I returned to Scotland. Each year, though, I would go back to Botswana, where I was still involved in a number of projects, including writing a book on the criminal law of the country. I imagined that one day I might write something about Gaborone and the people I had met there, but I did nothing about it. I had other things to work on and was kept fairly busy with them. But in 1996, I sat down one day and wrote a short story about a woman called Precious Ramotswe who uses the inheritance she received from her father to start a little business-a private-detective agency. All the odds are against her, but she succeeds.
I wrote the short story in the space of an hour or so. I do not remember the circumstances in which I wrote it; most of us, I suspect, do not know at the time that some apparently insignificant act will change our lives. Perhaps there are some authors who, when they put pen to paper, say to themselves: Now, this is something that is going to change everything for me. I have never done that, even if I occasionally remember where I was and what I was doing when an idea came to me.
I do remember, however, where I was when I wrote most of the novel that followed. My wife and I had arranged a house exchange with a couple from a small village outside Montpelier in the south of France. The house we were in had a study on a mezzanine floor, and it was here that I sat as I wrote The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I wrote in the early morning, and then at lunchtime we would drive off to a picnic place near a river to take the children swimming. I remember finishing the book, but I do not remember thinking that it would be likely to have much of a life beyond an initial small print run.
I gave the book to the publishers who had brought out my previous collection of short stories, Heavenly Date. Stephanie Wolfe Murray, who then ran the firm, read the manuscript while she accompanied a truckload of relief supplies to the Balkans. She said that the book would be published, and I waited to hear more. Then the publishing firm ran into difficulties and was bought by somebody else. Stephanie, one of Scotland ’s great publishers of the twentieth century, was no longer in charge. I suspect that I was too non-hip for the new owners and so, realizing that my face did not fit, I took the manuscript to another publisher. This firm, Polygon, was then owned by Edinburgh University Press, and the commissioning editor was Marion Sinclair (God bless her). She and Alison Bowden (God bless her too) saw the book through to publication in 1998. I will remain forever in their debt.
They printed fifteen hundred copies. At the time of publication I was spending six months as a visiting professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a private university in a plush part of that remarkable and most unusual city. I was happy there, although I found that Dallas was a city that required a bit of work to get to know. I made friends amongst my new colleagues at SMU and began to study the saxophone under an African American instrument repairer and jazz player who took me to blues clubs in Dallas that I would never have been able to find had it not been for him.
Another set of very good friends in Dallas were Joe and Mimi McKnight. Joe, who is a well-known Texas legal historian, was a Rhodes Scholar and is a great devotee of Oxford, where he and Mimi spend part of each summer. Mimi is a bibliophile, an authority on the ways of cats, and sings in the choir of a high Episcopal church in Highland Park. They held a launch party for the book in their house in Dallas. My friends from SMU generously came to this party, but nobody, including me, thought that this book would go anywhere in particular. Who would be interested in reading about the life of a woman in Botswana, a country that relatively few people then knew anything about?