Another new year, another new year’s worth of books for the Big Idea! And to start us off, I’m pleased to help you make the acquaintance of Lauren Beukes, whose latest book Zoo City takes you to a world where people have animal companions who are more than just pets — they’re something magical (and not exactly in the “sparkly unicorn” sort of way). How to get into the headspace of this magical, animal world? As Beukes tells it, you start with the real world — and dig.
How do you make the incredible credible?
Let’s say you have an idea for a book, about a girl with a sloth on her back. Not just any sloth, mind you, but a magical parasite, the most obvious symptom of a global outbreak of Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism that has chucked everything science and religion thought they knew out the window, leaving governments reeling and forcing the animalled into ghettos. Like zoo city, the slumlands of inner city Johannesburg where Zinzi and her sloth live on the breadline, finding lost things for small change and writing 419 scams to pay off her drug debts, until she’s recruited to find a missing pop star and everything goes to hell.
Let’s say you want to make this ludicrous idea not just believable but true, in the way that only good fiction can be, revealing the veins and fibres of the world, cutting to the bone of who we are.
Ambitious? Yep. Also the perfect excuse to snoop.
I’ve got away with a lot of snooping in my career. And better yet, been paid for it. Except the people I work for typically like to dignify it by calling it “journalism”. For the sake of a story, I’ve hung out with homeless sex workers and soap starlets, nuclear physicists and electricity cable thieves, great white sharks and brothel owners who were toothier and scarier, HIV positive beauty queens, township vigilantes and wannabe teenage vampires among other interesting folk.
I cannibalised a lot of that experience in my first book, Moxyland, but with Zoo City, I had an advance in my pocket to fund a research trip and an open brief to go wherever the story demanded. All in the name of snooping! Er, that is to say, research.
Which is how I found myself on a woven reed mat in a sangoma’s rooms in the Mai Mai healer’s market, to consult with the spirits of the ancestors about my problems. The traditional healer studied the bones she’d had me throw and talked a stream of Zulu that her translator distilled to spartan sentences about the dark shadow plaguing me and how to be rid of it.
I declined the cleansing ritual she offered which would have involved the sacrifice of a black chicken and took away the details, the sputtering fan in the waiting room, the drying herbs, the animal pelts, the glass jars filled with dark unidentifiable clots of medicine, the bright plastic troll that represented the malevolent evil, grinning up from the constellation of bones and shells and broken dominoes.
And how I found myself on the concrete walkway above the parking garage of High Point, once the most glamorous apartment block in what was once Johannesburg’s most chic suburb, Hillbrow, dodging rubbish being hurled from the windows above as a crew-cut 19-year old in a bulletproof vest pointed out the block opposite, where black plastic bags and faded sunflower curtains covered the windows. The private security company he worked for had raided it a week ago, breaking up a human trafficking ring. “But they’re probably back at it, already,” he said grimly, before leaning over to yell at a vagrant going through the trash below to get away from “his” building.
We climbed 26 flights of stairs (the elevator was out of order) and looked down over the dilapidated sprawl of Hillbrow, which didn’t feel like the dangerous hotbed of violence and crime and poverty all the news reports and documentaries have made it out to be. It felt like somewhere people live, with children playing in the courtyard and vendors selling fruit and cell phone accessories on the street and laundry strung out on make-shift lines across the rooftop.
I made the apartment block the setting of a mini-denouement and spun in the security guard’s anecdote about busting a rapist in the building by lying in wait outside the main doors “because the okey had to come out sometime”.
It’s how I found myself shuffling ankle-deep in water in a storm-drain with cockroaches congealed in skittery clumps on the walls. I wove it in with a handy bit of historical trivia, that there are still shallow tunnels under Johannesburg’s city centre from the first days of the gold mine boom.
And how I found myself walking through the courtyard of South Africa’s most notorious prison, en route to the women’s section, as male prisoners whooped and hollered from the windows. I worked it into Zinzi’s history; the rotating cages of the doors, the dull howl of the claxons.
It’s how I found myself whispering on the phone to the head of the South African Police Services 419 Scam Unit as he lurked in the lobby of an upmarket hotel, preparing to break up a meeting between West African scammers and their nice middle-aged Mexican lady victim– and how I got to talk to her afterwards as she broke down in tears and kept repeating how convincing they’d been, how I would have believed it too.
And it’s how I found myself in the fever dream of following a Zimbabwean nurse down the concrete stairwell of a dilapidated church in central Johannesburg, stinking of sweat and urine and sickness, unable to see in the darkness, pushing through the resistance of human bodies as people shoved their way up or down the stairs.
Two claustrophobic flights down in the press of bodies and the dark, we broke free into a basement crammed with women and children and babies, the sum of their belongings arranged around them in tattered plastic rattan bags.
It was all the ravages of a refugee camp barely contained in one building, with some 4000 refugees bedding down for the night wherever they could find a space, on an inch of floor or concrete stair. I left feeling shaken and raw. Even my fixer, an experienced facilitator for journalists and photographers, was shocked.
I couldn’t find a way to make it fit. It was too devastating, too big to transmute neatly into fiction without derailing the entire novel. So I made it personal and focused on one refugee in my fiction who could represent some of that horror – Zinzi’s Congolese lover, Benoit – interviewing DRC refugees to tease out the details that would make him real.
I spent about a week in Johannesburg, exploring Hillbrow, getting thrown out of faded colonial glamour of The Rand Club for being improperly dressed, attending gigs in Melville, location scouting clubs in Brixton and ruined mansions in the rich and leafy suburbs of Westcliff. And then I came home to Cape Town and started putting it all together.
I didn’t need to do the trip. A lot of the novel comes straight out of my head remixed with details gleaned from books I’d read about Hillbrow or African mythology or the plight of refugees or the horrific toll of war in the Congo.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a journalist, it’s that real-life is usually more surprising than even the most inventive fiction. For me, anchoring a wild idea onto reality makes it more vivid, more credible and, ultimately, more interesting.
And hey, any excuse for an adventure in snooping.