Michael Stanley e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (April, 2008)
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South Africans by birth. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business, Sears in South Africa and Trollip in the USA. Their love of watching the wildlife of the African subcontinent has taken them on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe.
The notion of writing a novel set in Botswana surfaced on one of these trips, resulting in their debut work of fiction, A Carrion Death, whose rich background reflects the authors' own broad and varied experience. The story opens on the discovery of a mangled body being eaten by a hyena beside a waterhole on the verge of the Central Kalahari game reserve, and stars genial Assistant Superintendant David 'Kubu' Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. It's a gritty thriller interspersed with cozy interludes in which Kubu indulges in his happy family life - and enjoys good food and wines in gourmand quantities.
Q: Both of you were born in Johannesburg, South Africa - why did you choose Botswana as the setting for your series, rather than South Africa?
A: The wilderness we needed for the plot would be hard to find in South Africa these days. Botswana is a fascinating country, and its desert environment immediately attracted us as a setting for the novel. It is also a metaphor for the old traditional Africa and the new buzzing Africa reaching for the twenty-first century. It was the obvious choice.
Q: Assistant Superintendant Kubu is a wonderful character, amiable yet indomitable in his pursuit of criminals. Why did you pick 'hippopotamus' (in Setswana) for his nickname? Is it because his size gives a first impression of indolence?
A: Hippos are interesting creatures. Large, fat, apparently lazy. But don't get between it and its family or its watery home. They can switch between phlegmatic and aggressive very quickly. Kubu is that sort of person. Careful, methodical, enjoys his food and home and leisure. But tenacious and pushy if he has to be. Don't get on the wrong side of him!
Q: I love A Carrion Death's North American cover which seems to shimmer with desert heat. Did you have much say in jacket design?
A: We also really like the jacket. It has the colors of Africa and an intriguing collage of the different themes in the book. The UK cover is quite different – very abstract, all reds, oranges and browns – and we like that too. (You can see it at DetectiveKubu.com.) We think the artists have done a great job. We were very happy to go along with what they had developed.
Q: I enjoyed Kubu's interactions with the Kalahari Bushmen in A Carrion Death - and his giving credit to a Bushman friend for teaching him to see what's around him. Were these interactions based on personal experience?
A: We have a little experience of the Bushmen people. It is impossible not to admire the way they survive in the arid Kalahari. Kubu's friend and his respect for the Bushmen developed from that. The rights of the Bushmen to carry on their traditional lifestyle, perhaps to the detriment of their children's position in the modern world, is a difficult issue for people in Botswana, and one about which they are sensitive. It's important to understand the situation before one makes a value judgment.
In terms of the details, we have seen trapdoor spiders and their nests, and Stanley tried to grow a lithop collection in his house in Illinois many years ago – sadly to no avail. They pined for the hot desert and died.
Q: Is a steelworks drink really as refreshing and satisfying as Kubu makes it sound? And is it a personal favorite of one or both of you?
A: Both of us like it, but Stan loves it! It's great for a hot day when you want something that's non-alcoholic and not too sweet. We've been battling to get the ingredients here in the US – the only supplier we found was out of stock. We wanted to have a few toasts with it at our launch party.
Q: Which one of you sings along with operas - as does your protagonist - on car trips?
A: This is a hard one to answer because neither of us would do it in public! We don't have as sanguine approach to our vocal abilities as Kubu does. I think we're going to take the Fifth Amendment on this one!
Q: The Old Man witch doctor added a sinister dimension to the mystery - do ordinary people still fear such individuals in 21st century Africa?
A: This is a very interesting question. The answer is 'yes, definitely', but maybe we can expand on that a bit. We deliberately set up Bongani to display this tension. A scientist with a PhD from the University of Minnesota is hardly the sort of person you might expect to be awed by the occult. But belief systems go back to childhood and are hard to unlearn. We think that to some extent everyone is superstitious no matter how well educated they are. And this is exaggerated when a community has a strong and long-term relationship with people like witchdoctors. Botswana is a Christian country, and the people are devout; Kubu's parents are typical. But their Christianity lives side by side with the Satanic doings of the witchdoctors. Bongani battles with this tension, and his experiences are not atypical.
At a more sinister level, some people believe that certain animal parts give them special powers, and human parts provide the strongest power. Sophisticated, powerful people are not all above this belief, and the implications are scary.
Q: I appreciated the relief from tension provided by Kubu's daily life with Joy, his parents and her sister - will your stories continue to include such cozy interludes?
A: Yes, we set out to show a middle-class family and its transition from poor and unsophisticated roots. Kubu's parents started off their lives very poor, but they are smart people, and show the commitment to education and the advancement of their children that is quite typical of African people in their socioeconomic position.
In our next book, Kubu makes an apparently small mistake, and it leads to his family sharing the danger implicit in his job. It gives Joy a chance to show that she's made of sterner stuff, and develops her relationship with Kubu. And Kubu's parents have quite a bit to say about it, and not all complementary!
Q: This first book exploited Michael Sears' experience in ecological modeling and diamond mining. Your bios mention that Stanley Trollip holds pilot's licenses - will Kubu spend more time in the air in future adventures?
A: We think we bring a mixture of experiences and expertise to the partnership. That's part of the reason why we have so much fun. Yes, the diamonds and ecology are up front, but there are some quite complex issues of what you can and can't get away with in planes in southern Africa. We think it's really important that one stays within the bounds of what can happen. It is fiction, but it must be believable.
Q: Where does your red-bearded villain come from? Was he a foil for Kubu?
A: Unfortunately, transitional countries like Angola are natural homes for people who live completely outside of the law. Someone like Red Beard never has enough, always feels he can outsmart the police, and get away with what he wants to do. Kubu's attention was initially focused elsewhere. But he soon realized what sort of opponent Red Beard was!
Q: I can imagine a variety of ways to collaborate on a novel - how do the two of you split the work up?
A: 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.
Q: Your first newsletter mentions that the sequel, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu is 'complete in draft form'. Can you tell us anything about it and in particular when it's likely to be released in N. America?
A: There's a short introduction and the first chapter at DetectiveKubu.com. The setting is very different – up on the lush northern border of Botswana on the Linyanti river – at a tourist camp. One of the guests is murdered, and Kubu has to sort out a tangle of events and motives which leads him back to the days of the war in Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe. At a contextual level the book is about Zimbabwe and its problems, but it takes place in Botswana, and Kubu is joined again by his family and colleagues. We hope it will be out a year from now, but those sorts of decisions are really in the hands of HarperCollins.Find out about the authors and about Botswana; read an interview with Detective Kubu; and enjoy first chapters of both A Carrion Death and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu at DetectiveKubu.com.
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