Zoo City's Lauren Beukes on writing & winning

As a woman science fiction writer Lauren Beukes smashed the glass ceiling by winning the 2011 Arthur C Clarke award. Published by UK press Angry Robot, Zoo City her second novel after Moxyland, takes us to city slum where animal familiars embody psychic criminal guilt. (Review below)

Ulla Kelly asked her about it all:

Do you ever find yourself putting animals to people? If so, any celebrity “animallings” you’d like to share?)
It was hard enough matching animals to people in the novel. My co-workers at animation company, Clockwork Zoo, all had animal names for fun, so that helped. Off the top of my head: Lady Gaga would have some kind of cyborg peacock thing, Donald Trump a bald mole rat.

Is the new novel SF/Speculative Fiction?
No. Although I think my work will always have some element of the strange about it.

You mention William Gibson as an influence – what are your favourite novel/s of his?
I hadn’t read any of the classic cyberpunk novels (Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Gibson’s Neuromancer, Bruce Sterling’s Islands In The Net) at the time I wrote Moxyland, although I’d read a lot of those writers’ other works.

I was much more influenced by Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, about a trendspotter who is allergic to brands. (And very much by Margaret Atwood’s brilliant Oryx & Crake about corporate enclaves and environmentalism that nearly put me off writing Moxyland altogether it was so good and in such similar territory.)

Moxyland is influenced by the way Gibson’s fiction has influenced THE WORLD from the Matrix movies to Second Life.

You’re a big fan of Twitter and a very active user there, do you ever see any art coming through in 140 characters?
Twitter allows you a space to play and I once accidentally tweeted a witty repartee, which I realized would be a brilliant idea for a novel and quickly deleted it. My friend Sam Wilson writes brilliant 140 character stories as @genrestories and there are other people playing with the medium.

Is (main character) Zinzi based on anyone in particular, a composite, or complete fiction?
She is an amalgam of people I know, small parts of me, and herself entirely.

It’s fairly impossible to assign a colour to her a lot of the time – was that deliberate?
The novel is written in the first person from Zinzi’s perspective and I don’t think a lot of us spend a lot of time thinking about what race we are in the course of our daily lives, unless a particular interaction makes us aware of it. So Zinzi doesn’t sit around obsessing about being black or admiring the mocha colour of her complexion in the mirror. (Such a terrible cliché and typically only ever applied to black characters in fiction – and why is it always coffee or chocolate?). It’s a reflection of my experience and my friends’ experience of urban South Africa, which is less about race these days than class. Which is not to say that race isn’t still a burning complex issue, even for the middle class. 

I asked my novelist friend Zukiswa Wanner to tell me if Zinzi was “black enough” and she laughed. She advised me to focus on making sure she was “Zinzi enough” – a rich, complicated, real person, influenced by her skin colour, experiences and cultural background but not wholly defined by them.

Any chance of film/TV deals for either book?
There’s been interest, but typically 99% of movies never get made and if they do, it typically takes 10 years to make them. So hold thumbs, but don’t hold your breath.

If there was to be a film of Zoo City, who would you pick to direct and star in it?
My director wish-list would include Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuarón, Kathryn Bigelow, Alex Proyas, Neill Blomkamp or Guillermo del Toro or Tarsem. Zinzi is tough to cast. I’d really like to see a South African actress in the role, maybe even an unknown. Tough sell for Hollywood though, especially as it’s going to need a big budget.  I’d love to have Michael K Williams (Omar from The Wire) in it, as Benoit or maybe even The Maltese.

It was fabulous to see the notorious 419 scam used to perfection in fiction - do you get lots and have you “scam baited”?
I do get lots. At one point I was collecting them for research (not any more – please don’t send me any!) As part of my research, I wrote two investigative stories on scammers for Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan and spoke to the people who run Scamwarners.com and 419Eater.com (a baiting site), tried to do a bit of baiting myself, but didn’t have any bites, and interviewed victims, which was depressing.

Despite the dystopian settings of both books, they are not remotely depressing - how did you get that right?
Really? I’ve had angry letters about the ending of Moxyland. I think it’s probably the humour and wit that carries you through the dark places.

What’s your basic philosophy of life and is it echoed in your writing?
Be curious. Be playful. Be irreverent. Give a shit about the world. Don’t be an asshat.
And yeah, I think it is. Although I’m less dark and cynical in person than my books would suggest. Or maybe just more playfully so.

Both books are urban – will we ever read a Lauren Beukes book set somewhere “empty” like the Karoo?
Sure. But I’d have to spend some real time there and there would be some nasty twist. I’m more interested in rural Limpopo or small town St Lucia than the Karoo though.

Do you recommend any up and coming South African authors? Are there any other good South African SF/Speculative fiction authors out there?
So many! Spec fic in particular, SL Grey’s The Mall is a dark and wonderfully disturbing horror set in a Joburg mall (and the sequel, The Wards, set in Baragwanath has just been announced), Lily Herne’s zombie apocalypse YA set in Cape Town, Deadlands, is just fantastic, wry and smart and dark and funny with a sly satirical edge. Adeline Radloff’s Sidekick is a fast-paced superhero YA with heart about the teen girl sidekick to a tormented time-travelling hero, set in Cape Town. And Andrew Saloman just got short-listed for the Terry Pratchett prize!

Sam Wilson and Charlie Human (who both contributed chapters to Zoo City) have just finished their novels as part of the MA in Creative Writing and I’m really looking forward to them landing a publishing deal, because I’ve read both and they’re fantastic!

In general fiction, I’d recommend Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207, Mike Nicol’s Blackheart, Zukiswa Wanner’s Men of the South, Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, Deon Meyer’s 13 Hours, Sarah Lotz’s Exhibit A, Margie Orford’s Daddy’s Girl, Fiona Snycker’s Trinity Rising. And I know I’m leaving a ton of great books out. South African fiction has never been this exciting or diverse.

Do your UK readers ‘get’ the SA references? Does it matter where a SF book is set
People have responded especially to the book not being set in LA or New York or Tokyo or London. I think readers deserve more credit for being able to handle a foreign city and slang as long as there’s some kind of context. Johannesburg is such a strange, mad, incredible city, a mash of first world and third, magic and technology, that it feels totally alien and totally familiar at the same time.

Zoo City review: Stylishly South African by Ulla Kelly

Zoo City is Jozi, Joburg, eGoli, JoHo, Johannesburg; completely recognisable, completely now. The book is speculative fiction though, so some things have changed and Lauren Beukes’ cyberpunk dystopia contains magic too. It’s the kind of book that grabs you with both hands right from its opening words, “In Zoo City, it’s impolite to ask.”

Then it paints a picture any homesick South African will recognise with a pang of love for the dirty, funky city: “Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.”

It’s the kind of book you read fast and then almost immediately want to reread to delve deeper into its well-drawn textures.

You don’t even need to be a local to love this book, perfect proof of that is found in its recent Arthur C. Clark Award. Although it’s mainly slotted into the genre of science fiction, there are no aliens and spaceships to be found at all – there’s more than enough craziness going on on the ground and Lauren writes it in a gorgeously hip and stylish way. It’s the perfect progression and companion to Moxyland, set in a cyberpunk Cape Town, where cellphone technology rules all other systems.

Moxyland was so cool it spawned an African Dope soundtrack and a felt, fluff and shweshwe toy. Zoo City got a soundtrack too, it own custom Bares range and a very limited edition sloth scarf – both books have inspired fan fiction and fan art globally.

Any doubts about rushing out immediately to buy and devour Zoo City should be rapidly dispelled by William Gibson’s high praise – he is, after all, the man credited with the invention of cyberpunk and always at the cutting edge of cool in terms of speculative fiction. Getting his stamp of approval is rather like Ronaldo telling you that you’re good at kicking a ball.

Zinzi December, the protagonist, zooms you across and urban landscape filled with crime, magic and unbearably good music, littered with 419 scams and lost things.

You’ll recognise the violence and beauty of South Africa’s polyglot society, its immigrant tensions and the effects of other African countries. You’ll recognise the pathways from all of that into the broadness of the African continent and into cyberspace, with its fluidity and freedom.

The book is an amazing snapshot of society, a city and a continent. Going beyond its own storyline of Zinzi’s mission to track down a missing singer, Zoo City (Lauren calls Johannesburg “the New York of Africa”) creates realistic escapism, has its finger firmly on the pulse of pop culture and happily, also leaves itself wide open to the possibility of a sequel.

Ulla Kelly