Balancing the Line Between Fact and Fiction
By Dawn Ius
More than a decade has passed since Michael Stanley—pseudonym for the acclaimed writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip—published A Carrion Death, the first book in what would become the popular Detective Kubu series.
With the seventh novel—Facets of Death—slated for release later this year, the authors have shifted into publicity mode to promote their forthcoming standalone thriller SHOOT THE BASTARDS, a book that touches on the international issue of poaching, and introduces Crystal Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American journalist torn between cultures and driven by her quest for truth.
When her friend goes missing while researching a National Geographic story on rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling, Crystal wrangles an assignment that will hopefully lead her to him so she can help finish his important story. But before long, she finds herself in the middle of a war between poachers and conservation officers where she quickly becomes one of the hunted.
In SHOOT THE BASTARDS, award-winning authors Sears and Trollip expose one of southern Africa’s most vicious conflicts in a story that will have you turning pages, pining for the safety of the world’s dwindling rhino populations, and questioning the line between fact and fiction.
Answering as Michael Stanley, the authors share with The Big Thrill some of the inspiration behind this thriller, and what fans of the Detective Kubu series can expect from this intriguing new heroine.
SHOOT THE BASTARDS deals with the international issue of poaching. What drew you to this topic?
Both of us have shares in private game reserves bordering the famous Kruger National Park, and we often visit the area. There has always been some poaching for meat, but it was only when the price of rhino horn passed that of gold, ounce for ounce, that it became a shooting war to try to protect the rhinos. The tragedy is that there are large numbers of really poor people who will risk jail or even being shot to earn more money than they could earn in a year of hard work—if they could find it. After a few years, rhino killings in South Africa topped 1,000 and was headed for the tipping point where the population would start to decline. The dual tragedies of rhino extinction and exploitation of rural poverty by the poaching kingpins made it a compelling issue to address in a thriller.
This novel reads with a remarkable air of authenticity. With issues-based books, there’s often a push-pull of fact vs. fiction. How much of this story is drawn from real life, and how much research was required to flesh out the details?
We did a great deal of reading from a variety of sources. We were also fortunate to have the first-hand experiences of a game-reserve manager to draw on. He provided invaluable information of what it was like to be on the frontline of the war on poaching. Michael was also involved in a mathematical modelling project to try to assess the impact of legalizing trade and flooding the market with legally obtained horn. (The hope was that legalizing trade might crash the price of horn and so make the smuggling uneconomical. The project itself was inconclusive because there was too little information about the economics of the horn smugglers. However, it did indicate that unless very strong steps were taken, the species would inevitably become extinct.)
While SHOOT THE BASTARDS is entirely fiction, many of the events that take place in it have counterparts in real life. Of course, these have been changed to fit the story. In reality, there are smugglers based in Mozambique, spies within the anti-poaching teams, farmers who cut off the horns of the rhinos they farm, and never-ending rumors about how legally harvested horn finds its way into the illegal world market.
While researching for this novel, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
The more one learns about the trade, the more surprising it becomes. It’s mind-blowing that the entire enterprise is based on a belief that rhino-horn powder can cure illnesses, act as an aphrodisiac, or provide a high when snorted like cocaine. There is absolutely no evidence that it can do any of these things.
We were also surprised to learn that at least three quarters of so-called powdered rhino horn sold on the street in China is actually ground-up water-buffalo horn. Of course, the consumer can’t tell the difference since neither material has any physiological effects.
What “message” would you like readers to take away from this story?
Novels are about characters and their journeys rather than messages, but we’d be happy if readers better appreciate the complexity of the issues, and how the local people are exploited by the smuggling kingpins in the Far East. The reaction to poachers is often “shoot the bastards,” but the issues are much deeper and the answers much less obvious. Many South African game reserves, including Kruger itself, are coming to the same conclusion as our protagonist, Crys Nguyen—that as much as they hate the idea of removing the horns from wild rhinos at regular intervals, they don’t see any other realistic option.
This new novel does touch on an important issue, but of course, it’s also a page-turning thriller in the most classic way. How do you balance the narrative to ensure a book touches on all of the notes?
Readers expect to be entertained and involved with the story, not educated about an issue. We feel that the issue should add to the intrigue and appear as conflict between the characters. One of the good things about being a writing team is that when one of us reads the other’s material for the first time, it’s quite easy to see if the narrative is dragging or the dialogue is becoming stilted. All of our Detective Kubu books also have significant issues in southern Africa as a backstory, so we had that experience to work with.
SHOOT THE BASTARDS is a stand-alone thriller—the first from your writing team, according to your website. What led to your departure from the Detective Kubu books?
We had a variety of reasons to write something different, but dumping Kubu, his family, and his colleagues was not one of them. We still love writing him and exploring his crime investigations in Botswana. However, although a series has a variety of plots and backstories, to say nothing of new characters, in the end the series protagonist has to be the focus. The features that make a series rich—the history and backstory of the main character—also constrain what one can do and where one can go.
We wanted to try something different—a different style of book with a completely different protagonist. We visualized it as a thriller with a backstory of the rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling in South Africa, and saw the protagonist as a committed conservation journalist trying to find her way through it in pursuit of a big story. We knew we wanted a strong female character who would be willing to break the rules when necessary. We also decided that she should not be a South African, because it would be more intriguing for her to discover the issues from the viewpoint of an outsider rather than bringing the baggage of local perceptions with her. And to make it a bit more challenging, we decided to try it in first person to bring out the immediacy of what was happening to the main character.
So we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to achieve. It turned out that we weren’t as sure of how to do it…
Clearly you figured it out in the end, as SHOOT THE BASTARDS looks to be the first book in a new series featuring Crystal Nguyen. What can you tell us about the second book? Was this a planned series?
The idea was definitely for a standalone, and we haven’t committed to a series with Crys.
After we’d written quite a bit of the story, we came to realize that we didn’t properly understand who our character was or what her motivations were. One issue was that we wanted her to be between two worlds rather than a “normal” American, and Stan had the idea of making her a Vietnamese American who grew up in Minnesota where there is, in fact, a very large Vietnamese community. So Crystal Nguyen was born. But then we had new problems. We needed to research that subculture, and more than ever we needed a much better idea of who she really was.
In the end, Stan wrote what started as an outline for a novella to explore her character, and ended up as a short novel titled Wolfman. She became an investigative reporter focused on the environment, with a passion for the American gray wolf. We started to understand her and respect her, and we knew much better why she would come to Africa, passionate about rhino conservation, yet somewhat naïve. Wolfman could easily be reworked as the next novel in a series. Let’s see how SHOOT THE BASTARDS goes!
For readers who haven’t had the pleasure of reading your Detective Kubu series, please comment on how SHOOT THE BASTARDS is different—not so much simply that there are new characters, or that it’s a new series, but more about how this work as a body may differ from your other work.
In a series (or a standalone for that matter) the protagonist has to carry the story and so is the key to the book. Kubu and Crys are about as different as one could imagine. Kubu is a Botswanan man, smart and forward-looking, but still a product of his culture and fairly conservative upbringing. He’s a detective in the Criminal Investigation Department, so the books are set in the context of a police procedural. He is happily married and has a family, eats too much, and his idea of exercise is walking to his Land Rover. In contrast, Crys is torn between her American upbringing and the Vietnamese culture she never knew other than through her father’s personal tyranny. Yet she finds comfort in her anonymity when she’s in Vietnam.
If it does become a series, we would see her being faced with issues around her environmental interests in a variety of contexts and countries. A book might take place entirely in the US as Stan’s Wolfman is. However, we image she will always be somewhat the outsider. Kubu is an insider.
Quite often books featuring a protagonist who is a journalist are written by authors with that kind of background—but neither of you seem to have journalism listed in your impressive bios. How did Crystal’s character emerge for you, and how difficult was it to step into her shoes?
It was hard! We were pretty happy with the action and plot, but we found that while Stan’s book had worked well in first person, our joint work was less smooth. It’s difficult to cram two writers’ heads into the single head of the protagonist telling the story. We also felt that her quest was too abstract, that it needed a more personal imperative. Then we realized that she was really looking for the man she loved, that love trumped her powerful conservation commitment.
It took enormous input from our editors and five complete rewrites, which included rewriting the whole book in third person. But suddenly everything came into focus, and we believe the book achieved what it set out to do.
After writing almost 10 books together—as well as a number of short stories—has your collaborative process changed over the years? What are some of the advantages, and challenges of writing as a team?
Sometimes writers (and readers) ask us how we can share this very private creative art with another person. We think this is the wrong question. For us, 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. 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 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 everything we write.
However there are some challenges. You must be willing to take harsh criticism, knowing that it’s directed at the product rather than you, and that the only goal 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.
Most of our disagreements tend to be over wording issues that almost never really matter. One of the things we’ve learned is that not getting hung up on minor issues helps move things along. Small details usually get polished in one of the rewrites in any case.
We’ve also learned that there are a variety of ways of handling the plot. Our first book was entirely pantsed—neither of us knew where the other would take the story. Our second book was plotted—we followed an outline quite closely. On the whole, we’ve developed a style of having a general idea of where we want the story to go, but we let the characters (and the writers) do their own thing to get there.