Alexander McCall Smith was a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh when he published his debut novel, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” in 1998, at age 50. Since then, McCall Smith has published more than 60 adult novels, 15-plus children’s books and a memoir. His books have won awards, sold millions of copies (“The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series has sold more than 20 million copies) and been translated into dozens of languages. McCall Smith - whose book “The Peppermint Tea Chronicles” is the fourth new book to be published in the United States this year - recently traveled from his Edinburgh home to give a talk at the Library of Congress. Before the event, he sat down to talk about his books and how he manages to write so many good ones.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A: Yes, like most children I liked writing when I was very young. I was probably a little precocious in that respect, in that I sent off to a publisher my first manuscript - one page - when I was 8. It was a story called “He’s Gone.” It was a single page, handwritten. The publisher wrote back - it was an amazing thing. Unfortunately, they said they couldn’t do this one, but in the future, they might be able to.
A: I wrote quite a few short stories and various things before I really sat myself down and became a novelist. Then I think what happened was that the success of the books gave me a green light, and I felt that I could write what I wanted to write. So, I didn’t have that awful sense that writers sometimes have of worrying about whether they’re writing the right thing or whether their publishers will accept it and so on.
I was able, with “The No 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency,” to write books which I suppose are rather gentle and in which there is no blood and gore and no confrontation. The publishers, some of them said to me, ‘You’ve got to have more edge, you’ve got to be more confrontational, more modern.’ I think the success of “Ladies Detective” book made a big difference. I could write about more joyful, more affirmative things, and also write things that verge on the absurd, such as the German professors in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. It’s an absurd story, but what fun! It was a wonderful, liberating moment when I was able to write rather odd things that I wanted to write.
A: When I’m writing, I become very absorbed in my writing. I go into what I think is a minor dissociative state. I don’t actually have to sit there and think about what is going to come. It comes pretty automatically, and very quickly. I write - I don’t say this in a boastful sense - I do write 1,000 words an hour.
So what is happening there, I’m accessing a part of the subconscious mind, which is making all of this up. So I don’t really have to think what is going to happen now, what’s he going to say to her, what’s she going to say to him - it just comes. It’s extraordinary, and there seems to be no limit to it in that it’s all the time. I do always have a notebook with me. [He pulls out a leather pocket-size notebook, and leafs through it.] This is just constantly filling up.
A: Yes, that’s right [looking through notebook, laughing].
A: I often think first of place, then think of character and then plot. So I do describe the sky quite a lot. I think that that is also a pause for the reader because if you’ve got too much going on in the narrative events, you do want to take a bit of a breath. And the sky in Botswana - indeed in any place - the sky humbles us, it puts things in proper proportion. So Mma Ramotswe (founder of “The No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency”) thinks of the sky because the sky is so obvious in Botswana, it’s so wide and so empty. And also I think about wind as well. I will sometimes refer to the action of the wind in the trees, the trees making the sound of the sea. I think those are things where, with little brushstrokes, you can create an ambiance.
A: Well, I think some people will take the view that I have a rose-tinted view of the world or that I’m not writing about reality. I can see why they might say that, but I would be inclined to disagree with them because I think that human life consists of the utterly bleak and suffering in all its varieties on the one hand, and then on the other, it’s full of the potential for joy, for happiness, for fellowship and friendship and love. And for most people, what they’re wanting in life, probably their greatest desire, is to be loved. Love is the spring that drives life, the mechanism that drives life, and it drives our attitude toward the world as well. These are things which should have their place in literature, and I think are a very, very big part of life, and the pathological in life is a relatively small part.
So I think that portraying the world as a vale of tears and portraying the world in a way in which aggression becomes the default position and where people talk to one another in snarls, is to me a curious view of life. Since so much of the time our entertainment is focused on the sensational and cruelty and human failing, we can persuade ourselves that that is all there is in life. In my view, that seems to be not only bizarre, it’s unhealthy. We need to contemplate the pathological from time to time. We wouldn’t want a dollop of constant equanimity. We need things to be sharpened up from time to time, and we all like a good thriller. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t forget that there are other things.
I might have two on the go at the same time. At the moment, I’m writing Volume 2 of my Scandinavian series [the Detective Varg series]. I prefer to have one, but sometimes it becomes necessary to have two.
A: Yes, I do. I think you actually have to have a schedule. Otherwise, if you wait for the muse to tap you on the shoulder, she may never do it. Or she may be late. I often get up very early - 4 in the morning - and I might write for a couple of hours. And then I go back to bed and have a refreshing sleep. I write for about three hours a day.
A: Those are all terribly complimentary. I would never dream of using any of those. It’s very kind of people to say that. I suppose my style is just the way I write. I don’t really think about it very much.
A: No. I think style is very, very interesting. I think you’d probably be able, in so many cases, to do a bit of archaeology to work out why people write in a particular way. I suspect you’d find certain inferences in my reading in the past that did that. I think that I was exposed to influences which led to that. It would be difficult to put a finger on any specific ones.
A: I would hope so. I mean, one never knows what life has in store for one, but I am continuing with this. I would feel bereft if I couldn’t carry on writing. It’s something which I do with the greatest pleasure. It’s not a chore for me; it’s a pleasure.
MacPherson is the children’s and teen services coordinator for the Takoma Park, Md., library.