In India for the Jaipur Literature Festival, Alexander McCall Smith tells MITA KAPUR about his writing, books, Africa and favourite writers.

Alexander McCall Smith — known for his Ladies Detective Agency series, the Sunday Philosophy Club series, the 44 Scotland Street series, among others — was at the Jaipur Literature Festival regaling his faithful readers with his writing experiences in a kind, gentle way; endearingly stopping to chat with anyone who wished to. What makes him write is “It's what I like to do. The desire to write; you have to find the world very interesting which I do.”

Witticisms are a way of life and talking to Alexander McCall Smith is to know that he's instinctively observing people around him with a gently ironical sense of humour. “American companies are all full of Vice-Presidents. There is a Vice-President for Tea, for First Copy... and after our meeting, they gave me lunch… (long pause)...which is illegal in New York.”

Having authored over 60 books, he remains rooted. Asked if he found his books as charming as his readers do, he replies, “I don't think I should attempt to judge my novels. Writers have to do what they think is right for them artistically and see if it has an impact.”

Asked about his ready wit, irony and a-chuckle-a-sentence kind of humour, he reflects, “One has to have a balance, must notice the tragic, bleak side of it and be able to see the humour as well. My approach is fairly dry, not unkind at all and I do look at situations to find the humorous side of it most naturally.”

McCall Smith found the idea of writing a novel using a ladies detective agency attractive and a device through which human issues and problems could be dealt with.

“I find the perspective of ladies interesting. A conversation with two ladies would be more interesting and definitely more unique than two men talking! I wanted to write about women living in Botswana; they are particularly resourceful, kind, remarkable, strong women.”

Tell him his books are a study of human nature and McCall Smith smiles. “That's a kind assessment. Yes, in a way, they are studies of human nature, more of positive possibilities… In particular, Mma Ramotswe who is generous, spirited, forgiving, which I think is important because we live in a world where people are prone to blaming others quickly. Mma Ramotswe is a better person than I am. I'm writing about a more virtuous, more patient person, it's an aspirational thing…”

African connection

McCall Smith feels that the fact that “I spent my childhood in Africa explains my interest in it. People can write about countries they go to and come to love like Dalrymple writes about India. Ruth P Jhabwala is another perceptive novelist. One has to have a basic feeling and attraction for a place to be able to write about it.”

He is often asked why his portrayal of Africa is so refreshingly different. “I don't ignore the inequalities but that isn't the only Africa that exists. We do meet courtesy, kindness, joy, humanity in Botswana. Nowhere does it say that fiction has to be intensely socially realistic. I think it's unfair that Africa is portrayed only bleakly. We have problems in Scotland too but is that the only story?”

His books bear names like Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones — eye catching and send out a you-must-read-me message. Of this he says, “Choosing a title is terribly important. I come up with suggestions. Sometimes there is no debate or it's an agreed compromise. I like odd quirky titles and I enjoy the process.”

It's a wonder how Alexander manages a detective series, children's books and books on medical ethics and medical law. McCall Smith says, “I'm a full time writer now. I've stopped writing on Medical Law and Ethics. Writing four books a year is very nice, I like the variety, find it positive. I'd find it rather weary to write one type.”

Readers' suggestions

As an author, he takes note of readers' suggestions and is influenced by them. “I was able to correct a remoteness in one of my characters because of a suggestion. Readers are your community. A lot of response came from India to my recent story in the Telegraph. This makes them participate in the creation of the novel and support it as well.”

Calling himself a tightrope walker because of the sheer number of commitments, he says, “When I have to give a chapter to a newspaper for a serialised novel, I am living dangerously! I don't deal with political issues, I keep away from contentious issues, I don't like to get involved in controversies.”

But writing a serialised novel changes the creative process, Mc Call Smith feels. “You can't go back, revise or change it. It's a major issue, you can't meander and you have to keep things moving.”

What about the graphic novel route? “People are doing it rather well but I'm particularly interested in words the conventional way.”

Asked to choose between his two heroes, Isabel and Mma Ramotswe, the author chuckles, “I can't express preference for my characters just like parents don't want to choose between their children. I wouldn't like to do it. Both of them deal with certain things, have different moods, different voices and when I write them both, they are both parts of me.”

On influences that have left a mark on him, he reflects, “I like the stream of consciousness approach, a wandering that gives the feeling of being in the company of intelligent thinking people. Maugham is a short story writer and has an intense way of describing a character. W.H. Auden has been one of my greatest influences. R.K. Narayan is a wonderful writer. I don't think I would have written the Ladies Detective Agency series had I not read him. His books have a lovely sense of people doing things even when life is not treating them as well it should be. Narayan has a rootedness and, in my Botswana novels, I'm trying to do that subconsciously. Mma Ramotswe is rooted and attached to the land. I do it in the context of Scotland too. My impression is that readers like to have a sense of the local, of the landscape they are reading about ... I wish more people would read him in Western Europe. He should have got the Nobel Prize according to me.”

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