Over the last 15 years, the South African writer Lauren Beukes has been a journalist, a screenwriter, a documentarian — and most recently, a novelist. Her newest book is called The Shining Girls, a summer thriller about a time-traveling serial killer and the victim who escapes to hunt him down.
As the novel opens, a 6-year-old girl, Kirby, is playing in the dirt. A strange older man, Harper, approaches and tries to ease her distrust by giving her an orange plastic pony. He tells her she's to keep it safe for him till he comes to fetch it. "I'll see you when you're all grown up," he tells her ominously. "Look out for me sweetheart. I'll come back for you."
Harper, we learn, travels across six decades of Chicago history, picking out his victims, women who shine with an inner spark — including a 1932 burlesque dancer who performs covered in radium paint.
Harper returns to kill Kirby, but she survives his attack and sets out to find him. "She turns the hunt around," Beukes tells NPR's Tess Vigeland. "She becomes absolutely obsessed with finding the man who did this to her, and she's not going to stop until she does."
How did you decide which historical elements to use?
"I researched a lot into Chicago. I lived there in 2000 and 2001 ... There were particular eras I was specifically interested in, like I was very interested in the Red Scare and McCarthyism. I think, especially being a South African, with the way that tied into apartheid, and the kind of repression and regime that we went through as well.
"I worked with two young researchers who would find all the nitty-gritty information, like what was a 1931 hospital like? What did the doctors wear? How much would they charge? How would they fix a ripped tendon?"
Why set the story in Chicago?
"Because I lived there, because it's a bright shining city that also has a lot of problems like corruption and crime and segregation, which reflect a lot of the things that I'm interested in writing about anyway. I didn't want to write this book set in South Africa because it's about the 20th century, and if I had done a South African story, it would have been immediately become overshadowed by apartheid ... so it made sense to set it in America and to be able to play with ideas of modernism and the way the world has changed."
Why did you accept television rights, and not a movie?
"There were four bids for the rights, and some of them were movie options ... But the way [Leonardo DiCaprio's] Appian Way and MRC, who did House of Cards for Netflix — which I found [a] really an exciting model — the way they pitched it to me was, think of it as a 13-hour movie. I was like, 'Yeah, ok!' That would really allow you to get deep into the stories."
TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
Over the last 15 years, South African writer Lauren Beukes has kept herself pretty busy. She's a journalist, a screenwriter, a documentarian and lately, a novelist. Her high-concept thrillers dazzled readers over the last five years. This week, she released her third novel. It's called "The Shining Girls." And like most action-packed page turners, the plot gets a little complicated, so I'll let her take over.
LAUREN BEUKES: It's about a time-traveling serial killer. So he's unstoppable and untraceable, and he's hunting over 60 years in Chicago and picking out women who shine in some way. They have some kind of inner spark, until one of his victims survives and she turns the hunt around.
VIGELAND: So the book opens, and we meet the two main characters: A 6-year-old girl is playing in the dirt. A strange, older man approaches her, and she's feeling like maybe there's a little danger here. So to calm her down, he gives her a toy, an orange plastic pony. Let's have you read from there.
BEUKES: (Reading) In desperation, he takes out the orange pony. Here, he jabs it at her, willing her to take it, one of the objects that connects everything together. What is it, she says. A pony. Damn it. Just take it, OK? It's a present. I don't want it, she sniffs. Oh, OK. It's not a present. It's a deposit. You're keeping it safe for me, like at the bank when you give them your money.
The sun is beating down, and it's too hot to be wearing a coat. He is feeling calmer already. Everything is as it has to be. Now, keep this safe, all right? It's real important. I'll come to get it, you understand? Why? Because I need it. I'll see you when you're all grown up. Look out for me, OK, sweetheart? I'll come back for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VIGELAND: Lauren Beukes reading from her new book, "The Shining Girls." Lauren, so these are our two main characters - Kirby and Harper - and we follow them through the novel. Where do they go from here?
BEUKES: It kind of becomes a death duel between them, because Harper comes back in 1989 to try and kill Kirby. What he doesn't know is that she survives the attack, and she turns the hunt around. She becomes absolutely obsessed with finding the man who did this to her. And she's not going to stop until she does.
And it goes all over the place. The whole novel jumps around between times and perspectives. It goes to 1943, where there's an African-American welder - she's a single mom and a widow trying to make a new start of it after she - her husband died during World War II - to a burlesque dancer in 1931, who dances in radium paint, which, of course, is radioactive and causes radiation burns; through to a young architect in the '50s who is accused of having commie sympathies; and Kirby, the, you know, fiery, determined survivor who has become absolutely obsessed by this case. And she's going to find out who the man was who attacked her and try and stop him.
VIGELAND: And justifiably so, I may add, given what happened to her, you have some gruesome details throughout this book.
BEUKES: I do. And I know some people have found the violence shocking. But you know what, violence should be shocking. I really tried to write it in a way that would remind you what it means when we see a dead woman reported on the news, that it's not just a pretty corpse, that it's a person, and that violence is a horrific, terrifying, traumatic, horrible thing for anyone to go through.
So I try to hang it on very specific details so that it wouldn't become, like, 10 pages of torture porn but that you would feel the emotional impact of it and the horror. And it's also specifically written from the woman's perspectives usually so that you're not complicit with the killer. You're not riding along with him.
I really wanted you to be with the woman at the end and to feel what they're going through. And I think maybe that makes it harder to read.
VIGELAND: It does. It's exceedingly disturbing. But you can't put it down. How did you decide which historical elements to pick out? I mean, you were very specific with dates that you decided to send these characters through and then what was happening at those points in time.
BEUKES: Absolutely. Well, I researched a lot into Chicago. I lived in Chicago in 2000 and 2001, and then I went back on a research trip. But, you know, I read a lot, I dug into the history. You know, there were particular eras that I was specifically interested in. Like, I was very interested in the Red Scare and McCarthyism, I think especially being a South African with the way that tied into apartheid and the kind of repression and the regime that we went through as well.
VIGELAND: It must have been a real challenge for you to come up with so many details for a city that you didn't grow up in.
BEUKES: It was very difficult. I actually worked with two young researchers, and they would find all the little nitty-gritty information. What was a 1931 hospital like? What did the doctors wear? How much would they charge? How would they fix a ripped tendon?
But then they would also come back with really interesting information. My researcher, who was doing that part of it, he came back and said: Look, I found all that, but here is also an article about this young woman who danced in radium paint who was in a hospital recovering from radiation burns. And I was like, oh, that's so great. I have to use that.
VIGELAND: The glow girls. The TV rights have already been purchased by Leonardo DiCaprio's company. What's that like for you and how about a movie?
BEUKES: Well, there were four bids on the rights, and some of them were movie options. You know, it is a self-contained story, so a movie feels like a really good idea. But the way Appian Way and MRC, who did "House of Cards" for Netflix - which I found really exciting. That's an exciting model. But the way they pitched it to me was, think of it as a 13-hour movie. I was like, yeah, OK, you know? And that would really allow you to get deep into the stories.
I think in a two-hour movie, you might kind of skip over the shining girls. And it's critically important to me, you know, in the book that they are - that the stories are much more about them and their lives and what a loss it is that they've been cut out of society. And I don't know how much of that you'd be able to actually get into two hours.
VIGELAND: That's the writer Lauren Beukes. Her new book is called "The Shining Girls," and it is out now. Lauren, thank you so much.
BEUKES: Thank you, Tess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.