Maclean’s Interview: Alexander McCall Smith

Author Alexander McCall Smith on why brevity is best, the British election and his favourite bookstore in the world (hint: it’s in Canada)

Alexander McCall

Alexander McCall Smith might be a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh—he’s an expert in medical bioethics—but he’s best known as a prolific mystery author. The Double Comfort Safari Club, the 11th book in the ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, has just hit bookstores, joining his five 44 Scotland Street series titles, the six volumes of the Isabel Dalhousie series and his three ‘Portuguese Irregular Verbs’ books. Best known is the No. 1 Ladies series, which follows the amazingly perceptive skills of Mma Precious Ramotswe, based in Botswana’s capital Gaborone. While quietly, compassionately solving mysteries great and small, the “traditionally built” detective also imparts wisdom about love and the “right approach to life,” which usually involves a cup of bush tea.

After Alexander McCall Smith’s book tour of Canada was cancelled in the aftermath of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, Maclean’s interviewed him via telephone from his home in Britain.

Q: So what do you think of that volcano?
A: I have very sort of negative views of Icelandic volcanoes. I know they can’t help themselves, but really!

Q: Is writing hard for you?
A: Writing is not a problem. I actually enjoy it in a way that if I was able to redesign my life, I’d give a large part of time to it.

Q: What’s your writing routine?
A: I’m a great evangelist for Apple; I love them. So I sit at my computer and write that way. It raises an interesting question: technique is more than just casual detail because I think that one’s style and, in a way, the access to one’s own subconscious is different depending on the technology that one’s using. I sound different if I use the pen. I think that developing a facility with the computer means that you have a rather more immediate access to the part of the mind that is actually creating the prose.

I remember when word processing first became common, there was a rather interesting book published called Electric Language in which the author looked at the implications of word processing and the idea was that it was a very different way of getting access to the thoughts. Certainly if I have to dictate, I find it produces rather stilted prose in my case, whereas writing on the screen it flows more easily.

Q: You have four series on the go, as well as standalone novels and other projects. Do you allot time in your routine to not writing?
A: I don’t know whether I set aside particular times in which I won’t write. But I sometimes say: “Today I’m not going to write. I’m going to take the day off.” It tends to be more couched in terms of taking the day off. We have a house in Argyll, in a lovely part of the Highlands, where we have a boat. I say: “I’m going to use the boat.” Otherwise I always feel that writing is there in the background, that I’m on duty so to speak.

Q: Do you find it a problem not being able to switch off and get away?
A: I think the world of work and duty has intruded into almost every corner of one’s life. I think a part of life that is not owned by one’s job is something that is becoming a little bit rare.

Q: Do you have a BlackBerry or a smart phone?
A: I do have an Apple iPhone and I can just turn it off. The Apple seems to be a little different. I only have to look at my emails with that device if I really want to. I do appreciate the technology. I think I’ve managed to keep it under control but I don’t dash off and look at things every waking moment.

Q: Given your busy schedule, how do you avoid the confusion between the different plots? Do you finish one before starting another?
A: I usually do them sequentially but there are occasions when I have two books on the go at the same time. It raises problems of excessive multi-tasking and having too many worlds whirling around in one’s head at the same time so I try to avoid that.

Q: Exhausting as you bounce back and forth?
A: In a way it seems like an exhausting schedule but on the other hand I find these things very energizing in that it’s marvelous meeting the readers and that compensates to some degree.

Q: Your books aren’t that long. The new No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel, The Double Comfort Safari Club, is just 211 pages. Is that deliberate?
A: That’s the length at which I write. I think they are quite comfortable. I think that one doesn’t need to go on and on about things. I was reading a non-fiction [book] the other day that was quite interesting about mountaineering. The author went on and on and on with details of the private lives of anyone who popped up in the story of the book. We have their background, their marriage and what they had for breakfast and that struck me as too much. I think brevity is important. I think one can convey a great deal with a few brush strokes.

I don’t really edit very much. In particular the Mma Ramotswe books come out fully formed. There are few changes. It comes out completely as you see it on the page.

Q: When you have a tour, what surprises your readers the most about Botswana?
A: I think that people are struck by, certainly if they contemplate the picture I paint, the kindness and the courtesy of the people. And also that is what one hears from people who visit the country. It is not at all uncommon to hear people say they encountered great kindness. It is a decent place. An old-fashioned word but nonetheless it’s a word that conveys very well. That of course is something that you’ll find in other areas of sub-Saharan Africa. You’ll see that in Malawi, a very gentle and nice people.

And that’s part of the political tragedy of sub-Saharan Africa that governments haven’t always reflected those very fine qualities of the people. It’s a pity that people in sub-Saharan African countries haven’t always been served well by their governments. Botswana is the great exception; it is very well run.

Q: When were you last there?
A: Last year, I was there twice: in July and again in October. I go every year.

Q: You sponsored an opera house in the capital Gaborone?
A: I set it up and have supported it. It is very small—to call it an opera house is pretty generous. It is a converted garage that seats about 60 to 70 people.

Q: Were you there for last fall’s premiere of a new opera, The Okavango Macbeth, which explores the Shakespearean story in a colony of baboons?
A: I wrote the libretto for that, the music was written by a friend Tom Cunningham, and then had it produced in the No. 1 Ladies Opera House. It was a wonderful production, a marvelous director from Cape Town did it.

Q: What are you working on right now?
A: I’m writing volume seven of the Isabel Dalhousie series. I have to have it finished next month. I’m doing four or five books a year.

A: I know you usually stay out of politics, however is there a person Canadians should follow in the current British election?
Q: I think the most significant figure to emerge is the leader of the Liberal Democrats [Nick Clegg] who suddenly came from nothing to being this terribly popular figure on the strength of a single performance in the debates. And what is happening at the moment after this performance is that he’s now target No. 1 of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Today the papers are full of scandals about his accounts etcetera. It will be interesting to see how they respond to a charismatic Obama-type politician.

Q: You’d never had a leaders’ debate before? Canadian elections always feature a series of them in both in English and French.
A: I’m rather against them in a parliamentary democracy, because I think they confuse the public who suddenly think we have a presidential system. The great glory of the parliamentary system is that you don’t have that. What we’ve seen is the U.K. is the steady increase in the power of the prime minister in a system where there are no real checks and balances, unlike the United States. This is unfortunate. I believe in cabinet government. I’m very old fashioned.

Q: How much did the volcano mess up your schedule?
A: Well, I will be in Canada in August again. I’m going to do a couple of events in Vancouver—I have two sisters who live there. Then after Vancouver I’m going to Newfoundland where there’s a literary festival at Woody Point. I’ve been to all the provinces but have never been to Newfoundland. I’m really looking forward to it.

AMS Q: Are you in Toronto? [He has family living in the Toronto area and is in the city so often that he’s an honorary fellow of the University of Toronto’s Massey College]
Maclean’s A: Yes
AMS: The area I really like is the area around U of T. It has my favourite book shop in the world on Harbord Street, Atticus Books. It is the nicest second-hand bookstore. If you go into really big ones like the Strand in New York you are immediately intimidated by the sheer quantity of books and the sheer size. Atticus is just a lovely size and has a very good stock and you can browse without being overwhelmed.