I thought it was arranged. On a recent visit to Edinburgh, I’d made plans to take tea with bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith and interview him about a milestone in his literary career. Truth be told, the arrangements were 10 years in the making.
I had chanced to meet McCall Smith in 2008, when he was in Canada to accept an honorary degree from Queen’s University. The writer was intrigued when I mentioned that my paternal grandfather was a Scottish Home Child, an orphan who’d been shipped to Canada in the 1890s. I explained that I was planning to visit Scotland and trace my family roots. “When you do, please let me know when you get to Edinburgh. We’ll have tea,” McCall Smith said.
I suspect he was just being civil and never expected me to come knocking at his door. But 10 years later, I was finally travelling to Edinburgh and contacted his secretary to arrange a visit. To my surprise, McCall Smith agreed to see me. However, a couple of hours before our scheduled meeting, his secretary called to tell me her boss and his wife, who were returning from an overseas trip, had missed their connecting flight in London. They’d be late in arriving home and would be jet-lagged and bone-weary.
I assumed the get-together with McCall Smith was off. Or if it did happen, it would be perfunctory – lasting only as long as it takes for a pot of tea to steep. Regardless, I made my way to McCall Smith’s leafy, upscale neighbourhood, Merchiston, which is home to a clutch of Scottish writers, including McCall Smith’s mystery-writing friend Ian Rankin.
McCall Smith, as with his neighbours, relishes his privacy. A wrought-iron fence and an impenetrable six-foot hedge shield his house from prying eyes. Behind that green wall is an urban retreat in which the legal ethics professor-turned-author and his wife, a retired physician, have lived for 35 years and raised two daughters. As I passed through the security gate and approached the door, my gut instinct told me I was on a fool’s errand. It looked as if no one was home. I was wrong.
I knocked just once before the big wooden door swung open. There stood a smiling Alexander McCall Smith, a hand extended in greeting. He was casually dressed – an open-necked white shirt, tan chinos, a pinstriped, pale-blue sports coat. He looked for all the world as if he’d been lounging around all day while awaiting my arrival. The pile of suitcases in the hallway told a different story; it was evident the McCall Smiths had just gotten in the door a few minutes earlier.
“Now, regarding my recent invitation …,” McCall Smith said with a chuckle. “Shall we have that promised tea?”
And so we did. If he was weary after nine hours of air travel or if he was eager to shoo his Canadian visitor out the door, he hid his intentions well. A Publishers Weekly writer once described him as “one of the most considerate and charming people in the business.” It’s tough to argue with that assessment. Despite his rarefied surroundings and “cut-English” accent, McCall Smith – Sandy to family and friends – remains charmingly unaffected by his literary success or his station in life.
His residence was grand – with its 12-foot ceilings, oversized windows from the days before electric lighting, sturdy furnishings and walls adorned with 16th- and 17th-century Scottish artworks. However, the assortment of grandchildren’s toys, in a corner of the gourmet kitchen, and the books, magazines and personal effects everywhere bore witness to the fact this was a home that was lived in.
McCall Smith seemed totally at ease when he parked himself in a wing chair in the upstairs study where he does much of his writing. As he sat sipping tea, he laughed often and asked almost as many questions as he was asked. He is a big man physically and has a matching curiosity about life and people. His interests are eclectic – literature, art, wine, philosophy, Scottish history, food, music, social justice and the environment, to name just a few – and all have figured in his writings.
At 70, McCall Smith is at a time in life when most writers begin slowing down. Not him. He has no intention of doing so or of rethinking what he writes about – not even if some critics now chide him for crafting books that to them seem old-fashioned or even politically incorrect. He understands why some might feel this way.
“People are entitled to their views,” he said. “But I travel a lot. And when I do, I’m constantly meeting people who are exactly like my characters. They treat one another with respect and courtesy, and generally speaking they lead their lives with dignity and good humour, although they often do so in difficult circumstances. There are many people in Africa like that. I see nothing wrong in writing honestly about such people.”
After pausing for a sip of tea, he continued: “The world is in many ways under a veil of tears. You can’t close your eyes to that. People are entitled to their views, but I think my characters are quite genuine.”
Fair enough, but his books set in Africa and featuring black African female characters have drawn criticism – even though the women are strong, independent and intelligent. Regardless, the thorny issue of cultural appropriation inevitably arises. How can a well-heeled white guy from Scotland write unabashedly about the lives of Africans, especially African women?
“Writing about other cultures with respect is not cultural appropriation. It’s cultural admiration. Everything I write about Botswana is written with full respect for a remarkable culture. I see nothing wrong with that,” McCall Smith said.
He hastened also to mention that he was born and spent his childhood in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia – the former British colony now known as Zimbabwe. And in the early 1980s, he returned to the region for a while while he helped launch the University of Botswana’s law school, an institution he still visits at least once a year. As a result, he said, he’s “in touch” and loves Botswana, its people and how they live their lives. That love is real, not just literary shtick.
“Why do I write about women characters? Good question. The answer I would offer is that, like most writers, I try to make sense of the world,” he said. “And so, as a fiction writer, I sometimes write about female characters and about what I imagine to be their perspectives.”
Indeed, he did that again in the latest addition to his popular Isabel Dalhousie series, released in the summer, and in one of his two new novels due out soon in Canada.
On Nov. 6, he marked the 20th anniversary of the Canadian launch of his trademark No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – which has sold more than 21 million books – with release of The Colours of All the Cattle. It is the 19th instalment in the adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe – “the Miss Marple of southern Africa,” as some readers have dubbed her.
And early next year, he will publish The Department of Sensitive Crime, a whimsical murder mystery that’s his first venture into Scandinavian noir. “My wife and I were at our vacation home in Argyll [on Scotland’s west coast] when I awoke one morning at about 3 o’clock, got out of bed and set to work on the Scandinavian book,” he recalled.
Written in a five-week burst of creative fervour, the novel’s main character is a male Swedish police inspector who solves crimes with the help of a hard-of-hearing dog that reads lips. The book was conceived as a “stand-alone” – however, if his history is any indication, it may well be the initial offering in yet another series. He already has five on the go.
“There’s always an undeniable element of good fortune whenever any author enjoys the kind of success I have. I feel immensely lucky,” he said.
Perhaps. But there’s also the matter of his tremendous output. As Thomas Edison observed, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” In addition to his novels, McCall Smith has written short-story collections, poetry, non-fiction and more than 30 children’s books. Oh, and let’s not forget the radio dramas, the screenplays or the libretto he recently penned for an operetta called The Tumbling Lassie, created in support of a Scottish appeal that raises money for and awareness of the anti-slavery and anti-trafficking charities he supports. All this from a man who has only been a full-time author since 2006, when, at 57, he took a three-year-leave of absence from his job as a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh.
He rises before the sun each morning to tap away on his laptop in two- or three-hour bursts – much of it publication-ready. “I do very little rewriting,” he said.
When he’s in full creative flight, he can churn out 3,000 words a day while simultaneously juggling work on two or three books. He’s perpetually jotting down bits of poetry, random ideas, snippets of dialogue and observations on life in the Moleskine notebooks he carries everywhere. He also tweets and blogs, having taken to social media as naturally as a Scotsman takes to fine whiskey. “I rather like the idea of just using a few brushstrokes to create a whole world,” he explained. “With Twitter, you do that. You can tell a very big story in a few lines.”
His worldview is imbued with a quirky quaintness that’s reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse – an author to whom he has been favourably compared – and it’s unlikely a McCall Smith novel will ever win one of those headline-grabbing literary awards we hear so much about. But his books have garnered him a host of other awards, earned him a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire honour “for services to literature,” plus a dozen honorary doctorates. “To say McCall Smith is a literary phenomenon doesn’t quite describe what has happened,” a writer for the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph has observed. “He has become more of a movement, a worldwide club for the dissemination of gentle wisdom and good cheer.”
Canadians – especially women in book clubs – are among McCall Smith’s most loyal readers. For them, Mma Ramotswe, the “woman of traditional build,” has special resonance.
“Readers really seem to enjoy my Mma Ramotswe character, and fortunately for me those first books appeared at a time when readers wanted something positive to read.” Twenty years on, sales figures indicate they still do.
Does he have a definite story arc in mind for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series? Might he ever kill off Mma Ramotswe – as Agatha Christie did with Hercule Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes? McCall Smith was adamant in his reply to both questions. “I don’t know where the No. 1 Ladies series will go, and I don’t like to tempt providence by thinking about it,” he said. “As for killing off Mma Ramotswe … no, I’d never do that. You can’t simply kill off characters whom readers have come to know and love, or whom as an author you enjoy writing about. In my mind, Mma Ramotswe has taken on a life of her own. I’ll continue writing about her and other characters until I run out of ideas.”
And on that note, the teapot was empty. Although his Canadian visitor was out of questions, the author seemed surprised – even a tad wistful – to end the conversation there. So much for any notion that he would be tired after such a long day.