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by: Mandy J Watson   ·    15 January 2013

A novel approach

Acclaimed sci-fi author, Lauren Beukes, launches her latest novel in May. She talked to MANDY J WATSON about zombies, getting caught up in stories and how tech helps.

Lauren Beukes is pretty unaffected for a superstar. In the world of sci-fi writing the Cape Town author is at the top of her game. Her forthcoming novel, The Shining Girls, has a lot to live up to: its predecessor, Zoo City, won the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award, the pinnacle of acknowledgment in the world of sci-fi writing.

The Shining Girls, due for a May release, is about a time-travelling serial killer.

“It’s a high concept thriller about a killer who shouldn’t exist and a girl who shouldn’t have survived who turns the hunt around. It’s very much rooted in the real world with a twist. Harper, the serial killer, has a house that opens on to other times,” she says.

The book is set in Chicago (the novel to be released after that is set in Detroit, and both required interesting fact-finding research missions to the US) but she says we can expect to see more South African stories in the future.

“Writing novels is very lonely work, stuck in your head with imaginary people,” says Lauren.

Writing novels is very lonely work, stuck in your head with imaginary people.

“I get around that by sharing a studio space with a group of very smart, funny, talented young designers who help keep me sane. It’s hard work – keeping a sense of the whole thing in your head is mental gymnastics. The easy part is coming up with ideas and the first third of the book when anything is possible. When I actually stop mucking about and force myself to write, it comes relatively easily. It’s lovely when you get so caught up in the story that it gains its own momentum.”

Tech tools

Technology isn’t just infused into the storylines of Lauren’s work – it’s a set of tools she’s learnt to wield to make sure the novel-writing process is as smooth as possible. Different tasks and different platforms require different types of software, and three of her favourites are Scrivener, Freedom on the Mac, and Final Draft for scripts “because it’s industry standard, although some nasty producers force me to write in Word, which makes me unhappy because the layout is going to mess up along the way,” she says.

Scrivener is a content-generation tool for long-form text that allows writers to keep track of the minutiae of a project while they focus on the story – or vice versa. It’s a combination of a word processor and a project-management tool that keeps everything in one place. 

Lauren describes it as “the best writing software ever with incredible features, from a chalkboard where you can see the outline of your whole novel visually represented to being able to move chapters around by clicking and dragging, backing up previous versions with infinite snapshots, and being able to keep all your notes, research files, videos, notes, character descriptions all in one place and one click away. It’s changed my life,” she says. “I honestly don’t know if I could have written The Shining Girls, which has three different timelines (the actual historical timeline, the novel’s timeline, and the killer’s timeline) that I had to keep track of, without it. Unfortunately, I still have to export to Word and do final edits in Word. I’m hoping publishing will catch up.”

Freedom  is a tool that’s useful for anyone – not just an author – who needs to focus on work without the intrusive distraction of the Internet, social media, and email getting in the way of the job. 

“[Freedom] locks me out of the internet for pre-set durations (usually 60 to 90 minutes) so I can focus purely on my writing,” says Lauren. “You have to do a hard reboot if you want to get back on, so there’s no cheating. Although if something urgent comes up (or I just really, really, really need to get my Twitter fix – I’m not an addict, I can quit anytime, I swear), I can use my phone.”

At the moment Lauren is also in the middle of a story arc for the comic-book series Fairest, which sees her exploring Rapunzel's past and collaborating with team members on two other continents – something that would never have been possible before email.

The power of Twitter

Lauren was one of the first authors to see the potential of Twitter and use it as a way to source interesting pop-culture snippets from all over the world that might otherwise fly under her radar. 

“I’m a Twitter evangelist,” she says. “It’s such a great way to avoid writing but also to connect with really interesting minds. There are websites I read regularly, such as Boing Boing and Dangerous Minds and Jezebel and The Mary Sue, but Twitter gives me a direct line into amazing curators of interesting stuff, such as @sa_poptart  and @gammacounter and @brainpicker who nose out incredible stories about pop culture or politics or technology or the way the world is that wouldn’t have shown up on my radar otherwise.

"It’s also cool to be part of a conversation with hand-picked interesting minds, like being at the best dinner party in the world every day. I made friends with Bruce Sterling and William Gibson on Twitter and I’ve acted as a Twitter coach for [South African crime-thriller author] Deon Meyer and [UK writer] Robert Shearman.”

Lauren also uses Twitter as a marketing tool and as a way to connect with her readers and have a conversation with them but for her, at its most useful, it’s been a research tool, which has been especially helpful for her novels. She has a background in journalism (including technology journalism) and her tenacious ability to discover bizarre facts and incorporate them into fiction is one of the reasons that her work is so popular.

“I’ve used [Twitter] as a way to connect with people on research trips,” says Lauren. “I met Nechama Brodie   who helped a lot with Joburg history for Zoo City, through Twitter and connected with amazing people such as @gammacounter  and @harper for my research trip to Chicago (he happens to be the person who runs Obama’s online campaign and, unfortunately, shares the name of my serial killer). It’s also a great way to crowdsource unGoogleable information. For Zoo City, I asked my Twitter followers where the best place to dump a body is in Joburg. The answer came back: Troyeville”.

Technology and publishing

Technology is also changing the way consumers approach reading. “Books versus e-readers” is the big debate that constantly surfaces, although Lauren doesn’t see it in such black and white terms and finds the topic tedious and frustrating. 

“Books aren’t dead,” she says, emphatically. ”Books will never be dead. E-books and paper are complementary mediums. They always will be. It is worrying that some magazines such as Newsweek are switching to e-editions only because paper is a resource that lasts, that can be handed down. It’s a historical artifact. My first-generation iPad is already obsolete, never mind the stiffy disks my first novel was written on when I was 17 (luckily I have a printout – although if I have my way that will never see the light of day because it’s going to stay in the bottom drawer of my desk where it belongs forever).”

“E-readers are incredibly convenient. Audio books are awesome. It’s great to be able to read Wired and Vanity Fair and comics on my iPad. I still prefer having paper, however,” she says, but e-books and apps do open up a world of interactivity that’s hard to replicate in a physical paper book. “E-books allow the possibility of playing with music or video interactivity such as puzzles to solve or alternate endings or points of view [but] the core story is still going to be what counts and I think there will always be an appetite for straight story with no bleeps and whistles.”

Top apps, gadgets and games

Reading and magazine apps reign supreme on her iPad and two more of her favourites include Comixology and Wired. As technology is infused into all our lives it’s not surprising that Lauren has some gadgets such as these that have become crucial tools. Chief among them is her phone. “I can’t live without my iPhone and more specifically the access it gives me to email and Twitter,” says Lauren, who also has a number of favourite apps that keep her on her toes (literally). 

“I like gamified apps such as Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! which is an awesome running game that uses GPS tracking to monitor your pace and distance but also has a superb storyline and great voice acting that makes it absolutely credible that there are legions of undead shambling through my neighbourhood and I’m going to have to sprint to avoid them.

"Silly games such as Plants vs Zombies keep me occupied in bank queues,” says Lauren. “I use the Kindle app too but it doesn’t seem to sync reliably with my actual Kindle so, unless I’m reading something brand new, I have to try to find my place again.” 

Follow Lauren on Twitter: @laurenbeukes.

90 seconds with Lauren Beukes