Stanley Trollip on long-distance collaboration

Collaboration can be daunting for co-authors, but distance makes it even more challenging. Stanley Trollip explains how one team makes it work:

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is the writing team of Michael Sears of Johannesburg and me. I split my time between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Knysna, South Africa.

During the 1980's, I would rent a small airplane in Johannesburg and fill it with friends, wine, and food. One of the friends was Michael. After take-off, we would head for Zimbabwe or Botswana to view and photograph wildlife and birds. And to savour South African wines in the middle of the African bush around a hardwood camp fire.

In the early evening on one trip to the Savuti plains of the stunning Chobe National Park in Botswana, we witnessed lions stalking and killing a wildebeest. Right behind was a pack of hyenas, harassing the lions to get to the carcass. Sometimes one hyena would bite a lion's tail. When the lion angrily turned on it, another hyena would dart in and steal some of the flesh. By morning there was nothing left except the horns of the late wildebeest. The hyenas had finished anything left by the lions, bones and all.

That night, over a glass or two of wine, we decided that if we were ever to commit murder, the best way to get rid of the body would be to leave it for the hyenas. No body, no case. And that suggested an intriguing premise for a mystery novel.

When I retired in 2003, I suggested to Michael that we should do something more about this idea than just think about it. A month later, I received a draft of the first chapter of a mystery novel. In it our perfect murder became imperfect as a game ranger and a professor stumbled upon a corpse just before a hyena finished devouring it. So there was a body, and there was a case. I liked the chapter and asked Michael what happened next. Michael didn't know.

Thus started a long-distance collaboration that resulted in the publication in April 2008 of A Carrion Death in the United States (HarperCollins) and in the UK (Headline). Using email and VOIP (voice over internet protocol) in the form of Skype, we hammered out the outline of a novel and started writing.

And what an adventure it was. Believing in the age-old advice that one should write about things one knows, we decided early on that the professor should be the book's protagonist. Both of us having been professors, we liked the idea of a smart professor solving a mysterious murder in the Kalahari. It quickly became obvious to us, however, that the police would have to be involved. So in Chapter 2, an Assistant Superintendent in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Botswana Police, David Bengu by name, jumped into his Land Rover in Gaborone and set off to investigate.

By the time he arrived at the scene of the murder, Bengu, nicknamed "Kubu" – Setswana for hippopotamus for his considerable bulk – had become the protagonist. We were astonished how this supposedly second-string character took over and elbowed himself into the number one position. We were obviously naïve, because we had thought that writers controlled their characters rather than the other way around.

Kubu continued to evolve throughout the book, ending up as an appealing character, who loves his wife, his food, and his wine. He is normally placid with a keen brain and sly sense of humour, but like his animal namesake, he can be formidable and dangerous. Kubu is a policeman one does not want to cross.

From the outset, we wanted to write more than a murder mystery. We wanted readers to learn something about the sights, sounds, and cultures of Botswana. We wanted them to smell the desert and imagine the spectacular sunsets over the Kalahari. We were committed to depict this remarkable country as authentically as possible.

So we continued to visit Botswana regularly to verify the factual aspects of the book, as well as to ensure that the fictional aspects made sense in today's environment. In all of this we were blessed with good luck. For example, the director of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department (CID), spent a whole Saturday afternoon showing us around. And what an afternoon it was. We learned about the Botswana police and a number of famous cases. He showed us the Police Training School that he had been instrumental in establishing. He gave us information about the workings of the CID and the relationship of the Botswana police with their counterparts in South Africa and Scotland Yard. And while we were touring Gaborone, he deflected repeated phone calls from a subordinate who wanted the his advice on handling a gang the police had just arrested, who were armed to the teeth with AK47s. The Director brushed the phone calls off with an abrupt "I can't talk now. I'm busy showing some people around."

Most commentators on A Carrion Death mention Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana series featuring Precious Ramotswe. Although A Carrion Death deals with death, murder, and corporate shenanigans, which Precious would find abhorrent, it shares with McCall Smith's books a love of this part of Africa, the dignity of its people, their friendliness, and their respect for friends and family.

We have been delighted by the positive reception Detective Kubu has received. He will re-appear in our second book, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, which HarperCollins will release in Jnue 2009. Unlike A Carrion Death, which was set in the arid Kalahari Desert, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, is set in the lush riverine forests of the Linyanti River in northern Botswana. The back story is about the turmoil in Zimbabwe and how the Rhodesian Bush War forged strange relationships, both good and evil. The story itself, set in present day Botswana, is about the dissolution of two such relationships.


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