Saturday 19 February 2011

Dancing With Myself: MICHAEL STANLEY interviews MICHAEL STANLEY

The View From The Blue House has a lovely review for Dirty Old Town, so a big thanks to Rob Kitchin for taking the time. It was just the tonic I needed after a week away in a village called Amble, a place that absolutely lives up to its name.

It's in a beautiful part of the world and there's lots to see and do.

One such place is Barter Books, a second hand bookshop housed in an old railway station in Alnwick.

I know I'm off on one with Kindle blindness just now, but Barter Books reminded me of what is so wonderful about the paper variety.

It's enormous and quiet and populated by contented people. A model railway line runs above the bookshelves. The smell of the books and the variety of subjects covered is something to be amazed by. In the children's section alone, I saw many of the books I grew up with and had to restrain myself from buying them for my own clan. Refreshingly enough, the place was full of punters ranging from between 1 and 90 years old (by my eye, anyway). Truly a place of beauty. I couldn't recommend it enough to people passing through the North-East of England and with the Harry Potter castle and the gardens, it's not the only place of interest on offer.

And today, a warm welcome if you please for Michael Stanley, who finds it less difficult to have a dual personality than most.

How did you get started?

The idea for our first book, A Carrion Death, came on one of our trips to the wilderness areas of Botswana. We were watching a pack of hyenas demolishing the carcass of a wildebeest that they’d killed. If one wanted to get rid of a body, we thought, feed it to hyenas. They eat everything including the bones. The idea sat dormant for many years, but when Stanley retired in 2003 he persuaded Michael that it would be fun to work on a novel together. We hadn't a clue how to go about it and took three years of muddling our way through plot dead-ends and uncooperative characters before we finished a satisfactory draft.

How do two white men write about a black protagonist?

We think this question should rather be “How can anyone successfully write about someone who is culturally different?”

Of course, there are many authors who have protagonists who are substantially different from themselves. Men have women protagonists; women have men protagonists; English have Russian protagonists; Americans have French protagonists, and so on. So how do they do it?

We think it’s important to know the different culture as well as possible. We have visited Botswana many times and have read a lot about that country. Michael worked with a company which has extensive involvement in Botswana. Having been born and raised in South Africa gives us a feel for southern African Black culture in a broad sense. Certainly diverse Black groups have differences, but overall there are more similarities. For example, all have a great respect for their elders; there are strong extended families; communities are very supportive; there is still a belief in witchcraft; and colonization has brought Western ways to the region, with mixed results. For authenticity, a Black protagonist would need to conform reasonably closely to these behaviours, thought patterns, and beliefs. Part of the enjoyment for us was learning much more about the Tswana culture than we had known before we started working on the books.

Ultimately it’s the readers who will pass judgement on whether a writer has done a good job of developing a lead character. Our Western readers enjoy our depiction of Botswana and its culture.

Perhaps more significantly, A Carrion Death and
A Deadly Trade have been well received in Botswana itself.

How do two people write crime fiction together?

It’s not common but there are a few partnerships writing crime fiction and they all seem to use different methods. We’ve developed a strategy which works well for us. Upfront we work out a map of the plot, a synopsis, and the timelines. We try to get together to do that, and it takes a considerable amount of time. When we start on the writing there are usually areas where one of us has a particular interest or a mental picture of what’s going to happen. He’ll write a first draft, and often we will each be working on a different section of the book at the same time. That’s the starting point for multiple iterations. This phase we do by email interspersed with long internet telephone conversations. Eventually we go through each section independently to make sure it’s smooth, stylistically coherent, and that the characters’ behaviours are consistent from one place to another. Of course from time to time the plot diverges from our original plan, and the story takes new twists and turns. But that’s part of the fun.

Perhaps surprisingly it seems to work. Most people say they can’t discern any changes of style as they read.

What makes your books different from other books set in southern Africa?

Most of the other mysteries set in southern Africa take place in South Africa. And there are many wonderful writers there – living and dead: Antony Altbeker, Wessel Ebersohn, Richard Kunzmann, Sarah Lotz, Chris Marnewick, James McClure, Jassy McKenzie, Deon Meyer, Sifiso Mzobe, Mike Nichol, Margie Orford, Roger Smith, and Martin Welz to name only some. There are also writers who live elsewhere, who write about South Africa: Malla Nunn, Peter Temple, and Caryl Férey. Almost all of these writers focus on the violent aspects of South African society – and some of the most violent areas in the world are located around Johannesburg and Cape Town.

On the other hand, neighbouring Botswana is very different. It’s a large country with a small population – less the 2 million. Unlike heterogeneous South Africa, it’s relatively homogeneous, with the Batswana comprising nearly 80% of the population. It’s relatively affluent, and there are few slums. Consequently the incidence of violent crime is far lower than in South Africa. Much of the violent crime is domestic, while in South Africa there is a large amount of violent crime perpetrated against strangers.

This stark difference in the crime demographics is reflected in the murder mysteries written about the two countries. Almost all mysteries set in South Africa are violent, often bordering on the noir. Mysteries set in Botswana generally are gentler and unfold in a more leisurely African fashion. The homogeneity of Botswana also leads to there being a more pervasive set of traditional values, which are often reflected in books. A good example of this is the Alexander McCall Smith Precious Ramotswe series. One exception to this is Unity Dow’s riveting novel, Screaming of the Innocent, which deals with the use of body parts for witchdoctor spells.

Our books are much darker than the McCall Smith books (we have plenty of bodies!), but share with them the sense of community and family ever present in Botswana.

What makes Kubu so appealing?

Of course, we’re delighted that Kubu has become so popular. You must have a character that attracts readers’ affection for a series to be a success. We think what makes him so attractive is that he is a rounded person. He’s smart and, despite mutual respect, his relationship with his boss, Director Mabaku, always has an edge to it. On the other hand, he is madly in love with his wife, Joy. Even though he is very overweight, he continues to eat and drink large quantities – despite Joy’s constant encouragement for him to diet – and enjoys a healthy and satisfying sex life. He also is very respectful of his aging parents, whom he visits every Sunday.

Readers tell us that they see him as a solidly grounded person, happy in his own (substantial) skin, and relentless in trying to make Botswana a better place. He is honest and incorruptible.

‘Kubu’ is the Setswana word for hippopotamus, and we like to think that Kubu has many of his namesake’s characteristics. Normally large and placid, these creatures are the most dangerous animals in Africa. Kubu is normally placid, but if he or his family are threatened, he, too, becomes very dangerous.

What background do you have in writing?

Since we have both been professors (Michael still is – part-time), we have written a lot of non-fiction professionally. Michael’s fields are mathematics and computer science, and Stanley’s are the application of computers to teaching and learning, as well as aviation safety. Both of us are extensively published in those fields. Until we started A Carrion Death in 2003, neither of us had written fiction.

However, the discipline of being academics set us in good stead when we started writing fiction. We are both good at research and know what it takes to complete long and complex projects. We had no misconceptions about how much time and effort it would take to complete a novel, and both of us have the energy and enthusiasm to complete projects we start.

Where do we see the series going?

This is a difficult one to answer. In the current bookselling environment, it is presumptuous to assume that the series will continue to be published even if we write the books! If they are, perhaps the best answer is “until we stop having fun”. At some stage we can see wanting to write something outside the series, too.

When is the movie going to come out?

Many of our readers ask this question because they find the books very visual, particularly with respect to the physical aspects of Botswana – the people, the landscape, and the animals.

Unfortunately, no studio has approached us for the rights. So we keep dreaming!

How do you keep a character interesting throughout a series?

In real life, an interesting person is someone who has special interests and abilities. Someone who can surprise. In particular, in detective fiction the detective needs to keep ahead of the reader putting together the jigsaw puzzle – Kubu loves jigsaws – in a way that is inspired but also logical. Beyond that the character needs to grow, develop, just as your friends and family develop over time.
Should a reader start with the first book in a series?

We’ve written our books to be stand-alone, so a reader can start with any one. However, starting at the first one (A Carrion Death) definitely allows the reader to watch the characters develop. Detective Kubu in the upcoming Death of the Mantis, for example, is a different person from the Kubu in A Carrion Death, which takes places several years earlier. He is older and has had more varied experiences. We would hope that the reader starting at the beginning of the series would see Kubu grow professionally, personally, and emotionally from one book to the next.

From a writing perspective, it is always difficult to cater to readers who start a series in the middle. You have to provide enough background information about the characters to make them interesting, but at the same time not become repetitious for people who have read one or more of the earlier novels.

Why do you spend so much time researching your books?

When we started writing the Detective Kubu series, we had several goals. First, we wanted to see whether we could start and complete a mystery novel. Second, we wanted to have fun doing so. Third, we wanted to entertain our readers. And, fourth, we wanted readers, by the end of each book, to have a better understanding of the social, political, and physical attributes of Botswana and her peoples.

With that in mind, we decided that as far as possible everything that was not fiction had to be accurate. We felt this would add authenticity to the stories and provide information for the readers. In addition, if we both had visited the actual locations in Botswana that we were writing about, we’d be more confident in our writing. It’s much easier for two people to write about things they’ve seen, than about things that initially existed only in one of the two’s head. For example, although Kubu’s parents’ house is fictitious, the roads to it are real. And we’ve driven down them a number of times. This way either of us can write a scene involving a trip to his parents’ home and describe the route in a similar way. In addition, there are real places on the route that we could never have made up, such as the Taliban Haircut and Car Wash or the Jailbirds Security Company, which are on Kgafela Drive in Mochudi.

We want to provide readers with an authentic African experience. We want them to see the dust of Gaborone and the desolation of the Kalahari. We want them to experience the closeness of African families and the respect in which elders are held. We want them to understand the emotional conflicts that exist for people who have feet in both traditional and Western cultures. If we didn’t visit Botswana regularly, we wouldn’t be able to do this.

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