete of 1984 off Kindles.

Of course, it also provides scope for much frantic scrabbling as we try to figure it all out, from the ethics of Internet censorship in countries like China and Zimbabwe to new business models for journalism and publishing and the music industry.

What are your current projects? What's next for Lauren Beukes?

I’m finishing up my new novel, a muti* noir called Zoo City. It’s about a girl with a sloth on her back and a talent for finding lost things who falls foul of a magician crime lord in a re-imagined Johannesburg. It’ll be out next year.

And then I’ve committed to doing a graphic novel with my friend and cover designer Joey Hi-fi. He’s cagey on his projects, so I’m not really allowed to talk about it, but it’s kinda Daniel Clowes meets Marvel by way of Twin Peaks.

And a movie script for an animated feature with Clockwork Zoo (my day job employers) based on an award-winning dark fantasy play called Electric Juju.

And maybe some Gorey-esque kids books. We’ll see what I can squeeze in.

(*African magic)

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Shut up and write. The only thing that matters is downloading the words from your head and onto the page.

There’s plenty of time for polishing (and finding an agent and a publisher and planning your marketing strategy) later. Lock that self-doubting bastard inner critic in a cupboard and get the story down.

Anything else you want to plug?

We’ve got some very cool animated shows in development at Clockwork Zoo, including an adult zombie comedy called Deadbeats about a household of three zombies and one stoner trying to crack it in the real world, a lunatic kids show about a sassy girl and the littlest nightmare fighting off bad dreams in Lucy & The Nightmares and Banna Banana, about a madcap wannabe superhero banana who is a few grapes short of a fruit basket, and his long-suffering sidekick, Strawberry Boy. We’ve got scripts, artwork, test sequences and we’re looking for co-production partners.

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