In the fall of 2001, just after I’d started grad school and begun my part-time thing at Partners & Crime, I noticed some handsome looking trade paperbacks on the shelves with beautiful illustrations of wide open landscapes, giraffes, and huts. One of them had an interesting title: the #1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY. Curious, I decided to pick it up and began to read, and I was instantly hooked on the delightful adventures of one Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady detective. Luckily, there were two more volumes available from Columbia University Press and I gobbled them up as well. I wasn’t the only one; most of my colleagues loved them, as did almost every customer who they recommended the books to. Independent bookshops all over the United States were doing the same thing. In early 2002, the New York Times featured the books in a page-long essay, and demand increased some more. And more. And that’s how the phenomenon that is Alexander McCall Smith was born.
Some find his manner too cutesy, others can’t abide the gentleness. As an avowed reader of more hardboiled fare, I sometimes want a mixture of both as an antidote, and McCall Smith just has an exceptional way with words and with character. I’m still not sure how he does it, but in almost everything he writes that is fiction, he taps into the universality of an issue, an emotional state or a moral quandary. His novels never exceed their grasp, but have an exceptional command of whatever’s within their reach. And his voice is an intuitive one, seemingly free of artifice and virtually pure. Or at least, that’s what comes across to me. But then, I’ve been known to say that he’s one of the few geniuses roaming the earth at the moment, and there’s little that would sway me from this opinion.
The same sort of gentleness and keen understanding of human behavior comes across in McCall Smith, the person. I first met him in May 2003 during his first major tour of the United States, and had a short but delightful conversation about his accidental foray into the mystery world. Later that summer I heard his lecture on the Forensic Aspects of Sleep in Harrogate that was almost SRO. When I learned he would be conducting a Canadian tour, I knew I had to interview him. It took some doing, and only came about after seeing him at his return to the store for a full-fledged event last month, but thanks to the efforts of Sharon Klein at Random House and Lesley Winton, McCall Smith’s PA, I got my wish. I spent a half-hour at the offices of Random House Canada chatting with him about his books, the demands of touring, why 44 SCOTLAND STREET is markedly different from a daytime soap, and what he still hopes to accomplish.
I had a lot of fun doing this interview, and probably only asked a tenth of what I would have liked to ask. But I think even if I’d had an entire day to speak with him, I’d have felt the same way. So enjoy this snapshot of one of the most unexpected and delightful success stories in the book world at the moment.
SW: I can see from this display over here, we’ve got your three books of the Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igenfeld series as well as the Sunday Philosophy Club—
THE IDIOSYNCRATIC INTERVIEW: ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH
Conducted on October 12, 2004
AMS: Yes, those three books were just published today, actually.
SW: Oh really? Fantastic.
AMS: Yes, today is the Canadian publication date.
SW: How different is it to have one book published in one country one at a time and then, say, come over to Canada to the United States and suddenly here they are all available at once? So how do you know which book to talk about at readings or events?
AMS: Well that’s a very good question! It depends, obviously—I have to try and remind myself as to what’s happening in a particular country so at the moment, in Canada, THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB was just published here about 10 days ago, and as you know, the book was published the week before last, and then the PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS books were published in the UK last year but won’t come out in the United States until December.
SW: That’s right.
AMS: So I have to bear in mind that things come in different stages, although we’re hoping to get things more in sync, certainly with the Botswana books, to have a universal publication date in English.
SW: That’s a very pressing issue for a lot of writers, the idea that a book can come out a year or even earlier in one country before another. I know with your short story collection CHILDREN OF WAX, that’s been out a while now.
AMS: It’s been out a very long time but will be released again in a new version both in Canada and the in the US and the UK, with additional stories and a new title (THE GIRL WHO MARRIED A LION)
SW: Oh, good. That ties into something else I wanted to ask: when you’re revisiting a previous work, how much do you want to keep of the original edition and how much do you want to tinker?
AMS: Generally speaking, I don’t want to tinker at all. I’m rather reluctant to bring out things which were published many years ago, but I think the publishers take the view that if the works have disappeared and were published before people took a particular interest in my writing then I’m content enough for that to be done. That’s happening with my children’s books, for example.
SW: They are being reissued?
AMS: Yes, about 14 titles are being reissued, staggered, as of next year by Bloomsbury in the UK and the US. I’m not sure about Canada in relation to that, but that’s my understanding.
SW: Well, my understanding is that if Bloomsbury has the UK and US rights then they have the Canadian ones as well.
AMS: They don’t have a separate Bloomsbury Canada, do they?
SW: No—that’s why when JK Rowling’s books are released in Canada, Bloomsbury publishes but Raincoast distributes them
AMS: Oh, of course, that’s right. In fact I’ve visited Raincoast and saw the impact that book has had on them and their fortunes. (Laughs)
SW: (Laughs) That’s putting it mildly.
AMS: Well good for them, it’s very nice.
SW: I had wondered about the children’s books being reissued because when I was in London (in the summer of 2003) I happened to come across some of the original editions so I actually own a copy of THE PERFECT HAMBURGER!
AMS: Ah! (laughs)
SW: One of the things from reading that book, and unfortunately I don’t remember the other one I own, it was about a little boy in Botswana---
AMS: It was probably one of the Akimbo books. They are being reissued as well.
SW: One thing I’ve noticed is how similar your voice was in writing those is as compared to your books for adults. There’s a real quality that has not changed. And it strikes me that your books can be read by people of all ages. So while I assume it wasn’t conscious, what were you putting in your children’s books that you could then reuse or try in a different manner for adults?
AMS: That’s very interesting. I haven’t really reflected very much on it, hadn’t thought about it. I suppose that they’re identified by the same hand. I suppose also that you might say I’m trying to get across in both sets of books a certain humor. I want people to smile while they read the books. You get that most markedly in the von Igenfeld books which are really rather absurd, but also in the serial novel in the Scotsman, 44 SCOTLAND STREET, which I’m writing as I travel. In fact this is the book that contains my ideas for future installments. (motions to a bound notebook on the desk and opens to a random page.)
SW: Oh good lord!
AMS: Well, 44 SCOTLAND STREET, appears in the newspaper every day, so I have to write. In fact I wrote an entire episode, 1100 words, today. I wrote an entire episode between Toronto airport and Burlington.
SW: So in other words, you’re handwriting as you go.
AMS: No, no, these actually are the notes for episodes that are quite a ways away; the ones I’m writing now I do on a computer, on my laptop.
SW: Oh, I see.
AMS: So, for everything, I really want to get across a feeling of fun of humor in these books, obviously more serious issues are covered in the books for adults, like in THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB which deals with fairly complex ones.
SW: But even in reading THE PERFECT HAMBURGER, even though issues are dealt with in, I guess, a deliberately simplistic manner, they were fairly serious ones.
AMS: Well, that’s right.
SW: In order to be a successful children’s writer one has to present certain concepts and moral questions.
AMS: Yes, I think you can.
SW: I’ll get into Scotland Street in a bit but first let’s talk about the von Igenfeld books which, as you said, certainly have a healthy sense of the absurd. I remember when I read them almost as soon as they were released in England, I went through them one by one by one and just couldn’t stop laughing—
AMS: Ridiculous, aren’t they.
SW: They really are! But to me they had a real P.G. Wodehouse kind of quality to them.
AMS: A lot of people have said that, yes.
SW: I gather you don’t agree.
AMS: No, no, I think that’s probably right, though I don’t consciously imitate him. I don’t read a lot of Wodehouse, actually.
AMS: I read a lot of his work in the past. As a boy, I read him, but I haven’t read his books in adult life, not in many, many years. Though I think Wodehouse is a very skilled writer. His books are very well-constructed. So I don’t mind the comparison.
SW: It’s just the idea that someone would be so obsessed with Portuguese Irregular Verbs and come up with these ridiculous arguments but at the same time, having been a university student with some familiarity with academia, it really did resonate that there would be these petty fights.
AMS: One of the things which is very prominent in those books are the arguments about very petty matters, particularly who’s using which room, which I think is very, very important in people’s working lives. People get very angry about this sort of thing.
AMS: If they think someone else is using their room that’s a tremendous issue. So I rather like the theme I suppose really occurs in all my books is the idea of little petty issues assuming great importance. That happens in the Mma Ramotswe books and certainly happens in PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS. Tiny little arguments among people about something very, very petty can be extremely funny in my opinion.
SW: I definitely think there’s a lot to that. I know certain family members that would get into the most ridiculous arguments on a daily basis about things like doing the dishes.
But when it came to the important issues—
AMS: They wouldn’t argue.
SW: No! They’d agree right away.
AMS: And the small objects in life can have great importance in people’s lives. For example, Mma Makutsi (in the Botswana series) has a handkerchief that’s very important to her, and her shoes are very important to her. She’s proud of her shoes, and the fact that someone is proud of their shoes is something that I think is very poignant. And it actually makes a major point about the preciousness of these little things in life and how life is composed of small kindnesses, small ambitions and small episodes of happiness.
SW: It’s probably because if people start thinking of the big picture constantly they get rather overwhelmed, but focusing on small portions is far more manageable.
AMS: I think that’s right.
SW: So it’s a very different approach than a lot of novelists who want to write the Great [Insert Country Here] Novel and want to explore grandiose themes.
AMS: I totally agree with you, I think it’s probably better to look at the minutiae and by doing so, can lead one to certain conclusions about fairly major things. For example at the end of the 3 von Igenfeld novels when he faces an immense moral dilemma as to whether he should, as his last act of President of the university, actually give Unterholzer a first class or a third class decoration. And he rises to the occasion! But it’s something so petty, but it demonstrates the need to admire and be certain at the very end how important it is to appreciate and love those with whom we live and work. And so this very major point comes through this tremendously petty point.
SW: All books that are successful have some degree of conflict so it can either be gigantic or small. And those conflicts between von Igenfeld and Unterholzer are incredibly amusing.
AMS: Well, yes (laughs)
SW: I gather that the first two installments, PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS and THE FINER POINTS OF SAUSAGE DOGS had been published in a different edition before.
AMS: Yes, they have. My friend Charlie McLain and I published them privately. We have a small imprint based in Scotland where we produce a couple of books per year, for pleasure.
SW: It’s still in operation?
AMS: Yes. For example we’ve published a couple books by friends’ mothers who have written memoirs. It’s really like a tiny joke, we might print 500 copies. So we did PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS and THE FINER POINTS OF SAUSAGE DOGS as original editions. 500 copies of PORTUGUESE were published (in 1996) which we actually got rid of; we didn’t sell most of them, we just gave most of them away. One German friend bought 200 of them and gave them to his friends…Zimmermann, he’s a real person, but his name appears in the books—
SW: Ah, I see.
AMS: Yes, Professor Zimmermann. With the second one, he also took a couple hundred copies. And then we reprinted PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS, another 500. So there were 1000 copies which existed in an almost hamizdat edition, and then these were published in that format commercially in the UK quite successfully. And now they’re going into a mass-market edition all put together in the UK in December under one title, TWO AND A HALF PILLARS OF WISDOM.
SW: That does make a lot of sense, as I’ve heard a number of complains that these books—which are essentially short story collections or novellas—and issuing them as separate editions at 8 pounds each seemed a little pricey.
AMS: That’s true, and the mass-market edition will be at 7 or 8 pounds as well. But the point about the separate editions is that there’s a bit of a demand for them because of the quality of the editions. They’ve done a lovely job of them with the covers, and with the nice illustrations inside the books.
SW: They are very handsome editions.
AMS: Yes, with those gorgeous covers. So I think people do like them.
SW: I also notice the Canadian editions have the same “look” as the UK ones.
AMS: Yes, because the original UK editions from Polygon were so beautiful.
SW: Definitely. Well, Polygon has certainly increased their profile dramatically with the success of the #1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY books. Obviously they couldn’t foresee this, but what are they able to do now because of your success that they couldn’t do before? Certainly with the 6th Ramotswe book (IN THE COMPANY OF CHEERFUL LADIES) the print edition was huge, in the low six-figures--
AMS: Yes, the first printing was 110,000 copies, and they are up to 130,000 now. Which, for hardback by a UK publisher, is very encouraging. It’s meant that the turnover has gone up from just over a million to 2.3 million over the last year. They’ve obviously done very well and I’m delighted, so it gives them the opportunity to expand their list a bit, although there’s the problem of how far they can expand before difficulties set in. But it puts [Polygon] in a comfortable position, which is nice.
SW: Especially with Random House behind you in Canada and the US. When you have a major publisher, they are able to do a great many different things. They’re touring you all over the place, there’s promotion, ads in the major papers—there was a full-page ad in the New York Times.
AMS: They took out a full page, full-color ad—imagine how much that would cost! But yes, they can do that when you get to that sort of scale. But it’s interesting that the books didn’t have that at the beginning. They made their way in, as they apparently say in the trade, on an “organic basis.”
SW: I can definitely attest to that. I used to work at Partners & Crime in New York and I remember when I first started there in late 2001, we could only get the Columbia University Press editions.
AMS: Really—so you saw the beginnings of it!
SW: Yes, I did.
AMS: Well I’m most grateful. It’s people like you in the independent bookshops in the US that really got it going.
SW: I believe there was a shop in Boston—
AMS: Concord Books. They were the others, but I know I had good support from Partners & Crime.
SW: Black Orchid Bookshop, as well.
[We spend a few moments talking about P&C]
AMS: S.J. Rozan is quite associated with them, isn’t she.
SW: She’s been a friend of the store for a long time and actually had her launch party about three days after your signing.
AMS: Oh yes, I remember now. She’s very nice.
SW: I remember when you first visited P&C for a drop-by signing, so there were few people there—
AMS: She was there.
SW: Yes, along with her friend Keith Snyder, who’s also a writer. Both longtime fans of your work as you know now. But that was definitely one of the most memorable smaller, “non-signing” events the store had.
I remember speaking with you then about where you belonged within the crime fiction genre. Certainly, the #1 LADIES books are nominally mystery novels starring a lady detective, you weren’t out to write crime novels, but now you’re associated with them and visiting mystery bookshops. I’m curious as to what differences you see between crime and literary fiction.
AMS: Well I’m quite happy to cross the genres or between them, as I believe one can do. I think obviously we all know there are some books which fall very clearly and firmly with the genre of mystery or crime, and some within very clear subdivisions such as police procedurals, etc. I think, in fact, you can move around the edges of the genre quite successfully. So the von Igenfeld books have nothing to do with it, while THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB has something to do with the genre but only in a rather quirky, incidental way. And I think that’s the great thing about the genre because it allows one to explore all sorts of moral and social issues. It’s also a wonderful vehicle for the exploration of place.
SW: Very much so.
AMS: That’s its great thing. So take someone like Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels, talking about his Neopolitan one (COSI FAN TUTTI) it’s a lovely exploration of Neopolitan mores as well as actually having a very complicated plot. Though I don’t go in much for complicated plots—I don’t at all. I concentrate on characters.
SW: That’s a real hallmark of most of the best crime fiction. Most of the writers I know, if they had to pick between plot and character, they tend to pick character.
AMS: Yes, I think so as well.
SW: In reading THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB I thought, even though plot is secondary, there is a mystery plot and it’s more in tune with a typical crime book than the Precious Ramotswe books. But what really came across, aside from the fact that Isabel’s a very interesting character who can be liked by some and disliked by others—
AMS: Absolutely right. I’m aware of that. Isabel is a good person, a kind soul. She’s very thoughtful, obviously. And I rather like her. I respect her. She’s not cuddly, like Mma Ramotswe, but she’s quite realistic. And I think in the next volume we’ll probably see more of the human side of her, which might be a good idea. Because I wouldn’t want people to think that she’s cold or that she’s distant, as some people might take the view that she’s a bit of a bluestocking. I don’t want people to feel she’s too much like that.
SW: But at the same time, there’s that element of the bluestocking, but that doesn’t come across in her conversations with her family. She really comes across as warm, almost too caring.
AMS: She does.
SW: Then there’s her niece’s lovelife problems—
AMS: (laughs) I know. And Cat isn’t going to get any better. There are some people who constantly make the wrong choices in that department, and Cat’s certainly one of them. She’s really not going to change, even though people want Jamie to get a look in, but—we shall have to see.
SW: Quite honestly I don’t think Jamie and Cat are all that compatible.
AMS: No, they aren’t.
SW: I don’t know if it’s overt, or if I’m picking up on this too much, but there seemed to be some sort of tension between Jamie and Isabel.
AMS: There is, but I think that’s something one would have to handle very carefully because there is obviously affection there, but at the same time, Isabel has a very real sense of what can be and what can’t be. Some people have said to me, “Oh, why don’t you make that develop,” but I’m not sure whether in real life it would develop.
SW: It’s definitely a case-by-case thing. [I then launched into a long-winded story about two friends who liked the same guy and one elected to step aside because the friendship was more important than any man.]
AMS: Yes, so that’s something that can be examined more deeply in volume II.
SW: When will that be published?
AMS: I still have to finish writing it, but it’s due at the end of February. I’ve written about 20,000 words of it so far, so roughly about a quarter. I’ll finish it at around Christmas, then have all of January and February, which are writing months.
SW: No traveling?
AMS: I’m trying to restrict my traveling time. I’m doing too much.
SW: That’s a very smart thing to do.
AMS: It really does get out of control.
SW: A few months ago I interviewed Michael Connelly and one of the things we talked about were the sheer demands in terms of publicity and promotion. And I know you’ve also had to stop teaching. How do you handle the demands of what your publishers want and what you need to do to spread the word with actual writing?
AMS: Well the publishers are always very good about it, they make suggestions or proposals. They never say “you must do such-and-such.” They discuss it. To a great extent, my over-commitment has been self-inflicted. So what you have to do is to have a very clear plan of where the time is going to be spent, to know that in advance. But at the moment my situation is completely unsustainable. I was in New York, as you know, and went back, then came here, then back in the United States before returning to Scotland. I was going to go to Italy but unfortunately I can’t do that now, then I go to the US again for a couple of weeks, and so on. I’m getting that under control. So for January and February I won’t go anywhere, travel in March, travel in May, won’t go in June, that sort of thing.
SW: You’ll actually have blocks of time for writing.
AMS: Writing blocks, yes.
SW: You’re also working on 44 SCOTLAND STREET as you travel. But are you one of those people who prefers to have the comforts of your office to write?
AMS: Yes, I’ll need that section of time to finish the next volume of THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB because I found I couldn’t really do that on the hoof. Whereas I can with 44 SCOTLAND STREET. But yes, I really need blocks of time to finish the novels.
SW: I find it amazing that you’re able to do a daily serial, for one thing. But I do find that it reminds me in some way of a daytime TV serial—if it were adapted for television, would you want to be involved?
AMS: We sold the rights to the company, Working Title Films that made (Armistead Maupin’s) TALES OF THE CITY, and we have scriptwriters working on it at the moment.
SW: And can a comparison be made with a daytime soap opera at all?
AMS: I’m not sure I’d want to call (44 SCOTLAND STREET) a daytime soap opera, although others might! I think, how to put it, it’s appealing to the same interest that people have in following the lives of characters on a daily basis, in small chunks. You can do that at the level of the most banal soap opera, or you can do it in what one would hope is a more sophisticated way. It’s the same sort of appeal. Why not—that’s what storytelling is about.
SW: Indeed. So while it may not have the shock value of EASTENDERS—
AMS: (laughs) No, it doesn’t have that. There’s far more reflection and character development. I enjoy it greatly. And it certainly worked; it was published between January and June in The Scotsman and it did very well.
SW: I know you’re writing the second installment. How many more do you see yourself doing?
AMS: I don’t know. I’ll see how I feel at the end of the second volume. It really depends.
SW: I know we’re running out of time, but how involved are you still with your previous career as a medical law professor?
AMS: I’ve taken a three-year unpaid leave of absence, so I’m not really doing anything in that area.
SW: You’ve also written extensively about euthanasia, which is a very controversial topic—did you ever feel at the forefront of it?
AMS: Sometimes. I didn’t take a very controversial position on it. My position was, I suppose, very mainstream. I was against legalization of euthanasia of people in vegetative states. I don’t think that is a wise development. I suppose I was involved in other subjects that were controversial but I didn’t take a radical view.
SW: On the academic side, what do you want to accomplish further that you haven’t already?
AMS: That’s a very interesting question. I’ve got a couple of books that I would like to write in the academic area, on responsibility. I’d like to write to a bit more about criminal responsibility. I’d also like to write a little bit more on bioethics, though whether I’ll do that, when I’ll do that, how I’ll do that, I really don’t know. It’s really rather odd being away from it, in a sense. I think that actually will be quite useful if I want to go back. Having a break, I think, can help to clarify all sorts of things. It’s rather liberating to step back and return to it some time later.
SW: Definitely. And in terms of writing fiction, obviously you’ve done so many different things, written so many kinds of books. Is there any project you’ve been thinking of doing that you would like to try?
AMS: I don’t think there’s anything waiting to be done that I’d like to be able to do. I’ll do a total of 8 Mma Ramotswe books, so two more left to write. And then I’ll initially do four Isabel Dalhousie books, but I can anticipate taking her beyond that. So I’ve got another five books to write over the next three years. So my work is reasonably cut up. And then I’ll see what happens with SCOTLAND STREET. People also ask me about a fourth volume of the von Igenfeld books, as a number of people seem to want another one. So I may revisit him at some stage. I don’t know—I’d like to. (Laughs)
SW: I certainly hope for another volume if you can!
AMS: Thank you very much.