Lit for Life

‘Whisky and writing don't go together’

Alexander McCall Smith.  

I catch up with Alexander McCall Smith just as he is packing his bags to fly to India — a trip he is very much looking forward to, he explains, since the Indian hotel industry “really knows how to do hospitality in a stylish way”.

What drew you to the crime genre?

I write so much more than just crime. Some of my books might be described as being concerned with crime, but in fact if one looks at them closely one sees that there is very little crime in them. I suppose that people consider me to be a crime writer because of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. The heroine is more of a psychologist and an “agony aunt” than a detective! Having said that, crime novels provide a wonderful vehicle for talking about a society and its quirks.

So which authors influenced you in this regard?

As far as crime fiction was concerned, I was influenced by Keating. His Inspector Ghote books are wonderfully vivid. In the category of serious crime fiction I think one of the most remarkable books of recent years was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Have you by the way read RK Narayan?

I am glad that you asked this question. I am a very big fan of Narayan. Some years ago I was asked by his American publishers to do an introduction to a new edition of his work. I did that very gladly. I think that I might not have been able to write my Botswana books had I not read Narayan. Indeed I think that Narayan should have won the Nobel Prize.

Despite the fact that there were detective novels set outside the Western world, such as HRF Keating’s now 50-year-old Bombay detective series, I think your success in particular has contributed to the globalisation of the fictional crime scene. Today, we read thrillers from Japan, China, Mexico and so on. What do you think?

Firstly, thank you for that generous assessment. I suppose that my Botswana novels did open some eyes to the possibility of reading about parts of the world other than those in which many crime novels in English have been set. I think that people are increasingly interested in such settings. The world is a wide and vivid place and provides us with so many suitable settings for fiction.

I’m sure everybody asks you this, but how did you get the brilliant idea for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?

The idea came to me randomly. Suddenly I thought “why not write about a woman in Botswana who opens a detective agency?”

Why Botswana of all places?

I lived and worked in Botswana. I have great affection for the country, and I find it very interesting. I think that Botswana has achieved a great deal. It is a peaceful and well-run country.

You’ve not only been writing detective novels set in Botswana, but many other novels too, lots of children’s books, a libretto for a version of Macbeth set amongst baboons (!?) and an amazing amount of academic texts. How do you manage to be so prolific?

I suppose that I have written so much because I take great delight in writing. I am also very lucky in being able to write quickly. My normal rate of writing is 1,000 words an hour and that helps! I like to write more than one book at a time.

Ever faced writer’s block?

Fortunately not.

Do you have any writing routine?

When I am writing at home, I get up at four in the morning and write until about seven. I write a bit more after breakfast and I may write during the evening. I find it difficult to write in the afternoon. I do write when I am travelling on planes and trains. I write in hotels when I am away, provided the hotels have the right atmosphere. On my forthcoming trip to India, to which I am looking forward immensely, I shall certainly be writing as well as attending literary festivals.

Do you prefer coffee or tea when you write, or maybe Scotch since you live up there in Scotland?

I can drink coffee in the morning, but from midmorning onwards it has to be tea. I usually drink Assam.

Whisky and writing do not go together, as I think Hemingway may have said. I do like whiskey, however, and have written about it but I do not write while drinking it!

Considering that lots of young Indians aspire to become novelists, what would be your advice to somebody who wants to write detective fiction?

There have been so many wonderful new writers emerging from India, and I hope that the supply does not dry up. As for advice for those thinking of writing detective fiction, I would say that they should read extensively into that genre so that they know what people like. They should not try to imitate, though; they should make sure that they use their own voice. And they should practice, practice, practice. Writing is like playing the piano — it requires a great deal of practice. And the advice that I would give to all prospective writers, no matter what field they are interested in, is that they should study humanity close-up. They should listen to people, they should watch them, they should always be curious.

Among all the fictional characters you’ve created, is there any one in particular that keeps haunting you… maybe so much that you would like to meet the figure in real life and have a heart-to-heart talk?

That is a very interesting question. I am very fond of all my characters, but I have particular feelings for young Bertie, who is the seven-year-old boy in the Scotland Streetseries. I would like to be able to meet Bertie, and to be able to tell him that life will eventually become better for him. Bertie’s problem of course is his mother, who is far too pushy!

Zac O’Yeah is the author of popular comic thrillers. His published works range from bestselling detective fiction to history and travelogue, and he has also translated Indian literature into Swedish

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 7:12:54 PM |

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