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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Michael Stanley Q&A

Yesterday we gave you a taste of their latest novel< Death of the Mantis. Today the writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip – Michael Stanley, as far as their book covers are concerned – have taken some time out ahead of a long US promo trip to talk about it. Well, talk about food and dieting and babies and all those sorts of odd topics that crime novelists indulge in. Of course there’s the odd bit of killing too. This is their third Detective Kubu novel, the other two being A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade.

Crime Beat: Death of the Mantis is your third Detective Kubu novel and this outing finds his situation a little changed. He’s now a father and he’s on a diet. Let’s deal with the father side first. As neither of you have first-hand knowledge of the fatherhood condition did you do any research or rely on your imaginations?

Michael Sears: Well, I’ve had peripheral experience of babies from relatives and friends. I’m even an honorary grandfather to one right now! We did ask for input from friends and did some research. The research didn’t run to changing nappies though!

A harder issue is in the next book where Tumi is a few years older. What exactly can and can’t she be expected to do at that age? She’s very precocious, but still… And how do parents rear young children as opposed to surviving them?

Stanley Trollip: I’ve spent only a little time around babies, and then only those from whom I could retreat, leaving them in the hands of their parents. However most of my friends have had children whom I’ve known since birth. I’ve shared many evenings and various libations watching their exhaustion, listening to their stories, and hearing their complaints.

Crime Beat: Although his daughter has brought him much wonder and happiness, she has also added an extra stress. Babies do that, as you’ve shown. A stress which perhaps finds more expression in Joy’s post-natal depression and paranoia that Kubu might be chasing other women than in Kubu’s behaviour? How do you see it impacting on him?

Stanley Trollip: Kubu sees himself as a new-age sort of guy or at least a modern man. But his behaviour is very traditional, not only Batswana traditional but male traditional. It is difficult physically for him to wake up at night and take care of Tumi, so Joy just does it – to her irritation and to Kubu’s mild guilt.

Michael Sears: The main issue here is understanding. Kubu doesn’t understand Joy’s attitude and concerns and that he isn’t helping as much as he thinks he is. Life has changed – for the better – but there are more constraints. This causes him confusion and uncertainty and discomfort.

Crime Beat: The Kubu marriage was a marker of normality in the first two novels, a device you used to highlight the immorality of your bad guys. And again the Kubu family acts as a measure of positive values. Do you think it’s important to have this island of sanity – although it is under strain by virtue of the baby in this book – in your narratives?

Michael Sears: The long answer is that I’ve always seen Kubu as a dedicated, smart and hard-working policeman but one who believes in the traditional family values of Botswana. His family – Joy, Tumi and his parents – represent that and anchor him in the sane world when he emerges from the insanity of the type of cases he pursues in his professional life. Thus he avoids the tortured detective model of much crime fiction.

The short answer is yes.

Stanley Trollip: I like contrasts so I think it is important for Kubu to have a reasonably normal home life. However, we have also tried to show in this book and in A Deadly Trade that it is impossible to separate Kubu’s work life from what happens at home. Kubu’s actions at work have a direct and frightening impact on Joy’s life at home, muddying the otherwise tranquil waters.

Crime Beat: And to complicate Kubu’s life, Joy’s put him on a diet, although he has his own way of handling the situation. Also, given Joy’s fatigue brought on by nursing the baby, she even gives in on one occasion when he suggests a Wimpy would sort out supper. The diet doesn’t really seem effective?

Stanley Trollip: It’s not effective at all. Few people with Kubu’s love of food and wine are good dieters, especially when the pressure to diet comes from someone else – even a wife.

Michael Sears: Well, that’s true. But he gets his come-uppance later in the book. Although he even turns that to his advantage!

Crime Beat: Food and eating have always played a big part in your novels, and this is a major theme once again. Apart from the fact that you both probably enjoy your food and eating out, why this fascination in the fiction?

Michael Sears: It’s an important part of Kubu’s character. Perhaps another way in which he anchors himself to the real world. Yes, he is a bit greedy, but he would like to be knowledgeable and a connoisseur. Sometimes the greed wins out, I’m afraid.

Stanley Trollip: A good character needs attributes for readers to identify with. Love of food and wine is one such attribute, which is part of his modern-man self-image. However it also helps us build Kubu’s character as a man who doesn’t rush into action, but who thinks first; a man who likes balance, who sets priorities.

Crime Beat: Okay now let’s turn to the serious stuff: the book’s major theme concerns the Bushmen and their place in the modern world. What brought you to this concern?

Michael Sears: It’s one we’ve had for a long time. It’s about the only issue we found in Botswana about which people are uncomfortable and about which they are reticent to talk freely. We’ve spoken to two remarkable women in Botswana – Alice Mogwe, who runs an NGO one of whose concerns is the Bushman situation, and Unity Dow, novelist and high court judge at the time of the legal challenges of government policies by the Bushman peoples. The issue is complex and multifaceted as one would expect. We wanted to try to show that by displaying the current realities juxtaposed with the past. We tried not to take sides. We’ve already been told that we took the government side, and we’ve been told that we took the Bushman side. So maybe we got it more or less right!

Stanley Trollip: I’ve had a fascination with the Bushman ever since I can remember, initially being intrigued by their skills of tracking, hunting, and surviving in the harshest of climates. Then I became appalled at what intruders, black and white, did to them – treating them like animals rather than humans. Where I am now is more of an observer – how do nomads survive in a world where land-ownership and land-use prevents free movement? How does a government, constitutionally charged to provide education and basic health services deal with a nomadic culture? What responsibility do we as citizens of the world have to maintain an ancient culture like that of the Bushman peoples, when our own cultures are changing the whole time? It is a really difficult situation, particularly as the remarkable Bushman skills are poorly suited to the 21st Century.

Crime Beat: Your physical terrain is still Botswana, but this is quite a departure from the concerns of the first two books. I assume it involved a lot of research both in terms of reading, talking to anthropologists, Bushmen themselves, and you no doubt visited various Bushman sites?

Stanley Trollip: We’ve spoken to a variety of people and read lots of books and articles, in addition to visiting places like Tsodilo Hills, which the Bushmen regard as the birthplace of humankind. One of the things that has struck me is that it is very difficult to get at what is real. Different commentators say different things. Almost all these books are written by westerners, who have interacted with Bushmen in different settings. Most of these interactions have been through the use of interpreters. I suspect that much accuracy was lost in translation and am sure the interpreters added their own perspectives.

Michael Sears: Yes, that’s right. Lots of reading, books old and new, and visits to a number of special places and people. I’ve already mentioned two people who gave us much insight into the issues although they aren’t themselves Bushmen.

Crime Beat: Your prologue and a number of scenes in the book require an imaginative leap into the mind of the Bushmen. Were those difficult parts to write?

Michael Sears: I think we tried to imagine how someone with those sorts of life experiences and beliefs would think and the issues that would occupy his mind. I didn’t find it too hard; of course I can’t say we got it right. I guess, though, that that is more or less what one does with any character to a greater or lesser extent!

Stanley Trollip: I read a lot of Bushman songs and stories and myths – in translation of course – and tried to personify them. I also drew on some of my own experiences at university in trying to imagine what a trance state was like.

Crime Beat: You are both cunning plotters and again there are many twists and turns throughout the story and you throw in a number of ‘red herrings’. Without having to raise a spoiler alert, and because the story has its own commentary on the future of the Bushmen, how do you see their future panning out?

Stanley Trollip: That is a tough question because when people ask it they usually are asking about the traditional Bushman culture. I can’t see that surviving. But I do see a different, unique Bushman culture evolving with its edges blending into the surrounding cultures, just as one sees happening everywhere else on the planet.

Michael Sears: I’m not optimistic about the survival of their culture. I think that it is the Bushmen themselves in the end who will choose to move to the “modern” world for good or ill. Their traditional life is hard; why would the young people not want to move on? Still, it makes me sad. There is something very special in their philosophy and beliefs, and I think we will all lose something if it vanishes forever.

Crime Beat: Lastly, well, almost lastly, there is a change of pace in this novel, for one thing there’s a lot more dialogue, and the plot is less convoluted, tighter than in the other two books. Was this a conscious decision to go for a no-nonsense crime thriller?

Michael Sears: I don’t think so. The Bushman theme had to be developed in dialogue if it was to avoid becoming a series of lectures. In any case, we wanted to express how differently diverse people feel about the issue. That only really works in dialogue, I think.

Stanley Trollip: I definitely wanted to have a less complex story. I think that suited the setting and content of the book better. I certainly didn’t think about how to manage dialogue – what is in the book just happened.

Crime Beat: The book is also shorter than the other two and seems to have gained in focus as a result. Where you happier with a shorter narrative?

Stanley Trollip: I was keen to have a shorter story this time for a variety of reasons, including the mercenary one of hoping that more foreign publishers would be attracted to it for translation. However we didn’t do anything specific to make it shorter – the story panned out just over 100,000 words, which is about 75% of the length of A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade.

Michael Sears: Harper Collins wanted the novel around 100,000 words although they haven’t raised length as an issue with our previous books. The novel seemed to naturally come in at around 110,000 words, and once we had done the tightening in the rewrites (which we always do) it is about 105,000. I don’t think we set out to write it differently, but perhaps we felt the previous books were a bit too diffuse and complex in places.

Crime Beat: And finally those questions your fans want an answers to: what’s next? And when?

Michael Sears: We’re well into the fourth Kubu book and it addresses another deep issue in Southern African and Botswanan culture – black magic and the use of human body parts. Not an original concern or crime novel concept – Unity Dow and Richard Kunzmann [in his Bloody Harvests]have both taken it on. We have a rather different approach to the issue in Botswana, and Kubu is having a lot of problems with it!

As to when, that is probably more in the hands of the publishers than in the memories of our computers. Next year, we hope.

Stanley Trollip: We’ve made good progress on the fourth book – we don’t even have a working title for it, although we considered and discarded ‘Body Parts’. Muti medicine is widespread on this continent and sometimes people go to extremes to make extreme muti. Hopefully it will be out in 2012.

 

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