Friday, May 15, 2009

Not an Interview - An Adventure!

Last year, along with many other people, I was introduced to Detective David “Kubu” Bengu. In A CARRION DEATH, Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears took me on an amazing adventure into the depths of Botswana with the convivial and brilliant Kubu. Subsequently, A CARRION DEATH made my list of top reads in 2008. This year Kubu returns in THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, and I am just walking on Cloud Nine because Stanley and Michael took some time out to chat with me! I won't bog you down with all the details about how incredible this is to me or how utterly fascinating I found them to be because I know you want to hear from them as much as I do. Not to mention, you know I was very nosey - this interview is going to take time! So let me stop wasting time and introduce my special guests for today; HOLY COW can you believe it's Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears?!?

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.

Q: Kubu was not the original protagonist when you first started work on A Carrion Death. Your focus was going to be on the professor, Bongani Sibisi. Was there something specific that caused you to change your focus to Kubu?

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!

Q: Kubu is quite a complex character. A good family man, enjoys good food, wine and music, especially food. A very intelligent and observant man. How did Kubu develop? Is there any person or persons that you “borrowed” characteristics from to create Kubu? And how did you decide on a hippopotamus for Kubu’s nickname instead of say, an elephant or some other large creature?

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.

Q: You’ve talked about the fact that you were fortunate to spend a full afternoon with the director of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department (CID), but how about the native culture that is reflected in A Carrion Death? What was involved in your research for things like the witchdoctor who revealed the finger?

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.

Q: Kubu’s second novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU will be out here in the United States June 2nd and Kubu finds himself in a very different part of Botswana. What prompted the change for this novel? And as a writing team, how do you go about deciding what your backdrop will be for each novel?

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.

Q: Now you are starting work on Kubu novel number three. Any little teasing tidbits you can share?

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.

Q: Did either of you have early ambitions to write fiction, specifically crime fiction?

Michael had a go at writing Science Fiction stories as a student. Fortunately none of them were ever published!

Stanley only wrote non-fiction.

Q: Who, if anyone, would you say influenced your writing styles? And what about their writing drew you in?

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.

Q: Are you reading anything now that you would recommend to your readers who enjoy Kubu?

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.

Q: Stanley, you were involved in the anti-apartheid movement in Johannesburg. Can you share a little about your experiences with that movement? Will any of those experiences make their way into a novel?

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.

Q: Stanley, you were born and raised in Johannesburg, but then you came to the United States to work on your PhD. Had you been in the States before that time? Did it take a lot of adjusting or did the change come fairly easy?

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.

Q: And Stanley, you do a lot with flying. You are a pilot yourself, you instruct others in safety. In your safety classes do you talk at all about what to do when your navigation maps end up spread all over the desert? In all seriousness, I’m intrigued by the fact that you’re learning to paraglide. What prompted your interest in this pastime?

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.

Q: Michael, you worked at Anglo American and your experiences played into the plot of A Carrion Death. Was there a situation you encountered or that happened while you were with the Anglo American where diamonds were being smuggled and certificates were not legit? Is this a rampant problem in Botswana?

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…

Q: [uh huh! chuckle, chuckle] And Michael, you were involved with radio tracking hunting lions! Wow! Can you tell us a little about that? Were you the one who had to get the tracking devices on the lions? Why were you tracking the lions?

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!

Q: Michael, you said you were involved in a system model for the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. What is a system model? Can you explain that experience a little for us?

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.

Q: It sounds like you’ve had some pretty exciting experiences on your safaris. Being rushed by an elephant? What exactly is the protocol for such an event?

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!”

Q: And my final question is one I ask everyone. There is a book out called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. What would be each of YOUR six-word memoirs?

Michael: What have we here? Carrion Death…
Stanley: I have been lucky, lucky, lucky.

Ah, Stan, it is I who feel lucky, lucky, lucky today. So many thanks for this wonderful interview! If anyone needs me today, remember you can find me on Cloud 9; I may be there for the rest of the weekend, actually!

If you haven't read A CARRION DEATH, you have a couple weeks to do that before the release of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, and guess what? The fine folks at Harper are going to help me help one lucky reader out with that task! I have a beautiful, brand spankin' new copy of A CARRION DEATH that has just come out in trade paperback. So, if you'd like to be included in the drawing for this amazing book - which, by the way, is presently a finalist for the Macavity award for Best First Novel - you'll need to send me an e-mail (forbyone [at] yahoo [dot] com) with "KUBU" in the subject line and your snail mail address in the body of the e-mail. I'll take entries through May 24th. I'll pick the winner on Memorial Day! You can earn two additional entries if you either tweet about this giveaway (be sure to include @jenforbus and a link here in your tweet) or send an e-mail to at least five friends about the giveaway and cc: me on it.

In the meantime, you can find all sorts of fun information on the Detective Kubu website. And remember, June 2nd for THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU!


le0pard13 May 15, 2009 at 1:35 PM  

Another wonderful interview, Jen.

Corey Wilde May 15, 2009 at 2:33 PM  

I echo Michael's comment. Must have been especially difficult trying to simultaneously interview two people who write as one but think and act as two.

Pat R. May 16, 2009 at 9:29 AM  

I totally enjoyed this interview. I just finished A Carrion Death and am now reading The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu and feel as though I'm in Africa with friends.

I would like to drink a steelworks.

Corey Wilde May 18, 2009 at 4:18 PM  

Oi, Jen, make sure you read today's edition of The Rap Sheet

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