By Chelsea Haith
A crowd of about eight or nine young English and Journalism students gathered around the small woman standing near the bar in The Rat and Parrot while she signed a copy of a book she’d written for an adoring fan. Once the now treasured book was handed back into a pair of grateful hands the clamouring horde of disciples were offered tequila by the famous author. They downed the shots gladly, because who can resist the opportunity to be able to say, “One time Lauren Beukes bought me a shot of Tequila”?
Beukes was in town on a research trip and had hushed us all up over dinner at Saint’s Bistro the night before. The content and location of her next book are top secret and we were sworn to secrecy. What isn’t a secret is that she is willing to share just every other writer’s secret she has. And she paid for dinner. Generous and giving, Beukes shared her time and insight with not only this young, lone student journalist but everyone she met while in Grahamstown, dishing out advice and common sense like bread to the peasants during the French Revolution.
I met Lauren Beukes alone in Homeground on Somerset Street that humid Wednesday morning and I was supposed to be asking questions such as, “How do you feel about your books being optioned to be made into films by Leonardo DiCaprio’s film company?” Instead we shared photos of our cats. Lauren Beukes is a cat person. She swiped across her phone screen to reveal a photograph of her six year old daughter clutching a calico kitten to her cheek. South Africa’s most prominent author is probably also South Africa’s most approachable author.
Eventually I got round to asking questions. She wrapped her fingers round her coffee cup, patiently waiting for me to find my notes. Her sexy-secretary-red nails contrasted with the white china cup, all except for the nails on her ring fingers which are painted in glistening metallic gold. Apparently this is what’s known as a ‘feature nail’. Her hair is coloured in the reverse, shoulder-length and blonde, shot through with deep auburn streaks. Her straight fringe is equally divided between blonde and auburn. Make-up free and preparing for the long drive back to Cape Town at 5am tomorrow after arriving just last night, she looks like she needs the coffee. It’s been a long two years of touring and writing. Beukes is tired, divorced and wants to go home to get started on her next novel. She doesn’t need UCT pushing her to finish her novel to complete what became a four-year MA in Creative Writing, but her agent, Olly, has been breathing down her neck.
Zoo City, Broken Monsters and The Shining Girls have recently been optioned for films and a television series, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be made, but that someone could make them if they wanted to, provided they can find $30 million, per production. Nevertheless, Beukes has come a long way from her days of paying her bond out of her bond and laughs about being what she terms “a ten-year overnight success.”
“I got abysmal advances for my first few books and finally got a great agent who started a massive bidding war and I got a six figure book deal in pounds for The Shining Girls,” she said, smiling ruefully about the difficulty of the days pre-international book deals.
Beukes is most widely known for The Shining Girls which won the Reader’s Choice Award in 2013 in South Africa and was well received in America and Britain. Her novels deal with what she calls ‘twisty fiction’ or ‘kinking reality’ though she said that she plans on steering away from the label of ‘thriller writer’ with her next novel. But that is all she is willing to reveal. “Talking kills the book. We are not going to talk about the book.”
Beukes said that she writes, “Because I said I would.” From the age of five she wanted to be an author and having gotten past the inevitable catastrophe of a an epic fantasy manuscript at the age of 17 she went on to write children’s television shows and stories for comics, including a Wonder Woman comic set in Soweto. While working as a journalist she interviewed a sports psychologist for an article for Cosmo. A few days later she returned to him as a client to discuss her trouble with finishing her neo-apartheid-state dystopian novel Moxyland. “He was so sensible. I told him I needed the magic motivation fairy and he told me, ‘There isn’t one. Rugby players get up at 5am to run around a field just because they said they would.’ So there’s no formula for motivation, you cannot wait for the muse to strike.”
Beukes spoke in the Humanities Department at Rhodes University about her research process and her path to becoming a full-time writer. “Writing is 10% talent, 10% luck and 80% sheer bloody-minded determination,” she said to the mass that was squeezed into the small seminar room, bodies pressed together in an almost unbearable heat by the end of her presentation. Drinks at the Rat had become increasingly necessary. A trail of about eight people followed Beukes like the Pied Piper down to the bar for a last hoorah before she left for Cape Town the following morning, to resume her life of full-time writer. Smiling, she said, “I won’t always be earning what I am earning now, but I’m confident that I can do this for the rest of my life, and what more could I ask for than that?”
All book cover images used with express permission from the author.