Sunday, November 21, 2010

[Beyond the Wordcount] Lauren Beukes on The History of Violence

Do you wonder how a book is made? If you are an avid reader and the sight of a book makes you glow, then you probably have wondered about a novel’s journey from idea to hard/softcover delight on your local bookstore’s shelf. Did the author discover the story whole and intact? Did the story need countless revisions? How much is researched and how much is the product of the author’s imagination? What did the author have to go through to publish that novel you just love? Beyond the Wordcount is the feature that will give a behind-the-scene look to the story behind the story, the things that you will never guess as they stay off the pages.

In this installment, I bring you Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City [which I will review as it happens in December]. Her post will be connected with this title, which has been highly praised all around.

Bio: Lauren Beukes is a recovering journalist, TV scriptwriter, award-winning columnist and writer (aka glorified typist). She’s the author of the muti noir, Zoo City released in 2010 and the dystopian thriller Moxyland (2008) which William Gibson describes as “very, *very* good. Her short stories have been published in various anthologies, including Home Away: 24 Hours. 24 Writers. 24 Places, Touch: Stories of Contact, Open, FAB, African Road: New Writing from Southern Africa, 180 Degrees, Urban 03 and Novel Idea.

She has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT, but she got her real education from 12 years of freelance journalism. Writing for the likes of the Sunday Times, Colors, The Hollywood Reporter, Nature Medicine, Marie Claire, and The Big Issue, among others, she picked up really useful life-skills like sky-diving, pole-dancing and brewing mqombothi. Journalism also allowed her to hang out with AIDS activists, township vigilantes, electricity thieves, homeless sex workers, teen vampires, reluctant basejumpers and other interesting folk.


Zinzi has a talent for finding lost things.

To save herself, she's got to find the hardest thing of all: The truth.

Task: When I contacted Lauren to contribute to my feature, I had the clear idea to ask her about the inclusion of additional materials such as articles, interviews and news reports. I had no idea that Lauren had something way better in mind. Namely, the history and importance of violence in Zoo City.


Zoo City is a muti noir *– and noir, by necessity, includes acts of violence. There has to be a body involved. Luckily, I’ve got several. But, for the most part, that violence is restrained.

Zinzi, is not your typical Buffy-model kick-ass urban fantasy heroine. That is to say, she’s not holding off hordes of slavering undead loup garou ninjas with a Hello Kitty chainsaw in one hand and a fireball in the other (although that does sound pretty awesome and I may have to write that).

In fact, just about the worst thing that Zinzi has to confront (apart from her past and the really horrible thing later) is a bunch of street kids armed with a sharpened rusty screwdriver. A situation she handles very un-heroically by running away. And that’s because a rusty screwdriver is a helluva thing. Worse than zombie werewolf claws.

The novel is set the reality of Johannesburg’s inner city slums with derelict buildings and refugees and crime and poverty and ordinary people trying to get by in awful conditions. And that also meant writing violence that was real - because it’s an everyday occurrence in South Africa with far-reaching impact way beyond fiction.

Just how everyday was brought home when several synchronicities cropped up very close to me in the real world that horribly echoed events in the novel.

I try to avoid spoilers, but I can tell you that Zoo City includes, in no particular order, a fire, a drowning and a stabbing.

In March, while I was finessing the last chapters, my brother-in-law’s farm in the mountains practically burned to the ground. The aftermath was like a scene from The Road, which I was reading at the time, an ashen landscape, blasted trees. And worse, ruined livelihoods. Insurance doesn’t cover farmers for forces of nature.

Then, as we were going over the final proofs, a friend of my editor’s drowned in a freak accident. A well-known, well-liked professor who was tubing in a river in the wilderness with his family. He fell off. He never resurfaced. His family had to hike for hours to find cell phone reception to call for help. They found his body three weeks later. It had been trapped underwater, wedged beneath a rock ledge by the currents. My editor struggled to deal with the similar scene in the book.

There were also two stabbings with a direct link to me that happened while I was writing the novel. My dad was witness to the one. He was out one morning walking his dogs near the beach. He passed by a group of women walking to work at the nearby hotel. A man confronted one of the women. There was an argument. Then the man pulled out a knife and punched it into her stomach repeatedly.

My dad yelled, alerting a group of construction workers who chased after the man with pickaxes and shovels. They chased him onto the beach. He ran into the waves. They stood on shore, waiting for him to come out. He floated away, deeper and deeper out to sea. Eventually, he drowned. His body washed up on shore a few days later. The woman recovered. Eventually. Slowly. Painfully. As much as you can.

The other stabbing was far closer to home. Tomokazie, the daughter of the woman who cleans for me once a week had a fight with her abusive boyfriend, Sonwabo. He stabbed her in the thighs and buttocks and poured boiling water over her head and back, then locked her in his house and walked away. The neighbours finally called the cops five days later, alerted by the terrible smell, by the groaning. The police broke down the door. The flies were thick on her skin. But she was still alive. She was rushed to the burns unit at the nearest hospital. It took her four months to die. Third degree burns will do that. Infection sets in deep. She was in agony most of the time, unable to walk, barely able to get out of bed.

The night before she died, Tomo’s sister saw Sonwabo lurking outside their house, because the cops hadn’t bothered to arrest him. He was hiding in the yard, crouched under the window. Tomo was so frightened that she soiled herself. She passed away the next morning, in the waiting room of Somerset Hospital.

Some of what happens in Zoo City is over-the-top. It’s gruesome. It’s shocking. It’s very nasty.

It’s meant to be.

I tried to do it in a way that wasn’t gratuitous, that respected what real violence is and what it does to us. There’s a balance to writing fiction that is entertaining but still keeps it integrity.

Real violence is not the villainous puppet master forcing someone to gouge their own eyeball out with an ice-cream scoop and eat it or the hillbilly psychos torturing and raping and gutting the hapless campers and parading around afterwards in their skins or even the cock-shock stupidity of human-centipeding.

It’s a girl in agony shitting the bed because the man who did this to her is still free to do it again.

* magic

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