A few minutes with Alexander McCall Smith

Best-selling author of ‘The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ series talks about Africa, Precious Ramotswe and the writing process

BY TERRY MATHEWS | News-Telegram Arts Editor

Apr. 8, 2007 - By any yardstick, Alexander McCall Smith measures up as quite accomplished. 

He is an attorney and was professor of medical law. He has also taught law at the University of Botswana. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Law.

He is the former chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, the former vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom and a former member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO. 

On the personal side, McCall Smith is married and the father of two children. He is also one of the founders of The Really Terrible Orchestra, for which he serves as bassoonist.

Add internationally known best-selling author to the list, and you begin to wonder how the Scottish author finds time to breathe.

McCall Smith was born on August 24, 1948, in Rhodesia, where his father served as a public prosecutor. 

Although trained in the law, McCall Smith, 58, has also had a life-long passion for writing, writing or serving as co-writer on 12 academic texts.

In 1988, he published the first novel in what was to become the  “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, with an initial run of 1,500 copies.  The book become a runaway international best seller, with over  2,500,000 copies in print.

The novel  introduced the world to Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” woman daring enough to open a business in Botswana’s male-dominated society. 

Since 1998, the author has released seven subsequent stories revolving around Mma Ramotwse, her competent assistant Grace Makutsi and the man Precious would eventually marry, Mr. J L B Matekoni. 

McCall Smith does not limit his fiction to Botswana. He is also the author of the “Professor of Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainments” series, “The Sunday Philosophy Club” series, “The 44 Scotland Street Series,” and some 13 children's’ books.

Last year, he even carved out enough time to write a small little book called “Dream Angus,”  which follows the life of the mythic Celtic God of Dreams. The book was one of a series that was created to let well-known authors select a mythological character from their area and write the character’s story.

�The Good Husband of Zebra Drive,� the eighth in McCall Smith�s No. 1 Ladies� Detective Agency series, is set for release Tuesday, April 17. (See review below.)

McCall Smith will be promoting “The Good Husband”  in  a 14-city book tour here in the states, April 17 through May 5. Although the author and his wife have profession and personal ties to Dallas, he’s only making one stop in Texas – in El Paso on April 25 – this time around. 

McCall Smith took a break from  the preparations for the book tour to answer our questions about his most popular series, Precious Ramotswe and the writing process.

News Telegram: How did you find the idea for the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency?

Alexander McCall Smith: I always wanted to write about a woman who lived in Botswana. When I sat down to write about Precious Ramotswe, the idea that she would be a private detective just came out of the blue. 

NT: Have you been surprised by the warm reception this series has received? Is it popular in Botswana, too? 

AMS: Yes, I have been surprised by the warm reception these books have had. I am delighted that they have been so well received. 

The series is popular in Botswana. People seem to like the positive picture that it gives of their country. 

NT: The mysteries in this series seem secondary to the characters and everyday life in Botswana. Is that on purpose? Why?

AMS: Yes, these are not mysteries in the in the normal sense. The main point of the books is to talk about the characters and the setting, and about the human qualities of Mma Ramotswe and her friends. 

NT: Do your characters come full grown or do they develop as you write? Once they come, do you have control or do they take over with their own agendas?

AMS: Often the characters develop once I have started to write about them. In some cases, they begin to show qualities which surprise me! All sorts of things can happen in fiction which the author has not planned in advance. 

NT: Would you please explain the use of ‘Mma’ before Precious’ name and why does she call her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni? 

AMS: The word ‘Mma’ is an honorific used for women in Setswana – it is the equivalent of the French ‘madame’. 

Mma Ramotswe calls her husband Mr J L B Matekoni because that has always been the name that he has been known to her by.


NT: Who do you read and why?

AMS: I read all sorts of fiction. 

I enjoy going back to the classics. At the moment I am re-reading E. M. Forster’s “A Room with a View”, which is both wonderful and very funny. 

I like books which are well written and profound. 

NT: What three qualities do you think every writer should possess?

AMS: Every author, in my view, should possess the ability to empathise with other people, to recreate a character’s view of the world, and have the ability to put all that down in print.  

NT: Take us through a typical day when you’re writing.

AMS: When I am writing, I usually start at 8 a.m. and continue until about 11 a.m. Three hours at a stretch is about the longest time I can spend writing. 

I sometimes return to my writing later in the evening. I often go away when I am writing a book so that I can complete it without interruptions. 

NT: You have spent time in Texas.  Do you plan a stop in the Lone Star State anytime soon?

AMS: I have many friends in Texas. I was a Visiting Professor at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas on two occasions, and made very good friends while I was there. 

My wife and I are still in touch with friends in Dallas and I always enjoy going there. I will be in El Paso in April, and I hope to be elsewhere in Texas in the not too distant future. 

NT: What’s next for Mma Ramotswe?

AMS: I will start to write volume 9 in July, and it will be published in the spring of 2008. Mma Ramotswe will continue to run the agency and have her adventures and drink the usual quantities of Red Bush Tea!

Editor’s note: Mr. McCall Smith has graciously offered an autographed first edition of “The Good Husband of Zebra Drive” as a door prize for  the  Hopkins County Butterfly Ball, to be held on Saturday, May 12. We thank him and his able assistant Lesley Winton for their help in securing such a lovely item for the charity event. 

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