Based in Botswana, Lauri Kubuitsile is an award-winning writer, who has published several books, including three children’s books, three romance novels, two detective novellas and three short story collections. Her short story, ‘In the spirit of McPhineas Lata’ was shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2007, she received the Orange Botswerere Award for Creative Writing, presented by the Botswana Ministry of Youth and Culture. She also won the BTA/Anglo Platinum Short Story contest the same year.
Kubuitsile is a two-time winner of the Golden Baobab Prize, given annually to the best children’s stories from Africa. In this interview with Africa Book Club, she talks about her writing life.
Was writing something you always wanted to do? What kind of stories do you like to write?
No, writing was not something I always wanted to do. I’m a generalist. I’ve done many things, I have been a teacher, a business owner, a waitress, and a nurse assistant and… many other things. I suspect before I die I’ll do many other things too. I came to writing because I have always loved stories. I wanted to get more involved with them.
I’m not trying to tell anyone’s story. I’m a single person I represent no one but me. I certainly cannot presume to tell the story of Africa or Botswana, there are an infinite number of stories, each unique and different. I’m only telling mine, the ones that come to me.
What books have most influenced your life most?
This is nearly impossible to say. I read a lot and love so many books, tomorrow my answer will be different and again the day after that. Books influence me all of the time, my writing- but me too. I’m always thinking about books I’ve read and on different days different ones are important to me.
“The Fatal Payout” and “Uganda” (2005) were your first published works. What inspired you to write these books?
I never think of “Uganda” as my first book. It was a work for hire. I consider my first published book The Fatal Payout. It is a detective novella, currently a prescribed book in Botswana’s junior secondary schools. It was written during the time that I owned a newspaper and printing business and it was a serialized novel in our newspaper. It ran for about 20 insertions in a fortnightly paper. I wrote it when I knew nothing at all about writing a book. I needed 1000 words for a Friday deadline, so on Thursday I got it done. I write quite differently now. I’m on a very long learning curve.
In 2011, you were shortlisted for the Caine prize for African writing for your story, “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” which has since been published as part of a complete anthology. Were you surprised by the announcement?
I was completely surprised, especially since it is a story so unlike other Caine stories. I laughed when the publisher said she was submitting it.
Commenting on “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata”, one reader said “underneath the amusement unearths a common societal conflict and the human resolve to conquer it.” Is there one thing you set out to convey to your readers through your writing? How do you perceive your role as a writer in a developing country?
Wow, a lot of issues here. By nature I am a political person, I carry my history along with me when I write, so I suspect when I’m all finished with this writing gig, some will see a theme that is not apparent to me, but I never set out to teach someone something. The strongest part of my writing is my storytelling ability. I’m not always the best writer, but I can usually tell a pretty good story. That’s my goal, to tell a good story. With McPhineas, yes the humor is there, but underneath what I thought I was writing about was love really, about long term love. About long term relationships and love. Some might see other things in there, and I like that. The magic that comes from a reader engaging with the words of a writer is something that has always fascinated me. It’s a cooperative effort. What comes out of that is often very different from what was expected and that’s lovely.
You’ve had a prolific writing career so far – with over 19 books to your credit. What has the journey been like and what would you say has been your main motivation?
I’ve been writing seriously now for about ten years, I started writing when I was about to be 40 and now I’ll be 50 in about a month. My original goal was to make a living from writing- writing anything. I wrote for magazines and newspapers, for radio and TV. Eventually I accomplished that goal and sold my business and was able to live on my writing. Then my goal was to live on my fiction. I’m nearly there, but it’s tentative. It helps that a few of my books are prescribed in schools here in Botswana and now in South Africa. I’m still working on making it all more stable though. My dream would be to only write the stories I want all day long and make a living from it.
It’s been a crazy chaotic journey. There are about to be 20 books published, a few others written and not published. Lots of published short stories. Contests entered, some won, some shortlisted, some getting nothing at all. I’ve co-written two television series for Botswana Television, I’ve written columns locally and internationally. I’ve written in nearly every genre available from romance to kids to YA to literary fiction. I see it, as I see most of my life, as an interesting journey, a learning experience. I try to experience all of it, fully. I’ve enjoyed it so far.
Tell us about your latest books. Are you working on any new projects?
The Second Worst Thing is published by Oxford University Press –South Africa. It is a book for young teens. I wanted to try to write a happy story about divorce, to show that it can be difficult for kids but also sometimes good things can happen from it too. Signed, The Secret Keeper is published by a publisher in Botswana, Diamond Educational Publishers. It is the sequel to Signed, Hopelessly in Love published by Tafelberg in South Africa. It is a humorous book for a YA audience about a girl who runs the agony aunt column in her school newspaper. I also have a new adult novel coming out in January 2014 called The Vanishings, it is published by Black Crake Books. It is a detective novel set in the tourist town of Maun Botswana where people are mysteriously disappearing.
Do you have a favorite book among the ones you’ve written?
I like them all in their own way. Some have done better for me. I hope as I grow as a writer, my books are improving too, that’s the important thing.
What are some of your favorite books about Africa? Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
I loved One Day I’ll Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina. I thought it was so exciting in style and written in such an innovative way, and so lovely and personal; such an African love story in a way. You can just tell this is a man who is a true Pan Africanist, who loves all of the corners of this continent with passion. I really loved that. I also loved Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna. Recently I read Open City by Teju Cole and thought it was brilliant. My favorite short story collection ever is written by Henrietta Rose-Innes. Her collection Homing is fantastic, full of stories that just took root in my mind and have never left. I also am a big fan of Andre Brink. I love many of his books but especially Chain of Voices, Devil’s Valley, and Imaginings of Sand.
What are your thoughts on the future of the publishing industry in Africa, or more specifically, Botswana?
I would hope more and more publishing would go digital. Our biggest problem in Botswana and on the continent is distribution of our books. Ebooks will solve that if we get the systems in place.
Do you have to travel much in between your writing obligations? Which places in Africa have you been to or would love to visit?
I travel now and then, I wouldn’t say a lot. In Africa, travelling for my writing, I’ve been to Lagos Nigeria, El Gouna Egypt, Nairobi Kenya and Cape Town and Johannesburg South Africa. I’d love to visit most everywhere, I love to travel. And it is such a blessing to travel and meet writers. That always inspires me.
What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
I think like many writers, On Writing by Stephen King has been very helpful. The best thing he said in there was that you must go to your office everyday like a job. You must be at your desk so your muse can find you. That’s what I do. Monday to Friday from about 10- 6:30 pm I am in my office writing. You’ll find me there and my muse will find me there too. But on the weekend I play because like Doris Lessing said, writers learn from life. You must live.