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Wednesday 10 July 2013

Michael Stanley

Leigh Russell in conversation with
Michael Stanley

At 2pm Thursday 30th May I was sitting in the lounge bar of the Bristol Marriott Hotel in Bristol, waiting to interview Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip who write together under the name Michael Stanley. The third book in their series set in Botswana - Death of the Mantis - won the Barry Award and was shortlisted for the Edgar Award last year. This was a rare opportunity to meet a team who had flown in from the African and American continents to appear at Crimefest in the UK, and my chance to investigate how they work together

Leigh: How did you first begin writing together?
Michael: Our first book, A Carrion Death, opens with a game ranger and an ecologist coming across a hyena devouring a human body. This idea came to us in the mid-1980s when we saw a pack of hyenas pulling down a wildebeast, eating everything except the hooves and horns. We couldn't help thinking what a wonderful way that would be to get rid of a body! We talked about writing a mystery based on this interesting premise. Then, being academics, we spent the next twenty years discussing the idea before we did anything about it. When Stanley retired and I was approaching retirement, we thought we would give it a try. So we started writing A Carrion Death with that question: why was it so important the body completely vanished? Only of course the naked body was discovered before the hyenas finished, so it didn't turn out to be the perfect murder after all.

Leigh:  Tell us about the process of writing as a team. Is there an 'ideas man' and a 'getting it down on paper' partner or do you write separate chapters - and who gets to write the most exciting scenes?
Stanley: Michael writes all the sex scenes...
(Michael laughs)
Stanley: We try to be in same physical location when starting a new book. We've both plotted and pantsed books, outlined very carefully and winged it as well - as in A Carrion Death which started with an idea not a plot. We always talk about the back story, ideas we want to emphasize. We discuss that as much as possible - drawing mind maps, making  notes, brainstorming - before we go own ways. For the most part we live on different continents, (Michael in Johannesburg, Stanley in Minneapolis and Knysna on the Indian Ocean coast in South Africa) so even when we're both in South Africa we're not in the same location. It couldn't have worked without email or skype. Wherever we are in a book we talk about where it's going to go. We're usually both writing at the same time, working on different pieces of the book which may be part of a chapter or maybe three chapters. Once we've finished we send what we've written to each other for immediate focused and involved critiquing. We are very critical of one another.
Michael: We're never nice.
(They both laugh)

When I say their editor must love them, Stanley agrees their editor receives what he calls "a very clean copy .
Leigh: In an author-editor relationship the author will always have the final word.  Do you ever fall out about what you write, and if so, how do you resolve your disagreements?
Michael: We do disagree. In the whole process Stanley described, the first step is that the other person gets an initial draft. The initial comments are just about content and structure which are debated between us. It's such fun!
Stanley: The real question for us is: how does anybody write alone?
Michael: We may have some disagreement over a word or two. The tie breaker is: "whoever wrote it first gets to keep it" unless the editor changes it - and our editor never has! But we have a high acceptance feeling when the editor makes suggestions. We take our editor's comments very seriously.
Stanley : But our editor only looks at a "finished" manuscript

Leigh: Tell us about your real life adventures, like being charged by an elephant.
Michael: Stanley used to rent a plane in South Africa, because he's a private pilot. We'd go game and bird watching. Once we were canoeing down the Zambezi. We had stopped for lunch once on a little island,

and an elephant appeared from under a tree. He looked at us, walked around, looked at us again, walked around once more, then charged. We were ready to leap into the crocodile-infested Zambezi when our game ranger jumped out, waving his arms and shouting. The elephant literally skidded to a halt and wandered off.

Leigh:  Your love of Africa comes across strongly in your writing. Does that shared background help you in writing together, and why did you choose to write about Botswana not South Africa?
Michael: It's definitely the case that our shared background helps us. We chose Botswana not South Africa because we love Botswana, the people, and the diverse environment, from the wonderful Chobe game reserve in the North to the Kalahari desert and the Bushmen peoples.
(Both Michael and Stanley waxed lyrical about Botswana.)
Michael: Yes, Botswana is one of characters in our books.
Stanley: Many detective stories are set in cities. You could move the story to any city. Setting a murder mystery in a country like Botswana is different because they're not very moveable. It's a country the size of France. It takes days for a pathologist to get from one side of the country to another. So the country imposes itself on the solving of mysteries.
Michael: And the cultures affect the stories. Each one of our books has a back story concerning a current issue in southern Africa.

Leigh: How did you make the transition from writing non-fiction, in your academic lives, to writing fiction?
Michael: I never really thought of it as a transition. Stanley has written non-fiction books but I'd only written academic papers. Most of time we both worked with other people, so our collaboration was foreshadowed. I never thought: How do I move to this new approach? After what we had both done, we knew how to construct sentences, and how to structure our time. We had those sorts of skills, and we had both been educators so had spent a lot of time making our ideas comprehensible to other people. But with A Carrion Death we really had to learn as we went along. Probably if we'd known how much we had to learn we wouldn't have started.
Stanley: And of course we both read a lot of fiction, which helps.

Leigh: Tell us about your latest book, Deadly Harvest?
Michael: Deadly Harvest came out this month. The back story deals with the pervasive influence of witchcraft in Botswana, and specifically the use of body parts for black magic potions.
Stanley: Our third book was the most difficult: Death of the Mantis. It deals with the plight of the Bushmen, a politically and emotionally charged situation. We both believe it's not appropriate for novelists to take a moral position so the two major sides of the story are articulated by people who would articulate them in real life. The Bushmen are seen sympathetically but I think novelists lose some credibility if they become too 'soap boxy'.
We've started Kubu number 5 and we're pantsing it. We don't know where it's going. We have a sense, but anything could happen.
Michael: With both Deadly Harvest and Death of the Mantis we knew how they were going to end, but we didn't know how that ending was going to happen. We battled with that quite a bit before we felt comfortable that the endings were credible.

Leigh: Tell us about your protagonist. Is he based on anyone you know?
Stanley: When we started out, our protagonist, Kubu, wasn't going to be a protagonist at all. We didn't know anything about him in chapter 1. One of the characters is a professor, because we are both professors, and we thought he was going to be our protagonist. We had to send a policeman to the crime scene, and on the way there he took over and became our protagonist, Kubu.
Michael: He got in his landrover with lots of sandwiches to eat on his journey, and opera to sing to in the car. On the way he thought about how he had become a detective, and by the time he reached the body, he had taken over.

Leigh: Which of you created him?
Stanley: I think everybody in our books is created by both of us.
Michael: Kubu is a nickname, meaning hippo in the Setswana language, because he's a big guy. He likes his food. He's also very focused. And hippos are the most dangerous mammal in Africa.

I ask if Kubu is ever going to travel outside Africa. Stanley gives an enigmatic smile as he says that anything's possible.

I can't imagine writing with someone and it's been fascinating to hear about how you manage this so successfully?
             The most important thing is you have to trust each other. We say 50% of the sentences in the books have words from both of us, and that's not far off.
Each of our books explores a particular issue. A Carrion Death is about blood diamonds and greed for resources in South Africa. The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu is about the Zimbabwe Rhodesia war and its effect on the surrounding countries, Death of the Mantis  looks at the plight of Bushmen of the Kalahari, and Deadly Harvest is about basic belief in black magic and the power of witch doctors.

So I feel I've solved the mystery of how two authors can write together. As anyone who has met them will attest, Michael Seers and Stanley Trollip are genuinely charming. Either one of them would be a joy to work with.
Together they are enthralling.

Leigh Russell is the author of five books Cut Short, Road Closed, Dead End, Death Bed and her latest book Stop Dead, published May 2013. Cold Sacrifice the first in a new series featuring Ian Petersonis will be out  later this year in print, (already out as an ebook).
Cut Short (2009) was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award for Best First Novel. Leigh studied at the University of Kent gaining a Masters degree in English and American literature. A secondary school teacher, specializing in supporting pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties as well as teaching English, Leigh Russell is married with two daughters and lives in Middlesex.

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