A Conversation With Alexander McCall Smith

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After reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a book told from the viewpoint of a proud, "traditionally built" African woman, it's a bit jarring to see the author photo on the back. Alexander McCall Smith is a very white, very male Scotsman with thinning gray hair and light blue eyes. But he has one thing in common with his fictional heroine, Precious Ramotswe: a peaceful, enduring affection for Botswana and its people.

Smith, who began his career as a medical law professor, has been writing fiction for decades. Even as he taught at universities and chaired the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, he indulged his whimsical side by writing children's stories with titles like The Bubblegum Tree and Mike's Magic Seeds. In 1998, at the age of 50, he published his first book about Mma Ramotswe and her adventures as a private investigator. Audiences were so taken with the playful, warm-hearted tale that Smith was able to quit his day job and focus full time on fiction.

Today, Smith is a dizzyingly prolific writer, the author of 11 Ladies' Detective books and three other series. His stories are set around the world—his second-most-famous series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, follows the exploits of a mystery-solving Scottish woman named Isabelle Dalhousie. But it's Mma Ramotswe who has inspired an HBO adaptation and continues to attract the most devoted following. I spoke to Smith about his love for Africa, his "unfashionable" optimism, and his side career as an unapologetically bad musician.


Your Ladies' Detective books are written in the very convincing voice of an African woman. How are you able to inhabit a character who is so different from you?

I suppose it's part of being a novelist that one has to be able to imagine what it's like to be another person. After a while, one can imagine what it's like to be virtually anyone. But obviously, one has to have a certain amount of experience of the world one's characters live in, and I have lived in Africa.

You were born in Rhodesia, a part of Africa that has experienced a lot of turmoil.

Yes, Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—is a country that has been experiencing difficulties for a long time. I spent my entire childhood there until I was 18. And then when I was 33, I lived in Botswana, which is quite the opposite of Zimbabwe. It's really well run and has been very successful, extremely peaceful. I really enjoyed the country and found it quite fascinating, and I've been back every year since.

In the Ladies' Detective books, there's a deep love for Africa at the heart of every story. Was that part of your goal—to portray a peaceful vision of Africa and counter the stereotypes of war, disease, and famine?

I didn't really have an agenda when I started writing these books. But I suppose what I wanted to do, without necessarily articulating it at the time, was to convey something of the special nature of Botswana. I really wanted to say something about this country and its people. I suppose in retrospect, what I was subconsciously wanting to do was say, "Don't write off sub-Saharan Africa. Remember there are wonderful things there."

You do seem to have a strong feel for the culture of southern Africa. For example, in the books, Mma Ramotswe knows that people in Botswana like to gossip. So when she wants information, she just asks somebody for it.

That's right!

It's a very anti-Agatha Christie method of solving a mystery.

Usually in the genre of the detective novel, there are elaborate plots with all sorts of twists and turns. But Mma Ramotswe will just solve the mysteries by going and asking somebody, which is what life is like, I think. Real life is quite straightforward—not just in Botswana but anywhere. I think novelists can exaggerate the extent to which life is full of twists and turns.

Mma Ramotswe idolizes an old-school detective named Clovis Anderson—she carries around his book, The Principles of Private Detection, but she often ends up doing exactly the opposite of what he recommends.

Yes, Mma Ramotswe really does respect and revere Clovis Anderson, and she'll often quote the rules he stipulates. But then she ends up just doing her own thing. By the way, I think one of these days I'll have to write The Principles of Private Detection. People always write to me and ask, "Where can we get a copy of Clovis Anderson's book?" Of course, it doesn't really exist.

Also, in one of the novels I'm going to have Clovis Anderson turn up in Botswana. I think he probably comes from somewhere in the American Midwest. He's actually a failure. He's never really been a very good private investigator. Mma Ramotswe will realize he doesn't really know what he's doing, but she'll be so kind to him. She'll give him a little role in one of her cases and let him think he's solved it. I think I might do that in the next book, which will be volume 12.

Speaking of your plans for future books, I read your newest Ladies' Detective book, The Double Comfort Safari Club, in galley form, and I couldn't help noticing that the description on the back didn't correspond with what was inside.

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Pantheon

Yes, you see, the problem is that publishers ask me for this well before I've written the book. They say, "Give us a summary." So I give them a summary, but then I change my mind once I start to write it.

This makes me suspect that you're not like J. K. Rowling, who supposedly had every detail of the Harry Potter series mapped out in advance and stored in a safe somewhere.

Oh, my goodness me! What a way to write!

Some of the characters in the Ladies' Detective stories have changed quite a bit over time. Have you learned things about them you wouldn't have expected when you started?

I suppose so. Mma Makutsi has become more central. Her circumstances have changed, though her character hasn't so much—she was always a little bit bossy. With the apprentices at the garage, I think we've realized that one of them, Fanwell, is more kind and sensitive than he seemed at first. The other, Charlie, is still rather cocky and arrogant. But not nasty. We've got to figure out what to do with the apprentices. They're rather nice characters, but they've certainly been doing a very long apprenticeship.

Mma Ramotswe's husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, had an episode of depression in one of the books. How does a plot twist like that come to you? Do you suddenly have a vision of him sitting there looking listless?

Yes, that was a complete surprise to me when I was writing that book. When he suddenly became ill, I was as astonished as anybody else. The way I write is that I sit there and I don't really have to think. I don't have to ask myself what's going to happen next. It just comes. So that, I think, would suggest that it's being done by the subconscious mind. Therefore, things can happen that surprise me.

You started writing after you'd already had a successful career as a medical law professor. Since you didn't have to rely on writing for a living, do you think you approached the process differently than a starving kid in New York would have?

Possibly. There wasn't that pressure. And I think that there is a case for saying that you have a bit more to say as you go through life. I mean, obviously there are people who write wonderful books in their early 20s. William Dalrymple is one, and I'm sure there are many other examples. But I think those people are the exception. Most of the time, I think one should just let these things mature. It's no bad thing to start a writing career after you've experienced a bit of life.

Your writing is also different from a lot of modern fiction. In the typical New Yorker story, for example, the plot seems to be that someone's life is empty, and then something happens, and then that person's life becomes just a bit more miserable. And then the story ends.

Yes. I think I have to agree with you about so much fiction being about desperation and dysfunction. Which is curious, because obviously there is despair and dysfunction in this life, but it's not the full story. In fact, most people's lives are reasonably functional.

Your characters are very functional. They radiate warmth, and they're easily contented by things like red bush tea or new shoes. Does it take independence to write like that at a time when so much fiction is about desperation?

I think there are fashions in literature. There was a period when it was difficult for me to get published because my writing was optimistic in its general tone, and that wasn't thought to be the way in which Scottish literature was done. Scottish literature was supposed to be much more gritty and in your face.

But then I was very lucky in that my books became quite popular, so that meant I was in a position to say, "Well, this is the tenor in which I wish to write. This is my voice." And then I was able to do it, because the publishers knew the books had their audience. Had that not happened, I think I would have probably been ignored as a writer who was too positive—a utopian writer.

When you sit down to write, do you automatically tap into that peaceful state of mind, where people are happy just watching the cattle go by?

For the most part, yes. I sit down to write, and that becomes the way I feel. But I often listen to music when I write. That, I find, is very helpful, certainly in creating a mood. For example, when I'm writing the Isabelle Dalhousie books, I often listen to Mozart—in particular, the trio "Soave sia il vento" from Cosi van Tutti. That puts me in an Isabelle Dalhousie mood. When I write about Mma Ramotswe, I listen to this wonderful East African musician called Ayub Ogada. He's just incredible. But the music has to be carefully chosen. There's a wonderful group called the Penguin Café Orchestra that are quite good for writing, too.

You're sort of a musician yourself.

A very bad musician.

You founded the Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh in 1995. What happens when the Really Terrible Orchestra plays together long enough that it starts actually sounding good?

You see, it never will. Sometimes it gets a bit better. But it will never really be any good, so we just continue.

I've heard there are certain notes you refuse to play on the bassoon.

I don't like the C-sharp. It has odd fingering. So I tend not to play that. And the higher notes I don't play.

We do concerts, you know. We do a concert at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every year. And last April, we played in New York at the Town Hall. I think we had 1,200 people there. And people got the joke—they loved it! They were waiting for us to sound awful and we did.

In the midst of your busy career as a musician, I'm glad to hear that you're planning to write future installments in the Ladies' Detective series.

That's very kind of you to say. I'm under contract now to write 14. And when we reach 14, we'll reevaluate the situation. I'll probably carry on. I'm certainly enjoying my conversation with Mma Ramotswe.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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