Alexander McCall Smith
It was the memory of a woman chasing a chicken around her yard, amidst feathers and dust, that shot author Alexander McCall Smith into the spotlight. Never mind that he had, prior to the chicken story, written over fifty books, some of them specialist titles like Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana. But it was the enormously engaging Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder of the first ladies’ detective agency in Botswana who won readers over. Protagonist in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency Mma Ramotswe sets up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone and soon becomes a recognized figure, someone people with problems seek out. It was in 1998 that Smith achieved instant fame with what started out as a short story, grew into a set of stories and now the promise of an eight-volume series. A professor of medical law at Edinburgh, born in what we now know as Zimbabwe, who taught law at the University of Botswana, the author found his literary niche in telling the stories of Botswana, its remarkable people and its great traditions of courtesy, dignity and survival. Five books in the series are out — The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, and The Full Cupboard of Life. McCall Smith has also earned 2 Booker Judges’ Special Recommendations and won the vote for one of the International Books of the Year and the Millennium by the Times Literary Supplement. Smith uses deceptively simple language and a sparse story-telling style in his detective series. While Mma Ramotswe solves cases — whether it is tracking down a missing husband, uncovering a con man or following a wayward daughter — the stories cannot be limited to the traditional genre of ‘mystery.’ They are more about the relationships between people and the indomitable spirit that drives the day-to-day lives of Africans.
- You don’t resort to sex sirens or bludgeoned millionaires to hook your readers. And you still keep them turning the pages with everyday, commonplace events! How?
- I believe that people are very interested in reading about the ordinary things of life. One can make a very simple situation seem interesting — often it is very simple matters that arouse most passions in people.
- Your books reflect a delicate balance of life and humor. What are the cultural aspects of Africa and its people that contribute to this?
- I think that people in sub-Saharan African cultures often have a very good sense of humor. They have a strong sense of human values and they are frequently very empathetic. As a result one finds a balance of humor and good nature in such societies.
- There is a sense of languid pace in your writing that probably appeals to readers who lead frenetic lives. Do you consciously set out to achieve this pace?
It is rather difficult for me to answer this. I suppose I like my writing to have an unhurried pace but I do not set out to achieve this in a deliberate way. I suppose this is just the way it emerges when I write.
- For someone who is not a Botswana native, you write so convincingly of its characteristics and people.
- I had the great fortune to spend my childhood in Zimbabwe, which is next door to Botswana, so I suppose that gave me some understanding of the society. I have also spent time in Botswana and return there every year. It is a country very close to my heart.
- What is your writing schedule like?
- When I am busy with the day-to-day tasks of being an author — book signings, talks etc. — I have to snatch short spells of time in which to write. Sometimes this can be on planes or in hotel rooms as I travel on promotional tours. When, however, I have the opportunity to spend large chunks of my time on my writing I will write for more than four hours a day, more or less without stopping.
- In what ways is the process of writing similar to the process of dreaming?
- I think this is a very interesting question. I believe that writing comes in part from the subconscious mind which explores situations and possibilities in much the same way as the dreaming mind does.
- How has the huge success of the Mma Ramotswe books changed your lifestyle and you as a person?
- I very much hope that the success of the books has not changed me personally. I think one has to watch that, though. I try to lead the same sort of life that I used to, but that is not entirely possible. I have lost control of my own time, to an extent, and I suppose I have also lost a degree of privacy. However, my main ambition is to lead an ordinary existence.
- What is your first love — teaching or writing?
- I enjoy both of these — it would be difficult to choose between them. I suppose that at heart I am a writer, first and foremost. As to how this is so, I am not sure, but I would imagine that it is something to do with a deep inner sense that this is what I have to do.
- How involved are you in the movie projects of your books?
- I speak to the people who are involved in this. I have confidence in their ability to deal with the story in a way which reflects its cultural context. Obviously the translation of a book to the screen can involve some changes, but I hope these are not too extensive. However, in reality, I have very little control over the final outcome.
- What exactly is bush tea?
- t is rooibos tea or redbush tea, a type of tea grown only in South Africa but available in US health food stores. It can be drunk with honey and in this form is sometimes known as honeybush tea.