For Books’ Sake Talks To: Lauri Kubuitsile

22nd Nov 2012


Lauri Kubuitsile is a full-time writer and naturalized citizen of Botswana (she was born in Baltimore, Maryland). Her short stories have been published on four continents, and she has won numerous writing awards including the Golden Baobab Prize.

Lauri has also been shortlisted for many other prestigious writing awards such as the PEN Studzinski Literary Prize, Sanlam Prize for Children’s Literature and the Caine Prize for African Writing.

She has over 15 published works of fiction, including YA, children’s fiction, romance and detective novels and anthologies of short stories. A regular contributor to Botswana’s newspapers, she has also written educational textbooks, television series and numerous radio scripts. Some of Lauri’s books for children have been prescribed in schools.

South African writer and poet Judy Croome caught up with Lauri to ask her about her experience of being a writer in Botswana.

FBS: Tell us how your first novel, The Fatal Payout, came to be published by Macmillan in 2005.

LB: For ten years, most of my 30s, I owned a small printing and publishing company that published a free newspaper for the Central District of Botswana. We were changing format of the newspaper and feared that we might lose readers and I thought it might be a good idea to serialise a novel in the paper, a thousand words each issue.

The business was borderline profitable, so purchasing a novel was out of the question so I thought, “I’ll write one”. I’d never really written much before this except copy for the paper. That’s how The Fatal Payout, and all of the Kate Gomolemo books were written, all four appeared first in that newspaper, The Central Advertiser.

After The Fatal Payout finished in the newspaper, people called saying they’d missed certain parts. My manager at the time suggested I send the book to a book publisher, that maybe they could publish all of the parts. I looked in the yellow pages, found Macmillan and sent it off. To my surprise, it was accepted and, even more surprising, it is currently a set book for all junior secondary schools in Botswana.

FBS: You’ve recently self-published the last three books in your Kate Gomolemo Mystery Series as eBooks. What were the biggest challenges you faced as an independent author versus an author contracted to a traditional publishing house? Do you think the day will come where independent authors will win respected literary awards such as the Caine Prize?

LB: Two of the three books had already been published in print by traditional publishers (Murder for Profit and Anything for Money), but I’d luckily kept the e-rights. Because of that they’d already been edited so that reduced costs. The covers for the three books I wanted to stand out from the crowd but still look similar to each other. I hired a graphic artist in Gaborone, I think he did quite a good job.

Getting the books out there was not such a big job for me. The real challenge is the marketing. I was quite keen at first but my interest has waned. I like to write – a lot. I do not like having to push my books because it eats into my writing time.

If you’re going to be successful as a self-published author, you must get that mystical “word of mouth” going. To do that takes serious, targeted effort and a lot of time that I’m not willing to give, so I’ve been only marginally successful.

I definitely think very soon self-published books will lose their stigma, it’s happening already. As more and more excellent books are self-published they will also go on to win prizes.

FBS: Of all the stories and books you’ve written, which is your favourite and why?

LB: It’s difficult to say. I’m quite proud of my short story collection, In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories. They’re all stories set in Botswana written over a period of a few years. For me each story is a memory, so that’s nice.

I have a children’s book published by Vivlia Publishers called The Curse of the Gold Coins, which I’m quite proud of. It is an odd story about a girl who is struggling with an obstinate mother and a serious problem who begins to time travel back to the time when Khama the Great and the Bamangwato (the largest tribe in Botswana) are re-locating from Old Phalatswe to Serowe.

The reason for her time travelling is to solve a mystery, a mystery that labelled her great great grandmother a thief and cursed the women in her family. Solving that mystery could solve her own problems in modern time. I like it most because I enjoyed the research and I was a bit surprised when the story came to me. It wasn’t like anything I’d written before.

I’m also quite proud of Signed, Hopelessly in Love. It’s a humorous YA book. When I started out writing I wanted to be a funny writer but I was not successful, receiving plenty of rejections for my early attempts. I was happy when this book was successful, a vindication of sorts.

FBS: Before you were a writer, you were a science teacher. What drew you to writing as a career? Could you go back to teaching science?

 LB:Yes, I was a science teacher before I owned the newspaper. I loved teaching, I still do. We are a teacher family, my husband is a headmaster. As I said above I sort of fell into writing. I’m a generalist with many things I love and have a bit of aptitude at.

I am not that writer who knew she’d be a writer as soon as she could talk. Nope, that’s not me. I could have been anything. For a long time I’d hoped to ride off on my pony and join the circus like Toby Tyler. If I listed all of the jobs I’ve had in my 48 years of life, I think you’d be slightly astonished.

I doubt I’ll go back to science teaching, but I’ll definitely teach again. I grab every opportunity I’m offered to get back into the schools. I read, I teach writing. I have a writing friend who teaches music and often when I visit her we get in class and play together- her on piano and me on trumpet. I love being in schools with kids. Teaching keeps you young.

FBS: How do you feel about writers being asked to give talks, review “wannabee” authors’ manuscripts or give away copies of their books for free? Why do you think there is an expectation that writers should be happy to work for nothing?

LB: I don’t like being asked to do things for free, I think it is undermining of the job of a writer. Having said that, there are many things I do for free because I want to.

I’ve never responded well to any type of prescription and one thing creative types in Botswana get a lot is this guilt laden expectation to give back to the community. When I’m pushed, my stubborn streak requires me to push back in a very obstinate way. But when I choose, I enjoy helping where I can.

FBS: Recently, you’ve been involved in community meetings called Pitso ya Ngwao (or, the Cultural Pitso) implemented by President Ian Khama of Botswana. Can you tell us what is the purpose of the Pitso? What is your role in the Pitso?

LB: This year the Cultural Pitso was on reading- how to get Batswana to read books for leisure. This is a topic very close to my heart. I just feel people who don’t read are missing out on so much, I feel I must spread the word like an evangelical Christian, to save these lost souls.

At the Dipitso I ran a discussion on using technology to get people reading and gave a presentation about reading and the professional writer. I’m quite excited about what went on. I think we have high level commitment for the cause. I think things are going to happen.

FBS: JK Rowling’s first adult novel The Casual Vacancy has received mixed reviews. You write under your own name across different genres: children’s, romance, crime mystery, non-fiction. Does crossing genre boundaries help or hinder an author’s career? What difficulties do you find in changing genres when you write?

LB: Like I said earlier, I’m not a specialist and this applies to my writing as well. If someone was to force me to write only one thing I think I would have moved on to my next career by now. Writers, like everyone, should do what they want. I respect JK Rowling for taking that far too public leap. I get to do it in secret and no one seems to trouble me much.

FBS: Which book do you wish you’d written? Why?

Many. One writer I adore is Kate Atkinson. I love her Jackson Brodie detective series. They are literary and popular fiction combined, and they’re smart and fun. I want to be that kind of writer.

FBS: From Alexander Dumas munching an apple under the Arc de Triomphe to John Cheever writing in his underwear, many famous writers have rituals to help them write. Do you have any writing rituals to help you “get in the mood”? Or do you just sit down and write?

LB: I don’t really have rituals but I have all sorts of vocabulary for my process. Things must have names, I think that stems from my science background. One important part of my process is the sufficient build-up of “fiction pressure”.

When I get an idea for a story or a book, I don’t write anything. It must sit in my mind. If it is interesting it will roll around in there, build layers, ferment a bit and all the while it will be building up “fiction pressure”. Writing can only begin when I feel that the fiction pressure is enough to carry the story to the end of the rough draft in a fast, sustained way with no interruptions.

If I start too soon and the fiction pressure dissipates before the end of the rough draft, the book will almost without exception, be filed away never to be touched again. Fiction pressure is very temperamental that way.

FBS: After all your recent writing successes, what does the future hold for Lauri?

LB: I am starting a project that in many ways I feel is wildly out of my league- historical fiction, literary historical fiction to make matters worse. It is set primarily in Botswana around 1905-1906. A story of two people destroyed by historical events. This project has been haunting me for about six years. Over and over things happen that tell me to write this book, no matter how much I try to ignore them.

I’ve found so many ways not to write this book but now my reasons for not writing have disappeared. I’ve been moving about, collecting research, I hope to get writing early in the new year. It’s a project I’m very excited about and quite scared of in about equal measures.

Some of Lauri Kubuitsile’s books can be purchased from Foyles or Amazon.

Judy Croome