interview by Joe Vaz
Issue 12 (August 2011)
TO ANYONE WHO DOESN’T know her personally, Lauren Beukes must seem like some superhuman creative force of nature. Her credits include producer, scriptwriter, director, ex-journalist and novelist, to which she recently added Arthur C Clarke Award winner and comic-book writer. To those who do know her, she is all of these things plus the mother of a three-year-old, a fervent promoter of South African writers and all round lekker chick.
In every interview she has given since having won the Clarke Award, Lauren has never failed to mention other South African writers worthy of international recognition.
Now that really is what makes her a superhero, using her power to do good.
I interviewed Lauren a week before the Clarke Awards were announced, and at the time, neither of us knew she had won. Three months later I thought I’d catch up with her again to see how things had changed since the win, and to help promote her tour to the US in August for Worldcon.
The last time we did an interview with you we were both sneak-attacked. We were doing a Clarke Award interview and neither of us knew it. So this time around I get to ask the question; how does it feel to be the winner of the Arthur C Clarke award?
LAUREN: Very, very strange, I’m still getting used to it, it’s still kind of weird. When they announced it on the night, I didn’t believe them. Firstly, it didn’t register and secondly my hands were shaking for like half an hour afterwards. The next day I was terribly hung over; I’d had two hours sleep, my brother had ensured that I really did celebrate it, and I was riding the subway to meet some friends for lunch and I was thinking, “Maybe I should get off at Angel, or Highbury & Islington, that might actually be a better stop and – HOLY CRAP I WON THE CLARKE AWARD” There were just these little moments of amazingness – it didn’t seem real and then suddenly there were these bright bursts of happiness and disbelief, it was really nice.
And it was handed to you by China Miéville.
LAUREN:Yes, just ridiculous, it was ridiculous.
Has it sunk in now, properly?
LAUREN: I think it has sunk in, mainly ’cause people keep harassing me for interviews, [laughs], but ja, it’s been very strange. We’ve got an amazing South African satirist called Tom Eaton, and he sent me this hilarious email asking, “What do you do with the corpse of a dead guy? You’ve got to make sure to keep the cats and babies away from him, make sure the flies don’t manifest too much,” But it’s been interesting because I suddenly feel a lot more pressure. I feel like I have the ghost of Sir Arthur standing behind me, kind of peering over my shoulder as I type, going, “Yeah, it better be good. Better keep typing, better be better than the last one.”
Oh, don’t do that to yourself. The point is I think you’ve been awarded on the merit of your creation and therefore continue to create the way you created before.
LAUREN: Well it’s nice because I’m working on the new novel and I’m going through agonies of insecurity and self-doubt and I’m like, “Oh, this is the Clarke Award, it’s messing me up,” and Matthew is going, “No, this is your normal process, trust me, I’ve been through it three times before, this is how you are when you start a book.” And I think that helps a lot. It is this incredible, amazing accolade, and the international recognition and to be ranked up there with authors like China Miéville and Margaret Atwood, but at the same time it’s also… You know my normal life continues and my friends and my family keep me grounded. My kid climbs on my head and my husband’s like, “Yeah, yeah okay, whatever, award winner, wash the dishes,” and that’s great. It’s really nice to be able to just live a normal life and be grounded and not get a giant head where I can’t walk through doors.
Well I think the point of awards like this is to give you recognition and to show the world that, “Hey, this is a good author, check her out.” But I think from your peers’ perspective, it’s a pat on the back that says, “Well done, keep at it.”
LAUREN: Yeah, absolutely, definitely. There’s also been a lot more interest in the book in South Africa as well. It’s gone onto two new print runs in SA.
Which is unheard of.
LAUREN: Well, it not unheard of if you’ve written a boarding-school memoir, but ja, that’s really cool. I’ve got a lot of people reading it. I’ve also had a lot of people recognising me on the street, which is really weird, it freaks me out.
That’s really weird for a writer.
LAUREN: For a writer, I know. If you’re Die Antwoord, fine, but so I feel like I can’t step out and run to the garage in my slippers anymore.
The problem with recognition is it always happens when you least expect it. Most recently I was recognised by my plumber, “Aren’t you in Death Race 2?”
And it’s 8 O’clock in the morning and I’m my pjs and slippers.
“Yes, yes… Um, the toilet’s not flushing.”
It’s not what you want is it? You have these ideas of the glamour, but it never works out that way.
Have doors opened up that were previously closed?
LAUREN: I think they might have been ajar, but now they’ve bust open. Certainly I’d had some press interest before and it’s just now coming from unexpected angles that hadn’t paid attention to my work previously. So in South Africa, for example, Huis Genoot and You magazine did a feature on me, which was awesome.
There’s 700, 000 readers right there.
LAUREN: I know, and Die Beeld and Die Burger, and I’ve never really had attention from the Afrikaans press, minor abuse, but suddenly they’re doing like a full-page article and that’s really amazing to be able to address that audience, and to get that kind of reach is awesome.
Doesn’t it freak you out that you kind of need to break all barriers overseas before your fellow South Africans take notice of your work?
LAUREN: It is weird and I do see that happening. I mean we saw that happening with Die Antwoord for example, and Neill Blomkamp, who made Alive in Joburg [in 2005], which was amazing. I think there is a cult following who do see that. I think it’s the difference between more mainstream people and the pop-culture addicts. I mean I went to see Die Antwoord when they were Max Normal, and when they were Constructus Corporation, every single incarnation that Waddy Jones has had, I’ve seen, and just because the rest of South Africa hadn’t heard of him didn’t mean he wasn’t recognised or a success, but it was just in such a small community.
I think what the international thing does is it breaks it open to the mainstream and suddenly you get the people who weren’t paying attention. It kind of breaks through… I guess they have cultural barricades up, and I think a lot of that, unfortunately, is against South African stuff, you know. I was reading on a major women’s news website in South Africa recently, on the book reviews page, about how the writer just hates South African books, or she doesn’t read them because they’re not entertaining. And I’m like, “You are reading the wrong books. I don’t think you’ve tried a South African book in ten years, because that is absolutely not true.” I mean, Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours was riveting, I couldn’t put it down, it’s an amazing thriller, and SL Grey’s The Mall was just horrifying and terrifying. I never read Chick-Lit but Fiona Snyckers’s books Trinity Rising and Trinity on Air are just fabulous and fun and smart and they’ve got a nasty little satirical edge and they get a dig in on social issues. I think that is what South African literature does so well, even our entertaining stuff does kind of address those social issues as well, but not in a ham-fisted or laborious or painful way. So when I read stuff like that [writer's comment] I just wanna shake people.
Having said that, at least it has introduced South African readers to your work and through your interviews you never stop punting other South African writers, and hopefully that allows South Africans to discover the wealth of talent we have in this country.
LAUREN: Definitely. I think any international success is like that. When Damon Galgut was up for the Booker last year, suddenly people were like, “Oh, a South African is up for the Booker, oh, well maybe there’s some other good stuff out there.”
I’m just thrilled. Five years ago, personally, I didn’t know a single writer and I didn’t know any South African writers and now I’m just so excited to be surrounded by successful South African writers everywhere. I think there is beginning to be more of a following and support for local writers, which is amazing. Especially with places like The Book Lounge putting so much behind that.
LAUREN: Absolutely, even Exclusive Books, though they get a bad rap, and there’s lot of controversy about books being slammed into the “African” section, which is a book store apartheid and it’s really painful because no one looks there. But I think they are very supportive of local authors, and I’ve had a lot of support from Exclusives, which has been amazing.
But besides books, at the moment you’re busy on the third novel, but you’ve also been working on comic books, and your documentary, Glitterboys and Ganglands, premiered last month at the Encounters Festival, and how did that go?
LAUREN: It went fabulously. It’s about the biggest female impersonation beauty pageant in Cape Town. We followed three hopefuls right through the process of getting through the semi-finals, right through to the big night. We got all the girls along who participated in the pageant to come to the premiere and it was really fun and fantastic, and everyone looked completely gorgeous. It was such a pleasure to work on, it was really fun.
And it obviously had a good response, I think you added an extra screening or two.
LAUREN: We did add an extra screening, it sold it really, really quickly and it’s going to be on at the Out In Africa festival, which is happening in August.
And are you sending it to any other festivals?
LAUREN: We are, we’ve sent it to Sundance and Toronto and The London festival and we’ve got a whole list of places we’re sending it to, and it’s also been sold to the SABC so it will be aired on SA TV.
Now tell me about the comic books. The last time we spoke you had just done the one shot and now there have been more developments.
LAUREN: Well, it’s just been announced at Comic Con so I am actually allowed to talk about it now. So what I did was a short 9-pager called All The Pretty Ponies for Strange Adventures, which was an anthology collection. And the editor I worked with really liked it and really liked my ideas, but I had spoken to her two years before that, I think somebody commented on this the other day, “Oh my God you make it look so easy, ” and I’m like, “I’ve had two years of email with this editor and waiting for months and ‘yes we’re interested’ but no it’s not ready yet.’
You don’t see the backlog of which goes in behind that and the real hard work to get to this point.
So I put in a proposal two years ago and it got approved a couple of months ago and I’ve been since working on that and it’s actually a spin-off of Bill Willingham’s Fables, which is about magical fairy tale people who are fleeing from the homelands, and they’re kind of refugees in New York, so it’s really great. It’s just a wonderful, incredibly imaginative, epic scale series. I met Bill at World Con in 2009 and he actually sent me to see his editor at Vertigo and they asked me to pitch specifically on the character of Rapunzel, so I pitched a story on Rapunzel set in Japan, because I’d never really got into Japanese fairy tales and I really wanted to explore that and play with that. And they loved the proposal and I’ve just finished the first one and I’ve got another… It’s going to be a six-parter.
So all of these things are basically just coincidence that it’s all happening at the same time. I mean since winning the Clarke award it’s been kind of like, Zoo City, followed by Vertigo, followed by Fables followed by doccies.
LAUREN: It’s terrible, on Twitter I sometimes feel like I can’t talk about it because I’m like, “Oh god, you know I was promoting my book a moment ago, well I also have this comic, and then I also have this documentary and… I’m sorry I’m going to shut up now.” But ja, it’s pure coincidence and the timing is actually terrible because I’m having to work on everything at the same time, and I just got this TV series for the SABC on Matric Dances, you know it’s “Not My Super Sweet 16″.
We’re really looking at what it means to be young in South Africa today, and the range of experience of what that is and just using the Matric Dance as a kind of a lens and that’s happening now as well, so I’ve got the comic book and I’ve got the TV show, I’ve just done a Facebook game and I have a new novel which my agent is hakking me for so…
When’s that due?
LAUREN: Hmmm, I can’t talk about it.
Okay. Now you’re off to the States soon, so lead us through your tour.
LAUREN: I’m going to [World Science Fiction Convention] Worldcon, it’s happening in Reno this year. I’m mainly going because I’m up for the John W. Campbell award, which is not a Hugo award officially, but it’s part of the Hugo ceremony. But I’m up against some really solid writers, including Lev Grossman, who wrote The Magicians, who also is Time Magazine’s book critic, as well as Saladin Ahmed, Larry Correia and Dan Wells.
So I’m up against some really amazing, amazing writers and I don’t know how much chance I stand, and it is a popular vote so there might well be readers who have never heard of me, or I don’t resonate with them because South Africa is just too strange and weird or somebody else is just an infinitely better writer.
My philosophy in awards is if you’re going to lose, lose to amazing brilliant writers.
So you’re safe with this crowd.
LAUREN: [laughs] Well the BSFA award I lost to Ian MacDonald (The Dervish House) and I’m happy to lose to Ian MacDonald any day. And in the South African awards, The M-Net Literary Prize and University of Johannesburg prize [Ivan] Vladislavic (Double Negative) won, and that’s fantastic.
So other than Worldcon, where else will you be?
LAUREN: I’m also stopping in New York on the way there; I have a reading at the New York Public Library in Manhattan, which is really cool. And that was organised for me through Twitter. I asked if anyone had any contacts and this amazing architect set me up with the New York Library the 15th of August. I’m doing KGB Bar, which I have always wanted to do, on the 16th in the evening and then I’m going to Reno, and I have a whole bunch of different events which I’m going to put up on a schedule on my website, and then I’m going to San Francisco and do a reading at Borderlands, and maybe some other readings at some genre bookstores in Berkeley.
That sounds fantastic.
LAUREN: It’s really fun. Oh, and I’m stopping in London on the way. I’m going to be there for twelve hours, but the guys from The Clarke Awards and from PornoKitsch.com have organised some kind of event at the British Library, which will be really fun.
That sounds insane, you don’t even know what it is. They’re just going to pick you up from the airport and whisk you out there.
LAUREN: I know. Well, they’re going to whisk me to somewhere I can have a shower and then let me out in public after that.
Well Lauren, let me say, first of all, thank you for giving us this interview and secondly, thank you for putting South African genre fiction on the map, on the global map, and for just being a lekker chick.
LAUREN: Can I end with a reading recommendation list?
LAUREN: Okay, South African authors you must read, and they’re not all genre writers:
The Mall by SL Grey, which is an amazing, terrifying horror which is all about consumerism and is devastating and very creepy.
Deadlands by Lily Herne, which is a YA set in a zombie apocalypse Cape Town. Very cool, very fun.
Sidekick by Adeline Radloff, it’s a book about a time-travelling superhero and his teenage girl sidekick, who has real issues. She lives in Tamboerskloof, which is my hood and it’s kind of a teenage rom-com meets superheroes, it’s great. Really, really fun and kick-ass.
Charlie Human has an amazing manuscript, which I’ve read. He was my MA student and it’s called Apocolypse Now Now and it’s about magical creatures in Cape Town and an apartheid chemist and general insanity. A giant mantis mecha features at one point, it’s just completely mad, it’s wonderful, it’s amazing, I can’t wait for him to get a publishing deal.
Sam Wilson has got a book called Commedia, which is a comedy set in Rome, about an acting troupe that is forced to perform religious plays, but all they want to do is plays with penises on their noses, which was apparently a big thing in ancient Rome. It’s like a Roman heist. It’s awesome, I can’t tell you how great it is. So those are upcoming titles.
Sifiso Mzobe has just won the Sunday Times Fiction prize for his novel Young Blood.
Fiona Snyckers writes fantastic, really kick-ass sharp, smart chick-lit and Deon Meyer’s thrillers are just amazing, also great crime-writers Margie Orford, anything she’s written, and Mike Nicol as well, really smart writing and he writes to musical soundtracks and he gives you a soundtrack list at the end and he’s like, “These are the songs I recommend you play while reading the book.”
Also, Zukiswa Wanner’s book about living in Joburg, and her last one was up for the commonwealth book prize.
There is just a wealth of amazing amazing writers, and people are missing out.
If you’re not reading South African fiction you’re missing out, and I know that there are duds out there, but just go to a bookshop where people actually know and get advice and get recommendations, and sit in the coffee shop and read ten pages and see if it grabs you.
To see Lauren’s full tour schedule, check out her Books Live blog
Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.