Saturday, September 27, 2008

The very small world of Alexander McCall Smith

The 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series author explains why he focuses on everyday affairs and petty things

By Edward Nawotka

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Before the publication of Alexander McCall Smith's "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" novels, Gaborone, Botswana, wasn't exactly a magnet for tourists. The city served as a destination for executives from the diamond industry and a gateway for travelers heading to the safari camps of the Okavango Delta.

Today, by contrast, fans of the best-selling mystery series walk down the real Zebra Drive, where the fictional No. 1 Lady Detective, the "traditionally built African woman" Precious Ramotswe, lives; find the garage that inspired the fictional Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors; and quaff many cups of "red bush" tea.

If none of these references means anything to you, then perhaps you haven't stepped into a bookstore recently.

Alexander McCall Smith is among the most prolific and popular authors in print. A native of Zimbabwe who was educated in Scotland and later returned to Africa to help open a law school in Gaborone, he has published nine "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" novels, the latest of which to be published in the U.S., "The Miracle at Speedy Motors," came out in April. The books have been translated into more than 39 languages and sold 15 million copies around the world.

In addition, Smith has published five installments of the "Sunday Philosophers Club" series, including "The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday," which came out Tuesday, and three academic satires starring Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. There are also five volumes of "44 Scotland Street," about the residents of an Edinburgh apartment building written as a daily serial for an Edinburgh newspaper, and yet another serial, "Corduroy Mansions," about a large house of people in London, which he began earlier this month. A thousand or so words of it are published each day in the online Daily Telegraph. If you want, you can hear it as a podcast voiced by Andrew Sachs, who played the Spanish waiter Manuel on "Fawlty Towers."

Smith's enormous output takes him about "an hour and a half each day," he says by phone from his hometown of Edinburgh as he prepared for a six city U.S. tour, which includes Austin as his final stop.

"I have no difficulty writing on the road — airports, hotels, anywhere really," he says, "though writing on tour can be quite a bother." Smith gets about 20 requests for appearances each day and, as a consequence, his life is mapped out some 18 months in advance. That Austin will have hosted him twice in the past three years (he was a featured speaker at the Texas Book Festival gala in 2005) is a privilege but no accident.

"I'm rather quite fond of Texas," he says. "I've done two teaching stints at SMU in Dallas, and I was there in 1998 when the first 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' book was published in the U.K. I had 200 copies of the first edition — of about 1,500 copies in print — flown over, and my colleagues threw a small book party for me."

When Smith returns to Austin on Thursday, he'll give a 50-minute talk titled "The Very Small Things in Life." It's a surprising topic for a man whose life as an attorney was occupied with the weighty subject of medical ethics.

"Books need not always concern themselves only with the large issues of life," he explains. "Not everything has to be 'War and Peace.' By focusing on the small things, everyday affairs and petty things, it allows for humor and the evocation of human sympathy."

This celebration of the ordinary is evident in Smith's novels, which focus on such practical matters as running a business or a household. Precious Ramotswe is a detective who specializes in the mysteries of the human heart, rather than solving crimes, as such. Most of her investigating is done in conversation over a cup of red-bush tea employing little more than intuition and common sense.

Perhaps as a result of his having honed his craft as the writer of children's books, true villains and, most notably, AIDS, which is a major problem in Botswana, are all but absent from his work.

"My books don't tend to be intensely realistic," he says by way of explanation, "They are more like fables."

Though he's often compared to Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse, Smith would prefer comparison to Barbara Pym and E.F. Benson, prolific 20th-century British writers known for their charitable, if humorous, portraits of provincial and middle-class life.

Indeed, Smith's books tend to be sunny and optimistic, paced for leisurely Sunday afternoons on a porch swing (rather than, say, a James Patterson novel, which is best suited for the frenetic anxiety of air travel).

"I always strive to keep it simple, to get the essence of something," he says.

How well this translates to the screen is yet to be determined. HBO and the BBC are collaborating on an adaptation starring the American R&B singer Jill Scott. Smith is enthusiastic about the unlikely choice of a Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia pop star to play a Botswanan Motswana private detective: "She's perfect," he says. "Her accent, her body language. It's all perfect."

One thing is for certain. Once the show airs, sometime next year, Botswana can expect a wave of Americans who will flock to see Gaborone firsthand.

When they get there, they will find a place that is a bit more dusty, a bit more rundown, a bit more hopelessly dire than the one described in Smith's books. But they will also find a ray of hope: what must be the only new opera venue in sub-Saharan Africa. The No. 1 Ladies' Opera House opened this past June under Smith's direction, complete with a little white van and a coffee shop and restaurant where dishes are named after the characters from his books.

Anyone for a plate of Mma Makoutsi's pancakes with a pot of Mma Ramotswe's bush tea? Just four and a half pula, please.

1 comment:

Carol said...

Dear Edward,
I've looked for a phone number for you but couldn't find one. I have a very quick question. I'm 75 years old and haven't a clue as to what's legal or proper to do with "blogging" to introduce two books that I just (independently) published for my rabbi. We have a website ( and I'm now trying to come up the learning curve for using this new fangled web. Thanks, Carol Feltman
tel: 757-208-0200. email: