The Shining Girls Author Tells Why Everyone’s Favorite Summer Novel Is Set in Chicago

Here’s how Lauren Beukes, the South African writer, combined time travel, serial killers, mystery, and Chicago’s evolution through the 20th century.

Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls   Photo: Vincent Diamini

Lauren Beukes is tired of killing people. The 37-year-old South African has worked on children’s shows, comic books, documentaries, and nonfiction, but her two most recent projects are full of death. An upcoming book is wrapped in decaying Detroit, and her recently released novel, The Shining Girls, is a high-concept thriller that somehow combines time travel, serial killers, mystery, and Chicago’s evolution throughout the 20th century. It’s complicated, but Beukes pulls it off, stopping at key points as hobo-turned-killer Harper and his one botched kill, Kirby, are pulled together through time.

Since its June 4 release, The Shining Girls has rocketed to fame, earning glowing reviews, mentions from writers like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, and a nomination for the Crime Writers’ Association’s highest award for 2013. The book was optioned by production companies MRC and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way before it was even released, and Beukes hopes a director will be in place by the new year.

Just days after returning home to Cape Town from a four-continent book tour, Beukes spoke with Chicago about the book, violence against women, and how she worked to get our city right.

You’re a native South African, but you have lived in the United States, in both New York and Chicago. Why did you come here?

I moved to New York for love, and it was a disaster, in 2000. And then I had American friends who had lived in South Africa, and they were in Chicago. They said, ‘Come and spend some time with us, and we’ll help you get over it.’ I was heartbroken and devastated, but it was lovely to spend time with my friends, and it laid the bones for The Shining Girls.

How so?

I wanted to do quite a serious book and examine how much the twentieth century has shaped us, and the loops of history. I knew that I couldn’t set it [in South Africa] because then it would become an Apartheid story. Race is one of the issues I like to deal with, and it’s prevalent in my work, but Apartheid would have overwhelmed everything else I wanted to do with the novel.

Chicago’s a really exciting city, and it’s got a lot of the same issues that we deal with in South Africa: major segregation, poverty, crime — but it’s also this incredibly bright, shining place, and I wanted to try to bring some of that, as well.

I’ve seen so many screw-ups of representations of South Africa, and it makes me so angry every time. It was really important to me to get it right, so that a native Chicagoan could actually read it and say, ‘Yeah, there is that exact El station at that exact corner.’ To really evoke a feeling of the city and have people claim this and want to acknowledge that I’d actually, hopefully, hit the nail on the head.

How did you make sure you did that?

I had people who live in Chicago read the book for me and make sure that I was actually getting it right. I also did a research trip for about two or three weeks last year and specifically location scouted places that I wanted to write about, like Montrose beach. I would just walk around town and find interesting buildings. We walked past the Fisher Building, and I was like, ‘I have to go in!’

Are there other Chicago landmarks you wanted to work in that didn’t fit?

I think I pretty much used all the locations. There are characters I wanted to write about and issues I wanted to write about. I wanted to get much more into the Chicago Housing Association, and I originally had a Puerto Rican character who was really into baseball. Eventually I just got sick of killing people, and I had to cut back on some of the other women that I wanted to kill.

What was your favorite Chicago fact uncovered during your research?

It’s actually something I found out afterward. The literary editor at the Times in South Africa, he’s a native Chicagoan. He said that during the 1950s, the Apartheid government in South Africa apparently came to Chicago to learn how to do segregation better. And the way you do that is you drive a highway straight down the middle of the slums. I thought that was amazing, and I can’t believe I didn’t pick that up in my research prior.

Violence is a major part of the novel. Why did you choose to include such horrific violence, particularly when readers only get to spend a few pages with each victim before her death?

It has to have that emotional gut punch. If you don’t get to know [the women], then you won’t feel the heart of it. The horror, and the awfulness that these women’s lives have been ripped away, and what we’ve lost as a result, and how this unfolds every single day. And it’s usually not serial killers; it’s domestic violence. But we lose women every single day.

Too often, it’s the perpetrator’s story, not the victim’s. They disappear. They become just a pretty corpse, and a bloody puzzle, and we throw the same cliches around about victims. … I find that really disturbing, how they so quickly become reduced to a sum of their wounds.

Your villain, Harper, is not the stereotypical serial killer, either. Why did you choose an indigent lowlife as your serial killer instead of a Hannibal Lecter-type character?

I did a lot of research on real serial killers, and they’re not Hannibal Lecters. They’re cruel men who are given the opportunity to do something terrible, and a lot of the time it’s about impotence. They feel powerless in the real world.

[Harper has] definitely got street smarts, and he’s charming — but he’s not sophisticated, not diabolical. He’s not a monster. I think that’s where we often make a mistake in popular culture is we describe people as monsters, and they’re not. They’re human. And that’s way more scary. If they were completely ‘other,’ or just inhabited by evil, they would be less scary than the fact that any of us are actually capable of terrible things. Now, it might not be serial killing. But we have that kernel within all of us.

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