Michael Stanley Q&A: ‘Every life is a story we can understand if we try’

Michael Stanley, the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip behind the Botswana-based Detective Kubu series, on their literary lives and loves

Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip: Michael / Stanley deletes every passage I’m really proud of

Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip: Michael / Stanley deletes every passage I’m really proud of


What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Michael: The Tree that Sat Down by Beverley Nichols

Stanley: On the Beach by Neville Shute

What was your favourite book as a child?

Michael: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Stanley: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Michael: So hard to choose. I’ll plumb for The Mission Song by John Le Carré.

Stanley: So many! Depends on my mood. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, anything by John Fowles, Cormac McCarthy or J M Coetzee.

What is your favourite quotation?

Michael: “Democracy is the worst system except for all the others” from Winston Churchill. I love it because nowadays you can use it in a wide variety of contexts!

Stanley: These are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . . well, I have others.” Groucho Marx

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Michael: Gandalf

Stanley: Hannibal Lecter

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Michael: Declan Burke

Stanley: Stuart Neville

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

Michael & Stanley: Print, but we’re delighted ebooks exist as we travel a lot.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

Michael: The Bird Paintings of CG Finch-Davies by CG Finch-Davies

Stanley: A hundred-year-old Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald

Where and how do you write?

Michael: I need it to be quiet – no music, no distractions. But I don’t have to be in a certain place and it doesn’t have to be at a certain time. On the whole, nights work better.

Stanley: I can write anywhere and anytime. Once I get into the zone, nothing disturbs me. I have to remember to eat and drink. However, I’m not disciplined in the sense of finding a time to write every day.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Michael: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Three volumes of fantasy? Yes, but the characters are all real humans, even – or especially – the non-human ones. And real characters drive fiction.

Stanley: On the Beach by Neville Shute. I was a teenager when I read it, reading until I finished it in the early hours of the moring. When I turned the light out, I was convinced that I would never wake up. When my father brought me tea before school, I was totally confused. How could I still be alive? It taught me the power of words and how fiction can take one to places not realistically possible.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

Michael and Stanley: We do extensive research for every book, including travelling to all places that appear in our stories. Probably the most difficult and time consuming was for Death of the Mantis, which has the plight of the Bushman peoples as a backstory. Almost everything written about them brings a profound Western (and romantic) bias. It’s very difficult to find out what’s real, particularly because the Bushman groups have no written language, and their spoken languages are largely inaccessible to Westerners.

What book influenced you the most?

Michael: As a writer, The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.

Stanley: As a writer, On Writing by Stephen King and English Usage by Fowler (I love reading it for entertainment as well as for information.).

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Michael: Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Michael: Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer!

Stanley: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Michael: Try to get a first draft of the book finished, rather than a perfect first chapter.

Stanley: Just write (and don’t give up your day job!)

What weight do you give reviews?

Michael: Depends who the reviewer is. One has to take criticism seriously (even if it comes from Stanley!)

Stanley: Good ones are feel-good; some critical ones are helpful for improving my writing; negative ones I ignore.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Michael & Stanley: Big publishers will very slowly realise that their authors are their bread and butter. Self-publishing will put pressure on big publishers to be more encouraging and supportive.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

Michael: Colouring-in books for adults! I guess I just don’t get it.

Stanley: Vampires confuse me! I’m ambivalent about current authors resuscitating dead authors.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Michael: That every life is a story, and we can understand it if we try hard enough.

Stanley: That there is nothing new! People behave and experience the same emotions now as they did thousands of years ago.

What has being a writer taught you?

Michael: That a book is driven by its characters and the power of the story. Clever plot twists can’t replace that.

Stanley: The power of words; the importance of clarity; that there is no single way of expressing anything.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Michael: John Le Carre, Winston Churchill, Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain.

Stanley: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Leo Tolstoy.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

Michael: Alexandra Fuller has a scene in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight with an exploding (cooked) turkey! It’s not a funny book overall, but that scene leaves you trying to catch your breath.

Stanley: I don’t remember any specific scenes, but Philip Roth, Carl Hiaasen and J P Donleavy are very funny.

What is your favourite word?

Michael: onomatopoeia

Stanley: discombobulate

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Michael: There must be great stories around the exploration of Africa. I once started thinking about the early days of German South West Africa and the Bushman peoples then.

Stanley: I’m obsessed by the first World War, so it would probably be set in the first two decades of the twentieth century. I also think that a mystery with an investigation of a new European settler for brutality against an indigenous person of southern Africa would allow me to raise fascinating issues. I’d set it either in the 1650s, when the Dutch settled the Cape, or in the 1820s, when there was significant immigration from the UK.

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?

Michael: Stanley deletes every passage I’m really proud of.

Stanley: Michael deletes every passage I’m really proud of.

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

Michael: Many options, but I’ll choose The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. She brings many themes together in a poignant way, but the most heart-breaking is the total lack of communication between individuals and across cultures.

Stanley: I cry easily, so there are plenty. King Leopold’s Ghost moved me to anger and tears, as did The Screaming of the Innocents by Unity Dow.

A Death in the Family (Orenda Books) is the latest of the Detective Kubu series

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