In 1998, Alexander McCall Smith introduced the UK to Precious Ramotswe, founder of the first ladies' detective agency in Botswana. Smith couldn't have imagined how his warmhearted protagonist would change his life. Having published more than forty books previously, he was by all accounts a successful author, and a distinguished professor of medical law besides, but when Mma Ramotswe, "a good detective, and a good woman," hung her shingle, she quite simply changed his life.
The series' debut, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency—it started as a mere short story, which grew into a set of stories, then a novel, and now Smith has agreed to write at least eight volumes—earned two Booker Judges' Special Recommendations and was voted one of the International Books of the Year and the Millennium by the Times Literary Supplement. Now, five installments along, with the success of The Full Cupboard of Life the series boasts more than four million copies in print—in English alone. Mma Ramotswe's folksy investigations have been translated, or will soon be, into twenty-nine additional languages.
Born in what is now Zimbabwe, educated in Scotland, Smith (he goes by "Sandy") published his first book, a children's novel, at twenty-eight, but it was as a professor that he eventually returned to Africa, helping to establish a law school at the University of Botswana. There he happened to see a woman cheerfully chasing a chicken around a well-kept yard. Fifteen years later, the memory resurfaced, and Mma Ramotswe was born.
Dave: You've amassed quite a catalog over the years, publishing more than fifty books. How long have you been a storyteller?
Alexander McCall Smith: I sent off my first manuscript to a publisher at the age of eight. I even got a letter back, which was very kind of them. So I had some sort of sense that I wanted to write, but I really started somewhere in my twenties when I began to write short stories. That's when it really got going.
My first book was published when I was twenty-eight. It was a children's book, actually, my first children's novel, a bit of an accident, really. The publishers in Scotland had set up a literary competition. I entered two manuscripts. One was an ordinary novel. The other was in the children's category. I was hoping to win the former, but I was fortunate enough to win the latter.
I ended up spending quite some time writing children's books. I wrote thirty or something like that, some of which are still in print, or coming back into print now. Some were in print in translation in various parts of the world. So I was moderately successful as a children's book writer. Then I spent more time writing short stories. I did stories for broadcast for the BBC, I wrote a radio play, that sort of thing. I started to write collections of short stories, including a collection of African stories, which is also going to be reissued. Then I started to write these Botswana novels.
This was all happening while I had another career, as most writers do.
Dave: Will you continue to teach?
Smith: Now that the books have taken off so dramatically, I've really had to choose. I haven't resigned from my university chair—I'm still a professor of medical law at Edinburgh—but I've taken a three-year, unpaid leave, which may prove to be longer. I don't know.
Dave: You once saw a woman chasing a chicken around her yard in Botswana. She was the inspiration for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Fifteen years after witnessing that scene, you decided to write about her.
Smith: That particular vision, that experience, made me think it would be good to write about a woman like her. I wondered what her story was, this woman, and I reflected upon how she probably had a very interesting past. She had probably brought up a number of children with very little money. Her yard was nicely swept—it was a respectable house in which she was living. She was probably, with very little in a material sense, making a good life for herself.
I thought it would be good to write about such a person, but I didn't form any particular idea or intention of doing so. The idea must have bubbled away in the subconscious. Many years later, I sat down to write what I thought was going to be a short story, and it's actually turned into six novels so far— I've written a sixth—and is going to be eight.
It was initially a very short short story. I wrote more stories about her, and gradually those developed into a novel.
That decision, to sit down and write the short story, and to make it about a woman who uses the cattle she inherits from her father to start a detective agency, is in my case one of those curious moments when a decision changes one's entire life. Lots of us can look back and find a conversation, a suggestion somebody makes, a decision that changes the whole course of one's life. That was it for me. Had it not been a detective agency that I made her found, I may not have discovered the possibilities which led to me writing the novel.
Dave: It's a peculiar vocation for a lead character in that these really aren't traditional mysteries at all. Yet, as you say, for whatever reason, it worked. Why, do you think? Did Mma Ramotswe somehow open up a different style of writing for you? Was it Botswana?
Smith: It's a combination of those factors. There is something of Botswana in the books. The whole ethos, the whole feel of the books, is to do with that particular country. But that is my writing voice. If you were to read my other work, you'd probably say, "Yes, this is by the same person. Maybe a little different, but it's the same voice."
The question you pose makes me think of this: When singers are training, they talk about the opening up of the voice, which seems to be quite a physical process, the development of the voice as an instrument. Maybe that's the same for writers. You find a particular note that enables you to open up your voice. That might have happened for me here, although I hadn't actually thought of it until you asked.
Dave: In the last few years you must have encountered a great deal of feedback from readers, which characters they like, what they do or don't like about the books... Has that moved the more recent books in any particular direction?
Smith: It has probably confirmed what I thought all along. It has given me the confidence to use this voice.
I was discouraged in the past in that I didn't meet with a great deal of success. My children's books were moderately successful as were some of my short stories, but I really felt frustrated, as many writers do. I'm old fashioned. I may as well admit it. Certainly my writing didn't fit the received notions of what Scottish literature in the eighties and nineties was at all. I was regarded as a bourgeois writer when everybody was being very aggressive, in-your-face. That was clear to me. I was resigned to that. People had said to me, "Your writing is probably too gentle, too whimsical, to fit the zeitgeist."
What gave me confidence was this confirmation from readers. People seemed to want that. We have over four million in print in English now, and just yesterday we sold Bulgarian rights, which means we're up to twenty-nine foreign languages. That makes you feel like, Okay, I'll say what I've always wanted to say. Apparently people want to read it.
It's immensely reassuring for me to now have these publishers all over the place saying, "Yes, go ahead with it. Write as whimsically as you like. You can be as out-of-step as you like." That's very nice.
Dave: In The Full Cupboard of Life, the parachute jump is a rather whimsical twist.
Smith: I like exploring the slightly wry and the slightly odd. I admire writers such as E. F. Benson, for example. The parachute jump is just so ridiculous, and such an awful notion, finding yourself signed up for a parachute jump.
I don't know where the ideas come from. They're products of the subconscious. I don't actually think very much while I'm writing; I don't regard it as a very cogitative process. I sit down and it's almost as if I'm in a trance. Out it comes. It's changed very little, if at all, afterwards. The subconscious is producing these ideas based on impressions and its own activity.
We're talking about the same regions of the mind that produce dreams. We don't plan our dreams usually, although there are some that we can in fact direct a little bit in the semi-waking state. We're obviously the producers of our dreams, but we're not the directors. I think that's possibly what happens with writing, although different writers write in different ways. That's the way I write.
Dave: I don't want to give away what happens in The Full Cupboard of Life, but one longstanding issue is how long Precious has been waiting to be married.
Smith: Hasn't she just? Yes.
Dave: And yet, if she were to be married, what would be left for the next books?
Smith: There's quite a lot. We've got other characters that need to be developed and explored.
Mma Makutsi, her assistant, is a very important character, and she enjoys a lot of the limelight in Volume Six, which is called In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. I also introduce a new character in that book, and he hadn't been planned at all. It was while I was writing it that he literally came into my vision on his bicycle and was knocked over by Mma Ramotswe—and knocked into the book. There he is. And he's given a job. The editors are very pleased that we've got him because they like him as a character.
So there's that to explore. And there are the adopted children. And of course there are all the usual issues, the usual business of these people. There's the tea issue, which we get quite a lot of in Volume Six, quite a lot of tea scenes. We'll have much more to say about tea. And of course there's day-to-day life in Botswana.
I've agreed to write eight. I have a general idea of some of the issues I'll bring up in Volume Seven. I don't know what I'll do in Volume Eight. Then I'll address the matter of whether we end it at that stage. One has to know when to stop. That is principally an aesthetic decision, but obviously it's a commercial one as well. I'll sit down with my publishers and say, "Should we give it a rest?"
At the same time, I've started my new Scottish series, which is called The Sunday Philosopher's Club. I've written the first one. That's being brought out in September. The BBC bought it, too, to make it into a television series. The Scottish series will run in parallel to the Botswana books.
Dave: The new series is set in Edinburgh, right?
Smith: It is indeed, yes.
Dave: What's it like to be writing two series simultaneously?
Smith: I'm enjoying it immensely, writing about a different milieu. The central character, Isabel Dalhousie, is a moral philosopher whose mother is American, but she's been brought up in Scotland. She gets involved in people's affairs and problems, and she has a niece called Kat who constantly has the wrong sort of boyfriends, so we get a bit of fun out of that.
A lot of it is concerned with her, as a moral philosopher, looking at the implications of what she's doing in all these things she gets involved in. Possibly it's a little bit more tilted in the mystery direction. Isabel gets drawn in. And she has a sharp sense of humor, this woman, so I'm having great fun with that. I've written the first one and I've said I'll finish the next one by the end of February.
I'm doing a serial novel, as well, which is being published in the Scotsman every day. That started in January and finishes in June.
Dave: What is it called?
Smith: 44 Scotland Street. The series arose from a conversation I had in San Francisco last July. Amy Tan had a party for me—it was very nice, very generous of her— and I bumped into Armistead Maupin there and talked to him about his Tales of the City, which I thought was a very entertaining book.
When I got back to Scotland, one of the papers asked me to write about this trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I mentioned the conversation. I said, "What a pity that newspapers are no longer doing serial novels." This was a 19th century thing with Dickens, and indeed Flaubert did Madame Bovary in a similar fashion. The editor of the Scotsman read this and asked me to lunch. He said, "You're on." It had been a very generous lunch, so I said yes.
That's what I've been doing. We're probably at episode eighty-something; it goes up to a hundred and twenty. One thousand words a day.
Dave: So you're writing it more or less as it's being published?
Smith: I'm about eight days ahead. I'll have to do some this weekend. I'm doing it while I'm traveling, writing it on this trip.
Dave: Do you find yourself regretting plot or character developments in earlier chapters? I wish I hadn't said that in episode forty-two.
Smith: Yes, it's rather difficult to change it in the way that one would change a novel. I hadn't really thought of that. There's a lot that I'm not thinking about because you just have to do it. You can't stop. You can't be too self critical or self-analytical. You just have to do it. But I'm enjoying it so much.
It's the lives of a group of people living in a Georgian block in the Georgian part of Edinburgh, with one protagonist, a twenty-year-old girl. It's great fun. The newspaper readers are invited to send in ideas and suggestions. We get those constantly. It's quite interactive. People have actually asked to be put in, so I'm now writing some people in. That will finish in June, as I said. They want me to do another series, which I might.
Dave: Do you have time to read in the midst of all this writing?
Smith: I do, yes. I do read. As I suppose most people would say, I'd like to have more time to do that.
I find I have much less patience than I used to have with books that I feel are meretricious or just sloppy. I don't have the inclination to persist with them, but I manage to find enough new material to interest me. And I like to go back to tried and trusted authors as well, go back and reread things.
I came across just the other day a wonderful new writer, or new to me, called John Murray, who did A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. I don't know if you've seen that book?
Dave: I haven't read it.
Smith: Wonderful. Just a magnificent writer. He's a doctor who has worked a lot in developing countries. There's quite a lot of science in the stories, but really beautifully written. There's always that nice sort of discovery that one makes.
Dave: Is there an author you would particularly recommend? And if so, what book would you suggest starting with?
Smith: I would be inclined to recommend E. F. Benson to people who haven't read him. Benson was a remarkably prolific writer who died in 1940. He wrote a vast number of books. Comparatively few people read him today, but his Mapp and Lucia novels are in print in the United States, and they are wonderfully funny. If people are looking for something that will cheer them up through the social observation of the small scale, which I think some of my readers enjoy —they like the small-scale issues—then Benson is a great master.
I also find that Somerset Maugham should be looked at. I know that he's been out of fashion for some time, but I think that Maugham was a fine writer.
I really liked Brian Moore, a Northern Irish writer who moved to Canada then to California but remained in many respects an Ulster writer. He wrote some wonderful novels, which were appreciated by various people very greatly. Graham Greene said that he was his favorite writer, if I remember correctly. His first one was The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which was made into a movie with Maggie Smith as a Belfast spinster. He wrote it when he was quite a young man. It was a remarkable leap of the imagination that a young man could write a book about a person like that with such acuity of observation.
Dave: Take a little time off, maybe.
Smith: Find a year sometime, yes. But I do like dipping into Proust. Proust is great. And I mentioned Madame Bovary. I just reread that with great delight. A great, great, wonderful novel.
William Dalrymple and his books about India, he's another. From the Holy Mountain, his trip thorough Orthodox and other Christian communities in the middle and near east. Then White Mugles, about the Mugle Empire in India. I'm a great fan of his.
Dave: I must ask: Do you always wear a kilt to your readings?
Smith: Recently I've taken to wearing this kilt at events, yes. In Scotland I would wear this for a very formal event, a wedding or something like that. I think actually it's a courtesy for the readers who are coming in. It indicates that one is treating it as a special occasion. That's why my suitcase is so heavy. But a kilt is also very comfortable. It's a fairly heavy wool, a comfortable thing.
Dave: What have I failed to address?
Smith: Not much, it seems. I might mention that I have another series of books that are going to be published in February, Portuguese Irregular Verbs. There are three books in the series. They were published in the U.K. in August. The first book is Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the second The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and the third is At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances. It's about three German professors, and it's very quirky, but it's taken off in the U.K. in a very curious way.
Dave: These are books you wrote some time ago, right?
Smith: I wrote the first two some time ago, and I'd privately published Portuguese Irregular Verbs. It had become a bit of a samizdat, slightly cultish. People passed it hand to hand. Now it's been published by Polygon in Edinburgh and Time-Warner is going to do a mass market paperback. That's all rather fun because it's something I really enjoyed, the adventures of Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld.
And I should give you one of these CDs. I'll be giving one out tonight to someone in the audience. I play in an amateur orchestra called The Really Terrible Orchestra. If you've got earplugs, you're welcome to it. It really is awful.
Dave: Is the CD available in the U.S.?
Smith: No. It wouldn't get past Homeland Security, I suspect.
Dave: Well, thank you. Do you mind if we put a sound clip on the web site?
Smith: You're very welcome to do it. Listen to it. We've been played on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, and we've been played on NPR. We've been played on a number of radio stations. The one to listen to is our rendition of King of the Road, which is a very individual rendition.
We are seriously challenged musicians. My wife and I founded this orchestra when we saw our children playing in school. We thought, What fun! We should do it, too.
Alexander McCall Smith visited Powell's City of Books on May 6, 2004.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State