'We need stories in our lives that make sense of the world around us': Alexander McCall Smith


We need stories in our lives that make sense of the world around us: Alexander McCall Smith

Well-known British author and creator of The No. 1 Ladies Detective agency series Alexander McCall Smith on what it takes to live with the characters long after you've created them


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 11 Jan 2018, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 12 Jan 2018, 1:00 AM

At a time when diversity is the buzzword in popular culture, it serves well to revisit Alexander McCall Smith's hugely popular The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Set in Botswana, the books revolve around the vivacious Mma Ramotswe, who opens the country's first female-owned detective agency with an inheritance left by her father. The light-hearted stories are as much an exploration of Africa (and a gentle nudge on what we believe Africa to be all about) as they are about Mma Ramotswe's adventures. Such is the popularity commanded by the series that ever since her literary debut in 1999, Mma Ramotswe has appeared in as many as 18 novels, sold about 20 million copies and even spun her own TV show (and it isn't uncommon to hear passages of books being quoted every now and then at formal ceremonies). Today, the books claim a substantial stake in McCall Smith's robust body of work that includes his other popular series such as 44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosophy Club, apart from other novels, essays and children's books. In a conversation with WKND, McCall Smith, who will be headed to the UAE in March to attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, tells us why stories and, by extension, characters will stand the test of time, and digitalisation.
How do these stories come to you, given that you write two to three books a year?
The subconscious mind is the source of a great deal of fiction. The stories just rise to the surface. Human mind is always looking at the world and inquiring about its possibilities. That's where the stories come from. In addition, of course, you may hear something, you may read something, you may see something that could provide the trigger for the plots. The other day, I was walking back home from across a park in Edinburgh and the wind was blowing and there were clouds all over and a scene came to my mind for a novel that I am currently working on. This happens as one goes through life. As a novelist, you're on duty all the time to listen and observe.
It is believed you write 1,000 words an hour. How does the process come to you?
I think writing is like any other activity; practice helps you. So, the more of it you do, the more proficient you become. I think one develops better pathways. It's like playing the piano - the more you practice your scales, the better you become at putting your fingers on the right keys on the keyboard.
Nearly 20 years ago, when you started writing he No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, how easy or difficult was it to get inside the mind of a woman and acquiring her voice?
As a novelist, you have to put yourself in the shoes of other people all the time and look at the world through their eyes. You make that imaginative leap. So, for example, in case of the Mma Ramotswe books, I had worked in Botswana and knew many people like her. That applies to all the characters in my books. It's really about trying to develop an empathetic understanding of people. One has to be careful, though. Sometimes, you may get it wrong and there might be circumstances in which you wouldn't be able to understand that experience wholly. So while you make that leap, you've got to do so thoughtfully.
As a writer of fiction - though one understands that you are essentially writing about a woman who happens to be a detective rather than the other way around - how do you tackle uncertainty?
That's interesting. Well, I often don't plan a plot very much in advance. As I write it, I find that all sorts of developments occur, which I may not have necessarily anticipated. When I start writing a book, there's considerable measure of uncertainty. Then it fleshes itself out eventually. Again, human mind is always looking at uncertainties and suggesting solutions, although you may not be aware that you're doing it. It's like solving a crossword puzzle. You may try to think of a way through it, but you have absolutely no idea how to do it. And then suddenly, it comes to you. And that's because your mind, unknown to you, has been doing that - processing the information and looking at possibilities. I think I relish uncertainty.
When you first made a pitch for the books, was there an apprehension about how mainstream readers would perceive Mma Ramotswe?
Well, right at the beginning, I had a difficulty in getting a paperback publisher in the UK. Books were published by a small publisher in Scotland. My agents tried to speak to publishers in England. At that stage, we didn't get much interest from the publishers. I think part of that was because many may not have known where Botswana was, it wasn't 'mainstream'. The books were imported by the Columbia University Press in the US. Then, The New York Times did a full-page article on them. At that point, it took off. That's when London publishers picked it up.

Precious Ramotswe is interesting in that she is not the detective who has all the answers. She comes with her own vulnerabilities and doubts. How much of her own doubts and fears are yours?
Precious Ramotswe doesn't have all the answers... She realises she can be wrong. That probably reflects how I see the world - I do not have all the answers either. If I were tackling any of the problems that she is tackling, I would have had the same difficulties. I think fictional characters do reflect the author who creates them. Or they're aspirational. Like if you look at thrillers like James Bond novels, a lot of it is wish-fulfillment (laughs). She is a kind woman, I admire kindness. For example, if I am ever tempted to be mean, I hear Mma Ramotswe telling me, "Is this what you really want to do?" (laughs).
What does it take to live with the characters you've created for so long?
I think you've got to like the characters. Also, readers have to like them because they actually - and this is something I learnt when my books began to have a dialogue with a larger readership - form close relationships with the characters. The other aspect of living with a character for so long is that you look forward to having further conversations with them. They become old friends. Like friends, they often say the same thing. So, Mma Ramotswe often expresses her views and says, "That is very well-known." Readers connect with these things.
Who is your fiercest critic at home?
I don't have fierce critics at home. I would find that difficult. What one wants from family is unqualified support. You want them to say, "This is great. Just carry on" (laughs). And then you should have someone to say, "There, your clothes aren't fashionable." When you have daughters, it's your clothing that draws fierce criticism at home, not necessarily writing (laughs). One of my daughters, a long time ago, looked at me and said, "Daddy, your clothes are tragic." That was long time ago, but my clothes haven't changed.
A considerable part of the conversation around The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency also revolves around the fact that the series has sold about 20 million copies. How does the tag of a bestseller affect a writer's process, if at all?
I write what I want to write. The books have been very successful and that provides a reassurance that you can choose what you want to write. Publishers will be more receptive to things if the books do well. However, reaching out to a very large readership means that you're aware that a lot of people are emotionally invested in the stories and, in a way, I don't have complete ownership of the characters. Sometimes, I receive moving letters of people who have been helped by the characters while they were going through chemotherapy or lost someone in the family. As I read these letters, I realise it is a serious responsibility.
Is simplicity underrated in writing?
Simplicity should remain a goal. You can make a profound point when you're writing in a light-hearted way. Write something that has a comic effect, but which nonetheless says a lot about human aspiration, loneliness, sadness or any of the problems that we see in the world. If you can write in a way which makes people think about things, without sounding preachy, you can get your point across.
You've dabbled in children's writing. What are the challenges of penning children's fiction now, given how technology is increasingly penetrating into their lives?
The world of childhood has changed. It's really sad to see children being brought up playing aggressive video games where they have to shoot people. However, we cannot un-invent electronics. It's just a battle for parents. But then parenthood has always been a battle against undesirable influences. However, children still want a good story. In spite of the electronic noise that is all around us, a good, old-fashioned story is still greatly appreciated by children. It's a very basic human need - we need stories in our lives that make sense of the world around us. I read stories to my two-year-old grandson and he loves it. In my children's books - I have three coming out next year - there's no reference to electronics. None of my characters have a mobile phone or computer.
You speak a great deal about R.K. Narayan.
I loved Malgudi Days. I couldn't have written The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency had I not read R.K. Narayan. I was a late teenager when I read his stories first and found them very charming. In fact, I did the introduction for the American edition of Narayan's novels. At that point, I had had remote dealings with his family. Then, when I was in Chennai, I met them. He was a fan of Graham Greene and he had been one of my influences as well. So, it's interconnected in many ways.
Writing children's books, more installments of The No. 1 ladies Detective Agency series, short stories.do you get any time to sleep?
I get about seven hours every day, but it's split up. I am up by 4 am and then write from 4 am to 6.30 am and then go back to bed. And then I manage to get out of the house. At the moment, I am spending a lot of time on the exercise bicycle and a very good low-carb diet (laughs).

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