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Published: Saturday, 10/16/2010

McCall Smith to ‘ramble' with fans at Authors! Authors! series

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Alexander McCall Smith created the 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series. Alexander McCall Smith created the 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series.
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He's fabricated perhaps the best-known person in all of Botswana: the intuitive Precious Ramotswe, who inherits a herd of cattle, sells it, and with the proceeds, establishes a sleuthing business.

Alexander McCall Smith, creator of the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, has charmed millions with the bloodless dilemmas and solutions that make these good reads.

With urbane wit, worldly perspective, and charming erudition, McCall Smith will entertain at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Stranahan Theater at Authors! Authors!, cosponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

"It's a ramble rather than a lecture. The idea is to be fun," he says in a telephone interview from his home in Scotland. His outlook, reflected in his writing, is that joy is folded into the details.

"I'll talk about the small things of life, about how fiction can be about little intimate matters in one's life, it doesn't have to be major things. And I'll be illustrating by talking about my Botswana books and my other series."

A seven-part television series based on the detective books, produced by the BBC and HBO, won a 2010 Peabody Award "For offering us Africa, Africans, and compelling narratives with great wit and charm," the Peabody site notes.

His 60 books also include seven about Isabel Dalhousie, editor of The Review of Applied Ethics who often embroils herself in problems that are none of her business; the "Portuguese Irregular Verbs" trio about a German professor forever seeking the respect he feels certain is due him, and "44 Scotland Street," about the inhabitants of an Edinburgh boarding house.

He's also written lots of children's books and academic pieces from his earlier legal career, such as "Law and Medical Ethics." You can hear his pride when he notes his books are published in 46 languages.

Married to Elizabeth, a retired physician with whom he raised daughters Lucy and Emily, McCall Smith, 62, goes by Sandy. They live in an old home in Scotland's capital, Edinburgh.

He possesses an extraordinary talent that warrants nomination for the Speediest Writer award. In With just two to three hours a day, he produces four or five books a year.

"It's breaking all the rules in publishing," which, at best, expect a book a year from prolific writers. "It's virtually illegal."

Why crank them out?

"I don't know. I suppose I just get great pleasure from it. I think you build up a certain momentum. They're series, and then there's pressures from the readers, and before you know it ..."

He says that tapping into his subconscious results in a flow of words reaching the page as first-and-final draft; this without outlines or story-boards plastered with Post-It notes.

"I'm very fortunate. I don't have to think what's going to happen now, what's next. I almost go into a sort of trance. It just comes out complete."

He's working on Vol. 12 in the "No. 1 Ladies" series and Vol. 3 of his newest series, "Corduroy Mansions."

He spends all of an hour penning an 1,100-word chapter a day called Corduroy Mansions for the Daily Telegraph (London) online edition.

Corduroy Mansions is a genteel street with crumbling, majestic houses; a vibrant London neighborhood of quirky characters including politician Oedipus Snark, and a terrier, Freddie de la Hay, who insists on wearing a seat belt and is almost certainly the only avowed vegetarian canine in London.

Beyond writing

McCall Smith says he's always had a sense of fun ("the world does provide many opportunities for innocent enjoyment"), which plays out in the musical group he cofounded, the Really Terrible Orchestra: The cream of Edinburgh's musically disadvantaged. (To hear them, go to thereallyterribleorchestra.com blog.) The premise? Why should real musicians — the ones who can actually play their instruments — have all the fun?

"I'm a very challenged, bad, weak musician. C-sharp is still a problem," he maintains. He wields the bassoon, playing most but not all of it, and Elizabeth lifts the horn in the 65-member group, which has been replicated in a handful of U.S. cities.

He is captivated by sailing, power, and fishing boats. "There's no better way of wasting one's time than with boats," he says, and he keeps them at their seaside home on Scotland's west coast and in Vancouver.

He appeared live on the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show Saturday night, repeated at 2 p.m. Sunday on WGTE-FM 91.

He travels often, with trips this year to Sweden, India, Dubai, Newfoundland, and the United States, and most years to Botswana for a few-week stay at the home of friends who appear as minor characters in his detective books. While he's there, "I listen to people. I generally absorb. I've got a couple of little projects. I set up a little opera house."

McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe, formerly called Rhodesia, where his father was a public prosecutor. British colonialism was waning.

"It's a matter of great regret to me that I didn't see more of the local culture, that I never learned a local language. But that's the way things were at that stage," he says.

At 17, he left for Scotland, earning a doctoral degree in law at the University of Edinburgh. While teaching in Northern Ireland, he submitted a children's book and a novel for adults to a Scottish contest and won in the children's category. For many years, he wrote and published 30 kids' books.

When he was a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, he spent time in Botswana helping to set up a law school. He served as vice chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom, the chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, and a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO.

After his books took off about a decade ago, he gave up academia to boat, travel, play music badly, and write.

Contact Tahree Lane at:

tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.



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