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."