Skip to main content
books

Author Alexander McCall Smith in New York City.Michael Falco for The Globe and Mail

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 30 books including the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels set in Botswana, where he used to teach law. His other series are set in London ( Corduroy Mansions) and in Edinburgh (the Isabel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street series) where he now lives. He has also written the short, humour books assembled under the title The Two and a Half Pillars of Wisdom, as well as libretto for an opera that casts a matriarchal tribe of baboons as the characters in Macbeth.

McCall Smith is currently on a 14-city North American tour reading from The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the 12th No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency book, featuring the problem-solving Precious Ramotswe.

You are astoundingly prolific. Can you describe a writing day for us?

When I am at home, I often get up at about 4 in the morning. I find the first couple of hours of the morning are very productive: 4 to about 6:30 is pretty good time, and the day goes downhill from there. I return to bed, have a bit of a sleep and get up again. If it's a writing day, I would then write again in the morning and again in the evening. I am rather fortunate, I write about 1,000 words an hour. It sounds awful: I hope it doesn't sound boastful, but it is quick.

A thousand good words an hour?

Well, I tend not to have to change what I write. Certainly in the case of the Botswana books, those come out more or less in final version.

Where do you get all the plots?

Before I start a book I have a very basic outline of what is going to happen and that will change during the writing of the book. I think the ideas come from the subconscious mind, which is where fiction is produced, and which is always coming up with possibilities about the world. The job of an author is to develop access to that often rather fertile bit of the mind.

In your latest novel, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the only deaths are those of two cows. That's pretty gentle by the standards of contemporary crime fiction. Why do you choose that approach?

I think that is just the sort of writer I happen to be. Literature has room for everybody, and I tend to work at, I suppose one might call it the gentle end of the spectrum. That is where intuitively I feel most at ease. I don't really regard myself as a crime novelist; there is no real crime. Mma Ramotswe just helps people solve problems. It is character and place that I am interested in, really. The Isabel Dalhousie novels, Isabel does look at issues that people have, but I won't put them in the genre of crime or mystery at all. Scotland Street is just a novel of everyday life, as is Corduroy Mansions.

Your fans number in the millions. Why do people respond so enthusiastically to the books?

That's rather difficult for an author himself to answer, but I suppose people identify with certain characters. Mma Ramotswe is somebody people rather like because she is a kind and forgiving woman. And in a harsh age - what age hasn't been harsh? - people respond to that.

I do mention the problems of the world but essentially the books are about people who are not in conflict with their fellow beings and I think that is something for which we all yearn. You could say that's utopian; I would hold up my hand and say fine, someone has to be an utopian writer.

You are a white man writing about a black woman. How do you get inside her head?

As writer, you should try to understand the subjective experience of everybody. That is what being a writer is about. If one only wrote from one's own historical experience, it would be very limited. Of course, one would have to very careful if one was writing critically, but I am not writing critically. I am writing in admiration.

That leads some critics to complain you are patronizing or condescending to your African characters. How do you respond?

I am positive to all my characters: The Botswana books are very similar to the Scotland books in that regard. It's not condescension: It would be more condescending to say there are all sorts of problems and issues with these people.

How do you stay in touch with Botswana?

I was there six weeks ago and I am going again in October or November. One has a bank of memories but it always very important to go and make contact.

Because the country is changing? In the latest book, Mma Ramotswe often remarks on change and misses the old Botswana.

If you go to Gaborone, it is a modern city but the moral heart of the country is still there, thankfully. I wanted to say something about change; I make the same point about change in the Scottish novels; modernization flattens things out, eliminates the texture of things. It results in the homogenization of culture. There is no use bemoaning it - there it is - but I feel it is legitimate to point it out.

Why do you favour the serial novel?

I like the continuity of the characters. You can just resume your conversation with your character from the last book; you don't have to invent new ones. It's a saga, and I think people instinctively like the saga. It's like gossip: We want to know what the latest thing is. We like the idea that the story continues.

The Scotsman is currently serializing the latest Scotland Street novel. You have revived Charles Dickens's model, writing books chapter by chapter for a newspaper. Is that harder than writing them as a whole book?

I think in a way it's easier. You have these self-contained stories, 1,000 words, in which one thing happens and then there's a cliff-hanger. It suits a flight. Chicago to Houston, that was a chapter and a half. Newark to Toronto, that will be one chapter.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Alexander McCall Smith discusses his work with Canada AM host Seamus O'Regan at the Toronto Reference Library on Tuesday at 7 p.m. as part of The Globe and Mail Open House Festival. The event is sold out, but a limited number of rush seats may be available at the door at 6 p.m.