With books which play with the nature of time to allow their themes to emerge, South African novelist Lauren Beukes and Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin discussed the power of language in this fascinating event chaired by novelist and critic Peter Guttridge.
Beukes’ The Shining Girls is a startling tale of a time-travelling serial killer, whilst Shishkin’s The Light And The Dark sees his letter-writing protagonists separated not only by distance, but by time. Despite these fantastical devices however, there are more profound themes behind both.
By focusing on the lives of the novel’s victims throughout key points of the twentieth century, The Shining Girls is as much about women’s rights as it is a crime / sci-fi thriller. Shishkin’s work is almost a defiance against politics and oppression. “A writer must write about more important things than politics,” he says. “Dictators come and go, but books stay.”
Shishkin is interested in the ever-changing form of language, comparing its evolution to a “running train” which writers must keep up with. “What I do,” he says, referring to capturing this on the page, “is translation.”
Both writers then go on to discuss their approaches to writing. Shishkin describes how he feels like the servant to his writing’s master, with his role being to transcribe what the novel dictates to him. Beukes speaks of how her novels often spring from a strong mental image, with the writing then “developing like a polaroid”.
Beukes and Shishkin are both aware of and impacted by the past, particularly the censorship which existed — and still exists — in their home countries. However, both share the view that words are a way to transcend this.
“Language,” says Shishkin, “is immortality through art.”
Lauren Beukes and Mikhail Shiskin were at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 Aug