As an author, Alexander McCall Smith has taken millions of readers to the heart of Botswana through his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. And even though he’s written or contributed to more than 100 books, writing is still a point of self-reflection for him. In this wide-ranging conversation, we explore the beautiful African nation his characters live in, how Alexander approached a modern retelling of a Jane Austen classic, and what book he considers a must-read.
Learn more about Go Further and the partnership to end AIDS and cervical cancer
Andrew Kaufmann: Today's episode is a literary treat. Our co-host Hannah Abney is VP of External Affairs at the Bush Center. But more notably, is the number one fan of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Welcome, Hannah. [chuckle]
Hannah Abney: Thank you.
AK: And, welcome to Alexander McCall Smith, award-winning author whose books have sold over 40 million copies. His latest novel, To the Land of Long-Lost Friends, is the 20th book in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and it's available now. Sandy, welcome to the Strategerist and thank you so much for this time.
Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you very much for the invitation.
AK: So, incidentally, we introduced you as an author, but you're not just an author, you're also the bassoon player for The Really Terrible Orchestra, we understand.
AS: Well, yes. I used to play the bassoon in the The Really Terrible Orchestra. I've since then switched to the saxophone; the baritone sax. So, this was an orchestra that my wife and I founded over 20 years ago for people who were musically challenged, and who would like to play in an orchestra, but didn't deserve to play in an orchestra. And so we set it up and we discovered that there were an awful lot of people who wanted to play, and we've been playing since then. And going from weakness to weakness. And, so it's great fun. It's a very very bad amateur orchestra.
AK: Well, we have several authors here in the US, Dave Barry and Stephen King and Amy Tan, they made The Rock Bottom Remainders, who are a rock band of authors. Have you ever talked about collaborating and doing some some sweet orchestra to rock music?
AS: We've been waiting for an approach from them, but they haven't been in... They haven't been in touch.
AK: Yeah. That's too bad. I'd pay money to see that.
AS: I will, then.
HA: We should note that Andrew is actually also an amateur musician, and he really was just excited to be able to bring up bands in general.
AS: Yes. Yes. But I suspect you're probably quite good.
AK: No, I'm actually not. I have to provide food and drink for friends in my house, and then I surprise them with my music, and at that point they can't leave because they feel guilty 'cause I've fed them. So, it's really kind of embarrassing. So, you began writing for really... Your latest book is To the Land of Long-Lost Friends, and you began writing this series later in life.
AK: At 50?
AS: Yes. Thereabout.
AK: And so, now that this book is 20... Now, that this series is 20 books deep, what have you learned about yourself on this journey, and how has this series changed who you are?
AS: That's a very interesting question. I suppose I've learnt quite a lot about writing, and therefore one learns quite a bit about the way in which one approaches the task of writing. I think also it probably has caused me to think about some of the things that I believe in or some of the views that I hold, some of my attitudes and so on, which I think often happens in life. As you go through life ideally you want to undertake, I suppose, the occasional examination of oneself.
AS: And writing maybe facilitates that, because there you are sitting having a conversation with the characters in the book, and that probably helps you to think about things within yourself. And of course when you've written something and you read it, you may discover what you believe or think about things, which is another way of looking at it. And because many of our views and I suppose our prejudices, our preferences and so on, are subconscious or not necessarily articulated specifically. So if you read something and say, "Well, that's written by somebody who believes this or that," it can help.
HA: The main character in the series, a woman, Mma Ramotswe, is based on a woman that you interacted with one time where I've heard you talk about the woman who maybe inspired the character in some way. Can you tell us about that?
AS: Well, I think what happened was that I saw somebody who made me think I should write about somebody like that. So that's a little bit different from basing a character on a real person. I tend not to base characters in my books on real people, for a variety of reasons. One of them is that you could give offense to somebody and they would say, "Well, I'm not really like that at all." So, what happened in that case was that I saw a woman in Botswana many years ago, who was giving a chicken to the people with whom I was staying.
AS: And she chased a chicken around the yard and then handed it over to them, having dispatched the poor chicken. And, that made me think about writing about a woman a bit like that, but not that actual woman. So that was the seed of the idea, and I think writers often work like that. They see something or hear something which in itself may not be particularly significant, but that makes them think about the possibility of writing, writing something in the future. That's what happened with Mma Ramotswe.
AS: So I couldn't take you to Botswana and say, "This the basis of Mma Ramotswe. Here's the person upon whom Mma Ramotswe is modeled." I'm afraid I couldn't do that. I wish I could. I could take you to somewhere a bit like her house. There are, I believe, tours in Botswana which will take you to the house in which I lived which actually I didn't. [laughter] I gather they've just picked a house.
HA: It's like the Hollywood House of the Stars. [laughter]
AS: And they said, "This is where... This is where he lived." But, I didn't think... I didn't think it bore any relation to where I actually did live. [laughter] But they were, that's relatively harmless.
AK: Well one of the things that strikes me so much about Mma Ramotswe is she's such a brave character. Her bravery is striking. And you wrote, "She made her way back to the tiny white van, she listened to her own breathing and felt her own heart thumping wildly. She had no idea where she had found the courage, but it had been there, like the water at the bottom of a disused quarry, unfathomably deep." Did you intentionally set out to write about a woman, though, so brave or did that just kinda happen?
AS: I think that kind of happened. I didn't really have much of a preconception of her when I started to write about her. I didn't really see her in any great detail. I thought of her as being what I call traditionally built, so she's a sort of fairly largish lady. And I saw her with a smile, but there wasn't anything much more as far as her appearance was concerned. Similarly, with her character, I had a general idea that she would be resourceful, intuitive, friendly and kind. So just generally, a very positive person.
AS: Bravery, I hadn't really thought about very much, but that, I think, often happens as you write about a character, the character reveals herself or himself as you write, and they acquire... The characters acquire a sort of reality, which is independent, if you will, seems independent to you, the author. In fact, obviously, it all comes from somewhere in the author's mind, but it seems to me that I'm just acting as a chronicler of the doings of these people, that they're going ahead and doing all this, and I'm just observing. It's one way of looking at it.
HA: What was it like to see your characters come to life on the screen in the HBO adaptation?
AS: Well, that was very interesting, actually, because I went to Botswana at the time when they were filming, so I saw the set and saw what was going on there. And I, not having had any particular view of what they looked like, the characters, when I was introduced to the actors who were playing the characters, I was fine with that. And people said to me at the time, and there were journalists there who said, "Right, it's Jill Scott. What do you thought Mma Ramotswe looked like?" I said, "Well, I really didn't have a particular view about that anyway, but she seems absolutely fine."
AS: And indeed, she was, as were the other actors in that. Anika Noni Rose, who played Mma Makutsi, was also very good. Lucian Msamati, who played Mr. JLB Matekoni, was very good. They were all, I think, really, really excellent actors. And I think that they interpreted the characters correctly. I think that they behaved as I would imagine those characters would behave. So as far as I'm concerned, they got top marks, the production got top marks from that point of view.
AS: It also respected the ethos of the books, which was very, very important from my point of view, because I didn't want the story of Mma Ramotswe to be sensationalized. I didn't want it to include any material that would be inappropriate for the portrayal of the country. And indeed, people in Botswana were obviously concerned about how their country would be portrayed in this film, which was the first time that a major film was going to be done and a series after it about their country. So a lot was at stake, and they did it with great respect, and I think sensitivity.
HA: I think they did too. So, JLB says in the book, in the first book, "A mechanic cannot be a poet." But my reading of the book is that... And the books after that, was that sometimes he is the most poetic character in the novel, and I wondered if you did that intentionally.
AS: Well, that's very interesting that you should say that. 'Cause I think he is quite a poetic character, but I hadn't intended him to be 'cause he didn't see himself as that. He saw himself as a mechanic, but he's quite a poetic mechanic who believes that cars can tell us about their suffering. [laughter]
AK: He can hold their heart in their hand.
AS: You can, you just... You've got to listen to what cars are trying to tell you. And I think that that's probably true. I'm no mechanic, but I think that if a car starts to rattle out an urgent message, you should listen.
HA: So it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the first line of a book can oftentimes be the most important, can be the thing that pulls us in. And I'm cheesily quoting Jane Austen, of course. [chuckle] And foreshadowing a question I'm gonna ask you later on.
AK: There'll be more here.
HA: There'll be more Austen in this interview.
HA: But I wondered, what are some of your favorite first lines in...
AS: Well, I do have favorite first lines in fiction. I think first lines are terribly important, as you say, and as Jane Austen is said to have said. I think one that I particularly like is Karen Blixen's first line from her wonderful memoir of East Africa, Out of Africa. That first line is marvelous. "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Beautiful resonance in that and Ngong is a wonderful name for a set of hills. I loved that first line.
AS: And indeed, in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I pay homage to that, in that my first line in that book is, "Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Botswana." No, in Africa, I think I said. "At the foot of the Kgale Hill." So, that was reflecting that. Interestingly enough, one reviewer picked up on this and said that I'd plagiarized the first line.
AS: So one can never be entirely sure that one's illusions or one's acts of homage are going to be correctly interpreted. There are many other first lines. I've got a very favorite one that I love quoting, which is the first line of a book written by Daisy Ashford, and she was a nine-and-a-half-year-old girl when she wrote it back in Edwardian times, a book called The Young Visiters, which is still in print. It's an absolute classic but was written by this child. And her first line, bearing in mind, it's written by a nine-and-a-half-year-old, is absolutely wonderful, which is, "Mr. Salteena was an elderly man of 42."
AK: The perfect perspective from a nine-year-old.
AS: Isn't it, yes, yeah.
HA: That's funny.
AK: And I wanna point out that before we came into this, Hannah was talking about this interview and being excited about it and she mentioned that she picked up on that homage in the opening line of your book and she did not call it plagiarism. She absolutely referred to it...
AS: I'm very relieved.
HA: That was not plagiarism. But I am gonna stick with the Austen for a second, which is I've read many of your books. I think one of my favorite is your modern retelling of Emma.
AS: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
HA: And I wanted to know what inspired you to update such a classic.
AS: Well, it was a response to a request.
HA: Oh, really?
AS: Yes, I hadn't thought of updating or attempting anything on one of Jane Austen's novels. And I was approached by publishers, who said that they were speaking to a number of contemporary authors about doing that, they wanted to do modern versions of Jane Austen. And would I do Emma? And I took very little time to say yes and I had great fun doing it. I mean, there are various approaches you can take. One approach was to tell a new story, containing the elements of the original or the plot, or the characters of the original. The other was to just really tell the same story, but in a modern context. Not everyone approved of that second approach that I took, but that's the approach I took and I had great fun with it. In particular with Emma's father, who I think is a tremendous character, a very fussy man with concern about drafts and whatnot. So, I gave him a concern about bacteria and things like that, sort of updating the thing. So it was great fun, it was a great treat to write, but I think you have to be very careful with Jane Austen, because there are these people called the Janeites, of which you may be one, I think.
AK: I believe you're speaking to one.
AS: And the Janeites, you don't tangle with the Janeites.
HA: Let me say I'm okay with it. I'm okay with it.
AS: Oh, well, that's a relief, that's a relief.
AK: That means you did a good job.
HA: No, it was a wonderful reading, I think you're right, you did a fabulous job with her father and his anxiety.
AS: You're very kind.
HA: And I could spend all day long talking about Jane Austen and of course about your book. So we'll move on to Andrew, let him ask a question now.
AK: Well, I wanted to talk a little bit about your newest book, To the Land of Long Lost Friends, which is the 20th in the series. That's a lot of words in between page 1 and the last page of this book. How have your central characters, particularly Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, how have they evolved in the course of these 20 books?
AS: Well, I'm not sure whether they've changed too much. There have been developments in their lives because obviously over this long period of literary conversation with them one would expect something to have happened. So there have been developments. I don't think they have changed as characters very much. Mma Ramotswe has remained pretty stable. Mr. JLB Matekoni has probably become a little bit more confident than he used to be, I think that he would very freely acknowledge that he was perhaps a little bit timid to begin with, and I think he's greatly benefited from being married to Mma Ramotswe. And who wouldn't benefit from that? Mma Makutsi has become a little bit more charitable, in her view of the apprentices, the two apprentices. I think that's a change there. And her circumstances changed as well.
AS: So there have been changes in the surrounding circumstances of their lives. And Mma Makutsi has made a happy marriage and she's been saved from the relative poverty in which she lived. Her husband is a man of means and so she's able to indulge herself in little things that she couldn't do before the marriage, so she's able to have a few more pretty clothes and smart pairs of shoes. She's very keen on her shoes. And so there have been those changes.
AS: But effectively, the characters have remained the same. Interestingly enough, Botswana is often said to be a character in the books, but Botswana has clearly changed, because every country changes and it would be very surprising if over a period of some 20 years a country didn't actually change very much. Botswana's become, well, Gaborone, the capital, has become bigger and has more of a traffic problem than it had in Mma Ramotswe's day. Well, in fact, I shouldn't say Mma Ramotswe's day, because she's meant to be in the present. I mean, I'm not setting it in the past deliberately, but certainly from when I first lived there, it's become a more bustling place.
AS: But the essential nature of the country is still the same, the essential goodness of the country, it's a very good country. I think that's a really important aspect of it. It's a fine country and the culture has survived some of the pressures of the modern world. So you still find the kindness and consideration which I put center-stage in these books. It's still there.
AK: It's really, in many ways, a love letter to the continent when you're...
AS: Yes, I think so and I'm very happy to hear it described as such. I've always been open about that, that I'm not writing critically about the country, I'm writing out of admiration for the country.
HA: Do you think... A lot of your readers, I think, have probably never been to Botswana, maybe never even been to Africa. Do you think that their sense of the country has changed after reading your novels?
AS: Yes, I think many of them do, and many of them report that to me and they say that before they read the novels, their vision of Africa might have been perhaps a bit colored by what they read in the newspapers and saw on the news. Which usually is not necessarily the most positive view of things, because news tends to be of bad things that happens. Good news isn't really reported very much. And so I think that they're pleasantly surprised to find that that here's a positive, a country with a very positive atmosphere and very positive feeling and they like that.
AS: Interestingly enough, some of them read the books and then go and visit Botswana and when I talk to these people, they tend to say, "Yes. Yes. We saw it, it was as the books describe it," which very nice for me to hear that. And they often say that the most important thing that they saw there or experienced was kindness, which is great, that's wonderful. And people are looking for kindness in a world where there's a lot of confrontation and distress. I think kindness and courtesy towards others are things that people rather like.
AK: And on the topic of Botswana, you wrote a side story to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, The Woman Who Made Beautiful Baskets, which wasn't a full-size novel, but a short story, really about the topic of cervical cancer in Africa, which is near and dear to our heart at the Bush Institute. Where did that... How did that come about?
AS: I did that directly to help the campaign, which Mrs. Bush was involved in, which I thought was a very, very fine one to assist people in this screening program in Africa. So the story was a gift to that campaign, in a sense.
AK: And it's one that is so remarkable because the message at its heart, "Mma Ramotswe thought about how people can help one another, often over thousands and thousands of miles of empty sea, hands can reach a very long way, she thought." That really is at the core of so much of that campaign, is that it's not these invisible people, it's real people in a real world.
AS: Yes. Yes, I think that's right. I think the message of helping one another is probably something which is very present in the books in Mma Ramotswe's vision of it, and I must say that I was very, very impressed with what was being done in that particular campaign. And also I must say that during the presidency of President Bush the United States really helped Botswana a great deal, particularly with the HIV AIDS issue and the United States really, really did wonderful things in supporting programs designed to help people. I'm suffering with this particular burden. The very large viral laboratories in Gaborone, the programs which looked at maternal fetal transmission of HIV and so on, were heavily supported by the United States, and I think that people in this country can be very proud of what was done then and what continues to be done.
HA: We went to Africa a couple of years ago, President and Mrs Bush travelled to Africa, to get an update on what's happening with Go Further, which is the campaign you're talking about coming off of PEPFAR, that layers cervical cancer screening on top of HIV screening. And I think it was so remarkable also to see what the government in Botswana has done with a little bit of assistance to be able to ensure that people have access to the drugs and resources and education required to live healthy, long lives. And too, I agree with you to your point, it's very important and I think that's also something that strikes me in your books is that issues like disease issues, like family challenges, they play along with these stories in a way that makes it comfortable, makes it approachable and maybe potentially makes people think about things slightly differently.
AS: Yes. Yes.
AK: You're here, speaking of the Bushes, you're here today for the debut of the Laura Bush Book Club with the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency being the chosen book, and along with being an author we've heard already that you're incredibly well-read. So, in book club fashion, what is the number one book that you think we should read?
AS: Oh, right. Now, that's a question. Talk about a question from left field, if that's the right metaphor.
AK: We don't... That was not the smoothest transition, that's what you get on the Strategerist sometimes.
AS: Yeah. No. That's... If I had one book that I could recommend you to read, I think I would probably recommend a book that I have had so much pleasure in that I think contains so much wisdom and so much beauty, and that's the Collected Shorter Poems of WH Auden. I'm a great fan of the poet WH Auden, and I think there's so much material in that book of his, Collected Shorter Poems, to help one through life, so many wonderful insights. And when you read Auden you're in the presence of a great humanitarian, a very humane, understanding, amusing and entertaining voice. So I recommend that very strongly, and I might even point to particular poems if I handed you this book, and said, "You must read this book." I might say, "Take a look at page whatever it is."
AS: I might say that there are two lines in one of his poems which I think could be a whole philosophy of life where he says, "If equal affection cannot be then may the more loving one be me." And that's really a very, very profound, profound observation on his part. You could apply that to the issue of unrequited love or you could apply it to the issue of how we approach and see the world.
HA: That's lovely. I have one final question for you, Andrew probably has more, but I have one final, which is one of the things I appreciate about your novels is a mix of kindness and humor, not just in Mma Ramotswe's stories, but also in the other books of yours that I've read. And I think that's really clear in the way that you title your novels, which are just always fun to pick up and kind of chuckle at. The Second Worst Restaurant in France, that's pretty funny. Tea Time For the Traditionally Built... The Department of, what? Sensitive Crimes.
AS: Yes, yes, that's a new one.
HA: They're eclectic and they're memorable and they're funny. And I wondered if you could talk to us a little bit about how you name your novels.
AS: Well, it's a collaborative process. Because what happens is that I think of a possible title. I then send it to my editor in New York, and also to my editor in London and, indeed, I have an editor in Edinburgh in Scotland where I live, who gets involved in this, and in my agents, and we then come up with various responses to that, and so that's when people might want to add an adjective or subtract an adjective. I have the view that my editor in New York has got a box of adjectives in his office, and he extracts one of these and put them into my proposed title.
AS: And then some titles, just come to me like that, and I suggest them and we all say, "Yes, that's what the book's got to be called." You mentioned the Department of Sensitive Crimes. There was no discussion about that, that came out of the blue from the sky, and it did the trick, and there was an another one, a novella in that same series, the Ulf Varg series, The Strange Case of the Moderate Extremists. That was a title which you couldn't...
AS: That's the political party that the central figure's brother belongs to. He's the head of the Moderate Extremists.
HA: Do you ever find yourself just chuckling when you're writing?
AS: I do, yes, I sit there and I smile and then sometimes laugh, which can be a bit disturbing for my wife, if a wife hears her husband chuckling away behind a closed door.
AK: What is he plotting over there?
AS: What is he up to, yeah.
AK: Well, we are out of time, we could go for another hour, but Hannah said we can't let her ask questions for ever.
HA: Well, the people downstairs are waiting for you. Mrs Bush is waiting for you.
AK: Exactly. So, Alexander McCall Smith, thank you so much for doing this. This has been absolutely delightful. And again, his latest novel, To the Land of Long Lost Friends. That is the first time I've said it in this interview without twisting my tongue, is available right now on Amazon, or wherever you get your books. Thank you again so much for doing this.
HA: We're gonna have to edit in. We're gonna have to edit in, because you didn't ask that one question that we always ask our folks. Which is what is the one question that no one has asked you that you wish they would?
AK: You thought we were out of left field earlier. I told you we'd do this... I told you come out of left field sometimes here.
AS: I don't know. [chuckle] Yes, I suppose I would like a question which enabled me to talk about a particular triumph of mine, which might be, I'd like them to say, "Is it the case that you passed your marine radio operators license first time?"
HA: Is that the case?
AS: Yes, yes.
HA: Oh, congratulations.
AK: That's better than getting a 97 on the second [29:18] ____.
AS: It's in the same league.
AK: Thank you again for doing this.
AS: Thank you very much indeed.
HA: Thank you.