“I don’t talk about AIDS directly for a reason, and I don’t talk about the inequal distribution of wealth very much, either,” he said with firmness. “I feel that, generally speaking, Botswana is a decent society doing rather well in difficult circumstances, and that’s what interests me. If I wrote about other things it wouldn’t be about this.”
Smith sat back, then promptly leaned forward again, speaking with even more heat. “AIDS is a cataclysmic disaster. It’s unspeakably tragic; the people there feel it acutely and are saddened by it and embarrassed by it, and I don’t want to contribute to that embarrassment. Most of the people are good and benevolent, and this is a very legitimate thing to dwell on!”
He stopped and caught himself and smiled. “Sorry. I sound very pompous.” He laughed. “I do think it’s true!” Then, more quietly, “I have met a lot of doctors and nurses in Botswana who are Mma Ramotswe readers. One doctor from Pennsylvania told me that reading Mma Ramotswe spurred him to come to Botswana in the first place. When he arrived, he bought a map and looked for Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.”
As a Mma Ramotswe reader myself, I can appreciate the allegiance and interest in Botswana her books generate; they are charming, full of lore and lovely description of Botswana, and manage to wear profound moral freight quite lightly. In fact, they are so swift and entertaining to read, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to write them.
“It hasn’t been a chore at all, really a pleasure,” said Smith. “The books write themselves.” They write themselves, he went on to admit, at the rate of 4,000 words on a good day, a good day being from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Plus, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels are not the only novels he’s writing — they are not even the only novel seriesSmith has in the works. He has finished two books in a series featuring a half-Scottish, half-American moral philosopher named Isabel Dalhousie who solves people’s problems. Yet another series forthcoming from Smith’s British publisher was already self-published with a friend (have I mentioned that he also co-runs a small press?) and consists of “entertainments” involving the very tall, ridiculous philologist Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld.
“So how long does it take you to write one of these novels?” This was a question that I, as a novelist, couldn’t help but ask.
Smith actually pushed his chair back as if to dodge the question. A pause. Then, a bit sheepish, he drew forward again. “Uh . . . my publisher told me never to answer that question.”
Back at the Biltmore, Smith rummaged in his suitcase for another gift: the British edition of number five, The Full Cupboard of Life, which will be released in the U.S. next year. “Things happen in this book!” he promised.
Upon leaving, I phoned a friend who is such a big Mma Ramotswe fan, she’d given up coffee in favor of the lady detective’s beverage of choice: bush tea. I’d promised a full report.
“So . . .” my friend immediately wanted to know. “Is he her?”
I thought about the man I’d just seen trying to refasten an overpacked, bashed-up suitcase held shut with a nylon strap. Where else could Mma Ramotswe come from? “Yes,” I told her. “I suppose he is.”