Alexander McCall Smith admits that it is tough balancing the demands of being an accidental writer.
"I AM a particular kind of writer; I'm a serial novelist — by accident," chuckles Alexander McCall Smith, much-loved author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series featuring the inimitable Precious Ramotswe. The life of a serial writer, however, isn't an easy one, and requires a polygamous apportioning of headspace. Along with the generously proportioned lady detective from Botswana, Smith has to juggle his time — and attentions — between other serial protagonists such as Isabel Dalhousie the philosopher, Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld the professor, and the multiple residents of 44, Scotland Street.In person, Smith wears the burden of this juggling act lightly. The creator of the aforementioned characters is very much as you might picture him to be: jovial, with a certain old-fashioned charm, and feet firmly planted on the ground even as book sales take flight to stratospheric heights. The "accidental" part of his career, he explains, is that he never sat down with a conscious decision to write serial fiction; it's just that the characters acquired a life and momentum of their own. "Fiction," he believes, "is the product of the subconscious mind. I'm merely the chronicler of the extraordinary lives of these characters. The subconscious mind is always asking `what if' questions and a writer translates that into reality." The professor of medical law is a prolific wordsmith. He has actually written over 60 books, even taking on the challenge of typing out 1,000 words of fiction within three hours each morning, for the purposes of daily of serialisation in Edinburgh's The Scotsman. He says the words come out pretty much in final form, he doesn't really "edit" what he writes.Sometimes, though, his fans try and "edit" his writing. He narrates an amusing anecdote of how a group of ladies once took him to task about the character of Mma Ramotswe's former husband; he was toying with the idea of bringing him back but they assured him that he shouldn't. Smith admits to feeling a "moral responsibility" to his readers. He doesn't feel constrained that they have this huge sense of "ownership" over his characters. He takes pleasure from people sharing, "how the books have helped them when they were low. An American psychiatrist told me he prescribes my books to clients who are feeling depressed."
Perhaps readers have this sense of happy involvement because "they are optimistic books about the world as we'd like it to be; we want to believe that there are people who are kind and decent — and are happy to see such a world exist," he offers. Indeed, Smith's books are pretty utopian in nature, quite different from the hard-edged feel and "realism" of a lot of contemporary writing. Or perhaps people have this sense of involvement because Mma Ramotswe is, quite frankly, such a delight. "She is a woman motivated by a great sense of an ethical engagement with the world. She is driven by her affection for the country; believes in conventional niceties and high moral principles — how can we live our lives, how can we find fulfillment?" You can't help voicing aloud the thought that Mma Ramotswe has possibly grown into an alter ego over the years. "I could not be as good as Mma Ramotswe," he demurs. "I'm not her equal. I'm just a very ordinary person." The books, he says, "are written as a tribute to Botswana, from a very particular perspective," and don't pretend to be an insider's view of life there. The subsequent reaction from the women of Botswana that he has spoken to "has been very generous," he says.
Today, Smith's books are published in over 30 foreign languages, with some 10 million copies sold in English. His family is "very matter of fact about the success", he laughs, though daughter Emily was rather impressed when Flea — of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers fame — turned out to be a fan. His wife remembers how they would joke about him writing that ground-breaking bestseller "one day" without realising he'd already written it. For, Detective Agency was published "small" in 1998, and shot to life-changing fame and bestseller lists only by 2002. "Writing gives me great delight," says the affable author who refuses to be drawn into dissecting the sources of this delight. "In our writing we authors are responding to a world that is painful and puzzling; so I don't think authors should analyse themselves too much, because then they will resolve themselves and stop writing." That would be a pity. One has to agree with David Davidar, author of The House of Blue Mangoes, who once told me that "reading Alexander McCall Smith is like eating ice cream; it goes down so smoothly." And when you've eaten one scoop, the urge to have the next — serial — scoop is irresistible.