Book Talk: The tale of a time-travelling serial killer

TOKYO Thu Jun 6, 2013 4:11pm EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - When Harper meets Kirby, he is a grown man and she is a child. He gives her a toy pony, tells her he'll be back, then vanishes - into Chicago in the 1930s and a mysterious house that opens onto other times. Later, he tries to kill her.

"The Shining Girls", by South African Lauren Beukes, traces Harper's compulsion to murder the women he knows as "The Shining Girls" and Kirby's stubborn fight to unravel the mystery behind him and bring him down.

Beukes has also worked as a print journalist, written screenplays, developed animated TV shows, directed a documentary and written comics. She won the Arthur C. Clarke award for "Zoo City", her previous novel.

Beukes spoke with Reuters about her book and how she works.

Q: What got this going?

A: I was messing around on Twitter, and I said I should probably write a book about a time-traveling serial killer. One of the few times on Twitter that's paid off for me. As soon as I had the idea I knew I could do something really interesting with it. It wouldn't be Bill and Ted meets Jack the Ripper but that I could bring all this stuff that I'm interested in into it. I'm passionate about a lot of social issues - look at violence against women and how women's roles have changed in society and bring this all into the book. When I told people I wrote about a time-travelling serial killer they all said, 'Oh, I want to read that.' So it's kind of a way of getting people to read a fun book where I can also talk about all of those things I'm passionate about.

Q: How did you develop the idea from there?

A: Books develop on their own. I had the idea of opening with Harper walking across the grass to give Kirby a 'My Little Pony' which didn't exist yet. Then there's the attempt on her life and she survives ... I knew exactly what the ending would be and then it was just a matter of filling in the details and finding who the Shining Girls would be. Writing, to me, is like driving at night. I know where I'm leaving from and where I'm going, but the rest of the time I'm driving in the dark. I can see 20 feet ahead of me in the headlights.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of The House being the time travel vector?

A: A lot of this stuff is intuitive. It's when you let your consciousness off the leash to romp in the grass that you come up with the really interesting ideas. I knew it was going to be a house right away, I knew how Harper was going to find the key. I think you can read that in any number of ways, that he inhabits the place. I think in some ways we are haunted by history and in his case that became very literal.

Q: Were Harper and Kirby intuitive too?

A: Kirby was intuitive. As you write, you kind of start with one idea and then discover your own direction. But Harper? I didn't want him to be a Hannibal Lector type of hero killer. I did a lot of research into real serial killers and listened to a lot of true crime podcasts, especially on the treadmill. You don't need a personal trainer, you run faster when you're listening to serial killer podcasts. A lot of them are just vile, contemptible men, who have major impotence problems with real power in their lives and also sexual dysfunction ...

The only way I could deal with actually writing Harper, because he is so loathsome, was by hurting him at every possible opportunity, but then I had to keep track of the injuries. I know he's a construct, so as soon as I stepped away from my computer I could leave him behind. But I always had to come back to him and sit down and write him. I'd be quite angry writing his chapters. But I think it's also quite important to portray serial killers as what they really are, and not the sexy Hannibal Lector/Dexter types.

Q. You've said that adding elements of sci-fi and fantasy to your novels allows you to deal with issues you might not be able to otherwise.

A: Yes, it allows you to make a more interesting story, a more fun story. But it's also a way of getting over issue fatigue. It's a way of exploring big ideas and coming back to who we are, like putting a distorting mirror up that perversely allows you to see more clearly.

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: I messed around on my first book for four years, and the only reason I finished it was that the University of Capetown, where I was doing my MA, said if I didn't finish it they were going to kick me out. Then I finished it in three months, no problem. So my advice would be to set a reasonable deadline and finish the damn book. Stop second-guessing yourself, quiet the inner critic, and write to the end. Don't worry if it's a mess, it's supposed to be. It's a first draft. You only know what you have when you get to the end. Then you can go back and tinker with it all you like, but just get to the end.

It doesn't get any easier. It's still terrifying. I always know my endings, it's not that I don't know where I'm going, but you don't know what you have until the end. You have to write through. I know there are some writers who write detailed 40-page outlines and then stick to them, but I can't do that. To me it's more of a pirate map than a GPS. I know where I'm going but how I get there, that's where the magic comes in. You surprise yourself in writing, and that's the magic of writing. When you get to the end, that's when you know what you have. The book that you have in your head will never match reality, it's a Platonic ideal, it's imaginary. What's on the page is real, how it's come out is real. And it's often more interesting than the Platonic ideal you had in your head.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies)

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