Alexander McCall Smith on 20 years of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and writing a much loved character

  • Alexander McCall Smith is perhaps best known as the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series

  • The year 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the series, which has spanned some 19 titles published so far

  • McCall Smith will be at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 this week

British-Zimbabwean writer Alexander McCall Smith is perhaps best known for his The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, featuring the "most unlikely but likable private eye" Mma Precious Ramotswe. The year 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the series, which has spanned some 19 titles published so far.

Nineteen books in an internationally bestselling series may be their life's work for some, but not McCall Smith, who has at least four other series to his credit — 44 Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions, Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainments and The Sunday Philosophy Club (or Isabel Dalhousie mysteries) — in addition to a host of other standalone novels, children's books, short stories, and academic papers dating to his previous career as a professor of Medical Law.

Prolific writer that he is, McCall Smith is also a favourite at literary festivals the world over, and this week, will be at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. In the run-up to JLF, McCall Smith answered a few questions about his writing and his most popular series, in an email interview.

Edited excerpts:

A lot of female detective/investigator protagonists in contemporary pop culture tend to be written as troubled characters. Miss Marple (who was written in a much earlier time) and Mma Precious Ramotswe (despite her history) are among the rare ones who come to mind to not fall into that mould. Comments?

I think there is always a bit of a temptation to describe one’s characters as troubled. I resist that because I think that a troubled investigator is perhaps a bit obvious, and also it is surely the case that most people are not excessively troubled anyway. So, writing about untroubled people is simply recognising reality! Quite apart from that, I think that many people prefer the company of fictional characters whom they like, and fictional characters who are aggressive or difficult are not necessarily the best of company.

 Alexander McCall Smith on 20 years of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and writing a much loved character

Alexander McCall Smith. Photo courtesy Alex Hewitt

Having written extensively in all these formats, which do you prefer and why — series, serialised adventures, short stories or standalone novels?

I very much like writing series, but there are times when I feel more in the mood for standalone novel, or indeed for a short story. I think it is all a question of mood. There is great satisfaction to be derived from writing a short story — it is like painting a tiny picture with a very fine brush.

It's been 20 years since the first Ladies’ Detective book was published. Looking back, did you ever imagine it would grow to be so popular globally? What do you think has resonated with the readers of the series for it to have thrived for so long?

I had no idea at the beginning of this series that it would be so popular. I am, of course, very grateful to my readers for their kind reception of these books. I think that the series has thrived for this length of time because readers became involved with the main characters and began to see them as friends.

What would Mma Precious Ramotswe make of #MeToo and Time's Up?

Mma Ramotswe would be very disapproving of bad behaviour by men — and indeed of any bad behaviour. She would applaud women who stand up against bullying of any sort. Women in Botswana have had to struggle against a patriarchal vision of society and have made great strides in the last few decades.

Your thoughts on Brexit and the current state of politics in the UK?

Political discussion in the United Kingdom at present is very intense and troubled. Like many countries, we have become a rather divided society. This is a cause of great concern. Mma Ramotswe once commented “You don’t change people by shouting at them”. That message, I think, is one that our politicians might well heed.

With over 80 books under your belt, and more scheduled to be published soon, how do you manage your writing, columnist and travel commitments? What would be your advice (to other professionals) in this context?

I think that you have to have a firm schedule to your day. If you sit about and wait for the Muse to tap you on the shoulder, you will never write anything. You have to sit down and write — every day. I get up very early (four in the morning) and work until seven. Then I go back to bed and get up again a couple of hours later. I have usually finished my day’s work by lunchtime.

With such a long and successful literary career behind you, is there still anything you would wish to change in retrospect?

I can’t think of much I would like to change in retrospect. I have been very fortunate in this life in being able to do things that I enjoy doing. That is a great privilege, and I am very thankful for it.

For the speakers' list and full schedule for Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, click here

Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 14:02:45 IST