I was messing around on Twitter in random banter with a stranger (I’ve never been able to find out who it was), when it came about that I should write my next book about a time-travelling serial killer. And I said, ‘wait that’s a brilliant idea’, and immediately deleted the tweet before anyone else could see it.
It’s a very slick elevator pitch: time-travelling serial killer, which immediately made me want to make it more interesting and richer. So it’s not your Bill and Ted’s Excellent Killer Spree Through Time – from the Neanderthals through to Shakespeare. I didn’t want to do any of the time-travelling cliches – no velociraptors, and so on, as much fun as that would have been. Imagine riding a velocirapter through time to kill Hitler.
Instead, I wanted to subvert the serial killer genre. I knew it couldn’t be set in South Africa, because the story of our country in the 20th Century is apartheid, which is an important story, one I’ve told through allegory in my previous books, and one I will return to. But for this novel, I wanted a broader scope and to specifically look at women and how history has changed for women. I wanted to make this story about them – to make the reader care and to feel. I know some people found the violence shocking, but I would ask them to look at it again and see that the reason they find it shocking is because they are emotionally invested in that person.
As for the killer: you take that one kernel of nasty, vicious cynicism that you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic and you want to bash their head in and you pull on that, like a magician pulling string out of a wand.
Excerpt from The Shining Girls:
A shadow slipped out among the coils of white fabric artfully arranged on the stage, dressed top-to-toe in black like an Arab. Her eyes glinted once briefly, catching the light from outside as a late arrival was grudgingly allowed entry by the thickset doorman. Cool and feral as an animal’s eyes caught in the headlights. Harper thought, like when he and Everett used to drive to Yankton before dawn to pick up farm supplies in the Red Baby.
Half the audience didn’t even realise anyone was there, until, cued by some undetectable shift in the music, the Glow Girl slid off one long glove, revealing an incandescent disembodied arm. The onlookers gasped and one woman near the front screamed in shrill delight, startling the cop, who craned his neck to see if there had been any impropriety.
The arm unfurled, the hand at the end twisting and turning in a sensual dance all its own. It teased its way around the black sack, exposing, briefly, a girlish shoulder, a curve of a belly, a flash of painted lips, firefly bright. Then it moved to tug off the other glove and throw it into the crowd. Now there were two glowing arms, exposed from the elbow down, sensually contorting, beckoning the audience: Come closer. They obeyed, like children, clustering around the stage, jostling for the best view and tossing the glove up into the air, passing it hand-to-hand, like a party favour. It landed near Harper’s feet – a wrinkled thing, with radium paint streaks showing like innards.
‘Hey, now, no souvenirs,’ the huge doorman said, snatching it out of his hands. ‘Give it here. That’s Miss Klara’s property.’
On stage, the hands crept up to the veiled hood and unclasped it, letting loose a tumble of curls and revealing a sharp little face with a bow mouth and giant blue eyes under fluttering lashes, tipped with paint so they glowed too. A pretty decapitated head floating eerily above the stage.
Miss Klara rolled her hips, twisting her arms above her head, waiting for the suspense of a dip in the melody and the sharp clang of the cymbals she held between her fingers before she removed another piece of clothing, like a butterfly shrugging out of the folds of a black cocoon. But the movement reminded him more of a snake wriggling out of its skin.
She wore dainty wings underneath, and a costume beaded with insect-like segments. She fluttered her fingers and winked her big eyes, dropping into a contorted pose among the coils of fabric like a dying moth. When she re-emerged, she had slipped her arms into sleeves in the gauze and was swirling it around her. Above the bar, a projector flickered to like, casting the blurry silhouettes of butterflies on the gauzy cloth. Jeanette transformed into a swooping, diving creature among a whirlwind of illusory insects. It made him think of plague and infestation. He fingered the folding knife in his pocket.
‘Zank you! Zank you!’ she said at the end of it, in her little girl voice, standing on stage wearing only the paint and a pair of high heels, her arms crossed over her breasts, as if they hadn’t already seen all there was to see. She blew the audience a grateful kiss, in the process revealing her pink nipple to roaring approval. She widened her eyes and gave a coquettish giggle. She quickly covered up again, playing at modesty, and skipped off stage, kicking up her heels. She returned a moment later and wheeled round the stage, her arms held up high and wide in triumph, chin raised, eyes glittering, demanding that they look at her, take their fill.