Q: Since you aren’t both necessarily in the same geographical location all the time, do you save the writing for when you are together or do you create “long distance”? Can you talk a little about your collaborative writing process? How do you end up blending each of your unique styles?
Michael Stanley: There are several benefits to working together in the same room, car, or tent. We are always having fun, no matter how serious the work at hand. Generally it’s plotting that we do together and writing that takes place long distance. We try to have a good idea of how the plot works and how the threads will develop and eventually be resolved. Then both of us will write, choosing different chapters or parts of chapters. Sometimes we do this on the basis of expertise, for example, Michael for mining, Stan for flying. After we’ve written a draft we swap efforts and await the extensive feedback that inevitably ensues. Since we are often in different time zones, the other’s reply is often awaiting as we wake up, which is very exciting. We then get online via Skype or something similar and talk through the areas of disagreement. It usually ends up that every sentence has some part of both of us. We are very careful about descriptions and wording; it’s important to us that Botswana itself comes alive for the readers as well as the characters.
Michael Stanley: We realized that in the African context, the police would be the ones who got to the heart of the matter rather than an outsider, no matter how bright. So one morning Assistant Superintendent David Bengu clambered into his Land Rover and set off to solve the murder, collecting his nickname along the way. He pretty much took over after that, and we didn’t have a lot of say in the matter!
Michael Stanley: It’s very difficult to answer that. There are many people we know or have read about who have lent features of themselves to Kubu. He’s not based on any one person. His different facets developed during the story. He seemed to require them. As for his nickname, as we said he had it by the time he was a few pages old. Certainly we could have used other names, but Hippo seemed right and Kubu is easy for people to say and remember. Elephant would have been Tiou and Rhino Tshukudu. The case rests… But actually we didn’t consider any other names for him. Kubu immediately seemed to fit.
Q: One of the many amazing elements of A Carrion Death for me as a reader is the setting. Do you find that creating the setting comes naturally in your writing process? Or do you end up fine tuning it a lot before publication?
Michael Stanley: When we travel on research trips to Botswana, our friends think we are just going game watching, but the reality is that we work very hard while we are away. Not only do we spend time ensuring that our settings are accurate, but we find that being in the actual setting energizes us. So we usually get a lot of writing done too. Of course, the fact that we have to write knowledgeably about the wine Kubu drinks may also contribute to the productivity and enjoyment! I think both of us “feel” Botswana, have a sense of it in our blood, and hopefully that shows in the books.
Michael Stanley: The witchdoctor is something of an enigma, even to us. He is there to parallel the story with Bongani, and to provide a source of tension. Witchdoctors are deeply set in African cultures, and it is sometimes difficult for Western readers to appreciate what an important and pervasive role witchdoctors play in countries like Botswana. An anthropologist told us he found the scenes convincing; he just didn’t like the term witchdoctor itself preferring the term sangoma.
Michael Stanley: Actually, when you read the book you will discover that the setting is determined by the plot, and the plot is to some extent determined by the setting. Beyond that we wanted to show a completely different aspect of Botswana – a world of water and riverine forest teeming with animals and birds – in contrast to the arid regions of the south. The third book is back in the dry country, but also in a quite different region, around the Transfrontier park with South Africa.
Michael Stanley: Hmmm. Just did that! As far as the plot is concerned, we try to bring some deeper aspect of the African scene into our stories. In A Carrion Death it was diamonds; in The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu it is Zimbabwe; in the third book we will explore the clash between diverse cultures, specifically looking at how Bushmen or Basarwa fit into a rapidly developing country. If you want to depict Botswana accurately you can’t ignore issues like that. But we do not want our books to act as a soapbox from which we preach, but rather be a medium for raising complex issues seen from different local perspectives.
Michael had a go at writing Science Fiction stories as a student. Fortunately none of them were ever published!
Stanley only wrote non-fiction.
Michael is a great fan of John Le Carre. He is a great weaver of stories and characters and a very skilled craftsman. Read his books several times if you want to understand how he does it. (Unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean you can do it yourself!).
Stanley is a fan of P D James and Fred Vargas in the mystery genre and Sebastian Faulks for historical novels.
Michael is reading one of Deon Meyer’s books – Blood Safari. It’s excellent! And don’t miss his other books, especially Devil’s Peak.
Stanley is reading Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man and Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree.
Stanley: When I was a student in the ‘60s, the apartheid government was cracking down more and more on human rights, as well as creating a country that had a moral basis that was total anathema to how I was raised. As white students, mainly English speaking, became more vocal in their opposition, the government decided to put an end to such dissention. It started arresting students, detaining them without trial, placing them under house arrest, all to support a philosophy of inequality and inequity. I was just one of many students who participated in the protests. I also edited a student newspaper that opposed apartheid.
Stanley: When I arrived in the States in December 1970, that was my first trip outside South Africa, other than to visit neighboring Swaziland. The greatest shock was the temperature! When I left Rio de Janeiro for New York, the temperature was around 100 degrees. When I arrived it was about 10 degrees, with snow and wind.
The second shock followed almost immediately. I hailed a cab and waited for him to put my luggage in the trunk of his car. I soon learned that was a service not offered by NY cabbies on a cold day.I always found the people in the States very kind and friendly, although sometimes difficult to get really close to. The US has been very generous to me and countless others, for which I am very thankful indeed. In general I don’t remember anything too difficult, other than some language and pronunciation differences.
Stanley: I took up paragliding because it looked so serene to be gliding in the updrafts with the birds, no engine to disturb the peace. It was everything I hoped for. It is still amazing to me that one can spend several hours aloft with no help from anything other than nature. I recommend it highly.
Michael: NO! Botswana is one of the most tightly controlled and managed diamond exporting countries the world. And yet there are always loopholes. The diamond laundering idea seemed original when we wrote it, but subsequently it has been proposed as the reason for a sudden spate of high quality diamonds at a marginal mine in another southern African country. And one of the mine’s owners was murdered assassination-style! There is a rumor that police seek a red-bearded man with a Portuguese accent…
Michael: It was a research project on lion behavior. I was one of the tame applied mathematicians on the project. Part of the research was concerned with lion population dynamics. Controlling that by trying to remove predators from one area is like trying to empty one part of a bowl of soup. Lions without territory just move in to fill the gap. We were darting, checking and then releasing the lions.
The only time I was ever scared was when my professor, of a rather nervous disposition, was given the rifle to hold because all the biologists were busy with the sedated lions!
Michael: A system model is where you try to create a mathematical description of what happens in an ecology – vegetation, animals, rainfall, everything – and use it to develop a computer simulation. There was a time when we thought it would be possible to understand ecological systems that way. Most of the researchers involved are older and wiser now; a few are just older.
Michael Stanley: One doesn’t usually have time to think about protocol! Having 5 tons of flesh coming at you, ears flapping, trumpeting loudly, instantly invokes the instinct to flee. In our case we were so scared that jumping into the mighty Zambezi, hippos and crocs and all, seemed a reasonable alternative. Fortunately a game ranger who was with us jumped in front of the elephant, waved his arms and shouted back. The elephant skidded (literally) to a halt, looked quizzically at the ranger, turned and wandered off quite happily.
“How did you know it would stop?” we gasped.
“Young bull elephants usually make a mock charge,” he replied. “They’re just showing off or strutting their stuff!”
Since then we have often discussed the potential flaw in the ranger’s explanation – the word “usually!”
Michael: What have we here? Carrion Death…
Stanley: I have been lucky, lucky, lucky.