I was lucky enough to interview one half of the team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip who created Detective “Kubu” in A CARRION DEATH and the soon-to-be-released A DEADLY TRADE
Michael Stanley, welcome and thank you for your time.
Co-writing a novel is not very common. How did that come about?
Stan and I met in Johannesburg about 25 years ago, but we became good friends in Minneapolis where Stan was working and I spent time on sabbatical from my university in Johannesburg. We shared a love of Africa’s wild areas. Stan is a pilot and we took several fly-in trips into such parts. The premise for the “perfect” murder was that you can completely destroy a body by feeding it to hyenas – no body, no case. I once saw a pack of twelve hyenas convert a small wildebeest to nothing but horns and upper skull in one night. We needed a setting which was wild and isolated yet not part of a controlled area such as a national park. Botswana still has many areas like that. We chatted about writing a novel together over many years – while we were writing academic and non-fiction works jointly with other people.
How about writing as a team? How does that work? Do you each have set tasks or is it a process of to-ing and fro-ing and refining?
It’s very much the latter. When we started, it seemed a natural thing to do and we just worked it out as we went along. Now we’ve developed a team 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. This phase we 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! People tell us they can’t discern any changes of style as they read.
Did you find that also?
I found the writing totally seamless. In fact, I didn't become aware until after finishing the book that it actually had two authors and I was surprised to learn that. I read a book written by two authors the other year and I did notice one or two tiny inconsistencies. One was a dog described as having a stumpy tail and in a subsequent chapter the dog's tail is swishing. I found none at all in A Carrion Death. Then again if a book grabs you sufficiently into its world, you are totally immersed and don't spend any time looking for anything like that.
Ah, I missed the swishing tail! We’ve had our examples. When Kubu landed at the farmhouse and told the pilot to keep the helicopter going, we had a piece about the dead stillness of the desert. One proof reader commented dryly: “Quiet Chopper!”
Let's talk about A CARRION DEATH. Where did you find Detective Kubu? He's a very gentle man, was that a conscious decision you made?
Kubu is very interesting to us. He wasn’t even meant to be the protagonist. That was going to be the ecologist – Bongani. But we obviously needed the police involved, and someone had to investigate. Kubu just clambered into his Land Rover and set off singing into the Kalahari. He wasn’t planned; he just developed along what seemed a natural path for him. And he firmly shouldered Bongani out of the lead role! One of our reviewers has suggested that he has developed much more in the second novel. He is gentle but, like his namesake, he can become dangerous...
When you wrote A CARRION DEATH did you envisage it would become a series?
We loved Kubu, and we discovered that others – such as our agent and people we persuaded to read drafts of the book – loved him too. So much seemed to be behind and ahead of him, it seemed we needed to explore it more fully. Our publisher agreed, giving us a contract for two Kubu books at the outset. We’re now busy on the third. In some ways it’s a darker book exploring the fault line between different population groups in Botswana – specifically the issue of the Bushman people. But it’s still a murder mystery, and Kubu – and, we hope, the reader – is kept guessing!
I found two titles for your next book. “A Deadly Trade” and “The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu” Is there a reason for that?
Actually, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu was our original title, and Harper Collins liked it. Headline in the UK felt it sounded too like a McCall Smith book, perhaps too ‘cozy’. So after a few hundred attempts we came up with one everyone liked. But Harper was adamant that they wanted to go with the old title. So there it is...
Can you tell us about the plot for your next book a A DEADLY TRADE?
Kubu has the lead role of course, although out of his usual environment. The scene is a small tourist camp set in the lush riverine forest along the border between Botswana and Namibia, packed with elephants and bird life. The camp is called Jackalberry after the huge lush trees of that name which grow in the area. One morning the guests wake up to discover one of their number viciously murdered and two others missing. The murdered man's name is Goodluck Tinubu, and it turns out that he has "died" before - in the Rhodesian war twenty years before. (Hence the US title for the book.) Kubu has a new sidekick up on the Linyanti - a tall, thin man who is finding his feet in the CID. He learns from Kubu and stands on his own two feet. When he's on dry land that is... Of course Mabaku is around and he also has problems of his own.
Joy plays a much bigger role when the baddies have a go at Kubu. She has to do some sleuthing of her own. There are the guests at the camp, who aren't as innocent as they seem, the camp owner and her sidekick, the cook at the camp with a tame go-away bird, and a lady shop owner in Gaborone with eclectic selling habits, some nasties operating from Zimbabwe... No wonder
the book got long!
Placing the camp was not easy. Much of the area is national park, and some of it is quite open rather than the way we described it. We have some very knowledgeable friends who guide trips in Botswana - Peter and Salome. When they read the setting, they immediately said they knew the spot. Salome took us there. After a long, rough trip for several days off the beaten track in
an open Land Rover, we saw that they had been correct. The river worked its way lazily between reeded banks, birds were in abundance, as were crocodiles and hippos. We were stunned by how closely it resembled the imaginary location of our camp.
"Well," I said, trying to be clever, "yes, okay, but where are the Jackalberry trees?" Salome looked pained. "You're standing under one," she commented,pointing to a gorgeous, lush Example spreading above us...
Over the past year or so there seems to have been an upsurge of crime novels set in Africa. Do you think this is pure coincidence or does the success of writers like Alexander McCall Smith act as a spur for other writers to do something similar?
Are there many African crime writers emerging (as opposed to those who set their books there)? I read Deon Meyer's DEVIL'S PEAK earlier in the year and loved the depth of his writing. Are African crime writers finding their voice do you think? Are there any you've read and enjoyed?.
The question about African writers is a very good one. I think the answer is: yes, definitely. I think Deon Meyer is an excellent crime writer (an opinion shared by Michael Connelly by the way). ( He actually wrote the book in Afrikaans where it had another title.) I think that the resurgence of good mystery fiction writing in South Africa has come from the relief of getting past the Apartheid and past-Apartheid era where any “serious” writer had to address those issues. Last month a collection of mystery stories by 17 SA writers (including Michael Stanley) was published by Macmillan under the title “Bad Company”. The stories range from urban slum crime to rural Botswana. It’s a who’s who of SA crime writers (and good reading to boot!) Unfortunately I doubt it is available in Australia. You’d need to order from an internet bookstore like http://www.kalahari.net/books/
Having said that, I believe that there was a surge of interest in novels set outside the US (within the US) around 9/11 for a variety of reasons that we could only speculate on. We had good offers from two publishers there and interest from a third when our agent offered A Carrion Death.
Do you read much crime fiction yourselves and if so who are your favourites
Finally, yes, both Stan and I read a lot of crime fiction and try to follow all our SA colleagues as well as a variety of other writers. My first choice is John Le Carre. But we’re pretty catholic. William Kent Kruger, Fred Vargas, Larsen, PD James, Louise Penny. I’d put Deon Meyer in that company too!
You can keep up with the doings of Detective Kubu and his creators at Detective Kubu's website at http://www.detectivekubu.com/
A DEADLY TRADE is due to be published in Australia and the U.K. in May, 2009. The authors will be visiting Australia very soon, so keep an eye out for them. I for one am looking foward to reading A DEADLY TRADE. Review to come.