I've mentioned Michael Stanley before on this blog, mainly in connection with Crimefest, where I got to know them - yes them, because the writing name conceals the identities of Michael Sears and Stan Trollip. Two very nice chaps, and very interesting writers. Their latest book, Deadly Harvest (Harper) appeared recently, which prompted me to invite Michael to contribute a few paragraphs for the blog. The idea of collaborative writing interests me greatly, so I asked about how they got going as a double act./ And as a bonus they supplied me with this blog's first hyena photo! Hyenas at night in Botswana, actually...
"Although we were both born in and grew up in, South Africa we got to know one another in Minneapolis in the USA. Stanley was a professor of education technology at the University of Minnesota; Michael gave up South African summers to work with mathematicians there in the mid-west winter (which both of us pretended to enjoy). We soon found out that we shared a love of the African bush, wine, good food, music, and that we were happiest on a project if we were working with other people. Stan co-authored several text books with different partners; Michael wrote mathematics with a circle of collaborators.
Even though neither of us had written any serious fiction, we had an idea for writing a crime-fiction novel while we were on one of our trips into the southern African bush. Stan is a pilot, and we’d fill a small plane with friends, food and wine – not necessarily in that order of importance – and head off to the wilderness areas of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. On one trip to the Chobe game reserve in Botswana, we saw a pack of hyenas pull down a fully grown wildebeest. Twenty hyenas reduced it to nothing but the hooves and horns in a matter of hours. One hyena may be a scavenger, but a group of twenty forms a fearsome predator. No doubt after opening a few of the bottles referred to above, we started talking about the perfect murder. The victim’s body is thrown out in the bush for hyenas to consume. Nothing will be left. Nothing for the police. Nothing for forensics. The premise became more appealing as more bottles opened.
Was there any doubt that we would use this idea to write a novel together? Well, because we so greatly enjoyed collaboration - the brainstorming, the feedback, the other interested participant – there was no doubt that if we did something, it would be together. More to the point was whether we would do anything at all! That took about twenty years to resolve.
Then, in 2003, there was a rainy weekend in Johannesburg. For once Michael had no deadline looming. Stan commenced the exhilarating but slightly scary early retirement he’d chosen and resurrected the idea of the hyena mystery. Michael sat down and started typing:
“The hyena moved off when the men shouted. It stood about fifty metres away watching them with its head low between powerful shoulders, wary, not fearful, waiting for its chance to retake the field. The men stood in silence, staring at what the hyena had been eating.”
Five pages later he had the first draft of the first chapter. It was pretty bad, but he didn’t know enough to realise that at the time. He emailed it off to Stan who was intrigued and asked the magic question every crime fiction writer wants to hear: “So what happens next?” Michael had no idea. “This is a collaboration, right?” he responded. He waited with bated breath for chapter two.
When we started writing fiction, we knew very little about it. We learnt a lot by writing that first book, and by reading, and from writing groups, and by brainstorming, and most of all by rewriting and rewriting. We even learnt that fiction is normally a one-person show. But then later, we learnt that there are some very good and successful crime writing partnerships. The most important thing we learnt was that we have an enormous amount of fun writing together.