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Find more Taking Tea with Alexander McCall Smith
It’s been 170 years since a crowd of readers jostled each other on the pier of New York Harbor, reportedly calling out to a ship arriving from England, “Is Little Nell dead?” Little Nell, the heroine of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shoppe, did die, as we all know, and, by the end of the nineteenth century, so, for the most part, had the practice of publishing novels in serial installments. And a rare, immediate conduit between writer and reader elapsed with it.
Until now. Just this year, two separate serial novels appeared in two separate newspapers in the UK; the first, part of the long-running Scotland Street series, ran in the Scotsman; the second, a newer serialization, Corduroy Mansions, ran in London’s the Telegraph. Both appeared daily and were wildly popular, garnering local pick-up-the-paper readers in the UK and worldwide readers through the Internet.
Both serializations are the work of Scottish literary powerhouse Alexander McCall Smith, former professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and author of, besides these two series, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Sunday Philosophy Club series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and a number of stand-alone novels, short stories, and children’s books.
With the newspaper serializations this year, McCall Smith stood to out-Dickens Dickens by writing both novels at roughly the same time, often only a few days before deadline. “If I stopped to think about it,” says McCall Smith, “it could be worrying. It’s rather like walking on a tightrope—you don’t look down; you just carry on. But if I stopped to think about what I was doing—heavens!”
Last year, five new McCall Smith books saw publication. He writes at a rate of one book approximately every three months. “I write 1,000 words an hour,” he says. “And that’s the only way I can do what I do. I will often have two books going at the same time—Scotland Street is often being written while I’m writing another novel. I quite like moving from one to another.
“I usually have clear times in the year when I write particular books. I’ll do an Isabel Dalhousie [the professional ethicist and amateur sleuth who stars in the Sunday Philosophy Club series] at the beginning of the year; then in July, I start the next Mma Ramotswe [of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency] and finish in September or October. Then I do Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions. This year I have a new Portuguese Irregular Verbs. I’m about to start a new stand-alone novel, too. It’s quite carefully planned. There’s a clear program of books.”
This seems rational enough—the quota system of writing, the careful arrangement of certain times for certain books. You might picture a reclusive ex-professor burrowing away in his study. But McCall Smith is anything but reclusive. He’s out and about, meeting readers and gathering material all over the world for a good part of the year. This year, for example, he did a 12-city tour of the U.S., a tour of west Canada, another tour of the UK, and he’s booked to tour Australia and travel to Indonesia for the Bali Literary Festival.
McCall Smith doesn’t seem at all like an author pulled asunder by deadlines and travel plans. Last year, at the Book Stall, an independent bookstore in Winnetka, Illinois, he arrived expecting to do a simple book signing. When he entered to find a crowd of eager and expectant fans, he sized up the audience—people were just about hanging off the bookshelves—and said, “I’ll speak to this group first. And for the people in the back, if you care to stay, I’ll speak to you next.” To this day, when McCall Smith’s name comes up at the store’s counter, staff members still say, “He spoke twice!”
When I had the chance to visit him recently at his Edinburgh home (within walking distance of Edinburgh Castle and the University of Edinburgh and very near the sort of coffee shops and tiny ethnic restaurants readers encounter in the Scotland Street series), I had prepared two sets of questions: an emergency set of three questions, in case I had just the 20 minutes arranged for; and a longer, wishful-thinking set, in case we ran longer. McCall Smith offered me tea and led me to the center of his publishing empire, a long upstairs study, with the desk holding his computer set well back inside the room, and a sitting area of chair and sofa near the three bay windows overlooking the street. As he settled back in his armchair and sipped tea, McCall Smith’s manner was that of a man with limitless time.
Many readers know McCall Smith’s voice from his audiobooks. It’s a wonderful voice—cultured, assured, and reassuring, with little trace of a Scottish accent (McCall Smith was born and raised in Zimbabwe). His is the kind of voice I’ve been hearing in my head since I started reading novels and decided that my interior reader shouldn’t talk with the Chicago accent I grew up with but had to have an English voice.
McCall Smith has an interior voice of his own. He describes his writing process as one that seems very close to listening to music: “What happens to start a book off—there will come to me, either the first sentence, or the feel of the first paragraph, the sound of the first paragraph. I have quite a strong feeling within me for the sound of the words, for the sound of the book, so I will have a sense of rhythm in my head, a sort of beat, which precedes the words. It’s like you’re hearing chords in music; you’re hearing the rhythm.
“This morning, a sentence was coming to me: ‘There is a saying—as occasionally wrong as it is occasionally right—that we fall in love once and once only.’ That’s the first sentence of my next novel. It’s going to become a book, which I’ll start writing shortly.”
McCall Smith sees himself, not as a deliberate plot maker, but as a witness to his stories, someone who eavesdrops on his characters’ conversations. “It’s allowing your subconscious mind to do its work. The subconscious mind is saying, ‘This is the way we’ll tell this story.’ I’m not consciously sitting there saying, ‘What’s he going to say next?’ ‘What is she going to do about this?’”
When you talk with McCall Smith about his characters, it’s as if you’re catching up with a friend about other, absent friends. He seems as surprised and delighted in their latest doings as you are. Mention someone like Violet Sephoto, the manipulative man-stealer in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and he’ll talk about her with something like wonder—almost as you would talk about an outrageous schemer you’ve come across at work or in your neighborhood—not as a character that he himself assembled.
He talks about people stopping him to give advice on his characters, especially about the Scotland Street series’ Bertie, a little boy whose life is blighted by his overscheduling, domineering mother, Irene. “I was at the theatre the other night here in Edinburgh, and as I was going downstairs at the interval, I was waylaid by three ladies who were fans of Bertie. They said they were very concerned about him. ‘What are we going to do about Irene?’ they asked. I said, ‘I, uh, well, I don’t know.’”
McCall Smith’s characters strike a deep chord with readers. Mma Ramotswe, especially, his undaunted woman detective in contemporary Botswana, whose cases have more to do with solving moral and ethical dilemmas than they do with pedestrian crime solving, touches people directly. “A lot of people feel Mma Ramotswe speaks very personally to them,” says McCall Smith. “So we’ll have people who have been through very difficult times who say Mma Ramotswe helped them through. We get at least a letter or a message like that virtually every day.
“For example, one of the most common ones, a very common one, is from people who have had chemo. And they say, ‘I read Mma Ramotswe while I was going through my chemo, and she helped me.’ And I take that very seriously. I’m aware of the responsibility that brings. So people get—as far as we can manage it—a personal response. That’s almost a pastoral side to the job. There are people with whom we’re in a relationship that requires nurturing and response.”
The relationships among McCall Smith’s characters are every bit as complex as those between readers and the characters they adore. Beauty, in particular, often has the power to throw his women characters off course, even sensible philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, who, in the just-released The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, is haunted by the memory of John Liamor, a beautiful but vile man from her past.
“I find the whole idea an interesting one—that reason can be so easily overwhelmed by a perception of beauty, as it can, indeed, be overwhelmed by a simple sexual attraction. This is a subject that Isabel is obviously very interested in, in that she is a woman dedicated to matters of the mind, yet she is confronted by her own feelings of this nature. I have also been very interested in the power that certain attractive people have to disturb the equanimity of those whose paths they cross. John Liamor is a typical example of that.”
As McCall Smith talks about the delights and responsibilities of his work and his characters, his Edinburgh study seems less and less like a refuge for an overwhelmingly busy author and more and more like a launching pad for stories and characters who have the power to delight, puzzle, horrify, enlighten, and comfort readers.
At the end of our interview, Alexander McCall Smith asks, “Can I give you a book? Do you think the woman who runs your B & B would like one?” He leads me to a small room just off his study that holds floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. All four walls hold copies of his books. It’s a detail that would be significant in one of his novels: here’s an internationally known writer who composes in a room that is light-filled and of generous proportions but holds absolutely no clue to his fame. “I think she might like Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, don’t you?”
Connie Fletcher is a regular contributor to Booklist.
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