In the Company of the Cheerful Author: An Interview with Alexander McCall Smith
A Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, McCall Smith tapped away at books for years, publishing several legal volumes and a handful of children’s books. In 1998, a small Edinburgh publisher, Polygon, bought from him a slim volume of stories about a woman in Botswana, Precious Ramotswe, who opens a detective agency at the foot of Kgale Hill with nothing more than a small white van, a telephone, and her own instincts for solving people’s problems. It was initially printed in a small run of 1,500 copies.
Seven years later, readers around the world now see the sheer volume of the good doctor’s output (he scribbles around 1,000 words an hour). The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency became an international bestseller with nearly 4 million copies in print in the United States alone. The seventh book of Mma Ramotswe’s adventures, Blue Shoes and Happiness, will be published in the spring, and his comic novels known as the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series will be bound in a single volume.
The prolific author has begun two new series as well. The intriguing 44 Scotland Street is a serial novel published in the Scotsman newspaper that details the comings and goings of a group of Edinburgh residents, with two more volumes to follow. Smith’s latest series began with The Sunday Philosophy Club, which follows the every-so-complicated Isabel Dalhousie, the harried editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and reluctant amateur detective. Her story continues this month with the publication of Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, which allows its author to focus a bit more on a sustained narrative.
“The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is sort of a meander through the life of its characters and the life of the country of Botswana,” McCall Smith observed as he began a short book tour through America. “The Sunday Philosophy Club series is a little more focused. At the same time, I think I am probably doing the same sort of thing in introducing people to one central character and spending a lot of time with her.”
In fact, the creator of the two series, who has made a name for himself not only writing what are essentially cozy detective novels in reasonably exotic locations but female detectives at that, even has trouble distinguishing his characters from time to time.
“They’re quite different and there is a different register to each,” Smith said. “However, in the last Mma Ramotswe manuscript, I had sent it to my editor at Vintage and he called up and said, ‘Oh, on page such-and-such where Mma Ramotswe is talking to Mma Makutsi, you’ve put in Isabel’s voice.’ And indeed I had. Mma Makutsi had suddenly started talking like Isabel. So I made the appropriate change.”
It makes one wonder what the natural born detective Ramotswe and the sophisticated philosopher Dalhousie would make of one another.
“Isabel would look at Mma Ramotswe and know this was a good woman. She would greatly admire Mma Ramotswe and would want to be like her because she represents this sort of spontaneous goodness but of course, she would never be able to achieve her spontaneity,” McCall Smith said. “I think Mma Ramotswe would like Isabel Dalhousie. She would respect her but she would probably tell her to relax a bit, drink a bit more tea, and sit out under a tree to chew the fat a bit more.”
While Mma Ramotswe really sprang fully formed into McCall Smith’s mind
about 15 years ago while he was waiting for an African woman to wring a chicken’s
neck, the more sophisticated Isabel Dalhousie, like 44 Scotland Street,
reflects his roots in Edinburgh.
“I think the places do inform who the characters are and who they become,” he said. “Mma Ramotswe is obviously a person who makes sense in her surroundings and in her particular culture. Similarly, Isabel Dalhousie is a product of a particular country and city. She’s Scottish and she is from Edinburgh, which involves quite a lot of baggage. I think we all carry the baggage of our origins with us, even if it’s a place we have adopted. It determines us to a great extent but not entirely. I think you can escape it. You can rise above it. You can recreate yourself to an extent but the baggage is always there."
Although he was born in Zimbabwe, McCall Smith has called Edinburgh home since he was eighteen years old, when he left Africa for the University of Edinburgh. Today, McCall Smith shares a street there with J.K. Rowling and crime writer Ian Rankin, whom he wrote into a cameo in 44 Scotland Street.
“I wrote him in, with his consent, and I had him do something terribly nice in it,” McCall Smith remembered with his effusive laughter trailing the thought. “He said, ‘No, this isn’t realistic. I never do that.’ He’s a very nice man indeed.”
While Rankin has definitely broadcast a grittier version of the city, McCall Smith argues that Edinburgh is big enough for their contrasting visions.
“I think my books are certainly a bit different from the very realistic fiction that comes from Edinburgh,” he said. “But I would say that a city’s literary nature needn’t be carved in stone. One doesn’t need to accept that there is just one sort of literature or one formula for the Scottish novel. I think that that one can challenge that idea and say, here is something different, without being disparaging in any sense about other people’s efforts. One can do something different.”
His novels are also popular not only for their unique heroines but also for the gentle humor and everyday precious moments that infuse them.
“There are great humorous possibilities in the small events of everyday life,” McCall Smith affirmed. “It’s quite a poignant thing and often quite poignantly amusing. People invest such significance in the small things and I think all of us do it. It can be tremendously comic. For example, in my Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld is always worried about someone using his room while he’s away. That’s actually a very common human fear, worrying about people using our coffee mug or something. That sort of pettiness has great comic possibilities.”
For all his gentleness, McCall Smith does have a bit of bite from time to time. During his recent talk in Denver, he regaled an audience by revealing the genesis of a short story about forgiveness. It started, he said, when he met a young Australian surfer who said that he didn’t mind risking death out in the waves but that his mom would be furious if he died.
“Surfer dead… mum furious,” McCall Smith wrote in his notebook. It turned into a story about a grieving mother who spends months shooting at the sharks that killed her boy in the bay. Finally, her friends convince her to take part in a “forgiveness ceremony” during which a pseudo-religious figure asks the sharks for forgiveness – while standing in the water.
By this time, McCall Smith is in tears of laughter just remembering writing the story.
“Well, you see where this going,” he chortled. “Forgiveness has to come from both sides.”
He’s inspired by many authors, most notably W.H. Auden, who figures in The Sunday Philosophy Club. He also has more unusual influences such as R.K. Narayan and other Indian novelists.
“There have been some instances in other people’s books that have stuck in my mind,” he admitted. “There was one passage I remember from a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala set in India about a man whose spectacles have one lens filled with cardboard. It was really very haunting, this person who had a little item that was to him very personal and important and yet was defective. It just said so much about our human condition.”
For his part, McCall Smith flaunts his own defects in a very public manner by playing bassoon in Edinburgh’s own Really Terrible Orchestra. The author has even been known to pass out recordings of the ensemble at book signings.
“My wife and I both play in The Really Terrible Orchestra and we play with a marked lack of distinction,” he laughed. “I’m a pretty appalling bassoonist and she plays the French horn. I’m not exaggerating, you know. We are a very sort of scrappy orchestra and we often lose the place, including myself. We had one chap who actually had to write the names of the strings on the bridge to remind him which string went with which note.”
In the end, however, it is McCall Smith’s lively characters that keep him coming back, just as the vision of Ramotswe kept visiting him all those years. He says that it’s quite a good thing that his dramatic success came later in his life, as it’s given him the opportunity to learn more about his fellow man.
“I think the actual understanding of people is something that one can only acquire through experience,” he said. “I suppose I start off from the proposition that I am going to like most people. I think that as one goes through life and sees more and more of people, one gets to understand them better than earlier on. That’s certainly something that I find. As each year passes, I find I’ve learned a little more about humanity.”