Interview: Lauren Beukes, South African Author Of Moxyland
A brainwavez.org Literary Feature
by Mandy J Watson
Posted: 31 July 2009
Since then, Lauren Beukes has given birth to a "pterodactyl kitten" [baby girl, for those of you confused that this is some sort of cryptic literary metaphor]; URBO - The Adventures Of Pax Africa, the (fantastic) animated TV show that she helped to create and co-wrote as part of Team Scripticon, has been destroyed by the (evil) national broadcaster; Moxyland has been picked up by new HarperCollins imprint Angry Robot Books internationally, in a big way; and, in a few days, she's off to the 67th WorldCon [World Science Fiction Convention], where she is going to meet Neil Gaiman, hobnob with Hugo-award-winning MIT professors and writers, and represent South Africa proudly at various panels and events.
It's been an eventful period. You can understand why this interview took so long.
So, to set the mood as we begin, cast your mind back about a year (presidents have changed since then!) to when this conversation first began, long before either one of us knew all hell was going to break loose:
MJW: You're no stranger to publishing but this is still your first novel, so why set it in a location (Cape Town, South Africa) and use a genre (science fiction) that many would argue are almost unmarketable? Not only do you have to deal with debut-novel obstacles but you have to fight the perception that science fiction is for 12-year-olds and South African literature is always about the apartheid era (uncomfortable) or the 1800s (dull).
LB: I'm afraid I never considered the potential commercial viability of the book for a second when I started writing it. If I'd been cynically pursuing bestsellerdom, I would have written a hip black Sex 'n The City set in Jozi, which Zukiswa Wanner has now done very successfully and probably more authentically.
And I'd like to tackle those two assumptions. My understanding is that science fiction and fantasy are the two genres that are still on the up among declining reading stats.
There is SF aimed at 12-year-olds; galactic fantasy and Aliens vs Predator stuff, but the genre is much maligned. Some of the smartest and most interesting writing is technically science fiction, although it leans towards the mundane - less alien invasions, more focus on where technology and culture intersect and what that says about people.
Genre can be a horrible little box that confines your readership, when it's really about novels of bold ideas.
It's not just traditionally science fiction writers such as Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, or William Gibson - more "literary" authors such as Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Haruki Murakami, Michael Chabon, and David Mitchell all write books fizzing with speculative ideas and what ifs that aren't readily corralled under a handy label.
Besides, we're practically living SF now. We've got hologram newsreaders and nanotech and social networking and video phones and invisibility cloaks and space tourism. Technology is intrinsically knitted into our culture and the way we interact with people and governments and things, so why shouldn't it be an intrinsic part of story telling too?
As for the perceptions about South African literature - I think we've finally moved beyond apartheid stories and ancient history (that said, Moxyland is very much an apartheid story, dealing with its echoes and legacy and protest culture, re-imagined, reinvented so that it focuses on economic and corporate structures rather than race).
I've read some fantastic books this year, especially non fiction (Jonny Steinberg's Three-Letter Plague, Henry Trotter's Sugar Girls & Seamen, my brother-in-law Andrew Brown's Street Blues) and some startling fiction too, especially Ceridwen Dovey's Blood Kin and Richard de Nooy's Six Fang Marks & A Tetanus Shot, which have both, deservedly, been racking up the awards.
There's more space to play, to tell other stories.
MJW: You've created a Cape Town that's 10 years in the future, complete with technological and infrastructural advancements that to some degree are a natural evolution for our culture and the city. How much thinking went into what this Cape Town would be, not just in terms of the implications of corporate-created apartheid, but what technologies would have evolved to at that point (and how), what would still exist by then, what wouldn't, how things would have changed? Imagining a world is something that writers can get trapped in, trying to fine tune the details so that they make sense, rather than focussing on the story that they actually want to tell. Did you figure it all out before you started or did you just create and adapt what you needed as you needed it?
LB: I'm afraid I wasn't so pedantic or obsessive that I sat down and meticulously worked out a blueprint of what this Cape Town looks like down to the plumbing (although I can tell you that the power grid and subway system are run on tide drives and point you to a real-life equivalent wave farm project off-shore in Portugal).
There were ideas I was interested in, collated from my daily web reading of anything from Boing Boing to Wired to Neatorama, the news, obviously, and books such as Sterling's Tomorrow Now, Mark Thomas' As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela, Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Johnson, and other interesting people through to interesting art such as Theo Jansen's absolutely incredible Strandbeests that I saw "live" in London. And also informed by 12 years of journalism, covering a crazy array of stories from township vigilantes to HIV activism to technology stories on automated homes or 419 scams. Journalism has been a handy backstage pass to a lot of very interesting places.
There was a lot of thought in there, but Moxyland's landscape evolved naturally out of that morass of ideas. Add a dash of credibility, a splash of creative licence, shake vigorously, and pour.
MJW: Your journalism background is quite evident in the characters, as you have woven recognisable aspects of Capetonian and South African culture into their personalities and given them interests and occupations that really relate to their personal characteristics, all of which make for well-rounded characters. In terms of planning, how much more do you know about the characters than what the reader learns? Is what's on the page pretty much it or did you create intricate back stories to help you determine who these people are and how they would react in various situations?
LB: There's a lot of back story you don't get to see. It's something André Brink schooled me in, creating deep histories that inform who your characters are and why they're behaving like that. It makes them more interesting people, which makes for a more interesting story. There were whole chapters that I had to slash from the final edit because they slowed down the pace where you saw Toby surfing and more interactions with his mother bitch and Kendra's family, but it all had to go. I didn't go as far as André does, where he knows exactly what kind of birth the characters had (Toby was definitely elective caesarian, though, and he may have eaten his twin in the womb) but I did try to sculpt full human beings rather than just simulacra. The last thing you want is characters suffering from Uncanny Valley. That's not to say they didn't have the capacity to surprise me and Lerato, in particular, veered off very early on from who I'd intended her to be. Unfortunately, it also means you get frustrated with them. Tendeka's stubborn temper drove me nuts, especially when he gets blindsided by events because of it, but I couldn't let him off the hook either, because it wouldn't have been true.
MJW: Did you know the fates of the characters when you started writing the book or did their various stories begin to wander off in directions you hadn't anticipated? Basically, did you have a plan from the beginning, and did you stick to it?
LB: It started with a short story that was just a seedling (little did I know it would grow into a man-eating triffid) but as I started writing and working out the characters and the world it was pretty apparent where this was all going. Stephen King has a theory in his book On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft that you should let the end evolve naturally but I can't say it always works for him and it definitely doesn't work for me. I knew exactly what was going to happen, the trajectories were inevitable. It was the getting there that was the hard slog - filling in the stuff in between.
MJW: Each chapter is written in the first-person perspective of one of the main characters and the narrative hops between their separate worlds, which occasionally intertwine. This is not a traditional approach although, oddly, or perhaps via some sort of Vulcan mind meld, one of your fellow URBO scriptwriters, Sarah Lotz, who also published her debut novel, Pompidou Posse, last year, uses a similar technique. What made you decide to use this approach rather than, say, a third-person narrative or only one first-person perspective, and did you write each character's narrative separately and then piece the stories together, or did you jump between them as you wrote to keep the overall flow and momentum going?
LB: It's true that third-person past tense is the bog standard approach to fiction but hopping between various first-person perspectives does have a strong tradition of its own, perhaps more contemporary, from Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas to Toby Litt's deadkidsongs (where the perspective switching devastatingly reveals deep into the novel that one of the characters has been lying to you all along). Sarah did something similar with Pompidou Posse, where one of the characters proves less than reliable, although in her case, it's a way of hiding her feelings from herself.
First-person hopping provides a sense of immediacy and intimacy. As a reader, you're along for the ride, granted an all-access pass straight into the characters' heads. And the way the characters feel about each other or how they interpret events differently means you can play with shades of truth.
Not that I had all that motivation in mind when I started writing.
It started with Toby's voice and as the story unfolded from a short story to a novel, it was obvious that the other characters would have to get their say, particularly when their lives take such divergent, but also intertwined, paths.
I wrote chapters sequentially, skipping between characters to keep the pace taut and ensure no-one was allowed to waffle or backtrack or digress too far from the core of the story. Sometimes I'd skip a character if they didn't have much to contribute to the narrative at this point, but never for long.
The tough part was keeping their voices absolutely distinct and true to them. For example, Kendra gets lots of description; because she's a photographer, she thinks visually and she's also the most introspective of the characters, while Tendeka's more blunt, less apt to notice the details, or at least find any poetry in the details.
MJW: So how did this start? What was the original Toby short story?
LB: It started back in 2003 with a short story that just spilled out in Toby's voice, with the lines: "We were at Stones, playing pool, drinking, goofing around, maybe hoping to score a little sugar, when Kendra arrived, all moffied up and gloaming like an Aito/329. "Ahoy, Special K, where you been, girl, so juiced to kill?" Tendeka asked while he racked up the balls, all click-clack in their white plastic triangle."
It just ran from there.
I was playing a lot of pool, reading Jeff Noon and Jonathan Lethem, and I'd been wanting to write a fictional riff off the underground tobacco industry advertising I'd covered in a feature article for The Big Issue for ages.
It came second in the SL short story competition in 2004 and I had an amazing response to it from friends and the people in my MA creative-writing class (including my former lecturer - now agent Ron Irwin). I'd been casting around for a subject for my novel/dissertation and it felt like this was something I could really expand on and play with.
MJW: While writing did you revise sections a lot as you went along or did you go back and rework areas you thought you'd finished long before based on unexpected changes that happened as you progressed - or did it flow quite naturally from start to finish with minimal reworking, bar what you ultimately had to cut to keep the pace strong?
LB: I do a bit of both, but the most important thing is to keep the momentum up.
You can polish one page until it reflects so brightly it'll melt your eyeballs but what's the use if you only end up with one page six months later? I try to push through to the end but if the plot skids out unexpectedly and takes the story somewhere more interesting I will go back and fix anything that suddenly is out of whack with the continuity. That said, Moxyland didn't change a whole lot in the revising. Lerato messed me around a bit, so I had to change her focus, but that happened early on.
Otherwise the editing/rewriting process came down to fixing some minor plot holes, dumping the heavy slanguage (which took ages to extricate), losing some cool scenes that slowed the plot down and shoring up the plot with a couple of extra chapters where more was needed.
MJW: How do you keep track of ideas when you are working? Do you jot down notes in a notebook, write mindmaps on a whiteboard, arrange stickies on a door, keep everything in your head?
LB: I keep a couple of notebooks going, write a synopsis on my computer, character notes and backgrounds, mind map some of it, but mostly it's in my head. I'm working with a more complicated noir-ish plot for my new novel (working title Pale Crocodile) which probably means I'm going to need to more careful tracking. Steven Johnson, one of my favourite non-fiction writers, has been talking about fantastic software he uses called DEVONthink, which, from my understanding of it, collates all your research in one place, whether it's images you've scanned in or PDFs or web sites you've linked to and creates relationships between them. I've downloaded a trial version and I'll let you know.
MJW: I want to go back to the "slanguage", as you have termed it. It was one of my favourite parts of the book as the combination of real South African urban slang that is recognisable and comforting to Capetonians in the present and the made-up slang of a Cape Town 10 years in the future seems to fit effortlessly into the dialogue. How did you go about creating words that wouldn't sound naff, made up, and forced? Did you test phrases and dialogue on people to gauge their reactions?
LB: I didn't do any market research, I'm afraid and I didn't have a linguistic theory behind it either. It was really just playing with existing language and South African slang and going with what worked.
Of course the softdrink brand "Ghost" is a not-so-subtle tribute to Noon's short story Solace from Nymphomation featuring a soft drink called Spook with mysterious colour-changing properties that proves one rabid fan's undoing. In contrast, the use of the word "sprawl" to describe the sprawling clutter of shantytowns outside of Cape Town, is not, in fact, a shout out to William Gibson. I just started reading Neuromancer for the first time a few months ago (I know, I know) and was mortified to see that he uses the same term.
MJW: A lot has happened since we started this interview. Talk a bit about Moxyland: The Soundtrack, Moxyland: The Interactive E-Book, and Angry Robot Books.
LB: I always wanted the book to be more than just a straight text. That's probably Alan Moore's influence, the way he weaves in songs and diaries and crazy hyperbolic right-wing newspaper articles or horror comics that all add incredible depth and undercurrents to the story to the story.
It was also partly inspired by Mark Z Danielewski's House Of Leaves, which is a fantastic Blair-Witch-meets-Nabokov's-Pale-Fire of a book which happens to have an accompanying soundtrack, Haunted, by Danielewski's sister, Poe.
(Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which has its own specially composed soundtrack, came out after Moxyland.)
I knew I wanted to do a soundtrack and that I wanted to do it with African Dope Records, a maverick indie record label and music-rights company. I guess it'd be the South African equivalent of Ninja Tune. Dope's partners, Roach and Fletcher, had a drum 'n' bass outfit called Krushed 'n' Sorted and in the early 00s, they were the defining sound of Cape Town for me (along with Moodphase5ive and Max Normal), particularly for King Of The Swingers.
I approached Dope to do a soundtrack with two months to go before the book's South African release and it pulled out all the stops to make it happen with the help of its distribution company SoulCandi, which put up the cash.
HoneyB (a fine DJ herself, who played at the launch of my first book, Maverick [a non-fiction title highlighting some of the most influential and noteworthy South African women from the past]) dumped the entire Dope catalogue in my lap of some 5000 songs and told me to pick out the ones that would work with the book.
I put together a long list and she fine-tuned it, adding a few new songs I'd overlooked or suggesting even cooler alternatives. She'd be, "Yeah, that's a great track, but have you heard this one?"
The final selection is distinctively Cape Town with artists such as Tone Deaf Junkies, Mr Gelatine, Mix 'n Blend, and Jacob Israel as well as rock band Taxi Violence. It's gritty and dark and interesting, in keeping with the mood of the book.
It was interesting to see how much more attention the book got suddenly, not from the mainstream press, although there was some interest, but from African Dope fans around the world plugged into their distribution network and online radio stations. The Google hits on Moxyland doubled overnight.
The original e-book was published by Electric Bookworks but Arthur Attwell has a philosophy that e-books should add something to the reading experience. It shouldn't just be a straight PDF cut 'n' paste of the paper novel. He and his team spent weeks figuring out how to embed the African Dope soundtrack into the epub, with recommended tracks bookmarked for particular chapters. As far as we know, it's the first time anyone's done anything like it.
The EBW version of the e-book has just been withdrawn from the market (as part of an agreement we made with Angry Robot for international rights), but Angry Robot is in discussions with African Dope to do its own soundtracked e-book version, which will hopefully be out soon.
But the soundtrack is still available everywhere you can buy music digitally.
Moxyland came out in SA in April 2008 and almost immediately started picking up great reviews in The Sunday Independent and in Something Wicked magazine and COSMO [MJW full disclosure: I wrote the COSMO review] and GQ. My agent, Ron Irwin, started shopping it around overseas and after a couple of rejections from boutique literary imprints, we sent it to a major SF giant and to an upstart imprint of HarperCollins called Angry Robot, which was then due to launch in 2009. Marco Gascoigne at Angry Robot came back fast and strong and extremely positive. He was enthusiastic and straight up and wickedly irreverent and just brilliant to deal with and he was offering a two-book deal.
It wasn't a matter of a dirty quickie with whoever was up for it to get the book out but finding a publisher I could settle in with for a deep and meaningful relationship. It's also great to be debuting with the hungry upstart. And besides, it's called Angry Robot. How could I resist?
So, we signed the paperwork, Marc commissioned Joey Hifi to illustrate the new, grittier, darker cover (see my blog for scandalous photos of Moxy from the original cover cuddling with small kids and animals that may prove their point that he was too cute for the content) and, six months later, the UK edition has just hit the streets and I've made plans to rendezvous with the Angry Robot guys and their other debut author, Kaaron Warren, at the WorldCon Anticipation event in Montreal in a few days.
(The US version of Moxyland will be out in October).
We also produced a collectible Moxy toy. When I saw the creepily cute (or should that be cutely creepy?) cover monster on the Jacana edition (conceptualised by Joey Hifi and made up by Michelle Son) I craved it immediately and I knew other people would too. My friends Sarah Lotz and Carol Walters set up a women's empowerment project in a small town in the Klein Karoo, bought them material and sewing machines, and dubbed them the Montagu Sew & Sews. The first batch of Moxies were a little mutated (all the more collectible for it, I'm sure - watch out for them on eBay in 10 years time) but they soon fixed the formula. It's been an amazing project because R100 [?] of the R150 [?] price goes directly to the women involved, putting food on the table. We've raised R14 000 [?] for them so far and I'm taking a batch of 10 to WorldCon. First come, first served, although you can always order them via The Book Lounge (email booklounge [at] gmail) who will ship anywhere in the world.
MJW: You're partially answered my next question in your response, which was whether you're working on another book. Will it take place in the Moxyland universe or are you going in a totally different direction - new story, new characters, new ideas? Presumably it will still be science fiction, though?
LB: My new novel-in-progress, due out in 2010, is called Pale Crocodile. It's a completely different animal to Moxyland but still speculative and strange. I guess the best description would be muti noir. It's set in an alternate Johannesburg where magic and technology coexist. It's about a girl with a sloth on her back and a talent for finding lost things, who falls foul of a magician crime lord. But it's also about refugees and 419 scams and the music industry.
I did a research trip earlier in the year, spending a lot of time in Hillbrow, which was amazing, and talking to refugees at the Central Methodist Church, which was one of the bleakest places I've ever been. Over 2000 people, mainly Zimbabweans, take shelter in the church at night, bedding down on any spare centimetre of concrete floor. I've never encountered that level of desperation and I've been in some bad places.
It's the ravages of a refugee camp crammed into a building. And it's horrific and overcrowded and dirty and people are sick and there are crying babies, but it's all they have - and it's better than the street. I have such admiration for Bishop Paul Verryn who holds it together in spite of everything, including aggressive raids by the police and the bumbling of city council.
It's been hard to find a way to transmute that kind of real-life tragedy and devastation into fiction however, especially in a made-up world. I'm still processing it. We'll see how it comes out.
MJW: That introduction to your storyline and research already has me hooked and leaves me with lots of questions I'd like to ask but I'll wait until the book is published! At the moment what's most exciting about Moxyland is that it's being released internationally, which will result in a wider audience and fan base, so what I'd like to know is if you envision more stories in the Moxyland universe, either written by yourself or possibly handed over to other artists? You've created such an interesting world with so many possibilities and I could imagine many other novels or a book of short stories by yourself and/or other writers or a graphic novel (or two) or a selection of short films or anime shorts similar to The Animatrix. The list is endless. Could this happen? What are your thoughts and hopes?
LB: I've been too preoccupied with Pale Crocodile to think about playing more in the Moxyland universe but it's a great idea. And I'd love to do a graphic novel and, ahem, a screenplay. (Is Chris Nolan busy? Does anyone have him on speed dial?).
As for handing it over, let's just say that naff adage about "if you love something let it go" should be amended to include remix culture... "If it comes back in new shapes and forms you couldn't have imagined, it's OURS."
There was a lot of controversy on local literary site Book.co.za a while back around an artist's interpretation of JM Coetzee's Disgrace, where they'd run the full text as a search through Google Images so it became this amazing visual slideshow of a book. (the word "she" for example would come up with the same picture of the iconic National Geographic Afghan girl cover, for example). It was fascinating, not so much for what it said about Disgrace, but how it was interpreted by the zeitgeist of a search and what that said about the world at that moment. When it was shown at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, the audience was split about equally between delight and outrage. Some writers and critics I admire and respect thought it was awful, an insult to the author's intention and reputation. I was just insanely envious that no-one had done anything similar with my book.
Of course, you have authorial intent, but once you let your work out there, alone in public, it's no longer yours. It's being reinterpreted through the filters of thousands of different minds and I'd love to see physical manifestations of that.
I'm very happy to Creative Commons Moxyland (under an attribution, share-alike, non-commercial licence). If other people want to play too, that's amazing.
In fact, Angry Robot is working on a very cool competition that I can't announce just yet (stay tuned) that will encourage exactly that.
MJW: This sounds very exciting and I look forward to hearing more. Thanks for being such a great sport in participating in what has become, for both of us, The Longest Interview Ever. I really appreciate your insightful answers and patience in fitting this in to your very hectic schedule. You're off to the 67th Worldcon in Montreal in a few days, so I hope that that is a fantastic experience as you get to meet some of your international fans and take part in some very serious (and not-so-serious) panel discussions.
LB: Thanks, I'm really looking forward to WorldCon (anticipating Anticipation). I'll be the starry-eyed, neurally-overloaded South African reeling from awesome panel to workshop to reading. [ Lauren's full schedule is here. ]
Moxyland was originally released in South Africa in April 2008 by Jacana and can be bought at Kalahari.net. The Angry Robot international release is available in the UK and Australia now [ buy it at Amazon.co.uk ] and will be released in the US in October.
Amazon.com: Moxyland (Paperback, Jacana (South African publisher), 2008)
Amazon.com: Moxyland: The Soundtrack (MP3 Downloads)
Amazon.co.uk: Moxyland (Paperback, Angry Robot Books, 2009)
Amazon.co.uk: Moxyland (Paperback, Jacana (South African publisher), 2008)
Amazon.co.uk: Moxyland: The Soundtrack (MP3 Downloads)
iTunes US: Moxyland: The Soundtrack (Audio Download)
Kalahari.net: Moxyland (Paperback, Jacana, 2008)
Kalahari.net: Moxyland (Paperback, Angry Robot Books (Import), 2009)
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