Saturday, September 14, 2013

Collaboration is the way to go... at least for us!

I am thrilled to introduce this weekend's guest blogger, South African author Michael Stanley, who writes the fascinating and compelling Detective Kubu series. Michael Stanley is actually two terrific and personable guys, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, close friends who embarked on a crime writing career together. Below is their story... 

During the 1980s, Stanley would rent a small airplane in Johannesburg and fill it with friends, wine, and food – in that order.  One of the friends who had a standing reservation on Stan Air, as the excursions were called, was Michael. After take-off, we would head for Zimbabwe or Botswana to view and photograph wildlife and birds.  And to savor South African wines in the middle of the African bush around a hardwood camp fire. 

In the early evening on one trip to the Savuti plains of the stunning Chobe National Park in Botswana, we witnessed lions stalking and killing a wildebeest.  Right behind the lions was a pack of hyenas, harassing them to get to the carcass.  Sometimes one hyena would nip a lion’s tail.  While the lion angrily turned on it, another hyena would dart in and steal some of the flesh.  This was typical scavenger behavior by the hyenas. Another time we saw a pack of hyenas hunting a wildebeest – not scavengers now, but ferocious hunters.  By morning there was nothing left except the horns of the late wildebeest.  The hyenas had finished everything, bones and all. 

That night, over a glass or two of the wine mentioned above, we decided that if we were ever to commit a murder, the best way to get rid of the body would be to leave it for the hyenas.  No body, no case.  And that suggested an intriguing premise for a mystery novel. The idea languished until 2003, when the newly retired Stanley suggested to the still working Michael that they should do something more about this idea than just think about it. A month later, Stanley received a draft of the first chapter of a mystery novel from Michael.  In it their perfect murder became imperfect as a game ranger and a professor of ecology stumbled upon a corpse, just before a hyena finished devouring it. So there was a body, and there was a case. 

The professor appeared in chapter 1 because we had been told that one should always write about what one knows.  We were both were professors, so the main character was going to be a professor.
Stanley liked the chapter and asked Michael what happened next.  Michael didn’t know.  But it was obvious that the police needed to be involved, so in the next chapter Assistant Superintendent David Bengu climbed into his Land Rover in Gaborone and set off into the arid Kalahari desert.  As he ate copious quantities of sandwiches and lustily sang his favorite opera arias, he reminisced about how he became a detective, how his curiosity had been piqued by a Bushman friend who had taken him into the desert and shown him a world he couldn’t see.  After this experience he had decided to become a detective, to see what others didn’t. 

Our policeman’s nickname was “Kubu” – which means hippopotamus in the local language, Setswana.  It describes his size, shape and something of his temperament.  And by the time he arrived where the body had been found, he had had taken over as the protagonist of what was to become a series of police procedurals set in Botswana.  And we had just learned an important lesson.  It is not always the author who dictates what happens – the characters sometimes take over too.

Our first book, A CARRION DEATH, took us three years to complete.  Of course, since this was our first foray into writing fiction, it wasn’t surprising that we had an enormous amount to learn.  One of the things we learned was that the book wasn’t about hyenas or the perfect murder, but rather about why a murderer would want a body to completely vanish and never be identified.  That led us to develop a story around blood diamonds and the exploitation of resources.
Another thing we learned was that it’s unusual for two people to write fiction together.  But as we learned more, we discovered that there are several very successful writing teams in the genre – Nicki French (husband and wife), PJ Tracy (mother and daughter), Charles Todd (mother and son) just to name a few.  Indeed, it’s becoming sufficiently common that some teams even use both their names rather than hiding behind a pseudonym; for example, the Swedish partnership of Roslund and Hellstrom, whose thrillers are best-selling prize winners. Both of us have been university professors and both of us have enjoyed collaborating in our academic lives.  Stanley has co-authored non-fiction books; Michael has written many academic papers with other researchers.  So it seemed natural to us to work together on a project writing fiction.  And we enjoyed finding out how to do that.

Sometimes writers (and readers) ask us how we can share this creative art with another person, how we can write fiction together.  We think this is the wrong question!  A better question is how can someone write alone.  We have the benefit of having an involved person to brainstorm with, to bounce ideas off, and to give truly critical feedback.  A single writer has only himself or herself to interact with.  How depressing!  How lonely!  We also have the benefit of having someone to share a glass of wine with while discussing the intricacies of plot or character – a solo writer can’t do that, because no one else will be totally involved.

We both do everything.  We brainstorm together, follow up on research, travel to little known parts of Botswana, and write.  Our process is that one of us does the first draft of a piece, sends it by email to the other, and receives a response which is often a highly commented and edited version.  The originator responds, then back and forth in that way, as many as twenty times or even more.  Eventually the piece is not written by Michael or by Stanley, but rather by some gestalt, called Michael Stanley, who sits somewhere between Minneapolis and Johannesburg in cyberspace.  Readers tell us the product is seamless; our friends tell us they can identify who wrote what, but they are wrong about half the time!

We believe there are many benefits to collaboration.  We can brainstorm plot and character, and we think we get a more cohesive final product as a result.  When one of us flags, the other is there to nag and take up the slack.  Best of all we get immediate and interested feedback on anything we write.  But there are some caveats.  One must be willing to take harsh criticism, knowing that it’s directed at the product rather than the person and that the only aim is to improve the work.  There must be trust and an ability to see the other person’s point of view.  It helps if you have similar writing styles.  And it probably takes longer than writing alone.  But all that is outweighed by the biggest advantage: it is great fun!  And, after all, almost all people who write do it for the enjoyment.

In the later books, Kubu has moved around.  Convenient access to hyenas was the original motivation for setting our books in Botswana, but we’ve found it refreshing to be outside South Africa and to be able to address southern African issues which are not related to the legacy of apartheid.  Our second book explores the impact of the Rhodesian bush war on the people of the region.  The main character dies in the first chapter, and Kubu has to piece his life together retrospectively.  The man is supposed to have died many years before in then Rhodesia, leading to the title – THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU.  Our third book had the plight of the Bushman or San people of the Kalahari as the back story. We were stunned when DEATH OF THE MANTIS won the Barry Award for the best paperback original mystery of 2011 and was short-listed for an Edgar. Our latest book, DEADLY HARVEST, is the darkest of the four with the use of human body parts in black magic by witchdoctors as the theme. Regrettably this practice, far from dying out, seems to be becoming more common – or at least better known.

We believe these books would never have seen the light of day without the collaborative style we’ve developed. And we’ve remained good friends! For us, collaboration definitely is the way to write mystery fiction.

Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South Africans by birth. Both have been professors who have worked in academia and business, Sears in South Africa and Trollip in the USA. Their love of watching the wildlife of the subcontinent has taken them on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe.  The idea for their debut novel – A CARRION DEATH – arose on one of those trips.
The novels are set in Botswana and feature the large and shrewd Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu of the Gaborone Criminal Investigation Department.  The second novel in the series is THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU.  The third, DEATH OF THE MANTIS, was shortlisted for an Edgar and won the Barry Award for best paperback original mystery of 2011.  Their latest book, where Detective Kubu takes on an “invisible” witch doctor, is DEADLY HARVEST.


Pam said...

I couldn't have said it better myself. Collaboration is the way to go. Having someone at your back and having fun in the process works for me..and Liz as Jamie Tremain.

Barbara Fradkin said...

What's also wonderful is sharing the fun with friends. As long as you can both stay friends!

Elizabeth Lindsay said...

Pam and I work well together, and as you said above we also wonder how anyone could write alone!

Elizabeth Lindsay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hannah Dennison said...

This is a terrific post. I heard you guys at Malice this year and I've been longing to know more about your process. Can't wait to read your books.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Two of my favorite collaberators are Michael and Kathy Gear. It seems to work beautifully for them.