I first became aware of the crime writing team of Michael Stanley when author Peter James mentioned them in an interview he gave on another blog last year. My interest was immediately piqued – how do two writers manage to coordinate writing not just one book, but a whole series?
With their sixth novel featuring Detective “Kubu” Bengu, Dying to Live out now through Orenda Books, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to invite them over for a chat and discover more about their fictional detective.
What follows is a truly fascinating discussion about the research and writing techniques they use to bring the Detective Kubu series to life.
Michael Sears, Stanley Trollip – welcome to the blog!
What attracted you both to writing in the crime/thriller genre? Was there a particular author that inspired you to do so?
We’ve both always been fans of mysteries (among other genres) and enjoy the puzzle and surprise aspects. So, it was a natural idea to write a crime novel together.
In Michael’s case Rex Stout, with his orchid-loving Nero Wolfe, was a very appealing protagonist, and PD James, who introduced character-driven mysteries (as opposed to the Agatha Christie puzzle-driven ones), opened up the attraction of using it as a vehicle for more exploratory writing.
Stanley was shown the power of story-telling by Nevil Shute. As a teenager, he read On the Beach into the wee hours of the morning. When he turned off the light, he never expected to wake up. He was surprised and disoriented when his father woke him up the next morning with a cup of tea. He learned about mysteries from the Hardy Boys and Tony Hillerman.
What led to you teaming up to write the Detective Kubu books, and how has your writing relationship evolved over each publication?
It all started on a trip to the Savuti game reserve in Botswana. We watched a fearsome pack of hyenas hunt, kill, and consume an adult wildebeest in a matter of a few hours. Everything was eaten except the hooves and horns. It was a remarkable experience.
Later, over a few glasses of wine – possibly even a glass too many – it struck us that the perfect murder would be one where there was no body left for the police to investigate. A body thrown out to be completely consumed by hyenas would be an impossible case to solve.
Life got in the way, so it took another fifteen years to actually get around to working on the story, and then pretty soon we realized that what we had was a premise rather than a plot. Then the question was, why was it important that the body be disposed of in such a way that it was impossible to identify? And after we answered that, we had a story, which became out first novel, A Carrion Death.
It is remarkable to us that the way we write together has remained basically the same over six books. Both of us do everything, and neither is the leader in any department. We both plot; we both write; we both edit; we both argue, and most important, we still laugh a lot.
What sort of research did you undertake for your latest novel?
One of the aspects of writing that we both enjoy enormously is the research. Typically, this comprises two parts, namely checking out the physical locations that will appear in the book, and reading as much as possible about the backstory.
Dying to Live is set in two main places, the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, and the Kalahari Desert to the west of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. We’ve been to Gaborone many times so we did not have to spend a lot of time there.
However, we did need to go to the area of the Kalahari to which the Bushmen have been relocated from their ancestral hunting grounds.
In particular, we visited a village called New Xade, which has to be one of the most depressing places we have seen.
Yes, the Bushmen have some facilities they did not have before, such as a school and some basic infrastructure, but there’s nothing else. Nothing to do; no jobs; no tourists because it is away from any road a tourist would take.
The second Kalahari location we spent time in was Ghanzi, because it is a local centre where there is a police station. The story required a minimal police presence in New Xade, but a bigger one in Ghanzi, including a detective responsible for a very large area including New Xade.
With respect to background reading, there are two main aspects of the backstory: the lifestyle of the Bushmen and the issue of biopiracy. Fortunately, we had read extensively about the Bushmen for our third Detective Kubu mystery, Death Of The Mantis, so this was straightforward.
However, although we had a superficial knowledge of biopiracy, we didn’t have any depth. Briefly, biopiracy occurs when someone derives financial benefit from using the properties of either plants or animals which have been discovered and used by someone else, typically an indigenous group. So, in Dying To Live, a Bushman is believed to have discovered a plant that both heals wounds and extends life. You can imagine how much some people would like to find out what the plant is.
This idea of using biopiracy was based on the real story of how western organizations took the Bushmen’s knowledge of the appetite-suppressing qualities of a Kalahari plant, called hoodia, and tried to create a weight-loss product.
It took a big outcry to ensure that the Bushmen benefitted from any profits on the sale of these products through a royalty scheme. Unfortunately there were no profits, so the Bushmen did not benefit, but the precedent was established.
Do you outline/plot, or do you prefer to start at the beginning and see where the story takes you?
We have tried both approaches. They are often called plotting, that is doing an extensive outline before writing, and pantsing, that is writing by the seat of one’s pants. We have settled on pantsing because it is more fun. We hope that our readers don’t know the identity of the bad guy until late in the book. That’s part of the fun of reading mysteries. We decided that we as writers wanted the same fun. So sometimes it is only late in the book that we discover who did what to whom.
Strange to say, it was pantsing that gave us our protagonist, Detective Kubu.
When we started our first book, A Carrion Death, we followed the advice to write about what we knew. So, since both of us were professors, a professor shows up in the first chapter, and he’s going to be our hero.
However, because it is clear that a murder has been committed, the police are needed, and a Detective Kubu is dispatched from Gaborone to go the site of the murder in the Kalahari. When we jumped in his Land Rover, he was a bit part in our minds. When he arrived at the corpse, he had pushed the professor aside and had taken over – with no planning from us. He just did it. And we’re very happy he did, because he it is because of him that our series continues.
Pantsing, although exciting for the writer, can also be frightening. In Deadly Harvest, our fourth book, we were a couple of weeks away from our deadline, and we couldn’t find a way for our protagonist, Detective Kubu, to catch the bad guy. Although we knew who the culprit was, we had made him so clever that our protagonist, Kubu, couldn’t apprehend him.
We were in a state of panic, when one of the children in the book inadvertently pointed Kubu in the right direction. Whew!
How do you share out the responsibilities?
We both do everything. We both brainstorm what the book is going to be about, what the main crime is going to be, and who the antagonist is. At every stage in the process, we talk, usually via Skype, about what’s coming next. We then divvy up the responsibilities and both write.
Often, we can both be writing, sometimes on different parts of the story. Once one of us has finished a first draft, he sends it to the other, who edits it ferociously, but also making suggestions for new ideas. The piece then goes back to the original author, who updates it based on the other’s notes as well as on new ideas that he has had.
The back and forward process can repeat itself twenty times, at which stage is really has been written by Michael Stanley rather than by Michael or Stanley. We often say that Michael Stanley exists somewhere over the Atlantic because often Michael is in Johannesburg and Stanley in Minneapolis in the USA.
We believe that our writing has improved over the series – Dying to Live is our sixth book – and has become better and tighter. We hear that from both reviewers and readers.
What do your writing spaces look like? Do you have any pre-writing rituals to get you “in the zone”?
Michael: I don’t have any rituals. I tend to write at my desk, but it can be anywhere where it’s quiet. I can’t write if there’s noise or even choral music. I actually prefer no background sound at all. Much of the writing happens in my head, and I have to hear myself think!
Stanley: I don’t have any rituals either. I can write just about anywhere, anytime. I don’t have music in the background, but a screaming baby nearby doesn’t bother me. I can tune that sort of noise out.
How do you structure a typical day to ensure you avoid distractions and hit your word count targets?
Michael: I’m not very word-count driven. It’s more a matter that Stan and I have discussed a section, and I’m going to do the first draft. My target is to get it to Stan when we’ve agreed. That way I think it’s an enormous help to have a writing partner.
Stanley: I also never set targets. In general, I’m not well-disciplined and don’t set aside specific times for writing.
We all occasionally hit a brick wall with our creative endeavours – what do you do to overcome any stumbling blocks?
Michael: I find that I have to step back. It’s not a matter of prevaricating, rather it’s a matter of realizing that if I don’t know how the characters would behave, they won’t be believable. I’m very much a believer in the subconscious driving creativity. You have to go off and do something else and let it get on with it.
Stanley: I use two techniques. Like Michael, I believe in the subconscious and often drop what I’m writing and do something else. Sometimes, though, the best remedy is to sit down and start writing something, anything. It doesn’t take me long to find the rhythm again.
What else have you got planned for 2017?
We have the book launch of Dying to Live in the US in October, and we’re both going to the big mystery reader/writer conference called Bouchercon. It is in Toronto this year. Then we are going on a short book tour in the American Midwest.
And, we’re working on the seventh Kubu mystery!
Finally, where can we buy your books?
Hopefully Dying to Live will be available in a bookstore near you! It is also available in both paper and electronic form through online outlets, as are all our earlier books.
Michael, Stanley - thank you very much for taking time to join me on the blog.
To find out more about Michael Stanley, click on the below links: