Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Did You Know About This?




HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Writing about Michael Stanley creates a pronoun problem. Because as you might know, it’s not “he”—it’s “them.” Stan Trollip (a dear friend of the Reds) and Michael Sears.
Michael and Stan
 (Not the SAVING JASON Michael Sears—and they each call the other the “other” Michael Sears.) And more cool stuff about them below.

Anyway. For the past fifteen years, they’ve been writing the Detective Kubu series set in Botswana.

The backstory of each book is a contemporary societal issue: blood diamonds (A Carrion Death), the aftermath of the Rhodesian civil war (The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu), and so many other chilling and heartbreaking and timely novels. All of these are big issues, spanning countries and societies, but their greatest impact is felt by individuals and families, which is what the stories are about.

But then-- they decided to make a change. 

And therein lies the story.

Time for a change; time for a challenge


by Michael Stanley

About five years ago, we decided to interrupt the Kubu series with a stand-alone thriller. We never expected that it would challenge us in so many different ways.

The first step was to establish the backstory. We knew we still wanted one that was large-scale and relevant, and we found one a perfect one on our doorstep.

Over the last ten years there has been an explosion of poaching of wildlife in Africa. It’s decimated the elephant population north of the Zambezi, wiped out several rhino subspecies, and is threatening to do the same with all of Africa’s rhinos.

An international organization, CITES, is tasked with controlling trade in rare wildlife and plant products – 35,000 of them! For the most endangered, international trade is banned altogether.

That has been the case with rhino horn for the last forty years. During the earlier years of the ban, the rhino population increased, and rhinos were reintroduced into areas from which they had long been missing. There was optimism that the tide had been turned.

Today the situation is totally different. Out of a total population of around 25,000 worldwide, about 1,000 rhinos are being poached annually. So, what has caused the change? What has caused the recent upswing of demand that has led to a situation where rhino horn, ounce for ounce, is more valuable than gold?

Rhino horn has been used for many things in the past. It’s been a traditional ingredient of Chinese herbal medicines; it was prized by young Yemeni men for dagger handles; and its suggestive shape encouraged its use as an aphrodisiac. Recently, its use in medicines has skyrocketed, perhaps dating to a Taiwanese politician famously claiming that it had cured him of cancer. Particularly in Vietnam, it’s also become a yuppie status symbol—powdered horn is snorted like cocaine and ingested as an aphrodisiac. (These days, wily merchants lace the powder—often from buffaloes rather than rhinos—with Viagra or equivalents.)

So, rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling checks all the boxes for sophisticated and violent criminal activity. Rhino horn is wildly expensive, rare, hard to obtain, and illegal to trade. And most of the world’s remaining rhinos live in South Africa, on our doorstep. A perfect backstory.

What makes the backstory even better is that things are often not what they seem. For example, it is not surprising that the poachers are reviled. When they are caught, people often say “Shoot the Bastards!”—hence the title of our book. However, the poachers are usually from very poor rural areas, where jobs are scarce and pay low. When they are offered a staggering amount of money to shoot a rhino, cut off its horn, and deliver it to the smugglers, they see it as a way to provide for their families. They are willing to risk death to keep food on the table. Rather than being the villains that they are usually portrayed as, we saw the poachers as both perpetrators and victims.

The smugglers take the horn across the border into neighboring Mozambique, and then it’s smuggled by sea to Vietnam. From there it travels via underground networks to outlets, where it is sold quite openly despite the fact that it is supposedly illegal to do so. The poacher may earn $10,000 to kill a rhino and harvest the horn. The street value of a horn in Vietnam can be as much as $450,000. Given the amount of money involved, anyone trying to impede the flow is dealt with very violently.

What makes the trade so bizarre is that rhino horn is keratin, like your finger nails. Ingesting it in any way has no physiological effect on the human body. It is all in the mind, in the perception, in the status.

People read thrillers to be entertained, to relate to the characters, and to be intrigued by their stories. So, the context needs to be in the background, influencing characters’ motivations and behaviors. The complexity of the backstory has to come out through people’s actions, not through lecturing or preaching. In the rhino trade, with so much money involved, people’s motivations are fluid and often opaque. It is difficult to know who to trust. It is a compelling context for a thriller!

With the backstory found, we then needed to establish our protagonist.

We decided early on that we wanted a strong female character. She could not be South African, because we wanted her to be new to the world of rhino-poaching, so she could explore the issues with an open mind, albeit a naïve one.

We eventually decided that she was an American of Vietnamese descent—Crystal Nguyen. Born in Vietnam, she came to Minnesota as a refugee baby and grew up between two worlds—an American being raised in a Vietnamese family. Her father, who wants her to be an obsequious Vietnamese girl, eventually throws her out of the home because she doesn’t conform to his wishes. She becomes something of a loner, enjoying ross-country skiing, and falling in love with nature and its creatures. And, of course, it’s very useful to have a protagonist who is investigating a trade with its roots in Vietnam to be able to speak Vietnamese.

When we talked about her, we liked our creation more and more. We were excited to start writing.

 So--after several fits and starts--Stanley wrote what ended up as a 60,000-word novella about Crys in the context of her Duluth job. When that was finished, we felt we knew her well enough to get back to the thriller.  And we were so happy.

The book starts when Crystal’s close friend, Michael, who writes for National Geographic, has disappeared on an assignment to Africa to report on the rhino poaching and horn smuggling. No one seems to know what has happened to him, and she is desperate to find out. Eventually, she persuades National Geographic to send her to South Africa to investigate and, if necessary, finish Michael’s article. Her concern for the rhinos and their plight is very strong, but is a secondary motivation, at least initially.

When she arrives in South Africa, Crys is immediately out of her comfort zone. She’s in a country she doesn’t know, investigating an issue she doesn’t understand. And when it comes to finding Michael, she doesn’t really know where to start.

What’s worse is that she doesn’t know who to trust.

It’s a cliché that the protagonist needs to change during a novel, and Crys is forced to do so at a number of levels. Her understanding and empathy develop as she realizes that most things in the rhino-poaching world are not what they seem. She is forced to acknowledge her naïvety as it constantly gets her into trouble, and she becomes committed to making a difference rather than just writing a story. And always she is trying to find Michael. Eventually, she does, but in an unexpected and unwelcome way.

So Shoot the Bastards is really Crys’s story. But it’s the dynamics of the poaching and the reality of Africa that makes it happen.


HANK: Oh, I’m speechless. I had no idea. Reds and readers--did you? And a copy of SHOOT THE BASTARDS to one lucky commenter.  



ABOUT SHOOT THE BASTARDS

When her friend Michael Davidson goes missing while researching a National Geographic story on rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling, investigative journalist Crystal Nguyen wangles a NG assignment to try to find him and finish his story. Within a week in Africa she's been hunting poachers, hunted by their bosses, and arrested in connection with a murder. Plus, everyone is after a briefcase full of money that she doesn't want, but can't safely get rid of. Crystal quickly realizes how little she knows about Africa and about the war between poachers and conservation officers. What she does know is she must find Michael and she's committed to preventing a major plot to secure a huge number of horns. She heads to the major market, Vietnam, dodging the local mafia while uncovering leads. Exposing the financing is only half the battle. Harder will be convincing South African authorities to take action before it's too late—for the rhinos and for her. Michael Stanley, author of the award-winning Detective Kubu mystery series, introduces an intriguing new protagonist while exposing one of southern Africa's most vicious conflicts with its Asian puppet-masters.


 Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.

 They have been on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe, where it was always exciting to buzz a dirt airstrip to shoo the elephants off. They have had many adventures on these trips including tracking lions at night, fighting bush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, being charged by an elephant, and having their plane's door pop open over the Kalahari, scattering navigation maps over the desert. These trips have fed their love both for the bush, and for Botswana. 



42 comments:

  1. Wow.
    I knew [sort of] that there was a poaching problem related to both elephants and rhinos. But, like your Crystal, my naiveté is monumental [although I suspect your heroine may be a whole lot smarter about all this than I am].
    Thank you for a most informative piece and congratulations on your new book; I’m definitely looking forward to reading it . . . .

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    1. Thank you - it is such a sad state of affairs with no obvious short-term solution.

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  2. I have got to read this book! I abhor big game hunting and try to avoid giving my business to places that have CEOs or other company executives who participate in the killing of these beautiful animals. Jimmy John Liautaud's Jimmy John's restaurant is one place I don't patronize.

    Stan and Michael, your post here is so informative and fascinating. One of the reasons I so want to read a book dealing with this subject by the two of you is that your personal knowledge of being on a safari and your obvious love for Africa. I must admit that I don't often stop and think about the motivation of local poachers who are killing these endangered animals and how dangerous and difficult it is to undermine such a lucrative operation. I do admire those who are in the fight in spite of the danger and the lack of progress. It must take a complete dedication that surpasses the importance of anything else in a person's life.

    Thank you both for stopping by the Jungle Reds and giving us all much to think about and a great new book to read.

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  3. I agree! It’s breathtaking… and what an exciting moment to create a brand new main character! Now I am wondering if I have ever seen a real rhino…

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    1. They are very big, often bad-tempered, and wonderful to watch!!

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  4. Reds, I am teaching a master class at thriller fest today… Classes start at eight and ends at five :-) so I may be scarce today! You guys discuss among yourselves, OK? I will check in as soon as I can!

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  5. It sounds like you found the perfect protagonist - and story. Thank you, too, for understanding the motivation behind the poachers. Just goes to show, no bad guy is all bad (usually, anyway).

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    1. When one gets to know the back story, hearing people demanding that poachers be shot on sight creates very conflicting emotions. Yes, what they are doing is awful; but survival is is an irresistible motivation.

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  6. Michael Stanleys: I'm a huge fan! The new book sounds wonderful. I am so discouraged about the state of the world and the value of the human race - yesterday's paper had a picture of a dead rhino and a story on this very topic. Did any of your research for the new book involve travel?

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    1. Hallie: we both travel frequently to the wilderness areas of Southern Africa, specifically to be around wildlife. Wherever we go, rhinos are vulnerable and extensive steps are taken to try to prevent poaching. So, as with the Detective Kubu series, we travel for research in order to ensure we understand the issues properly.

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  7. Fascinating, horrifying story. Agree with Hank, what a perfect point to bring in a powerful new character! And I'm in awe at how easy you make writing together look...

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    1. Thank you! This is Stan replying.

      Sometimes it is beneficial to our mutual health that we are usually on different continents! In reality, our most heated disagreements are about the most trivial issues. Michael: "It should be 'She might be shot.'"; Stanley: "Oh no!! It is obviously 'She may be shot.'"

      We both believe that the most important attribute in writing together is trust. Even when I send Michael a piece that I am very proud of, I have to accept his judgement that it may be bad.

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  8. A female, Vietnamese-speaking protagonist goes to Africa to find a friend. Perfect setup to address poaching and the rhino horn business. Can't wait to read it. Movie in the works?

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  9. Sounds truly fascinating! The results of all that poaching is a tragedy.

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    1. Isn't that the truth. What makes it all even harder to stomach is that ingesting rhino horn has absolutely no physiological effect on the human body. It is identical to chewing your fingernails and swallowing what comes off. Ugh.

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  10. This is such a heartbreaking situation. VICE news tonight did a fascinating story on rhino conservation and it has stuck with me all these years. I can’t wait to read this book!

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  11. Interesting topic. Seems all one sees, in Facebook, is pictures of animals being killed by people because "they can." You are creating a different picture, a different reason.

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  12. This book sounds wonderful, and poaching is such a sad situation.

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    1. We just wish there were an easy solution. But greed is so difficult to counteract.

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  13. I love this on so many levels! As someone who routinely works in several different African contexts, the complexity of the questions around "right" and "wrong" continually fascinate and confound me. I look forward to learning more about poaching and how things that seem to be clear become muddy.

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    1. It is certainly easy to jump to conclusions that may not be right. What do you do in Africa? Where?

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  14. What a fascinating post. No, I had no real idea this was happening. And what a terrific backstory it makes for the story. I am beyond impressed at the amount of work, thought and planning that went into this book. Definitely on my TBR.

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  15. It is a heartbreaking situation. Animals slaughtered by men trying to support their families. What I can't understand is how supposedly intelligent people could believe in "magic" cures? Really? I'm tempted to tell my sister to hang on to the hoof parings next time the blacksmith is out trimming her horses' hooves. We could grind them up and have a new magic powder for the Asian market. And donate the proceeds to save the rhinos. But that would just encourage the stupidity, wouldn't it. Congratulations on your new book, gentlemen. It sounds exciting and worthwhile!

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  16. Unfortunately, belief in 'magic' and magical cures occurs everywhere. If only the world behaved logically . . . .

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  17. How wonderful that you pick an issue theme to form the backdrop of your books. I felt like a teenager with a backstage pass! Your empathy towards the poachers touched me. It opened my eyes to discover the two sides to the story. Well done, looking forward to a very interesting read.

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    1. Thank you. We enjoy having important contemporary backdrops for our stories. Makes it interesting for us and, hopefully, for readers.

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  18. Hi Stan (and Michael)!! I had read recently about the rise in rhino poaching--truly horrible. But I'm fascinated by the approach you two took to writing a themed standalone thriller. It really is a "look behind the scenes." I can't wait to read it!!

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  19. Welcome to Jungle Reds! I was wondering why did you pick the name Crystal? I would think an American of Vietnamese descent adopted by an American family would be named Jennifer or Lisa Marie.

    Your book sounds like a thriller! I have been learning about poaching in the news. I remember the story about Cecil the Lion! A friend, who is not political at all, signed a petition protesting against the killing of Cecil the Lion.

    Diana

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    1. Hi Diana: Crystal was born in Vietnam, with a Vietnamese first name, Ngoc, which means Jade. Her whole family ended up in Minnesota, so she was actually brought up by her Vietnamese family. It was easier to have a name easily understood and said by Americans. so they were advised to give her a name like Crystal, which was more mainstream than Jade.

      Thekiller of Cecil the lion also lives in Minnesota!

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    2. Hi Stan,

      Thanks for the clarification! Why did I think she was adopted by an American family? I cannot believe the killer of Cecil the lion lives in Minnesota!

      Will look for your book at the library!

      Diana

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  20. This is such an important topic! Thank you for tackling it! I can’t wait to read your book and am so impressed that you wrote a thriller about this. FWIW- For my birthday every year, I foster orphaned elephants through https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/ An amazing organization!

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    1. Jen, this is wonderful! I send a donation in honor of my grandfather's birthday every year. He loved elephants and he passed away years ago.

      Diana

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  21. My brother loved Africa and made several trips. I'm still on Facebook with his friend and guide Dave. Dave often shares stories on poaching. World Wildlife Fund has programs to hire former poachers as game wardens. A number of conservation agencies support involving local people in protecting wildlife. Sometimes hunting is not bad because it keeps land available for wildlife that may be used for something worse.

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  22. Issues are seldom black and white. For example,Botswana, where our Detective Kubu series is set, has over 100,000 elephants. The problem is that it can only realistically feed far less than that number, so many local small farmers have their farms damaged or destroyed by elephants. It is a conundrum for conservation officials on how to handle the situation.

    As part of our research for our second Kubu mystery, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, we visited the area around the Linyanti River in northwest Botswana. It could have been a scene from a World War I movie. Trees were knocked over. There were few birds and animals - all because of the elephants.

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  23. For your information, there is a wonderful group of women, called The Black Mambas, which is on the frontline of anti-poaching activity. The black mamba is the most dangerous snake in Southern Africa.

    See https://www.facebook.com/blackmambasapu

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  24. Thanks for the post! I would love to win this book! Thanks for offering the chance! lindaherold999(at)gmail(dot)com

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