Thursday, April 19, 2018

Changing of the Guard

Michael - Thursday

Over the last six months, three long-serving leaders of southern African countries were replaced. All three stood down, all three were replaced before an election, and all three were replaced by another member of the same party. There the similarity ended.

Robert Mugabe
First to go was Robert Mugabe who had ruled Zimbabwe since independence more than 30 years ago. Initially, he set out to make a success of the country. But slowly but surely things deteriorated and he started to behave in a more and more corrupt and dictatorial fashion. Eventually, in his nineties, he was more of a figurehead than a leader. His eventual downfall was the result of a power struggle between his wife, Grace, and his number two, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He tried to intervene in her favour, and that was the last straw.  He had the army on his side, but Mnangagwa he knew that if he grabbed power in a coup, his government would immediately be regarded as illegitimate by almost every country in the world. Hence he played his cards carefully, putting more and more pressure on Mugabe, making him better and better offers. He would be secure, with all his corruptly obtained money and assets. His legacy would be respected as ‘father of the nation.’  All he had to do was step aside and enjoy the rest of his life. And give up any pretensions to his wife taking over. Mugabe reacted like a cornered lion, but a toothless and clawless one. 
Emmerson Mnangagwa
Eventually, on the eve of a no confidence vote, he gave in. So far at least Mnangagwa has kept his promises, and is saying all the right things to get Zimbabwe back on track. Time will tell which direction he will actually choose.

Jacob Zuma
Second down was President Jacob Zuma.
A year short of his ten years (the SA constitution allows only two presidential terms of five years each, although there were rumblings that Zuma wanted to change that), he was forced out by Cyril Ramaphosa who gained control of the ruling ANC by the narrowest of margins from a Zuma ex-wife and look alike, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Ramaphosa went the same constitutional route as Mnangagwa, and Zuma also fought until the last minute. No get out of jail card free for him. He is currently facing a variety of charges for corruption. Whether he will ever serve time is moot—he is regarded as the leader of the powerful Zulu nation, and Ramaphosa may not want to alienate them.
Cyril Ramaphisa
But he is gone, and a huge sigh of relief was breathed by the country, which seemed to be headed towards the Zimbabwe model.

Ian Khama
And last month Ian Khama stepped down as president of Botswana and handed the reigns to his hand-picked deputy, Mokgweetsi Masisi. Not much, if any, of the money he handled stuck to his fingers. He did a farewell tour of his country, and was showered with praise and gifts by his people. Not everyone was impressed by him, and the opposition was getting close in the last election. But that is what democracy is about. He could have stayed on for the next election next year, but he wanted to give the new president time to establish himself.  In Africa—as in many other places—an incumbent has a big advantage over an opposition challenger.  42% of elections re-elect incumbents; only around 18% re-elect the governing party where the opposition and government both field unknowns. So it seems that Khama’s move was designed for the good of his party. As I was told long ago, the time to go is when everyone asks you to stay.
Mokgweetsi Masisi

Is there a moral to this story? I leave it to you to decide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Strike season - auf wiedersehen for awhile Bernie Gunther

It's strike season in Paris...then again it's always time for a strike in Paris. This season it's the union of SNCF, the national railway, and Air France and probably other unions who will strike in sympathy. Of course, it's school holidays in France  when families travel so obligingly the national train service has issued a schedule to help passengers navigate around strike days.
The unions took the step of announcing the dates on which they plan to strike, which will total 36 days.This follow a one day walk out in March that was held to coincide with a strike by the civil servants all over France.  This industrial action led to 60 percent of TGV high speed trains being cancelled as well as half of normal train services. RER commuter services from the Paris suburbs were also hit by cancellations and delays.
The impact on rail services including TGVs and other trains won't be known until a day or two before the strikes when SNCF will know how many workers have answered the unions call to walk out.
Their aim is to bring the country to a standstill and hope the public turns against the government as it happened in 1995 when a rail strike last several weeks and paralyzed France and forced the ministers to back down. I remember it as a time when people became friendlier, stayed at friend's flats and ride shared and took up roller blading to work

The national railway has announced that they will not be selling train tickets for those days in April when rail workers are due to strike.
The calendar below highlights in blue the days when rail workers will be on strike. The days with a red circle underneath are for when Air France staff are also due to walk out which will cause headaches for plane passengers. I'm hoping I'm not one.

I'm going to Marseilles on a non-strike day - crossing fingers nothing changes.

If I get on the train I'll be reading one of my favourite authors, the late Philip Kerr, who passed away a few weeks just before his current book - Greeks Bearing Gifts came out. I've started re-reading all his Bernie Gunther books and it's an engrossing bittersweet time. Do you ever go back and re-read books? For me, it's kind of like a grieving process that hits me deeply.  His editor said that he finished his last book before he passed and it will come out next year.
Cara - Tuesday crossing fingers

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Cold War: John Lawton's Personal Memoir of An Old Friend Who Refuses to Die

I am privileged to have John Lawton as my guest this day.  He writes here about the background history to his latest novel, the masterful Friends and Traitors.  What you will read here is Lawton's own recollection of the book's time and place.  The novel itself is a time machine that makes readers feel themselves eyewitnesses to history.  Part of Lawton's magic is the way he portrays his characters--the fictional ones and fictionalized real people.  Even the most hideous of them become so real, so three dimensional that you understand them as people and therefore cannot help but sympathize with them. Lawton is one of my very favorite writers.  Here is an amuse bouche to give you a taste of his writer's voice.  Get the main course.  You will savor it. - Annamaria Alfieri


The Cold War was not an event. It was the air you breathed.

I could not remember being without it even if I was about as aware of it as air itself.

The Hot War wasn’t long over when I was born — I still have my post-war ration book pinned to a bookshelf above my desk: meat, eggs, fats (8d for a half a pound of lard), cheese (1/1d for half a pound … any flavour you like a long as it’s cheddar) bacon, sugar (1/- a pound), milk and … almost as an afterthought at the back of the book ‘personal points’, that is confectionary, the tooth-rotting formula for the rightly-maligned great English teeth (‘three cheers for the brown, grey and black.’ Spike Milligan.) And I have a contemporaneous advert for ‘Co-Op Tuberculin Tested Milk’, which sounds very scientific but as I recall was still delivered by a bloke with a horse and cart as late as the early 1960s exactly as it would have been in the 1860s.

Given that this wartime practice, this wartime ‘feeling’, could not end with the Hot War, the Cold War seemed more like continuity than volte face. So … an Iron curtain had descended across Europe from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic — Churchill had pinched the phrase Iron Curtain from Goebbels and the world had to wait another year until Bernard Baruch coined the phrase Cold War in 1947. That was one year before the London Olympics, a curious marker in the Age of Austerity — the Germans and Japanese were not invited and the Russians declined the invitation. So … so what? Battle lines being drawn?

It was there. It was air, it was the smoke curling up from ashes of Berlin.

Continuity speaks for itself. It needs no definition. What strikes me now are the punctuation points, admittedly from a child’s viewpoint, that break and reassert the continuity. It has changed. It is still the same.

So what? — we wouldn’t be naming any more streets and housing projects after Joe Stalin … although I doubt we unnamed them with any speed. I recall an invitation to dinner (Spag. Bol. with added hashish) from a fellow student in the late Sixties … ‘Easy to find us. We live on Joseph Stalin Avenue, it’s just off Zhukov Way.’ But the Russians would relent on the Olympics and turn the sports track into a surrogate battlefield awash in steroids and testosterone almost regardless of gender.

Punctuation Point # 1: 1956. Nikita Khrushchev visits England, just as I am becoming aware that there is a world beyond the garden gate and the asphalt schoolyard. The same year he made his denunciation of Stalin at the XXth Party Congress. We … England, possibly the modern world … had never seen anything like him before. A robust, belligerent peasant with a cheeky twinkle in his eye, who had survived the Stalin era by doing Stalin’s bidding, ruthlessly.

Both my parents were socialists. My mother lifelong, although a certain Blair-despair* …

(*Fuller’s Medical Encyclopaedia rev.ed 2009 — ‘Blair Despair: A form of clinical depression brought on by listening to Tony Blair. Symptoms inc. yelling ‘bugger off’ and throwing teapot at the nightly news on BBC2.’)

… overtook her in her 90s, and my father adapting to the ideas she held. I was not brought up to fear the USSR or to regard them as the inevitable enemy. And I found Nikita Khrushchev fascinating. This was three or four years before he took off a shoe at the UN, banged it on his desk and told them, figuratively, to ‘kiss my arse’, but he was pure music hall, the king of political burlesque even then. Wanting affinity, wanting a common ethos to be seen despite all the differences, the Labour Party, into which my parents had settled circa 1943, invited Khrushchev and Marshal Bulganin to a private dinner at Westminster, no press, no TV. They had not reckoned on the MP George Brown who dissented from the truce and after a spat with the Soviet leader ended with ‘May God forgive you.’ Brown was the local MP, a friend of the family (I was told I had all but brained him swinging a poker around my head at the age of three) and the story, despite the absence of the press, made it to the family home. Brown, my mother told me, had provoked fury in Khrushchev. Interesting. English politicians were thin, restrained, moustachioed men, Eden or Macmillan — not prone to fury. Khrushchev, if he had any equivalent, in English politics seems to me more like Churchill in his disregard of the rules. But Churchill was gone, dragged from office in 1955 all but gaga. The Cold War had only one star — Ike after all was never a star and seemed happier on the golf course than in the Oval Office — until … until JFK.

Punctuation Point # 2: Cuba. 1961. Ike warned the president-elect that he might have to put troops into Vietnam. I wonder what advice he gave him about Cuba — “I’ve a hit set up at the Bay of Pigs. Don’t fuck it up, kid”? Whatever. The new president let it go ahead. A fiasco that needs no description. Six weeks later, JFK and Khrushchev meet in Vienna. JFK knows he has fucked up in spades. He is in pain, the crutches discarded before the cameras roll, before he meets the fat man who will play Hardy to his Laurel — “Another fine mess, Johnny” — and trample him with words.

The Bay of Pigs utterly misled Khrushchev. He saw Kennedy as inexperienced, which he was, young (‘I have children older than this man!’) and, I suspect, stupid, which he wasn’t. Kennedy, for his part saw an uneducated peasant who had reached adulthood still illiterate, whose bluster masked stupidity. They were both wrong and in their underestimation of one another arises …

Punctuation Point # 3: Cuba. 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the star turn of the Cold War. After this there can only be the juggler or a second-rate conjurer. It is the one time in my life that I can recall people thinking and saying that the world was about to end — children being taken out of school in tears, the nightly news showing the stand-off in the mid-Atlantic. Being English we did not dig fall-out shelters, and I think that’s probably an American phenomenon. What would be the point in England? All those USAF bases in East Anglia … fukkit we’d be first to be wiped off the map. Besides, you didn’t need a PhD in physics to the work out the likelihood of a nuclear winter, even if no one had yet coined the phrase.

I think it’s after this, seeing how close we had come to extinction, that we began to have a literature of the Cold War. I’m not referring to Le Carré … but … to Buffy St Marie … who told us we ‘really are to blame’ … to Barry McGuire who asked us to contemplate ‘all the hate there is in Red China (hmm … how did he know?) and was duly reproved by The Dawn of Correction (‘Who would be crazy enough to risk annihilation?’), to Jagger and Richards who, with unrestrained cynicism, asked who killed the Kennedys and told us it was ‘you and me’ … and to Bob Dylan … a hard rain is going to fall … he’s learned to hate the Russians his whole life. Weeeeelll Bob … I hadn’t. And coming back to the Cold War, that infinitely deep fiction mine, I find myself shrugging off the kid’s perception and trying to view the Missile Crisis anew.

My kid’s perception was the one we were given. I can recall no contradiction from my mother — my father had died pretty well as it was happening, so she had other things to think about — so the received wisdom prevailed. Khrushchev had backed down. USA –1 : USSR – 0.

Mining for fiction, it doesn’t look that way now. It looks to me as though each man had finally got the measure of the other and compromised. That compromise, metaphorically, killed Khrushchev. You cannot sell a deal like that to a totalitarian state with no free press when no one is willing to believe a thing the state press says. He could not even sell the deal to his own politburo. Within a couple of years he was deposed, the thaw he had initiated ended and Brezhnev took over — a man who hardly ever left the Soviet Union, if at all, a man most unlikely ever to want to meet Shirley MacLaine or bang his shoe at the UN.

If you believe conspiracy theorists (‘If there are conspiracy theories, it’s because there are conspiracies.’ G. Vidal) Cuba also killed JFK. Let’s not go there. Just read James Ellroy’s American Tabloid.

What was the outcome? Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba … less obvious at the time … mea culpa, I wasn’t looking and nobody told me … was that NATO took its missiles out of Turkey. And if anyone wants to argue that it was a Russian defeat not a compromise I’d ask this … has anyone invaded Cuba in the last fifty-five years? And I’d ask … what did Khrushchev hope to achieve? Simply to stop another invasion? I doubt that was all. Perhaps a message to latent, emergent socialism in the Americas that he did not regard half a continent as Monroe’s own backyard. Perhaps they got the message … Grenada, Panama notwithstanding.

But the chill had its continuity, the Cold War its surrogate battlefield in Vietnam … a war that was my generation’s war, but that I knew in my bones no British Prime Minister would ever dare drag us into — and I rather think Harold Wilson withstood several tirades from LBJ on the matter of Vietnam.

So … we breathed the air.

In 1989 I breathed the air of cordite from fireworks, atop the Berlin Wall. Looking down on rather narked DDR guards to whom we were just a pain-in-the-arse.

Some, most, breathed in freedom. Understandable. All the same I could not and have not been able to tell myself it’s over. If you don’t believe me, breathe deep, the chill is still there.

Once we had the H-bomb — now we have Cambridge Analytica and Zuckerberg. It has changed. It is still the same.

A fat cheque and the use of Cactus Jack’s bucket to the novelist who can mine that one for fiction.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Traditional Japanese Wayside Shrines

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Wayside (or roadside) shrines appear around the world, and in many religions. Some take the form of memorials placed on the site of an accident, while others exist to invoke a blessing or protection on places or passersby.

This shrine is a guardian of roads and village boundaries.

Japan has tens of thousands of wayside shrines and memorial tablets, many of which date back at least several centuries. I see (and photograph) dozens of them while hiking the old travel roads and through the mountains.

Many of these shrines feature images of Buddhas or bodhisattvas.

Japan's open air folk house museum, Nihon Minka-en, features a lovely collection of wayside shrines.

A pair of Buddhas which once protected travelers on Japanese roads.

Many of the monuments were moved from their original locations to the museum when modernization (mainly expanding roads) required their removal.

Some consist of small house-like shrines, like this one dedicated to the kami (god) Inari, patron god of fertility, rice, agriculture, creative and worldly success, swordsmiths, and merchants (among other things - Inari Ōkami really gets around) and Kaikogami, the patron god of silkworms.

You can fit two gods in this tiny shrine. Who knew?

Others show carvings of Buddhas or bodhisattvas, like this rokujizō, which shows six copies of the bodhisattva Jizō - one for each of the post-death worlds from which Jizō can supposedly save the dead.

Whatever your post-death fate, Jizō's got you covered.

Most of the museum's shrines have helpful signs describing the small shrine's history, original location, and purpose. In some cases, however, you're on your own.

In case you can't read it, this says "A Small Stone Shrine" - in English and Japanese

Some of the shrines sat at the outer boundary of a village, and protected the entire community from harm:

This once protected the town of Sakuho, in Nagano Prefecture

While others serve as memorials to the dead.

The most unusual such memorial I've seen sits on a hillside just outside the old post town of Tsumago on the preserved section of the Nakasendo - a feudal travel road through the Japan alps. It's called the Gyutou Kannon, and it exists to honor the memory of "black cattle" (a breed of black haired Japanese oxen) that gave their lives while hauling cargo over the hills along the travel road.

In honor of cows.

Along that same stretch of the Nakasendo, additional monuments honor the horses that gave their lives as well.

There are also wayside shrines for people, like this Jizō, which stands near the place where the travel road enters Tsumago.

Bibs and hats are a common offering on Jizō statues.

These shrines are ubiquitous in Japan, especially in the countryside (though you can find wayside shrines in the cities too - including high-tech, urban Tokyo, if you keep your eyes open). Even so, people often walk right by without considering the history and spiritual importance of these carvings. Centuries later, they still stand watch over many Japanese roads, trails, and villages. If you find yourself in Japan, keep an eye out for them - and know that they'll be watching over you.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kendall & Cooper v. Siger


Today I’m blogging about a topic somewhat off my usual Saturday beat.  It’s all about the craft of writing, and is triggered by a good time experience I had on Thursday.  I don’t know how many of you are aware the Kendall & Cooper Talk Mysteries podcast series, co-hosted by writers Julie Cooper and Wendy Kendall. I met Julie last January at a book signing in Seattle, and she kindly asked if I’d be willing to participate in one of their podcasts. Having heard good things about the dynamic duo, I immediately said yes. 

The earliest date we could schedule was April 12th and so I put it out of my mind and went off to the land of shoulder surgery.  A week ago I received their proposed questions.

Little had I realized how thorough would be the grilling I’d receive at their hands.:) Or how I’d best be prepared to bring my A-game to the party.  Kendall & Cooper had thoroughly prepared, and their attention to detail made me do the same, leading me to think about our craft in a way I hadn’t since my “teaching days.”

Though much of our interview focused on my books I shall spare you those portions, and only repeat what I think would be of more general interest.  But for those of you interested in hearing the podcast, or any of their many others, here are links:  YOUTUBE,

Now on to Showtime.

K&C QUESTION: You’ve also taught mystery writing, a topic near and dear to both Wendy and my hearts, at Washington & Jefferson College. Any tips you’d offer to listeners who want to get started on mystery writing?

JMS ANSWER:  There are technical elements to mystery writing, such as creating an inciting incident that grabs the reader early on, and there are many fine texts out there touching on those points.  But to me, above all else, success depends on one thing: sitting in the chair and doing the writing day in and day out. Period. It doesn’t matter if it’s a carefully thought out email, a blog or a letter, but it has to be something that gets your creative juices flowing. 

You’re not going to write the Great American novel in one sitting, not in a week, a month or even a year. You’re most likely not to even going to do it in one book or two. But if you sit down every day and write, you’ll find your unique voice, and once you do, a bit of alchemy takes over and you’ll magically find words turning into stories, and you into a mystery writer.   As to whether you’ll make a living at it, that’s another story.

K & C QUESTION: Your villainous characters live their lives through their own sort of moral code that they’ve twisted from their personal histories.  Often their thoughts on their moral codes sound so innocent, but when their correlating actions are shown, the reader sees a darker side…What is your purpose as an author in showing the inner thoughts that make up a villain?

JMS ANSWER:  People aren’t ciphers, one interchangeable with another.  They have mindsets and reasoning which may make no sense to us, but makes absolute sense to them. Decades ago I served as special counsel to the New York City Board of Correction, and in that capacity I interacted with a host of inmates accused of horrific crimes, of which many seemed perfectly logical and reasonable people. I also have a friend who was essentially in charge of psychiatric services for a major US state, and he once told me that 30% of the people out there walking the streets should be institutionalized, another 30% are in need of serious medication, and of the remaining 40%, half of them aren’t going to like you anyway. 

Even assuming my friend’s figures are somewhat overstated, you still have a world filled with minds thinking in ways foreign to what we consider societal norms, and getting into their heads I see as far more interesting and instructive than simply offering an empirical presentation of their observable conduct. 

K & C QUESTION: You write your mysteries through several different characters’ points of view. What are the challenges of switching points of view through your books, and what are the advantages?

JMS ANSWER:  The obvious cop-out answer is that it’s all a matter of what you’re trying to achieve. If it’s a full-fledged, first person, one character point of view, everything must be experienced directly by that character in real time.  That heightens immediacy, but limits perspective. If several characters get into the act with their points of view, you broaden the base of the story and increase the complexities, but run the risk of distracting the reader from the primary plot line.

Capable writers can handle both scenarios quite well, and I frankly see no real downside to either method—with one exception: It drives me crazy when points of view shift within the same scene.  To me that’s a no-no. It simply puts readers off their game. 

K & C QUESTION: Portraying a diversity of families without confusing the reader and without weakening the pacing of the story is a real strength in writing.  Can you talk a little about how you reveal in your writing the strengths and weaknesses in different family relationships?

JMS ANSWER:  I’m tempted to say it’s simply a matter of accepting Tolstoy’s observation that, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but I shall resist that temptation.  Frankly, I think writing about familial strengths and weaknesses—something I consider very important in my work—is actually a matter of allowing your characters to express themselves about their relationships. After all, they write my books, I’m just along for the typing. Yes, they surely know I have some broad concept in mind for how I’d like them to behave, but often they just push my thoughts aside and take charge of their own lives.  For sure, what develops comes from some deep dark mysterious part of my own being, but my characters are the ones tapping into that place, not me. 

Now for the big finish…

K & C QUESTION:  Jeff, can you tell us about the “Murder is Everywhere” blogsite that you share with 9 other diverse mystery writers spread across the world?

JMS ANSWER: Murder is Everywhere came into existence out of Bouchercon 2009, when the late great Leighton Gage brought together six renowned mystery writers from around the world in a blog site dedicated to international mystery writing. I later joined as the seventh member.  Every day MIE offers fresh, thoughtful, eclectic, posts—often with insider info—about the international venues where we place our work. Rarely, though, do we write about our books. That would get very old very quickly. Our current crew includes original MIE members Cara Black (Paris) and Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stan Trollip—Southern Africa), plus Leye Adenle (Nigeria and London), Annamaria Alfieri (South America and Southern Africa), Sujata Massey (India and Japan), Caro Ramsay (Scotland), Zoë Sharp (no fixed abode), and Susan Spann (Japan).

That’s all folks!


Friday, April 13, 2018

ToyTown or Spielzeug Stadt

I have a lovely patient who is about 300 years old. She has always been interested in photography and cameras and when she decided to scale down to an automatic camera, she gave me her wide angle lens, knowing that a) it would fit my camera body and b) that I had no idea what it was for.

Picture Zoe rolling her eyes in horror....

At the moment, we are in a motorhome in a valley outside the great wall of Rothenburg. The wall is very high. The valley is very deep. The internet signal is rubbish. Alan is standing outside in the rain holding his phone up so we can get a tethered signal ( like I know what  that means ).

Basically I forgot it was Friday.
 It's Friday the 13th.

So here's a short flanneur round the city of Rothenburg with a lens  of my camera that I have no idea how to use but I was twirling  more bits than a cheerleader

How many shop windows do you see the Baby Jesus, a Barvarian Farmer  and two nutcrackers all together?

Yes, Rothenburg is famous for little wooden toys and teddy bears.

In a Child Catcher From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang kind of a way.

This Ted was blowing bubbles from an upstairs window.
Or contemplating suicide.

The city  has a town hall...

And many buildings like this.

Not only do the Germans carry the economy of the European union....

outside the big Christmas shop

one of many beautiful window decorations
or visual merchandising I think it's really called.

A doctor! 

three Scotsmen!

rather severe looking Barvarian dolls

Cuckoo clocks galore- some were over £10 000.
We didn't buy any.

Country scene

Wedding Scene 

Barvarian bears drinking the beer!

Thought I was in need of chocolate but no, it is a HUGE bear.

All photographs were taken through the shop windows as no photography was allowed inside.

Bye Bye

Auf Wiedersehen!

Caro Ramsay 13 04 2018

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Writing together

The question we are asked the most is “How do two people write together?”  It has happened so often that I am occasionally tempted to answer “I write one word, then Michael writes the next.”

Another question could be “How did you decide to write together?”

The answer to that is easy.  We really didn’t make that decision.  From the beginning, that’s what we were going to do.  We never considered or discussed the possibility of writing solo.  Even though we were both avid readers, we didn’t realise how uncommon it was in 2003 for two people to write a murder mystery together.  We’d probably never thought about it.

A little background is helpful.

First, in our professional careers, both of us had written extensively, almost always with someone else.  Michael had written many papers with colleagues and students, and I had co-written four text books with friends, and had collaborated on many papers.

Second, In the 1980s, I was living and working in Minneapolis.  Because I was working at a university, I had flexibility with respect to my time during the summer, so that’s when I took my vacations.  Every year, I went back to South Africa for a month to see family and friends.  And to go into the bush.

I was a pilot, so I’d rent a small plane and fill it with friends, food, and wine and head off on a flying safari to Botswana or Zimbabwe.  Magic!

On one occasion, we were on the Savuti plains of the great Chobe National Park in Botswana.  We watched a pack of hyenas hunt and devour a wildebeest.  Most people think of hyenas as scavengers, but they are ferocious hunters when hungry.  Anyway, about four hours later, the wildebeest was gone, because hyenas eat the bones as well as the flesh.

Spotted hyenas (Image David S Green)

That night, over a glass or three of wine, we decided that if we ever needed to get rid of a body, leaving it for the hyenas was what we would do.  No body, no case!

We also realized that this was a great premise for a murder mystery.

Michael and I were both professors, so we didn’t want to rush into anything, so we talked about it for fifteen years.  When I retired in 2003, I suggested to Michael that we get off our backsides and start writing.  A month later, Michael emailed me a draft first chapter, in which an ecologist and a game ranger stumble on a hyena eating a human body.

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.
Yellowed bones pierced through areas of sinew and desiccated skin.  The head, separated from the spine, lay about a metre away.  Remnants of skin on the upper face stretched in a death mask over the skull and pulled at the scalp.  The lower part of the face had been torn away, and the back of the skull was smashed by jaws hungry for the brains.  The eye sockets were empty, save for dried blood; one of the vultures had already had a turn.  Snapped ribs lay scattered, but the backbone and pelvis were intact.  One leg remained attached; the other was gone.  The lower half of one arm was missing; the other, freshly crunched by the hyena, lay a short distance away.  There was a cloying smell of carrion, unpleasant but not unbearable.  The scavengers had removed most of the flesh and the desert sun had desiccated the rest.  The flies, less cautious than the hyena, had startled to a buzzing swarm but now resettled, fat green jewels on the dirty bones.  
“It’s definitely a man,” said Andries unnecessarily. 

I emailed back that I liked the chapter and asked what happened next.  “It’s a collaboration,” Michael wrote.  “It’s your turn.”

And so the collaboration began.  And that chapter became the first chapter of our first book, A CARRION DEATH.

The original hardcover from HarperCollins 
We usually try to be physically together when we brainstorm the next book.  We find wine and laughter helps the process.  Today we are pantsers (write by the seat of our pants – that is, make up the story as we go along) rather than plotters.  So the first thing we do is have a vague idea of what the story is about, usually what crimes are committed, and by whom.

Then we start writing.  At any point in time, we can both be writing different parts of the story, usually decided in a Skype call because normally we are either on different continents or in different parts of South Africa.

When one of us finishes a piece, we send it to the other for a critique.  Let’s say Michael has sent me a chapter.  I read it, marking it up with Track Changes in Word.  I praise the parts I like, red-line the parts I don’t, make suggested word changes all over the piece, and add a comment or two about ideas that I had when reading the piece.  I then email it back to Michael.

When he gets over the shock of seeing so much red ink, he goes through what I have done.  He accepts some suggestions and rejects others.  Sometimes, he likes the new ideas that I had, sometimes he doesn’t.  He then reworks the chapter and sends it back to me.  I then go through the same process and return it.

This to-ing and fro-ing can happen ten to twenty times.  And by the end, the chapter that Michael wrote initially is no longer written in Michael’s style.  Nor is it in mine.  

While this is going on, the reverse is too.  At the same time, I’ll be writing a first draft of a piece, then sending it to Michael.  He does the same to mine as I did to his.  And when it’s all over, my piece isn’t mine anymore.  It’s oours.

We say there really is a Michael Stanley somewhere over the Atlantic, who has written a book that is different from one Michael would have written and different from one I would have written.  And better than anything we could have written solo.

There are other questions that we are asked too.  “Do you ever disagree?” is one.

Of course, we disagree—on a lot!  And sometimes it is good we are on different continents and not in the same room.  But our disagreements are usually over the smallest of issues:  Should she be terrified or petrified?  Should he introduce himself with ‘How do you do?’ or ‘Pleased to meet you.’  Important issues that would have a profound impact on the story!

And what if we can't find common ground?  Early on, we established a protocol for handling this possibility:  Whoever wrote the first draft gets to keep it.  Let the editor decide - which has never happened.

This weekend, we will finish a stand-alone, DEAD OF NIGHT, which has a female protagonist, Crystal Nguyen, and is written in the first person.  We have had more difficulty with this story than any of the others.  I think the reason is that given our style of writing together, we both have to be in Crystal’s mind in the same way, having the same reactions and thoughts.  Since she is telling the story, we both have to tell it in the same way.

Publish date in the UK:  July 15 by Orenda Books

We started it about five years ago and had multiple false starts because we didn’t have a common understanding of who Crystal was.  And we initially had different ways of letting Crystal tell the story.  So the style was inconsistent.

I eventually wrote a complete novella solo, called WOLFMAN, in an attempt to get to know Crystal better.  I think that worked, which made writing DEAD OF NIGHT much easier.  Not easy, but easier.

We are also often asked whether we recommend collaboration.  We do, but it’s not for everyone.  You have to leave your ego at home; you have to accept that the way you would write something is almost certainly not the only way, and you have to be comfortable with compromise.  None of which comes easily to many people.  But if you can do it, it’s is wonderful.  There is always someone to brainstorm with, someone to give you a kick in the pants when you are doing something else instead of writing, and someone to celebrate with.