Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. I met these wonderful and talented gents briefly at Bouchercon 2012 in Cleveland where they won the Barry Award for Best Paperback with the third novel in the Detective Kubu series.
Once I returned home I bought the first Detective Kubu novel—A CARRION DEATH—liking the sound of the premise, and a promising, unique story. I read it quickly, enjoying the characters, loving the setting and atmosphere, gripped by the intricate plot, and by the time I finished the first novel I was ready for more.
While they were working on this interview I read the second novel THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU (2009), which was excellent! Today (yesterday now) I ordered the third in the series: DEATH OF THE MANTIS (2011). Really looking forward to diving into it as soon as it gets here! They write intricately, beautifully and savagely, and Kubu and the supporting cast are such wonderful characters.
A big thanks to Michael and Stanley for their kindness at Bouchercon and for taking the time to answer some questions. Enjoy!
Lee: Welcome gents! What first inspired each of you to write fiction?
Michael: We had the idea for the start of the first book watching hyenas on a Wildebeest kill in the Savuti area of Botswana. They consumed basically everything over a period of hours. It struck us as a great way to get rid of a body! The perfect murder. No body, no case. Then we spent the next thirty years talking about writing a mystery around that premise!
Stanley: Michael’s response above shows the wonderful benefits of collaboration. What he wrote is correct – at least nearly! We only spent twenty years talking about writing a mystery. Without my input, your readers would have thought that we took a really long time to get organized – as some would say is the habit of academics. Now your readers know we only took a long time.
Lee: That’s great. How has your friendship influenced writing the series? Do you draw out the best in each other?
Michael: I think we bring different things to the table and that does generate a better result. But the main thing is that we have great fun doing it together. We’ve both enjoyed collaboration a great deal, and this project gives us an opportunity to work with each other.
Stanley: We certainly enjoy the process of writing together a great deal, but being friends brings other things to play as well. Because I have such respect for Michael, I listen very carefully to what he says about pieces I have written. If he were just another collaborator, I may be more inclined to blow some of his criticisms off. Being friends, I think we are more open to compromise than we may be if we weren’t.
Lee: Well put! Where did the idea for Detective Kubu originate? Even in the first novel he seems very fleshed out.
Michael: It’s strange. Kubu wasn’t even meant to be the protagonist. We meant the smart ecologist, Bongani, to solve the mystery. Since we have both been academics, we thought we should have someone in a lifestyle we understand as the hero. But clearly we needed a policeman to investigate the murder. So Kubu climbed into his Land Rover with his sandwiches and his music and took off into the bush. By the time he reached the crime scene, he was in charge of the book!
As to being fleshed out, I think you must thank his eating habits for that!
Stanley: What more can I add? Perhaps to say that Kubu’s take-over of the book was my first experience in realizing that the author is often not in charge of what happens.
Lee: I suspect that most readers have no idea how easily that can happen! But thank the gods for it. Has your love for creating new adventures for Detective Kubu only grown stronger with each project?
Michael: I think so. We feel that each book is a bit better than the previous one. (Well, we would, wouldn’t we?) And we’ve tried to use a different backstory for each one, which gives us an interesting canvas for each story. In A CARRION DEATH it was blood diamonds, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU deals with the decline of Zimbabwe after the vicious bush war, and DEATH OF THE MANTIS concerns the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari, their past and their future. Our new book – DEADLY HARVEST – has the use of body parts in black magic potions as its backstory. These are all real contemporary issues in Southern Africa.
Stanley: Not only has our love of creating new stories for Kubu grown with each story, but so has our attention to detail and our desire to tell a better story. We have learned a great deal from each book which, we hope, improves the subsequent one.
Lee: I’ve read the first two and think you’re hitting your goal. Can’t wait to read DEATH OF THE MANTIS and DEADLY HARVEST!
What challenges do you face writing a series character? Can you give us an example and what you did to overcome the challenge?
Michael: The books are stand alone, but, as you say, Kubu and his family and colleagues in the Criminal Investigation Department carry through the series. A challenge is that one needs to inform the new reader about Kubu, his name, family, and background, without irritating readers of the previous books. We try to do it quickly in a slightly different way in each book. That seems to work okay.
Stanley: A different issue in writing a series is keeping track of what has happened before. In each book, we add details, sometimes incidentally, about the main characters. Even though we may forget such detail, we have been amazed by how many readers let us know about even small anomalies. The readers keep us on our toes. We are thinking of hiring a student somewhere to write a biography of the main characters so we know their birthdays, their habits, their ages, their looks, etc. Having such a biography would be a great help.
Lee: I can see how both of those difficulties would take time to master. I felt you handled the backstory between the first and second novels very well. And I’m sure no matter how much you learn there will always be those sharp readers who still catch things from time to time. What do each of you bring to the collaboration table?
Michael: We do have different areas of expertise. I know remote sensing and did work for De Beers at some point; Stan is a pilot and studies human factor issues. But I think it is the combination of the two of us through brain storming and the like which is the major advantage of a collaboration.
Stanley: Another difference between us is that I have now lived in the USA for more time than I did in South Africa. So I have good insights into American ways, traditions, and most importantly, language. We write our books first in American English, which I know better than Michael, then translate them into English English for our UK publisher. Michael knows that language better than I do.
Lee: That sounds like a wonderful combination. What advice can you offer to writers who are considering collaborating?
Michael: You have to be willing to take blunt criticism and have your favorite writing ripped apart! If you can’t face that, don’t collaborate. (But your editor will do it to you anyway!)
Stanley: I would recommend that everyone should try it, subject to what Michael wrote above. People ask us how we can write fiction with someone else. We retort that the question is wrong and should be rephrased as ‘How can people write fiction alone?’ It must be an incredibly lonely experience to be a solitary author, with no one to bounce ideas off, to share successes and have a great deal of fun with.
Lee: There is only one writer I’m close enough to who I can handle their blunt criticism, and a lot of that is due to an unwavering respect for each others work and as personalities. And I agree and think it is a lonely profession for a lot of writers despite the social media they use to stay connected. What are your favorite parts of the process?
Michael: Probably the actual writing.
Stanley: There are times I can write for hours on end. When I stop and read what I have written, I sometimes wonder who has written it – it often seems to come from a different part of me that I am not in conscious touch with.
Lee: Very interesting! What are the biggest rewards for you #1: during writing, #2: after the sale, and #3: after publication?
Michael: #1 is the brainstorming I’ve mentioned before. #2 is that we can work in tandem to produce corrections and modifications to match the editor’s input and ideas. #3 is that we have fun doing book tours together. Hopefully people enjoy our presentations more because there are two of us and we can add variety to the process.
Stanley: I agree with #1 and #2 above. An additional reward after publication is getting to meet many interesting people, both readers and other writers. The mystery/thriller community is wonderful, filled with laid-back and generous people. We feel very privileged to be a part of it.
Lee: I’m sure people love the two of you touring together. There’s a very warm dynamic you create. What do you wish you knew when you started that you’ve had to learn through experience?
Michael: Very interesting question. Of course, like most things, you really learn something by doing it. We started writing and then read books about writing and the like. We were quite ignorant about the process too. But if we had realized that writing fiction as a team was so unusual, we might never have started at all!
Stanley: Although I don’t think it would have stopped us from writing A CARRION DEATH, knowing how much authors have to do with respect to marketing would have at least prepared us for that enormous effort. It would be very foolish for a new author to think that being an author only involves writing. At least the same amount of time will be needed for helping build a readership.
Lee: I for one am glad you started! I was also ignorant about so many things when I started but learning is an everyday thing. Marketing takes so much time and effort. One of the things I found very interesting, and really liked about A CARRION DEATH, was the respect and dynamics in Kubu’s marriage. Is that based off your personal relationships with your wives, or is it typical in Botswana?
Michael: I think we’ve tried to show the traditional aspects of a Batswana marriage, but Joy is actually much less traditional than Kubu in many ways. One of the nice things about a series is that you can watch their relationship develop over time.
Stanley: One of the interesting aspects of writing this series has been the realization that as time passes for our characters, so must their relationships with each other evolve. In A CARRION DEATH, Kubu and Joy have an almost idyllic relationship, perhaps a bit over the top, which our readers have really liked. With each book, the relationship has had to endure different stresses and strains which, we hope, mirror, a typical marriage. In addition, Kubu’s relationship with his parents is also about to undergo some major stresses – as happens in real life when parents age.
Lee: Agreed! I was pleasantly surprised to see that upon reading the second novel. It adds extra depth and really mirrors a real relationship. Gentleman, thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions for us! I can’t recommend the Detective Kubu series highly enough, people. Give it a go!
Michael: Thanks very much for the opportunity to chat about our books!
Stanley: Thanks very much indeed. We would like to invite your readers to find out more about Detective Kubu by visiting his web site http://www.detectivekubu.com. You will have the opportunity there to join our mailing list – we send out three or four newsletters a year to apprise readers of what Kubu is up to.
We’re also doing a beautiful giveaway and everybody should enter!
All you have to do for a chance to win is leave a comment below. In a week I’ll snag three random winners and send them either a paperback or digital edition of the first Detective Kubu novel A CARRION DEATH. It’s good fun! Thanks again to Michael and Stanley for sharing about their characters, themselves and the creative process!
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