Watching the detectives... Alexander McCall Smith
Author of the hugely popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith reveals the secret of his serial success to Compass editor Jennifer Cox.
Jennifer Cox: You have just published two novels: a fact that would seem remarkable except that you publish around four every year?
Alexander McCall Smith: Yes, around that number.
JC: The Forever Girl and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon – which is a wonderful title. How did you come up with it?
AMS: Years ago in Botswana, I was in a little town north of the capital Gaborone, where I saw a tiny shack of a building, which turned out to be a beauty salon. It was called The Last Chance Beauty Salon, which I thought was jolly good.
JC: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon is the 14th in your phenomenally successful No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, following the fictional exploits of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s first female detective. The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was published in 1999 and has gone on to sell more than 20 million copies. Did you ever imagine it was going to be such a success?
AMS: Not at all. In fact that first book had a very small print run of 1,500 copies by a small publisher in Scotland and I thought that was it. When they did a reprint of 500 copies, I thought that was pushing the boat out. But the publisher had an agreement with Colombia University Press, and No 1. Ladies’ found its way on to a few bookshelves in America, where they were discovered.
JC: You were born in Zimbabwe, where your Scottish father worked as a public prosecutor. Did you spend time in Botswana as a child?
AMS: Not really, and when we moved to Scotland at the end of my childhood, I lost touch with sub-Saharan Africa for some time. But in 1980 I was teaching law at the University of Edinburgh and took a sabbatical to go and lecture in Swaziland. I started going across to Botswana to visit friends, and that’s when I started getting to know the country. The following year, I was asked by the University of Botswana to set up a law school, so I spent all of 1981 in Botswana, returning every year thereafter. In 1996, I wrote The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and that’s when my long literary conversation with the country started.
JC: But you had already written 30 children’s books by that time. That’s in addition to being a distinguished professor emeritus of medical law, co-writing the only book on Botswana’s legal system, as well as sitting on a number of international bodies on bioethics … how did you find the time?
AMS: I wrote in my spare time – evenings and weekends – as many writers do. And I thought that was the way it would continue. But when the books took off in the United States, I took an unpaid leave of absence from the university and about 12 years ago became a full-time author.
JC: Was it a conscious decision to write about the positive traits of African people and life, rather than highlighting issues like poverty or the HIV epidemic?
AMS: I didn’t sit down and think I must write positively, that’s just the way I write – about Scotland as well. But there has been a tendency to dwell on Africa’s failures and disasters: almost an expectation that if you write about sub-Saharan Africa, you would do so in a critical, bleak way. You’ll find all sorts of problems in Africa, but you will also find a strong spirit, kindness, a positive vision of life and optimism. I am naturally at that end of the spectrum.
JC: Another of your hugely successful series, 44 Scotland Street, is set in Edinburgh. I’m guessing you don’t see yourself as part of the Tartan Noir clan, like your neighbour Ian Rankin?
AMS: Ian is a good friend – lives next door but one – and in Tartan Noir terms, he looks the part and does a great job. I am whatever the opposite is.
JC: The 44 Scotland Street series had an interesting conception.
AMS: It came about after a conversation in San Francisco with Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City. He advised me not to write a serialised novel. But I came back to Scotland and wrote in an article, saying what a shame it was that newspapers don’t run them anymore. The editor of the Scotsman said: “Come to lunch,” and that was it. I started 44 Scotland Street as a daily chapter in the Scotsman in 2004, and it’s just kept going. It’s the longest running serialised novel in the world. I’m currently writing volume 10.
JC: I remember not only when you started it, but also remember reading about you starting it. There seemed to be a sense of resentful suspicion from the media: ‘How’s this ever going to work?’ People of course forgetting all about Dickens and Trollope.
AMS: Exactly, and in fact it worked terribly well. I discovered that I really enjoyed the genre: we have 1,100-word chapters, and probably 75 chapters in each book. And it gives me a chance to include each of the characters. I can bring anything in – obscure, topical – in fact people can tell more or less where I’ve been, as suddenly I’m talking about it. It’s been great fun.
JC: You have really embraced the challenge of the deadline. You are extraordinarily prolific, writing over 100 books. What is your writing routine?
AMS: I have to be quite organised, I couldn’t do it otherwise. I write every day for two or three hours.
JC: Often at 4am – is that jetlag or inspiration?
AMS: Neither, I just wake up: write for a few hours, then go back to sleep. This morning, for example, I’ve written about 1,200 words.
JC: And it’s barely gone 9am. May I ask for which of your series?
AMS: Volume 15 of the Mma Ramotswe series. It’s going to be called The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café. I’ll do about another 1,500 words this afternoon. So I do have to be organised. And I have to be able to write when I’m travelling.
JC: And how do you manage that – today you’re in Oxford, last week you were in Australia, you’re about to go to New Zealand… Do you have a favourite pen, or try and stay in the same hotel?
AMS: No, I just do it. On this recent trip promoting the book in Australia, we took four days off in Melbourne to go camping with some very good friends. We went out past Ballarat, west to the Grampians. Just beautiful. These friends are expert campers. In fact he is the only person in this world I’ll go camping with: he has wonderful tents, rigs up a shower in the trees, and we have the billy can going on the fire. And I was there writing: sat in a canvas chair, under the awning of the tent.
JC: We’ve touched on the No. 1 Ladies’ and 44 Scotland Street series, but you also have the Corduroy Mansion series and The Sunday Philosophy Club series. How do you keep them all separate in your head?
AMS: I just have to be aware of which fictional world I’m in at the time.
JC: Do you plan them out – have mind maps or sticky notes on the wall?
AMS: I don’t do any of that, just a few notes jotted down. The stories often change direction while I’m writing them.
JC: And are you taken by surprise by those changes in direction, do you know what’s going to happen?
AMS: I have a general idea, but I am surprised. With this current Mma Ramotswe, for instance, I had a general idea, but I’ve already been surprised by some of the developments. Fiction is created in the subconscious mind: it interrogates the world and asks it questions. I just have to be in touch with that and keep up.
JC: Are you ever surprised when readers take a strong dislike to some of your characters, for example Bertie’s mum Irene, in 44 Scotland Street?
AMS: Well, I think at heart she means well, she just doesn’t realise how trying she is. But, oh my goodness, she is annoying. I feel very sorry for Bertie and her husband. Though of course Bertie’s little brother, Ulysses, just responds by being sick whenever Irene picks him up.
JC: Are the characters based on real people, say Cat in the Sunday Philosophy Club series?
AMS: Not actual people, but often I’ll notice traits. I’m intrigued to know who people are and hear their stories. For example if I am having coffee by myself, I would be speculating about the people sitting over there, wondering about their lives. Though you can’t be too obvious, tempting as it may be. I am influenced by certain types of people I’ve known: years ago I knew somebody who referred to himself in the third person – he’d say: ‘John feels…’ – and I’ve used that in one of my books.
JC: Last year you wrote a book called What W. H. Auden Can Do for You. What has he done for you?
AMS: He inspired me greatly from when I was about 24 and first picked up a collected work of his poetry. He has a wonderful, unique voice; looks at the world in a unique way.
JC: I was surprised by the parallels: he wrote librettos for Benjamin Britten. You founded the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House in Gaborone.
AMS: It was tiny, just 50 seats, so to call it an opera house was a cheek really. But we put on several operas there – including the first opera ever sung in Tswana: Cavalleria Rusticana. We also staged the Okavango Macbeth, for which I wrote the libretto. People loved it and the Opera House ran for five years. It gave me great pleasure, and now I’ve acquired a little theatre in Cape Town, where my friend Nicholas Ellenbogen will stage productions for his company, Theatre For Africa.
JC: You’ve collaborated on another opera for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this July.
AMS: Yes, I’ve written the words to Anamchara – Songs of Friendship, which will be performed on 25 July. The music is by a very good Scottish composer, Pippa Murphy, and she’s done a lovely job of it. It’s a really large-scale performance, featuring all the singers and orchestra from the Scottish Opera, plus 100 singers from across the Commonwealth.
JC: Does this sense of harnessing the community follow on from your 2012 Scotland in Stitches project: the tapestry stitched by 1,000 volunteers, tracing the story of Scotland from pre-history to modern times?
AMS: This has been one of the most wonderful projects that I have ever been involved in: so gorgeous – 150 metres – the longest tapestry in the world. The artist behind it, Andrew Crummy, has such a lovely hand and it’s been incredibly popular. It’s touring at the moment and will be back in the Scottish parliament from July, but we’re now looking for a permanent home.
JC: Is this related to Scottish independence? What are your thoughts on the subject?
AMS: We’ve been very careful not to be political with the tapestry. Once you start tracing the history of a country, there are many different views and we tried to represent them all. I don’t like to discuss my personal position: it’s a very tricky issue and I see where both sides come from. Though obviously I will vote in the referendum.
JC: You once said: “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live in a world that is fundamentally benign.”
AMS: We do need to be able to withdraw into such a world, however briefly. Some people say that’s escapism, but when we listen to music for example, we are transported. Bach, the beautiful architecture of his music; Fauré’s Requiem, so beautiful. The same applies to literature. I get that sense of being transported by reading Auden, his wonderful poem In Praise of Limestone:
… when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
JC: If you were only allowed to write one of your series for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
AMS: I can’t answer that, I just can’t – it’s like having to pick a favourite child. I would find it so difficult, because I get different things out of them. If I could only do one series, I’d gather all my characters together and get them to meet.
JC: It could be called The No. 1 Sunday Afternoon Club?
AMS: In Scotland Street!
JC: We look forward to reading it.
The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus, £7.99)
The Forever Girl: A Novel by Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon, £16.99)