Transcript for Lauren Beukes on "The Shining Girls"

Jim Fleming: Serial killers are scary enough but imagine a serial killer that can travel through time. That's the premise behind Lauren Beukes's new novel, The Shining Girls, and it could be coming soon to a television near you. Leonardo DiCaprio's company has bought the rights. Here's Lauren Beukes.

Lauren Beukes: This is the opening of my book, The Shining Girls. It's Harper, the serial killer, in 17 July 1974 and it's his first meeting with our heroine, Kirby.

(READING)  "He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sport coat. It is sweaty in his hand. Midsummer, here, is too hot for what he’s wearing. But he has learned to put on a uniform for this purpose; jeans in particular. He takes long strides—a man who walks because he’s got somewhere to be, despite his gimpy foot. Harper Curtis is not a moocher. And time waits for no one. Except when it does. The girl is sitting cross-legged on the ground, her bare knees white and bony as birds’ skulls and grass stained. She looks up at the sound of his boots scrunching on the gravel and broken glass—long enough for him to see that her eyes are brown under that tangle of grubby curls—before she dismisses him and goes back to her business. “What are you doing?” he says, putting brightness in his voice. He crouches down beside her in the threadbare grass. Really, he’s never seen a child with such crazy hair. Like she got spun round in her own personal dust devil, one that tossed up the assortment of random junk splayed around her—a cluster of rusty tin cans, a broken bicycle wheel tipped on its side, spokes jabbing outwards. Her attention is focused on a chipped teacup, turned upside down, so that the silvered flowers on the lip disappear into the grass. The handle has broken off, leaving two blunt stumps. “You having a tea party, sweetheart?” he tries again. “It’s not a tea party,” she mutters into the petal-shaped collar of her checked shirt. Kids with freckles shouldn’t be so earnest, he thinks. It doesn’t suit them.“Well, that’s fine,” he says. “I prefer coffee anyways. May I have a cup, please m’am? Black with three sugars, okay?” He reaches for the chipped porcelain, and the girl yelps and bats his hand away. A deep, angry buzzing comes from underneath the inverted cup. “Jesus. What you got in there?” “It’s not a tea party! It’s a circus!” “That so?” He turns on his smile, the goofy one that says he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and neither should you. But the back of his hand stings where she smacked him. She glares at him suspiciously. Not for who he might be, what he might do to her, but because she is irritated that he doesn't understand. He looks around, more carefully, and recognizes it now: her ramshackle circus. The big top ring marked out with a finger-tracing in the dirt; a tightrope made from a flattened drinking straw rigged between two soda cans; the Ferris wheel of the dented bicycle wheel, half–propped up against a bush, with a rock to hold it in place and paper people torn out of magazines jammed between the spokes. It doesn’t escape him that the rock holding it up is the perfect fit for his fist. Or just how easily one of those needle spokes would slide right through the girl’s eye like Jell-O. He squeezes hard on the plastic pony in his pocket. The furious buzzing coming from underneath the cup is a vibration he can feel all the way down his vertebrae, tugging at his groin."

Fleming: It's amazing you know--, we don't know it yet but you've just set up the whole story in those first few paragraphs.

Beukes: Thank you.

Fleming: These two characters, Harper Curtis and Kirby Mazrachi, they are the central characters in your story. Tell me a little bit about what happens to them after this day when she's a girl and he's grown.

Beukes: Well, the pony in his pocket is actually an impossible present because this particular event happens in 1974, but the pony is from 1982. It's a My Little Pony. It's Butterscotch, and he tells her that he's going to come back for it and he does in 1989 when he comes back to try and kill her. And this is what he does: he has a house which opens into other times and it allows him to hunt the women he defines as his shining girls through time, across decades, and he comes to kill her and for one reason or another he doesn't succeed and he doesn't know that she's survived. But this completely overturns her entire life and she becomes absolutely obsessed with finding the man who did this to her, turning the hunt around on him and stopping him. So they're kind of two characters caught in twin obsessions. It's almost a death duel, and eventually he will figure out that she's actually survived and come back for her.

Fleming: When did the idea come to you?

Beukes: You know, writers spend a lot of time messing around on Twitter and sometimes that pays off because I was bantering with a random stranger and I through out the idea in the middle of a conversation. "Hey, I should write a book about a time traveling serial killer," and I thought, "Wait, wait, I really should. That would be great. I could do something really fun with that." I quickly deleted the tweet and I started writing the book on the plane and I had this opening chapter come to me immediately as a very strong kind of central image. And I always know my beginnings and my endings. It's kind of figuring out the in-between stuff which is where the magic comes in, but I knew I wanted to set it in the 20th century and look at how the loops of history come up again and again. It's a time travel book. There are loops, there are paradoxes, but it's also about history.

Fleming: I guess the time travel loops are part of the fascination of it, but did you know right away? Were you planning to write a book about a serial killer?

Beukes: No, I've never had a particular interest in serial killers. I'm not one of those serial killer junkies. I've watched a lot of serial killer movies and I think some of the better ones do it very, very well, from "Silence of the Lambs," through to "Seven."  I think a lot of what I'm doing, I hope, is kind of subverting the traditions of the genre, you know, making it much more about the victims, who are normally just pretty corpses or blood puzzles, and making it much more about the women than the actual killer.

Fleming: Of course, in this case, it's not just a woman, it's many women. It's the shining girls. They are all shining girls, and you mean shining in a very particular sense, don't you?

Beukes: I do. A lot of serial killers had a type. Ted Bundy went for young women with long brown hair and a middle parting. Harper Curtis's type is that he looks for women who have a spark inside them, a burning potential. There's a fire in their guts and he can't stand it. They're all kicking back against their social context in some way or another. He's driven to kill them because of it.

Fleming: Does he have some particular experience, or is that asking you too much to know why he can't stand that spark?

Beukes: Well, he stumbles upon this house and the woman's name is actually written on the wall, waiting for him. So it's kind of a play on time travel and fatalism, destiny. It becomes kind of a puzzle that he's fallen into himself. But he was certainly a violent man before this. There was certainly a precedent, this is just what nudged him through the final door. He was involved in World War I and he was complicit in his brother getting very, very badly hurt. He's always been a bad kid, a vile, violent man.

Fleming: One of the things that I suspect must've been very hard for you, though I don't know, is that you really describe these murders graphically. There is gory detail after gory detail. I guess it would've been hard for me. I don't know whether it was for you.

Beukes: It was, and I think there are some people who have found the violence shocking, but you know what? It's supposed to be shocking because real violence is shocking and I need you to remember that because we're so inure to death, we're so inure to violence, we're so inure to serial killers, that I needed to jolt you out of that. Actually, I think a lot of that response comes from the fact that the deaths are actually quite emotional because they're from the woman's perspective and you're with her at the end. You're not riding along on the serial killer's shoulder, complicit in the action, kind of getting off on the sick thrill of getting the knife in. You are with the young woman and it's her shock and her outrage and her fear and, "How dare you do this to me?" and, "Oh my god he just stabbed me," and it's that reality. I wanted it to be real because I think it's too easy to write that very glibly and to make death meaningless and to make it just another dead body. So it is supposed to be upsetting. I tried not to go into too much detail but there are one or two kind of shocking lines and vivid imagery, too jarring, specifically.

Fleming: Why, by the way, did you go to Chicago for this? You're South African. You can tell by listening to you that that's the part of the world you know best, but you chose 20th century Chicago. There must've been a reason.

Beukes: I specifically didn't want to write about apartheid. I have tackled apartheid in both my previous books. If you're looking at the 20th century, America just gives you a much broader scope. There's much more range to play with in terms of looking at everything from how highways have reshaped, to how McCarthyism, the Red Scare, is an echo of the War on Terror that we have today with paranoia festering and being used to erode our rights. There were always loops and interesting threads that I wanted to pick out, women's rights, the Great Depression, all kinds of things, and if I'd set it in South Africa apartheid would've just overshadowed everything and it would've had to become essentially about that. So I specifically chose Chicago because it was the city I'd lived in. In South Africa we like to think that we do things best, that we have the best corruption, we have the best violent crime, and we have the best segregation, but some American cities do it pretty well too.

Fleming: Yeah. You also kept it in the 20th century which is nice in a way because it gives you the ability to do things that you can research. It's not pretending to understand the future.

Beukes: Absolutely. My previous book, "Moxyland," dealt with a near-future under a corporate apartheid system. So I have played with the future before, but I think there's a thread in all my books about the ghosts of the past and ghosts of history that come up again and again. I think it's a major theme in my works that I'm fascinated with.

Fleming: You never actually explained, do you, how the house functions? How it is a time portal?
 

Beukes: I don't explain how it is a time portal but I do explain why it is a time portal.

Fleming: There's a feeling that it may not be, that these may just be the strangeness of Harper's mind.

Beukes: It could be.

Fleming: Okay. We won't pursue that one. What do you think about time travel that has such a resonance for readers?

Beukes: I think it's fun. I could've written "Bill and Ted's Excellent Killing Spree" and we could've jumped from killing cavemen, to killing Shakespeare, to killing Hitler, but I specifically wanted to do a more serious book which examined more serious issues, or I'd like to hope it's a more serious book. Wild [conceits] light time travel, or in my previous book, magical animals that attach themselves to criminal or kind of a near future where we're controlled by our cellphones, which is not at all like our current reality. It allows you a way to play with current issues, and we have such issue fatigue. Every time Syria comes on the news it's just so overwhelming and it's so much to deal with, you just kind of want to change the channel. As a South African, the Oscar Pistorius case, talking about violence against women, it's just horrific and you get sick. You just want to change the channel and look away. And I think fiction, and especially inventive, strange, playful fiction, just gives you enough of a twist on reality that it makes it fresh again, that you can get into those issues from a different angle. It's like a distorting mirror which makes things more clear.

Fleming: Lauren Beukes is the author of "The Shining Girls."  Why do you think we're so drawn to stories about fictional serial killers? You can share your thoughts with us on Facebook or Twitter, or you can send us email through our website, it's TTBOOK.org. It's always nice to hear from you.

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