Any thoughts of a formal interview with Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (aka Michael Stanley) rapidly disappeared when we were lucky enough to meet up with the collaborating South African duo on their flying promotional trip to Melbourne in mid May. For a start it simply wasn't necessary, and for a second, these are two crime writers who can really tell a story - on the page, and in person. Mind you, one can't help but imagine that a lot of social settings with these two head off in slightly unexpected (and delightful) directions. Who else could manage to turn a birdwatching tour of Botswana into the germ of an idea for a novel - over an evening spent watching hyena's dispose of the body of a dead wild animal!
That concept, discussed over many years, eventually led to a refreshing, albeit somewhat unusual writing partnership and the first book - A CARRION DEATH, which was released in 2008. That book garnered some very positive reviews and a lot of "buzz" in crime fiction fan circles. Their second book - A DEADLY TRADE (aka in the USA - The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu), has just been released and it brings Detective "Kubu" Bengu back, this time he's investigating the death of ex-Zimbabwean Goodluck Tinubu at a bush camp on an isolated peninsula in northern Botswana.
But, after an arduous trek (around the corner in the inner city and up a flight of stairs), a treacherous search for plates and a spot of danger at the Sushi bar, we settled down over a bottle or two of the local red to talk books, South Africa, Botswana, Detective Kubu, collaboration and crime.
One of the most satisfying things about these books is the real feel of Africa about them. Not only in the settings, but there is something quintessentially African about so many of the characters. Talking to Michael and Stanley it's almost impossible not to notice their realistic love of the continent, and they both assured me that the setting of the books is as authentic as they can make it. Whilst they both live (Stanley part-time) in South Africa, they spend a lot of time in Botswana and they know the people, the towns and cities, and the countryside of that place very well. Their turning of the vision of hyena's going about their normal life into the central idea of a book - the disposing of a body and what would happen if that process was interrupted - was made irrevocably African not just by the obvious use of the animals, but by the nature of the setting itself - sun drenched, baked earth, dry African riverbeds and soil. Having said that, I was more than curious about Kubu in particular, given that this is a writing collaboration. Where did Kubu come from and who does he most resemble? And you can see little glimpses of Kubu in both writers. Most clearly he gets his sense of humour and slight irreverence from both of them, he gets his cunning and perspicacity from them both, he definitely gets his intuition and ability to deal with people from both of them.
The collaboration is something that both Michael and Stanley were happy to talk about - it's a particularly intriguing way to write a book, especially when they are often in two completely different parts of the world (Stanley still spends a lot of time in the USA). Why the collaboration? These are two long-term friends, and what's most obvious, is that writing these books is fun for them both. Have there ever been thoughts - maybe of writing short stories on their own? No - they seemed almost surprised to be asked. They are living / working the retirement of their dreams.
What's intriguing is not just the mechanics of such a collaboration, but the process. How do two, dare I say it, strong and robust personalities resolve any differences of direction or opinion? Very simply it seems. Rule number one, is that whoever wrote it first prevails in the event of disagreement, and they will see what is settled out come the editing process. Obviously a tremendous sense of humour and that long-term friendship, and therefore knowledge of each other also helps. Michael did confess that when a character is giving him trouble he'd happily kill them off. Stanley, in Michael's words is more of a humanitarian, and worries that they can't go around killing off too many of the locals - Botswana doesn't have a big population after all. Stanley firmly believes that everybody should be given a chance to live - although somebody shot with 150 rounds from an AK47 is probably going to need a little more than a spot of mouth-to-mouth to have much chance!
Their collaboration (at least to me) seems eased by the fact that they both come from academia and are published and experienced non-fiction writers. The methodology, the discipline and the sheer mechanics of collaboration come easy to these two. Ultimately, what shines through more than anything else is how much fun writing these books is for Michael and Stanley. There is a real joy in the process of writing, the chance to collaborate, and the chance to meet with a new community of slightly obsessed, but equally up for some of the joy of life, fans of crime fiction.
That's not to say that Michael and Stanley would approach anything in their lives with less than 100% effort and in a thoroughly businessman like fashion. From the development and preparation of the manuscript, through to their forays into finding an agent who would be able to take the book to the right publishers, they approached their task with a singular purpose of vision, and in one of the most stylish yet workmanlike ways I've ever heard described. (If they ever offer to teach a course on how to get yourself published, aspiring writers would do well to get themselves to that lecture theatre in a serious hurry). Being so very professional in their approach, they are keen to work closely with their editors as well. They happily take input (dare I say peer review), and they have been very pleased with the manner in which their editors have considered their manuscripts, made valid and reasonable suggestions, and pointed out inconsistencies that might get in the way of the reader's full enjoyment of the book. They have even let the author's worst nightmare - cover illustration and titles - rage around them and accept the results with grace.
For me, it's always important when I'm reviewing crime fiction, to always remember that each individual book is the subject at hand. Not past books, not necessarily the subject matter (but the delivery thereof), and definitely not the author(s). But it's always a particular delight when the planets align and the universe smiles on the fan and time spent with the authors turns out to be as much fun and as much a thing of joy, as time spent with their fictional world. The good news is that once you've finished reading A DEADLY TRADE, there is a third book in the works at the moment. If you've not read the first book - A CARRION DEATH - I was recommending it long before lunch with Michael (and) Stanley. If you get a chance to say hi to either of the author's - then I'd recommend you take that opportunity also.