It’s Greek tragedy time travel – the more you resist your destiny, the more you put in to play all the events that will bring it about

The Shining Girls is a thriller with a time-travel twist, and one of the most exciting reads of this summer. It is the third novel written by South African author Lauren Beukes.

How was it like to build a character as gruesome and chilling as Harper Curtis?

It was very disturbing, researching real-life serial killers. Most of them are not intriguing, sophisticated, Hannibal Lecter-style predators. They’re vile, violent men with impotence issues and little insight into why they do what they do.

It was very difficult spending time in Harper’s head, seeing the world through his eyes, and I dealt with it by hurting him at any opportunity. In the course of the novel, he rips his tendon, he gets bitten by a dog, he gets stung by a bee, he gets his jaw broken. Anything I could do to mess him up felt cathartic.

Because of this time-travelling serial killer, the timeline is staggered, with elements reminiscing of other times, and other people, but always connected to each other.  How did you build this particular timeline? Did you have a corkboard with all the references and connected elements, like a FBI or CIA officer?

I used the writing software Scrivener, which creates a cork board for your chapters on screen, so you can see immediately, visually, the shape of your book. But that wasn’t enough, so I also created a “murder wall” above my desk, that did look very FBI, plotting the murders and the clues Harper leaves behind across the three different timelines (the killers’, the actual historical timeline and the novel’s timeline), all linked by red and black and yellow thread. It looked quite mad, but it was vital that I get it right. There are overlaps and paradoxes, but everything is very carefully plotted out.

Although the sections concentrate on one character at a time, you use a third-person narrative throughout the novel. Why is that?

I’ve written a novel with four first person narrators before (Moxyland) and it’s fun and you can play with different perspectives on the same event, especially when you have an unreliable narrator, but for this one, third person felt right. There’s enough to handle with the time-hopping across decades.

Apart from the peculiarity of the House which allows Harper to wander through the century, the reader is given little explanations or details about the functioning of this time-traveling building, or even the causes of its existence in the first place.
Do you think that in fiction, some things are better left untold?

Ah, but there are. It might take a second reading, but how the House came to be what it is, why it drives Harper to do the things he does, is explained in the final chapters (and the opening). It’s about loops and paradoxes and obsessions. But no, I didn’t spell it out, nor get into the mechanics of time travel and multiverse theory. It’s Greek tragedy time travel – the more you resist your destiny, the more you put in to play all the events that will bring it about.

Though your previous novel was more inclined towards fantasy and science-fiction, The Shining Girls is more hybrid between thriller and science-fiction. Are there any other genres you would like to tackle? 

I write the books I want to write and people classify them afterwards. They’re all mutant mélanges of different influences, but what they have in common is that they’re all (more or less) thrillers with a strange twist and certain themes that emerge, from the ghosts of history to how technology and culture intersect and what that says about us.