Today I’m pleased to welcome Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who together write the Detective Kubu series set in Botswana, as Michael Stanley. Their latest novel, A Death in the Family, was published by Orenda Books on 15 July 2016
They kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about A Death in the Family
A Death in the Family is the fifth book in the Detective Kubu series. It’s a devastatingly personal case for Kubu because his beloved father is the victim of a brutal killing. Kubu is heartbroken and is forbidden to be part of the investigation because of his personal involvement. Being the sort of detective he is, that is almost as bad as the murder itself, and he is unable to comply.
He’s assigned to investigate the death of a senior official in the Department of Mines, believed to be suicide. Kubu quickly decides that it’s actually murder and somehow linked to both the US embassy and a Chinese-owned mine. The mine wants to expand, and the residents of the nearby historic town are deeply divided about that. The situation gets out of control, and there’s a riot during which the chief and several of his advisors die.
Kubu is involved in the investigation of the riot, but along the way he discovers a link to his father’s murder and pursues it against orders. To get him out of the way, he’s sent to New York to present a paper to a meeting of Interpol. However, even there he can’t keep out of the investigation and is able to deduce the factors behind the events, and how they are linked with the mine and with his father’s death.
2. What inspired the book and the Detective Kubu series?
The first book in the series—A Carrion Death—was inspired by a visit to Botswana where we watched a pack of hyenas totally consume a wildebeest, bones and all. What a good way to get rid of a body without leaving any traces for the police, we thought.
Kubu—the name means hippo in the local Setswana language—first appeared in the second chapter of that book. Actually, he wasn’t even intended to be the protagonist; that was going to be a smart local ecologist. But when a body is found—not yet totally consumed—the police have to be involved. So Detective Kubu clambered into his Land Rover, well supplied with sandwiches and tapes of his beloved operas, and headed into the bush. By the time he reached the murder scene, he’d taken over the book and the series.
As to A Death in the Family, all our books have a backstory relevant to modern southern Africa. This one is the pervasive Chinese influence in much of the continent and the friction between these new immigrants and the local people. The riot in the book was also partly motivated by the horrific Marikana massacre in South Africa. Finally, we decided to have Kubu’s father murdered because we wanted to take Kubu—and ourselves—out of the comfort zone that had developed over the previous books.
3. Many people may not be aware that Michael Stanley is the pen name of two authors (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip). How does writing as a duo work? Are you plan, plan, plan writers or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
We normally outline the story at a fairly general level and talk about characters and situations. Since we live on different continents most of the time and in different cities the rest of the time, we usually only get together for trips to Botswana or when we are on book tours. After that we see where the characters take us.
One of us will write the first draft for a piece and then send it to the other. The second person reads it, adds comments, suggestions, and corrections and then sends it back. The original writer considers the revised version, reacts to the comments, implements some of the suggestions, and addresses the corrections. Then it goes back to the other person and so on. This may continue for more than twenty iterations. We always say that there really is a ‘Michael Stanley’ somewhere in cyberspace since the final book is quite different from the one either of us would have written alone.
One thing we always find: if one of us has written something he feel is really brilliant, the other deletes it at once! Those pieces are where you hear the writer rather than the characters and the story. However deep, they have to go!
The first book took us three years since we were learning the craft as we wrote. Subsequent books have taken about a year.
4. The Detective Kubu series is set in Botswana. How important do you think geography and location is to a novel?
It’s very important. Kubu is a son of his country and his culture, and reflecting that is part of the story. Some people describe the setting as one of the characters in our stories, and we love it when people tell us they have visited Botswana because of our books.
Beyond that, we like the freedom to investigate deep issues in southern Africa through the lens of Botswana—blood diamonds, the aftermath of the Zimbabwe war, the plight of the Bushman peoples, murder for human body parts, the Chinese influence in Africa. If we set the books in South Africa, all that would take place against the history of apartheid—a very different context.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
Both of us love being with friends, good food and wine. That’s something we have in common with Kubu! Best of all is to collect the said friends, food. and wine and head off into the African bush to experience the wilderness that Africa was and still remains in some places.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
Michael would choose the Lord of the Rings. He’s read it multiple times already, and each reading reveals something new about Middle Earth and its characters and about writing.
Stanley would read the collected works of Shakespeare.
7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
One question people avoid—probably out of politeness—is how can two white South Africans write about a black detective in another culture? Part of the answer is that we’re familiar with black African cultures and have spent much time in Botswana in different contexts. The other part is that one needs to put oneself into the character and construct a coherent and believable person in the context of his or her culture. That’s how men write women and women write men. We think that’s a much bigger divide than the colour of one’s skin.
About the book:
“Faced with the violent death of his own father, even Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Botswana CID’s keenest mind, is baffled. Who would kill such a frail old man? The picture becomes even murkier with the apparent suicide of a government official. Are Chinese mine-owners involved? And what role does the US Embassy have to play? Set amidst the dark beauty of modern Botswana, A Death in the Family is a thrilling insight into a world of riots, corruption and greed, as a complex series of murders present the opera-loving, wine connoisseur detective with his most challenging case yet. When grief-stricken Kubu defies orders and sets out on the killers’ trail, startling and chilling links emerge, spanning the globe and setting a sequence of shocking events in motion.
Will Kubu catch the killers in time … and find justice for his father?”