Up Close: Michael Stanley
Prequel Story Takes Readers Back to Kubu’s Origins
It’s not every day you get the chance to chew the fat with two people from the only continent you haven’t visited. So when offered the chance to talk to Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip—the dynamic duo behind the pen name Michael Stanley and the award-winning Detective Kubu mystery series—I dove in.
Sears and Trollip are both South Africans, and each book in their series tackles a contemporary southern African issue. In the six novels to date (plus a cookbook!), they’ve taken Detective Kubu across the continent.
In FACETS OF DEATH (out now from Poisoned Pen Press), a prequel story to the rest of the series, Detective Kubu goes back to where it all began—his first day on the job.
In this The Big Thrill interview, the authors share some insight into their writing process, the inspiration for FACETS OF DEATH, and what readers can expect from them next.
Thanks for the chance to talk about FACETS OF DEATH. Why, after six novels, did you decide to go back to where it all began for Detective Kubu? Did you learn anything about him while you were writing this book that surprised you?
Michael Sears: When we started writing our first book, A Carrion Death, we didn’t plan that Kubu would be the protagonist. As novice novelists, we heeded the advice of the experts, who said we should write about what we knew. So, as academics, we planned that a brilliant young ecologist would discover a body that had been left in the desert for hyenas to devour and go on to solve the mystery. It didn’t take long for him to realize that it was a murder, so we had to have a detective investigate.
Stan Trollip: So Kubu walked out of his office, set himself up with sandwiches and cassette tapes of his favorite operas, and headed out. It’s a long drive in unfavorable conditions to where the body had been found in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, so he had plenty of time to think. One thing he mused about was how a Bushman school friend had shown him how to see things in the desert that were invisible to most people. That was the spark that made Kubu want to become a detective. He would train himself to look beyond the obvious.
MS: By the time he reached the scene of the crime, he’d taken over the story and demanded to be the protagonist. We were both surprised!
ST: As Kubu developed over the series, we learnt more about his school and family life, but really nothing about how he became Botswana’s ace detective. That was not only a gap in his background, but also in his character. So we decided to write that story, starting with his first day at the Criminal Investigation Department.
We had surprises writing the book too. We’d never thought about how he would struggle to be accepted in the CID, that he’d have a lot to learn, and that he’d have some rough edges to be smoothed off. It was really fun writing the book—almost like having a new main character, but one we knew really well.
What can readers expect to love about the book?
MS: We hope they’ll love Kubu’s struggle to find his role in the CID, and seeing him grow rapidly as a competent detective.
ST: We also hope that they will see the person who is Kubu—a man who is sure of his intellect, but totally at sea when it comes to his emotions, particularly romantic ones.
The book is centered on the diamond trade in Botswana. It’s an industry that touches almost everyone in the world in some way or another, but not one that many people know much about. What surprised you when you were researching the book?
MS: I spent 10 years working for the parent company of De Beers in the geophysics area, so I knew quite a lot about the industry at the mining end. But the Jwaneng mine in Botswana is remarkable in many ways. It’s the richest diamond mine in the world with 70 percent of its output being gem quality. That’s very high. And it ships out 10 million carats of rough diamonds a year! If all those ended up as retail diamonds they would be worth $150 billion. So the idea of a team of robbers stopping at nothing to get their hands on some of that was very natural. It struck us at once as a great premise for a book.
ST: Botswana relies heavily on the industry—and did even more so at the time when FACETS OF DEATH is set (1998). A successful heist could have knocked investor confidence and hit the economy. So a heist would be a very big deal.
Botswana isn’t a familiar environment to most readers. How do you approach writing a thriller set there? Do you need to approach your description of place a little differently than a thriller set in London or New York City?
ST: I think that’s right. Even if one hasn’t been to New York, one has seen pictures, watched TV programs, and so on. We need not only to develop a sense of place, but also to bring across the difference between Botswana and developed countries. We develop the sense of place by visiting everywhere in Botswana that we write about, seeing the country, visiting the police station, chatting to people, and generally getting a feeling for the location. As to the differences, here’s an example. There is one forensic pathologist in Botswana, and he’s at the hospital in Gaborone. So a dead body has to come to him. Sometimes from right across a country the area of France. That changes how police work is done.
A lot of readers of The Big Thrill love to hear about the craft side of the business, so let us inside the armor for a second. How do you guys approach the task of writing a novel together? What works and what doesn’t? Has the process evolved over time?
MS: We start by brainstorming ideas and coming up with a backstory that we find interesting. Then we do a very rough outline of how the plot will develop. We usually do that when we’re together, but we live in different places, so after that a lot is discussed by email and on WhatsApp.
ST: We’re pantsers, so we let the story take us where it wants to go.
MS: Why should the readers have the fun of being surprised near the end of the book and not us? That isn’t fair! So, we sometimes are near the end of the book in our writing, and it’s not clear to us who the mastermind is. That can be a little terrifying too. Once we were three weeks from deadline. We knew who the baddie was, but couldn’t figure out how to catch him. We’d made him too clever. Eventually, and very fortunately, a single-sentence comment by a character allowed us to solve the puzzle.
ST: When it comes to the writing, one of us writes a first draft of a chapter or part of a chapter, then sends it to the other by email. Say I do a first draft. Then Michael will edit that draft and send it back with comments, additional ideas, points that don’t seem clear, as well as various tweaks and corrections. Then I’ll do a third draft and send it back. And so on. That can run to 20 iterations.
MS: We sometimes say there really is a Michael Stanley somewhere in the ether. Neither of us would write the same book on our own.
ST: It’s no quicker than writing alone—probably slower. But we think it produces a better book. And it’s a lot more fun.
What’s next for Michael Stanley, and what’s next for Detective Kubu?
MS: Our publisher is delighted with the prequel, and is keen to develop it over a few books as almost a new series. At the moment, we have ideas for another two books around the young Kubu.
ST: The next one will be set up in Shakawe, where the Kavango River flows into the amazing Okavango Delta. It’s one of the few rivers in the world that never reaches a sea, but spreads into a vast delta into the middle of a desert, producing a paradise for wild animals and birds. The book starts with a backhoe operator unearthing several old human skeletons as he digs a canal from the river. Who are they? When did they die, and how?
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