Every Saffa has their own story of how they ended up in the United States and why they ended up where they did. This is my story – one of luck and hyenas – Stanley Trollip.
I never intended to emigrate to the United States, but a series of unexpected lucky breaks resulted in that happening. In 1969, I worked at the Wits Computer Centre as a systems programmer while finishing my degree. The Director, Derek Henderson, knowing my interest in education, suggested I explore ways computers could be used for teaching.
I became so interested in the area that I borrowed enough money to study for a Masters degree at the only university that had a somewhat related curriculum – the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It had developed a very sophisticated computer-based teaching system called PLATO, which in 1971 was way ahead of its time and had email, chat, interactive games, and notice boards. My first stroke of luck was shortly after I started my studies.
The Aviation Research Laboratory at the university was looking for someone to investigate whether computers could facilitate pilot training. I was probably the only person on the planet interested in computer-based instruction, who had a pilot’s license, which I’d recently earned in South Africa. So, they offered me a research assistantship. That allowed me to stretch my funds to pay for a PhD.
The second stroke of luck came when a friend suggested we start a side business while studying. Pocket calculators had just appeared on the market, and we thought there would be a good market for them among students and faculty at the university. So, we started The Numbers Racket. Our first cal- culator was a Columbia 4-function calculator that we bought wholesale, if I remember correctly, for just over $100 each. It came in a fancy box with a velvet lining.
The third piece of luck happened when I graduated. The university offered me an assistant professor position. I accepted, even though I knew my time was limited due to the type of visa I had.
One day, I was researching all the different visas and their requirements when I learned that one could apply for a green card without labour clearance if one had invested enough money in the American economy and if one employed Americans. Again, Lady Luck was looking over my shoulder: the threshold for investment was about to increase from $10,000 to $100,000. With The Numbers Racket now enjoying a turnover of over half a million dollars a year, I thought I had a chance. I applied and was eventually summoned to Chicago for an interview with a Mr Coffin. That did not fill me with hope.
However, he was satisfied with my documents, and I obtained my green card and subsequently my citizenship. And I made my career as a professor, sometimes of Educational Psychology, sometimes of Aviation.
“Where do the hyenas come in?” you are probably asking.
As is true of many Saffas, Africa is part of my DNA. There was no way I could walk away from it, never to return.
One benefit of being a professor is that one’s time is more flexible than in most other jobs – particularly in the States, which is truly stingy when it comes to leave. So, I was able to find time to head back to South Africa, see my family, and do what I really wanted – go to the bush. And it is in the bush that my story really begins.
When I was back in South Africa, I would rent a small plane, fill it with friends, and head off to Zimbabwe or Botswana, game- and bird watching. On one of these trips in the mid-1980s, we were on the Savuti plains of the great Chobe National Park in Botswana when we watched a pack of hungry hyenas hunt and kill a wildebeest. It took only a few hours, and there was nothing left of the wildebeest because hyenas eat both the flesh and the bones.
One of my friends on the trip, Wits professor Michael Sears, and I are both avid readers of murder mysteries and thrillers. That evening, probably over a glass or two of wine, we decided that if we ever had to get rid of a body, the best way would be to leave it out for hyenas. With no body, the police would have no case!
We also thought it was a good premise for a murder mystery and decided we should try to write one for our own enjoyment. However, professors are notorious for taking a long time to jump into action, so we only started writing in 2003. Three years later, we typed THE END to a novel we titled “A Carrion Death”. We put our two first names together and became the author known as Michael Stanley. It was a process full of mistakes and dead ends because neither of us had written fiction before, nor had we ever written together.
However, our friends all said they enjoyed the story and liked our protagonist, Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. That’s what friends are for, of course. So, we decided to see if we could get it published.
No one in South Africa was interested. So, as I was working in Minneapolis at the time, I took some classes at the wonderful Loft Literary Center on how to find an agent. We crafted a query letter and started sending it out. Rejection after rejection! About forty, if I remember correctly. Very depressing.
Then Lady Luck reappeared. I was having dinner with some friends and related my tale of woe. One of the other guests turned out to be a writer. She offered to talk to her agent, who ultimately felt obliged to invite me to submit a few chapters. She passed it on to an intern who, in turn, asked for the whole book. She then persuaded her boss, the agent, to read it.
advance we’d been offered. I was speechless. She, I think, took my lack of words as disappointment and immediately followed up by saying: ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure I can push them higher.’ I didn’t mention that we would have paid Harper Collins to publish the book.
A week later, she called back with a higher offer and the throw-away line: ‘They assume you’re writing a series.’
Of course,’ I lied. ‘They would like the synopsis of the second book on Monday.’
Needless to say, we made something up and delivered the synopsis on time.
And here we are, nineteen years after typing the first word of “A Carrion Death”, with the eighth Detective Kubu mystery at our editor. It will be titled “A Deadly Covenant”. The third mystery, “Death of the Mantis”, won a Barry Award and was a finalist for the most prestigious mystery award – the Edgar. “Deadly Harvest”, about muti murders, was a finalist for an International Thriller Writers award.
If you’d asked me in 1970 how I expected my life and career to unfurl, I would have got very little correct. I never expected to become an American citizen. I never expected to become a writer of fiction. And I never expected to be spending my time between Minneapolis (in summer!) and South Africa, with many research trips into every corner of Botswana. Thank you, Lady Luck. Thank you, hyenas.
Shoot the bastards
After the sixth Detective Kubu book, we decided to take a break and wrote a thriller with a completely different main character. It is titled “Shoot the Bastards” in North America and “Dead of Night” elsewhere in the world. Crystal Nguyen is a female investigative reporter in Duluth, Minnesota, who was born in Vietnam. This young, naïve woman is totally unprepared for being sent to South Africa to write a story about rhino poaching and rhino horn smuggling.
Crystal reappears in my first solo book, “Wolfman”, set in the Northwoods around Duluth. In it, her enthusiasm for stopping the poaching of endangered grey wolves nearly gets her killed.