In Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, there is little corruption, disease or dictatorship, but it was not his intention to be deliberately upbeat, he said.
“I didn’t sit down planning to write a sunny, bright book about Africa,” he said at the Jaipur Literature Festival during a discussion of his works.
“Sub-Saharan Africa has a lot of problems, but it is not universally bleak and I wanted to show the inherent goodness in Botswana, which is a very well run country, with very little corruption and a wonderful people,” said Smith, who taught medical law for many years in Edinburgh.
“Some people say it’s the role of a fiction writer to show the reality. But they don’t say that about the other arts: they don’t ask, why are you painting cheerful flowers when there are so many problems in the world?”
Smith, who was born in Zimbabwe and worked briefly in Botswana, turned seriously to writing after winning a competition with a children’s book, which was never published. He has written more than 30 books for children since then.
But it was his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series that catapulted him to fame, although it was first published by a small Scottish publisher with a print run of only 1,500 copies.
“They were very pleased when they had to do a re-print of 500 copies,” said Smith, who has the affability of his most famous protagonist Mma Ramotswe, because of whom he says he is “constantly accosted by traditionally built” African women who want to appear in his novels.
Then came the second and third novels in the series which were imported in to the United States, and sales really boomed when The New York Times ran an article praising them, Smith said.
“I realised my life had changed when I went to New York to meet the publishers, and they spent a lot of time with me, and introduced me to a lot of vice-presidents and gave me a really nice lunch,” he said.
“Before, when I met publishers, I would just get a few minutes and maybe a cup of tea.”
The novels also inspired an Anthony Minghella film and a BBC-HBO television series.
Smith, who pens four series of novels besides a serial format in the newspaper in the forgotten 19th century tradition of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, writes everyday, and revises very little of what he writes, he said.
A tuba player and a founder of The Really Terrible Orchestra which is made up of amateur musicians, Smith also helped found Botswana’s first centre for opera training, the Number 1 Ladies’ Opera House for whom he wrote the libretto of their first production, a version of Macbeth set among a troop of baboons.
But it is his many characters, some of whom are inspired by the people he encounters – “although only in a nice way, I think it’s a rotten thing to portray someone badly” – that Smith likes spending time with most.
“I find it very interesting to have women protagonists that I can put myself in the shoes of: if I had two men sitting in the that detective agency office, it would be much duller,” he said.