Working your way up the foodchain: Michael Stanley talk about the slow process of becoming established writers
I first met the writing duo Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears – who together form the nom de plume Michael Stanley – at the CapeTown Bookfair in June 2008, when Deon Meyer made sure to introduce the two authors to the South African literary scene. By the end of the year, two regular guys sitting in the crowd attentatively listening to the crime fiction discussions, were suddenly hot news: they’d hit the LA Times’ pick of the best ten crime novels of the year, were nominated for the Macavity Award, the Strand Magazine Critics’ Award and were finalists in the Minnesota Book Awards.
What makes these two authors stand out is not the fact that they’ve written a series that is set in Botswana, like Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. No, I suspect Michael Stanley sniffed a change in the wind and produced an undeniably fresh series that is as much fun as it is serious – a take on crime fiction that’s sorely needed as our collective psyche becomes exhausted with the moral fug that’s hung over us since September 9/11. There’s an intense focus on Detective Kubu and his circle of friends and colleagues, an attention to detail when it comes to Botswana that renders Michael Stanley’s work real rather than pastoral.
Richard Kunzmann: For those of us who don’t yet know who you are and how you came about such a highly likeable character as Detective Kubu, give us your summarised back story (and that of Kubu!)
Michael Stanley: Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We’re both retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a
pilot. We were both born in South Africa.
Because we are both academics, our original intention in A Carrion Death was to have the ecologist as the protagonist. But we needed a policeman to run the formal investigation. And Kubu seemed to come fully created as though he was there waiting. His nickname is Kubu because of his size – “kubu” being the Setswana word for hippopotamus. Hippos in the wild spend most of the day in pools or rivers, with only their eyes and ears out of the water. They look deceptively docile, belying the fact that they kill more people in Africa than any other animal, trampling whatever lies between them and their objective. So with Kubu. On the surface he appears harmless; a convivial man with a sly sense of humor, who loves his wife, who is passionate about wine and music. But Kubu is a capable, wily policeman determined to rid Botswana of crime and corruption, no matter what gets in his way.
Richard Kunzmann: Both of you must have a deep love for Botswana. How did that come about?
Michael Stanley:When Stanley lived in the USA, he’d go back to South Africa every year to see family and friends. Being a private pilot, he would rent a small plane, fill it with friends, food, and wine, and head off to Botswana or Zimbabwe to watch game or birds. Michael was always one of the passengers on these trips. Over the years we had so many wonderful times in the Okavango or in the Chobe National Park that we fell in love with the country.
Richard Kunzmann: Diamond and drug smuggling are the core themes of your first and second novels. Are these issues close to your hearts or are they a serious affliction in Botswana?
Michael Stanley:Michael worked for ten years for Anglo American, a very large mining house originally based in South Africa. It is a major shareholder in De Beers, which dominates the world diamond market. And of course Botswana has the two richest diamond mines in the world, Orapa and Jwaneng, owned by Debswana, a joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government. So it was an easy decision for us, as we planned our first mystery, to incorporate diamonds into the story. Once there were diamonds, it was a small step to think about how they might be used illicitly, so we came up with a strategy that would make several of our characters immensely wealthy if the plan succeeded. In reality, diamonds are well controlled in Botswana and there is minimal impact from “blood diamonds” as far as we know.
With respect to the drug trade, Botswana is one of the conduits into South Africa, so it is impossible to ignore. Obviously it is a source of great concern in Botswana, and since our protagonist works for the police, it is of concern for him too.
Richard Kunzmann: What struck me most about A Deadly Trade was Goodluck Tinubu’s back story, and the personal tragedy of Zimbabwe as evoked by the different characters. It’s almost as if someone had those tragic tales to tell you….
Michael Stanley: The tragedy of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe is so stark that it didn’t need a real person to provide the details and pathos. We both know Zimbabweans, black and white. Listening to their stories, coupled with the bombardment of news, made it easy to create a story of personal tragedies and disappointment.
Richard Kunzmann: I thought A Deadly Trade was a lot tighter and leaner than A Carrion Death. How have the two of you developed as writers since your successful debut?
Michael Stanley: When we started A Carrion Death, we had no idea what we were doing. Neither of us had written fiction before, nor had we written together. So the process was slow as we tried to figure out issues of plot and character, as well as how to share the responsibilities of writing, and remain friends. It took us three years to finish the first book.
For A Deadly Trade, we were better organized. We had a good outline of the plot before we started writing. We had learnt a great deal about making our writing more concise and leaner, so it took less time to produce a better draft. We had also refined the way the two of us interact, making the overall process more efficient. A Deadly Trade took about 20 months to complete. There is no doubt that we still have a lot to learn, and we hope we can improve the quality yet again in our third book.
Richard Kunzmann: A writer duo is still an unusual thing to me. How do you work together? Can you shortly take us through the process? What’s easy about it? What’s difficult?
Michael Stanley: We’ve developed a strategy which we think works quite well. Upfront, we work out a map of the plot, a synopsis, and the timelines. We try to get together to do that, and it takes a considerable amount of time. After that, it seems there are usually areas where one of us has a particular interest or a mental picture of what’s going to happen. He’ll write a first draft, and that is the starting point for multiple iterations. Often we will each be working on a different section of the book. This phase we can do by email interspersed with long internet telephone conversations. Eventually we go through each section independently to make sure it’s smooth, stylistically coherent, and that the characters’ behaviors are consistent from one place to another. Perhaps surprisingly it seems to work. Most people can’t discern any changes of style as they read.
Communication is easy thanks to the internet, and sometimes when Stanley is in North America and Michael is in South Africa the time change allows twenty-four hour writing!
Of course, sometimes understanding why the other person doesn’t like a piece is hard. It’s so clear to the original writer! But if one of us is having difficulty with a sentence, chances are that many readers will also. So we listen to each other very carefully.
Sometimes our schedules and priorities don’t match, and that can be frustrating.
Overall, we think that writing together is slower than writing alone, but the benefits of having an immediate, interested reader and someone with whom to brainstorm far outweighs the drawbacks.
Richard Kunzmann: How much of your success would you attribute to the book and old-fashioned marketing legwork?
Michael Stanley: When we started writing we told ourselves that if the books did not succeed it should be because they were not good rather than not known. For A Carrion Death, we received little financial support from our US publisher, which is typical these days. Publishers spend almost all their promotional budget on big names. The US is such a gigantic market (about 150,000 books published in 2008, and about 7000 mysteries) that if the author does nothing, nobody will get to know about the book. Certainly our publisher sent out review copies to reviewers at newspapers and magazines, which was a great help. We suspect that the fact we were reviewed at all was because our book was set in a part of the world that is exotic to most reviewers. And perhaps because of the success of Alexander McCall Smith. The great reviews were because they liked the book.
We wanted a broader profile than the reviews alone. So we put up a website for people to visit (www.detectivekubu.com). We wrote pieces for blogs, magazines, and newspapers. We visited a few bookstores and did events, and attended a few conventions, like Bouchercon. And to people who signed up on our website, we sent an occasional newsletter bringing them up to date on the progress of the next book, as well as about our travels.
So to answer your question, old-fashioned legwork is necessary for most new writers. Only a very few succeed without it. However without a book that people like, marketing will help very little.
Richard Kunzmann: Where do you see your series going? What’s coming next?
Michael Stanley: We are currently working on our third book. A Carrion Death is set in the dry Central Kalahari. Most of the action in A Deadly Trade takes place in the lush riverine forests of the Linyanti in northern Botswana, and in the third mystery we are sending Detective Kubu south west to Tsabong and areas around the Khalagadi Transfrontier National Park.
The back story of the third book is the conflict between the Bushmen (or San) and the government. This is a conflict that has reached the courts several times in several guises. In a landmark case a couple of years ago, the Botswana Supreme Court ruled that the government could not relocate some Bushmen from the Central Kalahari National Park to settlements outside. Of course the real issue is how nomadic people, who do not believe in land ownership, live in a world of private property, farms and fences. And what is the responsibility of the government to provide education and shelter to people who don’t want to stay in one place? At an even deeper level, society has to address the issue of whether it has a responsibility to preserve cultures such as that of the Bushmen, and if the answer is in the affirmative, how it does that.
Richard Kunzmann: Are translations on the horizon?
Michael Stanley: With respect to A Carrion Death, as of now we have an Italian edition (Il detective Kubu) in print. The French edition (Un festin de hyènes – a feast of hyenas) will be released in September. And a German edition is scheduled for 2010. We have sold the rights to A Deadly Trade to the French and German publishers.
Richard Kunzmann: Can you tell us what are the five most important things you’ve learnt as writers?
1) When you become overly fond of a piece of writing, it probably should be cut.
2) Leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.
3) Believe in your characters. They will push back at you if you try to take them places they don’t want to go.
4) Readers care more about the characters than they do about the plot.
5) Editors tell you what’s wrong, not how to fix it!
Richard Kunzmann: What are the five biggest challenges you’ve faced?
1) Getting to grips with a coherent plot that allows flexible development but avoids dead ends.
2) Letting the characters show themselves rather than telling the reader about them.
3) Getting the book complete in good shape within a given time frame (for the second book).
4) Learning how to market the book to agents, editors and readers.
5) Concentrating on the writing at the same time as doing the marketing!