An interview with Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCall Smith: The professor who brought Botswana to Edinburgh

Read Sam Huckstep's exclusive interview with Alexander McCall Smith about Botswana, Hemingway, and the truth at the heart of the human experience (among others).

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Alexander McCall Smith Illustration by Rachel Cripps

Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCall Smith has led a deeply unusual life. A renowned expert on medical law and bioethics, in which field he was a professor at Edinburgh University for many years in the 20th Century as well as serving on committees for UNESCO and the BMJ, among other institutions. He also spent several years in Botswana, where he, somewhat surprisingly, penned what remains the sole work on the Botswanan legal system. To have written a seminal book on criminal law is a plaudit that eludes even the most distinguished writers; McCall Smith, set apart by his phenomenal popularity, is clearly a man of many talents. He is best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which follows a Botswanan woman named Mma Precious Ramotswe. In 2005 he gave up his post at Edinburgh University to focus on what was becoming a burgeoning literary career, and since then he has sold over 40 million books globally, with his whimsical humour and compassionate observations winning hearts among older generations especially. The Saint talked to Sandy first over email, and then in person: our questions are in bold, his answers given over email are italicised, and his spoken responses are in normal font.

To what extent do you think a reader can read one of your books, or a book of any writer, and come to understand the writer as well as the book? How much of “you” goes into any piece of work?

This raises interesting questions of authorial presence. I prefer not to be too visible in my books, as I believe the narrator should be discreet. However, it is certainly true that authors reveal themselves in a number of ways, no matter how reticent they are. This will come through choice of subject as much as in the way in which issues are presented. So I suppose quite a number of my views appear through the medium of my characters. Certainly, in the case of the main protagonists in the books, I like to be in sympathy with them, and so we tend to agree on many issues.

What is the work of which you are most proud — and similarly, if only one of your works could survive for posterity, which would you choose to save?

This question is a bit like asking somebody which of their children they would save from a fire! If I could choose a series, rather than a single book, I would be inclined to choose my Botswana novels, of which there are currently eighteen. These are a long letter to a country and a culture. These express, I feel, something about how we should live our lives.

What do you mean by that last idea?

Well — I suppose the Botswana novels contain a fairly extensive portrait of a culture and of a society, and indeed of the (?)— of one particular person in the novels, the main character, Mma Ramotswe, who’s an African woman who represents qualities which I think I’ve seen when I’ve lived and worked in Africa; which I’ve seen in people there. And her philosophy of life is a very admirable one; she expresses kindness, she’s committed to forgiveness, which I think is an important value, she’s generous in spirit; so in a sense you could describe her as a representation of the virtues. And I think I’m quite interested in the extent to which virtue ethics seem to have been rehabilitated in moral philosophy of recent times; people are talking about the importance of the virtues, and the combination of the virtues, and I think that she expresses that, really. And I think the books deal with the values of the society; Botswana is a country which has a rather interesting history. They’ve been consistently democratic since independence in 1966; they’ve been very well-run; they don’t tolerate corruption — by the standards of everybody around them, they’re remarkably un-corrupt. It’s a good country, in which very positive values are encouraged, and really embodied in the society.

What motivates you to write? Or to put it another way- what prevents you from not writing?

This is quite simple: I write because it gives me pleasure to do so. We are a communicative species we like to talk to one another; we like to tell and listen to stories.

What do you consider success to be — by what metric do you say whether you consider a work successful? How does your view on success and life outside of your work influence your aims within your work?

Success, I feel, is doing whatever it is that you do to the best of your ability and in a way that attracts the approval of those whose judgment counts. Financial rewards or popular acclaim are not the same thing as real success.

Why do you work in the mediums in which you do? What draws you to them, and makes you prefer them to the others available?

Feeling for a particular medium is what counts. You find your voice. You know when you’ve found it.

As a writer, you have what some might call a very privileged position of access to the reader on a personal level. Do you feel like you, and writers generally, ought to use that position to advance what you consider to be the right, whether through your writing or outside it?

You can testify to the values you believe in, but you should be careful about being didactic. You must not force your views on others; you should not try to sneak in a concealed agenda.

To what extent do you think the reader or critic ought to consider the author and the author’s intentions and beliefs when they read something written? Do you ever feel like your original intentions are being misconstrued in any way — and do you think it matters if they are?

People may misunderstand what you are doing. They may completely misjudge you and your works. The issue of the author’s relevance is a problematic one; a work of fiction may be assessed for what it is, text on a page. The author’s intentions may be interesting and may help to explain authorial intent, but the effect of the work on the reader is more important than any concealed meaning.

Ernest Hemingway declared that “The writer’s job is to tell the truth.” What, for you, makes a novel, poem, play –— any piece of written work — a good one?

I lay great stress by the quality of the prose. I find it very difficult to read a poorly-written piece of work. Yes, the ideas are obviously important, but the language – the vehicle by which they are conveyed determines whether a book is an artistic creation or a simple tool for getting a message across to the reader.

I actually think that Hemingway’s style was rather good, and I admire it; I don’t subscribe to Hemingway’s philosophy of this rather — er — this rather engaged philosophy, when it comes to hunting and shooting and things like that, and I suppose also to conflict, but I think that he was quite a standard, and his prose was very impressive — almost Biblical prose, actually, I think. So I don’t think that telling the truth is incompatible with paying attention to the aesthetic qualities of the prose. [A stance upon which we agreed].

How would you like your legacy to be looked upon?

Too awkward. That is for others, not for me.

What do you see your purpose as a writer to be? When you get a positive email, presumably that’s quite a happy event. What sorts of emails make you say, “yes, I’ve succeeded”?

Well, we get them, and Jan [his publicist, standing nearby], gets them too, and passes them on to me. And it’s very moving. We have a very, very — we’re moved by these. Give him an example of the sorts we get, Jan.

Jan: Well, very often we get them from people who have gone through very difficult periods in their own life, or that of a loved one, and they find Sandy’s books a way to help them through. And they pick out certain passages which have been particularly helpful to them. Or they’ve read Sandy’s books to somebody who is in their last stages of life, and that’s a very powerful thing.

So your role is one of bringing joy and consolation to people [“Comfort,” Jan interjects]?

Well, yes…  I don’t talk about that, normally; I wouldn’t talk about that publicly very much; but when that happens, I’m very moved by it. We get that… and I get quite a lot of letters from psychiatrists, who say that they prescribe they prescribe the books! — they give them to their patients, who have been depressed or just feeling generally low; so I think that that certainly encourages me. I find that very energising, and indeed moving.

So if you were to re-evaluate your legacy, after considering that, would a heritage of joyous memories and people helped by your books be something in which you take pride?

Well, I would — but I wouldn’t say that myself. I don’t think one should write one’s own epitaph. Most of us, too, would actually quite like to do it; imagine a writer writing his own obituary!— it’d be like reviewing your own books! [He giggles to himself.] You’d say — what a loss! [He laughs.] So, all that I’m saying is that I would feel a bit embarrassed to say much about that; I suppose really, in respect to my own life, that I would say at the end of it something like “Well, he paid his bills on time!” [He chuckles again]. “I never saw him kick a dog!” — and that would be about it.

I’m interested in the idea of writing your own epitaph. It’s often been said that “a writer is their own harshest critic.” But you write at really quite a phenomenal pace — it’s about 5,000 words a day. Is that still true?

Well, when I’m in top gear. I recently did a 5,000-word day, but usually it’s about two to three. When I’m really working at full pitch, and I’ve got nothing else to do, then I would be able to do, say, four, and sometimes five.

Which is jolly fast.

Well — it is. And certainly the actual pace of writing is… I write at about a thousand words an hour, is my standard rate. So today, for example, I was up at about three in the morning, and I wrote between three and about half past four, and I wrote about 1,200 words then. So you have to do that, if you’re doing what I’m doing, which is writing five books a year at least. We have a very, very – how shall I put this? — finely-planned timetable, and my life is actually planned, run by the people including Jan; Jan and my assistant have a fortnightly conversation with my agent in New York and my agent in London, and my assistant in Edinburgh, and they plan — my existence.

Many writers have to pause to conduct, say, historical research or maybe think about how a particular complex element fits into it; but I suppose that you’re — is it fair to say pouring yourself out, instead?

Mostly, mostly. I mean occasionally I may have to do a certain amount of research if I’m dealing with particular historical events in books; this new one, somewhere over there [gesturing towards the piles of his books surrounding us] — have we got The Good Pilot? [We haven’t; they’re signed and up at the front somewhere.] The Good Pilot required me to know quite a bit about the Berlin airlift, for example, which features in it, which required reading about matters of that sort.

Would you say that you’ve gradually, over time, discovered your “voice”?

Yes, I think I have. I think — in my case, what really made it possible for me to do that was the fact that… When The No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency really took off in the United States, and subsequently elsewhere, I was then in a position to more or less decide what I wanted to write. Prior to that, I felt that I was constrained by expectations of what a Scottish writer would write: it had to be confrontational, it had to be fairly in your face, which wasn’t really me… I was trying to do things which had, in one way, a bit more edge, but that wasn’t really something that I wanted to do. So when the books took off, I was then able to say “Well, that’s what I want to write”; to which the publisher said, “Well, that’s fine,” and they discovered that there was a very large market for that. So that’s been a great… I consider myself very privileged, in having the opportunity to write about things that I want to write about, in the voice that I want to write in.

Perhaps this is too broad a question; but what makes you want to write about a given topic? And what’s stopped you from wanting to write in, say, the “tartan noir” style or similar?

[McCall Smith laughs.] I was never very good at that. I think it’s what interests one as an individual; and it also depends to an extent on what your literary tastes are. When you think about the sorts of things that I like… Well, I like… the seriousness of somebody like Graham Greene, but I also like the humour of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. I’m a great fan of Barbara Pym — she was the Jane Austen of the 20th Century, and every bit as amusing and perceptive of a particular sort of social situation as Jane Austen. So I was able to pursue my own line down slightly quirky avenues; my Portuguese Irregular Verbs [a series of novels featuring a Professor Dr von Igelfeld, an academic linguist of amusingly poor social skills] was very quirky, that series. I loved writing that. And that’s got many readers all over the place who are a little bit of a cult. There are four novels in that series. So I like that. And like I say, I would consider myself very privileged to be able to indulge my interests in that way.

Illustration by Rachel Cripps

If there was anybody from history that you would wish to be pleased by, or proud of, your books, who would it be?

I would like to think that W.H. Auden would have enjoyed my books, had I written them during his lifetime. I am a great admirer of his poetry. In fact, years ago I had a letter from his literary executor, Professor Edward Mendelson, who said that he felt that Auden and my character Mma Ramotswe would have agreed on all subjects. That meant a great deal to me.

Would you consider yourself to have been influenced by writers like Barbara Pym?

No, no — not really. I’m influenced by her dry humour, which is lovely; and she, like Jane Austen, is a great expert in dealing with very small human situations, and really extracting from them… I suppose… insights into the pathos of human life, of people’s yearnings and ambitions…

Of telling the truth, a truth at the heart of human experience?

Yes… I think that’s right, yes. And then there are books which are jeu d’esprit, such as this, My Italian Bulldozer [lying nearby], which I’ve been able to — I’m quite keen on some relatively obscure Italian writers, who — I mean, they have their following here; Calvino isn’t obscure, I’m a great fan of Calvino — I like also Dino Buzzati, and the school of Italian, almost magical realism, which is a sort of sub-category of South-American magical realism…

 

At this point, musing increasingly slowly on schools of literature, McCall Smith is interrupted by a swarm of enthusiastic elderly Scottish ladies, all clearly delighted to be meeting a writer who is evidently something of a hero. His characters are referred to as very real mutual acquaintances, and the likelihood of meeting their “type” of person in St Andrews, Edinburgh and further abroad is discussed, as is the nature of McCall Smith’s Really Terrible Orchestra, the orchestra of amateurs that he set up over a decade ago [they have since played, albeit as an April Fool’s joke, in the New York Town Hall]. When McCall Smith described his readers as a “cult, “he was barely exaggerating — they are endearingly devoted to him and his works. I have read few of his books and am thus by no means a member of the cult, but having met him, I can empathise with them: McCall Smith is an endearingly gentle, self-amused, intelligent and charming man. He appears to treat writing almost as a pleasant game, done for his amusement and the amusement of others; and certainly, he is winning at it.

 

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