Like most readers, I
first encountered Alexander McCall Smith through his wildly successful No.
1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Since then, I have devoured his
writing, but with more than 80 novels to his name, McCall Smith tends to write
faster than one can read. When I was asked to interview him at The
Hindu LFL 2016 literary festival, I was intimidated by the prospect.
Not unexpectedly, I found him as pleasant, considerate, thoughtful, generous,
and funny as many of his characters. Despite having arrived in Chennai only a
day before the festival began, he attended most other sessions when he could
have been relaxing by the swimming pool. He obliged autograph and photograph
hunters, and listened patiently as fans told him the history of their
association with his writing.
He made the day of a first-time novelist when he bought a copy of her book and asked her to sign it for him. You wouldn’t see a gesture like that from most superstar writers, but Alexander McCall Smith is not most writers. He has an astonishing rate of 4,000 words a day, but never appears to be in a hurry to get back to his writing desk. He has the quick wit of a stand-up comedian, the avuncular warmth of a professor of philosophy, and an endearing impulse to laugh at his own jokes.
Two sessions at the festival were not quite enough to dissect his work and the rather private gentleman who wrote them, and so I cornered him for a third conversation in the lobby of his hotel.
With the amount of
writing you do, one wouldn’t think you got much reading done. But I believe you
always travel with three books, and one of these is a collection of poems by W.
H. Auden. I think you said in an interview that he changed the way you looked
at the world. Why is his poetry so significant to you?
I think what I like about Auden is that he has a very humane voice, and he wrote on so many different sorts of subjects. So, he writes poetry on the nature of limestone, on opera, on mythology, on human affection, science, psychoanalysis, everything. His poetry is so broad in its scope and subject matter. And also meter—it’s very beautiful. He uses the English language in such a beautiful way. He uses all sorts of different meters. He’s a very versatile poet. So all of that, actually, is the inspiration for my enjoyment of his poetry. It’s very lyrically beautiful, it’s very musical.
Is there any one poem of his to which you go back constantly?
Yes, there are several of his poems I go back to constantly. One is a poem called ‘Streams’ which is about water and man’s relationship with water. In fact, looking over there at that water fountain (points), you see—Auden talks about what we do with water and he talks about how we make it play for us, which is what it’s doing there. And he starts off ‘Dear water, clear water’, then I think it goes something like ‘Cheerful in all your streams, who does not like you?’ [sic.], and it ends with a description of a lovely dream that he has when he goes to sleep beside a stream in some hills.
The other poem I like is ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’. He wrote this very moving elegy for Sigmund Freud, in which he talks about Freud’s influence and what Freud offered to people in terms of an understanding of their feelings.
So those are two that I particularly like. And then I like his ‘In Praise of Limestone’, where he just talks about the nature of limestone.
Embarrassingly, I can’t remember whether it was Auden or Yeats who said this, but one of them wrote a poem about how one must put hours of effort to make a line seem a moment’s thought.
It may well have been Auden who said that. I didn’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
But what I was going to say was that that’s the sense that one gets from your writing. It seems so effortless, and you write so fast, yet there is so much that is profound and moving. I think you’re the only person who writes literary fiction at that speed. What happens when you sit down to write? Do you feel that you have lost control, and something else has taken over you?
Yes. Yes. I think that’s very interesting, because when I sit down to write, I go into a sort of... I wouldn’t call it a trance; a psychiatrist would call it a state of dissociation—where I’m aware of my surroundings, so I’m not dreaming, but I actually don’t have to think about what I’m going to say. I think the subconscious mind produces the words, and a lot of writing, a lot of fiction comes from that part of the mind. So I just sit there, and the words come, formed somewhere in the mind, and I don’t have to really cogitate on it, I don’t have to sit and wonder about it, don’t have to ask myself what is going to happen next. It just happens, it flows out.
Were you surprised by the success of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?
Yes, I was. Until then, I had written a very large number of children’s books. I’d written books of short stories, and various things. And when I first wrote the No 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency, Volume 1 in the series, nothing much happened. It was published by a small publishing house in Scotland, in an edition which was originally 1500 copies, you know, not big. And I thought well, that’s fine. We had some quite generous reviews, and I wrote a sequel. And, again, nothing really happened. And then the books took off initially in the United States. They were imported by Columbia University Press in the US, and they were bought by people who started to talk about them, and then that led to their being published by a big publisher in New York. And I was very surprised. Because I hadn’t anticipated that. And so I was obviously pleased, but I hadn’t really imagined that. I thought that I was destined to be a writer with a small readership, and then I discovered that I had a big readership. But that was okay. (Laughs)
I love what you said about how the writing comes from another place. But you’ve written in other genres. You’ve written academic texts, you’ve written a treatise on law.
That sort is different. Non-fiction is different. When I’m writing non-fiction, that’s a much more deliberative process.
Right. But then,
you had a huge challenge with Emma, I should think. I re-read part
of Jane Austen’s Emma along with yours, to see how the two
tally, and I see you’ve followed it exactly, event by event, and almost
line-by-line. So there is that place from which you wait for inspiration to
come, and then there’s this text which has already been written. How did
you do it?
That’s interesting. That’s interesting. With Emma, I really enjoyed writing it, and I wrote it very quickly. I did follow the sequence of events in the original, but it just came from the same place for me. I had a template from Jane Austen, and I enjoyed doing it.
You mentioned earlier today that Jane Austen said Emma is not a very likeable character, and I think she wrote a letter to somebody where she said something along the lines of ‘I’m going to have a heroine whom no one but myself shall much like.’ So did you like your Emma?
Initially, no. I think you’re meant not to like her at the beginning. And I understood her, I suppose. I liked her by the end, which is the way I think it’s supposed to go, because Emma—in my view—is all about a growth to moral maturity and Emma getting to understand that other people have feelings, which she didn’t in the beginning.
But one thing that struck me as very different in your Emma from Jane Austen’s was George Knightley. He is a likeable man in the original, but you don’t really get an insight into him. You know he’s kind, he’s good-looking, he’s the kind of man on whom every girl has a crush, and while he’s not distant like Darcy, he’s an...um, approachable distant. But your George Knightley is just such a lovely guy. I felt myself falling in love with him as I read.
(Laughs) That’s good, then!
Do you think the gender of the author makes a difference in the writing?
It could do. I think it could do. I think it may well be that if a woman novelist wrote a new Emma, she’d be much more interested in the romantic bit with George Knightley. I didn’t regard him as a very romantic figure, and that probably comes across in my version. He’s okay, but I didn’t really see Emma as having great romance with him. The romance was between Harriet Smith and Frank. That was more romance. And romance, of course, also between Harriet’s aunt and Mr. Woodhouse. (Laughs)
I love that! I love that little knot at the end. That’s beautiful!
(Laughs) And the suggestion that the aunt is a little bit questionable with her marijuana cakes and so on. (Laughs)
Yes, I don’t think Austen would have intended for that to happen. But what made you want to fix Mr. Woodhouse up? You were sort of playing an Emma yourself.
I just liked him so much, as we said in our discussion at the festival. I like Mr Woodhouse. You know, he’s such a fusspot. So fussy, and so worried about viruses, and whatnot. London, he thinks, is a very unsafe place. (Laughs)
I was thinking about this constant theme of modernity versus tradition. You see it in Mma Ramotswe, in Isabel Dalhousie, in several series. I can recall a distinct phase of my childhood, which wasn’t very different from my mother’s, the early Nineties. And then there was this drastic change in technology which makes me feel I’ve inhabited two different universes. Was that one of the spurs for this tradition-modernity dichotomy? I think in many ways, it also changed the characters of people across the world. Would you agree?
Yes, I think we’ve all had to deal with that—anybody who’s been alive in the last thirty-forty years has had to deal with that, and has seen it. The pace of change has been so big that the contrast between what one might call the modern world and the traditional world is really very striking.
And, yeah, I’m interested in that because I’m interested in the loss of texture in life. You know, sometimes, I think the modern world is very impersonal. We were talking of a sense of place and rootedness at our session in the literary festival. I feel the modern world is not very rooted in place or culture. So you see a sort of bland, modern person, whose life may be materially better, but actually is spiritually – in the general broad sense of the word ‘spiritual’, not in the narrow religious sense – spiritually shallower. If you don’t have traditions, and a culture, what have you got?
I’m very sympathetic to tradition and culture, and I like to see that preserved. I was very interested yesterday when I was watching one of the events, where the Tamil poem [Thirukkural] was set to music. And I loved seeing how Gopal Gandhi went to the musicians and put the shawl around their shoulders.
I thought that was a lovely gesture, and [N] Ram explained to me that that is honouring a person. Now, that is wonderful. That sort of thing provides depth and texture to life.
The human customs that we have enrich life. The same thing happens in Scotland—there are things in the traditional Scottish approach to life that have perhaps been weakened by the modern world, and are gradually being eroded.
The human customs that we have enrich life. The same thing happens in Scotland—there are things in the traditional Scottish approach to life that have perhaps been weakened by the modern world, and are gradually being eroded. We have traditions and customs in Scotland which I would regard as important and want to keep, and there are certain things which make Scottish culture distinctive from contemporary culture elsewhere in the British Isles. There are these differences, and that sort of that thing is very important.
So, in Botswana, there is a bit of a contrast between the old Botswana and the new. Mma Ramotswe [of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series] talks about her father’s Botswana, and that’s a Botswana where people were very courteous to each other, and you had certain forms of address—when you saw people, you said, ‘Have you slept well?’—and a certain form of shaking hands. You went through certain courtesies, like enquiry about family, and these made for a richly textured life in the society, where people were concerned about other people because they had this intimate connection with them, a sense of identification with them. Now, of course, that’s all being weakened by urbanisation, by many of the things which you would find in any society.
We will find that in Scotland as well. There’s a difference between the pace of life out in the country and the attitudes out in the country, and life in the cities. Certainly that will be the case in India as well. My impression is that India has made this amazing material progress and become a dominant technological force rapidly in the last couple of decades, and presumably you will find that tension here as well. It’s a universal thing.
I suppose what one wants is to remember the good things about the past. Now, obviously, there were things about the past which were far from good, in that the past could be repressive, patriarchal, all of those things. So modernity has helped us make great moral progress, but it’s important to remember the things that were good in the way in which people dealt with one another.
This talk of the past brings me to this question—it seems from your writing that you have very strong anti-colonialist sentiments. And you’re from Scotland, which has a dichotomy in terms of colonialism, because while it provided much of the armed forces for Britain to take over the world, it also seems to be one of England’s last colonies today. So, when the referendum happened, a lot of us from former colonies were rooting for Scotland to vote for independence. I do know that my generation of Scottish people was very disappointed, but their parents thought of the practicalities, and thought maybe it’s a good thing to just stay on. What were your feelings about that?
(Laughs) Well, it is true that Scotland had a sizeable presence in the armed forces. Now...well, firstly, when you say ‘very strong anti-colonial tendencies’, I think I understand the issue. I’m not particularly well-informed on these matters, but I do understand some aspects. For example, if you look at every country’s past, you’ll find a history of repression and oppression. So, if you look at Scotland, you’ll see a very complex history. One analysis of Scotland is that Scotland was dominated by England after the Union in the beginning of the eighteenth century, and we had land clearances in Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So, people were cleared off the land and sent off to Canada and America and whatnot. So every country’s history contains a past oppression and past injustice. And it’s not unique to the colonial period. There have been other empires. I mean, India has had other empires before...
Warlords, in a way, were colonialists themselves, so...
Exactly! So, you know, I think the human past is not a past of fair treatment of people who were at the receiving end. If you look at slavery, for example, that’s a very complex picture. You had slavery practised by America and Britain until the Abolition. But there were a lot of other people involved in that as well. And you had systems of internal slavery in Africa. So, I think a simplistic analysis can be a little bit [tricky].
But I do think one has to be aware of recent wrongs, the things that are still raw, and I think that when a relationship is affected by injustice, it’s a good idea to try to set it right. For example, if you look at the Caribbean countries, I think you can still see the scars of slavery, and I think you still need to do something to try to deal with that. If you look at Australia, you can still see the scars of the way in which the Aboriginal people were treated, and to their credit, various Australian governments —not all, but several—have faced up to that.
I think it was important for Britain to apologise to Ireland, for instance, for the nineteenth century ill-treatment, and there was a very moving development a couple of years ago, when the Queen paid an official visit to Ireland: what happened was that, as she went to the monument to the fallen Irish Republicans—and this was really, really significant— she bowed her head. Great! That helps people’s sense of wrong. And it also puts an end to historical arguments. This is something Mma Ramotswe talks about, forgiveness and mercy. In the case of Northern Ireland, you have the two sides there saying, ‘Okay, we have been bitter enemies; but there’s no future in enmity, and that’s the only way in which one does that’. So that’s very, very healing.
And that was Nelson Mandela’s greatness, and that of Mr. Gandhi as well. These are towering figures who said that constant blood feuds and violence are not the solution. It’s a big subject, an interesting subject, and I think we are moving beyond a number of these issues of past wrongs. I think people are addressing them and making progress.
There’s also the question of time, the passage of time. I’m quite interested in the effect of passage of time on things—at what point do we forget? At what point, for example, is the current generation of Germany no longer responsible for what Germany did during the Nazi period? You know, I think we can’t forget it, but it’s beginning to recede into the past. I suppose you could say, well, it’s important we shouldn’t forget it, because it’s always possible that fascism could reemerge. But we’re forgetting about the First World War, perhaps. And we’re not thinking much about the Crimean War, are we? (Laughs)
I think that’s a debate that’s going on in India as well, in terms of caste, because that’s a parallel. The issue of how long one is responsible for the wrongs of one’s ancestors is an interesting one.
It’s a very, very interesting issue. And it also takes one into the fascinating issue of the return of cultural treasures.
Yes, I remember when David Cameron was on tour here, he said something about how he wouldn’t give back the Koh-i-Noor because that would set a precedent for returning everything in the British museums. So that was essentially an admission that all those treasures were stolen art.
(Laughs) Well, yeah, yeah, I know. It’s like the Elgin Marbles, the same thing.
But to take you back to the issue of rootedness. There’s a lovely story in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, about Michael Curtin, this White American with what his mother calls ‘an African heart’. And I like this passage, where Mma Ramotswe speaks of these well-intentioned people who come to Africa, and try to make communities self-sufficient, by growing lettuce and tomatoes. But that doesn’t work because the land is not meant for that, and she says “Africa needed its own solutions”. That got me thinking about how there are two ways to own a place—one is a conscious decision to go there; another is sort of like what happened to you, where you grew up in Africa, went back there after a while and spent time working there, so it becomes your own organically. Do you think there’s a significant difference between these two ways of owning, and that one has more of a right to the place?
Oh, yeah... umm...I think, generally speaking, people should be left to run their own affairs. (Laughs) I don’t think people should interfere in the affairs of others. I have affection for Africa, but it’s not my business what happens there. So when I write about it, I write about it in a particular register in that I don’t write critical things. And that’s deliberate, because it’s not for me to do that. I happen to be telling a story about particular people in Botswana, and the reason why I’m writing about them is that I rather admire that society and I admire people like Mma Ramotswe, and that’s fine.
Now, I’m not writing for an African audience. I mean, I’m happy when they read it. But it’s really me writing for people abroad. So these books are read all over the place, often by people who don’t know a great deal about Africa and often by people who weren’t interested in it. I hope it’s encouraged them to take a more positive view because I think there are these very positive things in sub-Saharan Africa. There are some great qualities which I’m quite happy to celebrate.
But these are not meant to be sort of politicised observations, and these aren’t really meant to be anything but dwelling on these very particular human qualities and issues that Mma Ramotswe and her friends are typifying. So she typifies this very resourceful woman, this very intelligent woman who is just doing a good job, and who comes from a particular society, and I’m saying some things about this society, but I’m always saying, “Look, I’m an outsider; so I’m not going to criticise it; I’m just saying from my point of view, there are some very nice things in it.” So all that social and political stuff, it’s for other people. It’s not for me to do that.
But also, in relation to the Scottish novels, those aren’t really social and political either. I’m talking about my own society, but I keep off politics. You asked me there about my view on the referendum, and you’ll notice I didn’t answer you. Because I don’t publicly get involved in that. I’ll have my private views, which I’m entitled to hold, but they are my private views. I’m not a politically engaged writer. Why not? Because I think it would just really complicate everything. I’ve got the things I want to write about, and you can’t write about everything, and if I suddenly started being a very politically engaged writer, I don’t think I would be a particularly good one. It’s not my department.
I think there’s also an unfair demand today for everything to be political, you know. I find women writers are often asked why they don’t write about patriarchy, but being a woman doesn’t necessarily mandate that one must write about patriarchy. But there’s an increasing demand for a stance, which makes me wonder if the world isn’t tired of argument. Sometimes, it’s just nice to read a pleasant novel, a contemplative one.
Yeah. Exactly! And that’s what I hope people feel when they read my books. You know, someone once said to me that a detective novel should at least have a car chase in it, and I said, ‘I don’t think my readers can handle a car chase; they’re far too nervous for it.’ (Laughs)
Ah! That brings me to this question. You’re often spoken of as a writer of detective fiction or crime fiction. But I find it very hard to slot you into a particular genre. You often engage with philosophy, with moral culpability, with emotions and relationships. Does this idea of genres, with everyone constantly trying to find a box for you, bother you?
Well, I must say thank you for not putting me in a box, because people seem to need to do that. Not everyone, but a lot of people do, so I really appreciate that you haven’t. I think my writing is about all sorts of subjects. With Mma Ramotswe, she happens to be a private detective, but it’s really about people’s personal problems and it’s really about her. So I’ve sort of turned the genre around a bit. We don’t have crime. There are no bodies. I’m not really a proper crime writer. I hardly ever write about crime; most of it is about issues. Isabel Dalhousie is about philosophical issues and personal issues.
I’m interested in personal obligation, and I’m interested in issues of right and wrong, which is different from crime. So Isabel is concerned with the mysteries in people’s lives, and we’ve all got some sort of conflicted mystery.
I get a little startled sometimes, when I go to a bookshop, and see my Scotland Street novels in the Crime section. What’s the...[connection]? (Laughs)
I write increasingly about romance and about love. Love is a big theme in my books. My most recent book was Chance Developments, which is a book of love stories. And before that, I wrote Trains and Lovers, which is also love stories. So a lot of it is about relationships, but it varies so much. It goes all over the place, and it’s going to get confusing if you call it ‘Crime Fiction’, you know!
Your serialised novel 44, Scotland Street, comes out in print in the newspaper even as you write. In your foreword to the collected volumes, you spoke about how one needs to keep certain rules in mind. For instance, there must be something that engages the reader, but you can’t put in so much detail that it overwhelms the reader and you’ve forgotten what happened in Part 1 by the time you’ve come to Part 10. But when you compile them into a volume, do you make changes or print as is?
I don’t make any changes, because they’ve already been published in the newspaper. So by the time I reach the end in the newspaper, that’s it. It’s a real serial novel.
Ah. But then you have even more stringent rules. Because it has to be engaging, and without repetition, for someone who is reading them all at once too.
Yes. I keep a general idea of where the novel is going, and I follow a certain...a sort of formula, whereby I have three chapters on each set of characters. So I cover them for three chapters, and then I change and look at what happened to another set of characters for the next three chapters, and so on. That way, I generally have a plot development fairly quickly. There are some developments that don’t go anywhere. If you look closely at them, you’ll find that some plotlines disappear. (Laughs) But that’s like life. In our lives, some plotlines disappear. All of us have plots of our life that haven’t quite worked out, and we forget all about them. Things can just peter out.
There are some things which are inconsistent in it. Like Bertie has been six or seven years old for eight years...
I remember he had a seventh birthday party...
Oh, yes, I did give him a birthday party somewhere. So he does turn a year older, slower than most people, but still. (Laughs) And we never find out who the father of his little brother Ulysses is – it’s suggested he may be the psychotherapist, and I get a lot of letters from readers who want to know. And then I have to confess that I don’t really know, but I think it may just be the psychotherapist. (Laughs)
Update: This is a slightly edited version of the interview published in the March 2016 issue.