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Alexander McCall Smith Interview: The No.1 Ladies Detective Writer

June 7, 2009, 14:48:58
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Alexander McCall Smith, best-selling British author of over 60 books, is on his way back to Botswana to write his next book. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for timtim about his characters and book covers and his thoughts on artwork, talent, and teaching.

 

Alexander McCall Smith has captured the hearts of millions of readers in over 40 countries with the love, humanity, wit, and common sense insights of Mma Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” African lady-detective who squeezes her ample bottom into a small white van and rumbles across the cattle-dotted, red earth of southern Botswana solving cases for The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. There are now ten books in the series filled with unusual case files, memorable characters, and life-affirming stories. His prose allows readers to feel the heat of the Kalahari, hear the cicadas, and smell the bush tea. His books are food for the soul and The No.1 Ladies Detective series is now a popular BBC television series starring Jill Scott, seen on the set together with the author in the photo above.

 

It is McCall Smith’s strong sense of morality and humanitarian instincts that endear readers to the central characters of his books. For most of these he has chosen strong, independent women. "It wasn't a conscious choice," he explains, "it just worked out that way!" The lady-detective character of Precious Ramotswe came to him while he was in Botswana watching a cheerful and traditionally large woman chase a chicken through a dusty yard. “Mma Ramotswe is a positive and optimistic character,” admits McCall Smith, “and I think that she probably reflects the things I believe in.”

 

Alexander McCall Smith believes that writers have a moral responsibility. He knows Africa well and is passionate about Africa’s many difficulties. McCall Smith was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia the former British colony which is now Zimbabwe, in 1948 where his Scottish father was the colonial public prosecutor. Before moving to Scotland for his university studies, he grew up in the days of apartheid in neighboring South Africa and witnessed first hand the birth of Botswana as a free nation in 1966. He deals gently with African issues and often refers to AIDS as “the terrible sickness” that leaves so many orphaned children, and he writes with compassion about the clashes of old and new African ways. He does this while managing to show the good he sees in people and presents his beloved Botswana as a young and democratic nation where a man’s true wealth can be better measured by his cattle and friends than by his bank account or the car he drives.

 

Before he became a best-selling author, Alexander McCall Smith was an Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and taught Law at the University of Botswana. Much of his academic work has focused on the ethical issues of genetics and he has served on the UK Human Genetics Commission and UNESCO’s International Biogenetics Commission. It is no surprise that when he took to writing fiction that he developed his central characters with such strong background histories. You can almost sense and believe their ancestry.

 

The first 4 chapters of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (the first in the series) paint a vivid picture of early Botswana and Precious Ramotswe’s childhood and her cattle-loving father. He describes Precious as a very observant child who is taught to see the world around her and to draw what she sees. Her drawings eventually win her a scholarship that starts her off in life. But in the following 9 books of the series Mma Ramotswe the detective seems to have no time for drawing. We asked the author if he enjoyed drawing as a child. “Yes! I did enjoy drawing as a child,” he admitted, but went on to explain, “I think, sadly, it is hard for people today to find the time to enjoy the skills they developed as a child.”

 

“Sandy” as the author is known to his friends, is a very busy man, but still seems to find time to enjoy his other skills. He is not only an amateur bassoonist, he is also co-founder of the Really Terrible Orchestra and Botswana’s first opera training center, The No.1 Ladies’ Opera House in the capitol, Gaborone. Here he gathered together about 12 musicians and some local singers and gave them the chance to sing some opera. He admits that “it was a mad idea but tremendous fun!”

 

Because of his work with ethics and the human genome it seemed natural for us to ask the author if he felt genetics could determine creative talents like art or music. “It is very difficult with genetics to work out whether talents such as artistic skills are developed or inherited,” he answered. “There is some evidence that certain skills may be inherited, but this is something that scientists cannot really determine.” McCall Smith’s most famous character creation, lady-detective Precious Ramotswe, seems endowed not only with a “good eye for cattle” inherited from her father Obed, but also with Sherlock-Holmes-like observation skills playfully encouraged in childhood by her auntie.

 

McCall Smith is interested in almost everything and he loves to talk and write about people. His writing reflects all this while also being so visually descriptive that you feel as though you are right there in Botswana. But, when we asked if he thinks in pictures, he answered, "I have to confess that I do not think in pictures, but simply write down my thoughts without seeing any picture taking form." This is very interesting because the book cover artwork for the series is a playful visual gallery of the stories and their African setting. “I take great interest in my book covers,” admits McCall Smith, “and am involved at every stage of the design. I think that the illustrations that Hannah Firmin does are wonderful!”

 

He writes in the evenings and his “thoughts” are written out so word-perfect that his book editors claim that they have little to do. You sense his enjoyment in his writing with such playful titles as Blue Shoes And Happiness, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. And he can tickle the funny bone and twist your tongue with some of the names of places and characters in his novels like The Double Comfort Furniture Store, Phuti Radiphuti, Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and Leungo Molofololo

 

His Botswana characters are strongly portrayed, and they often speak with reverence about teachers and the teaching profession. When we asked what differences he has noticed between school children in Africa and those in Europe or the USA, he replied, “In Africa, education is appreciated a great deal. It is a pity that in Europe and North America people take it for granted. It is striking to see how children appreciate their education in Africa.”

 

We wish Alexander McCall Smith a safe journey to his beloved Botswana and anxiously await publication of his 11th book in the series about Precious Ramotswe and her No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. And, hopefully, Mma Ramotswe will find some time between cases to relax with a cup of bush tea on her verandah and to experience again the joy of drawing that she knew as a child.

©2009:timtim.com

 

 

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