Much-loved author of the popular series The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCall Smith is currently on tour in Australia to publicise his latest novel, The Forever Girl. I caught up with the prolific author during the Sydney leg of his Australian book tour.
A highly respected academic with many honorary doctorates, McCall Smith was a Professor of Medical Law in the UK for much of his working life. He has also taught law at the University of Botswana, an institution which he co-founded. On turning fifty, McCall Smith took the decision to become a full-time writer – following the enormous success of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, now celebrating its fifteenth anniversary.
Even after eighty books published to date, writing is as much a passion as it ever was. Speaking with him in Sydney, Alexander McCall Smith explained how he had wanted to write from a very early age.
“I do remember writing as a child, I sent off my first manuscript at the age of eight, so I was always conscious of the fact that I liked writing,” said McCall Smith. “I started to write in earnest, writing short stories, in my twenties. Like many authors do, I had a day job, a very different career, so I wrote in my spare time. I eventually became a full-time writer.”
He also spoke of how his enthusiasm for writing has never diminished in the slightest throughout the decades.
“I very much enjoy writing and each book gives me great pleasure. I don’t find writing a chore in any sense. I am very fortunate in being able to write quite quickly, I loved writing ‘The Forever Girl’. I have the ideas for my next few books and touch wood, that seems to continue. It is a complete pleasure to write….though I am aware of my responsibilities of writing for a large audience.”
Writing about women with empathy and understanding, his keenly observed details about their conversations and interactions are evident throughout his novels. Many of them are based around strong women, beginning with the first novel in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
“I find I do write quite a lot about female characters and I don’t really know quite why that is the case. I think it may just be accidental in that I started writing about Precious Ramotswe and I found I responded quite well to writing about her in the first novel, and thereafter, it seemed to be something I took to. So it may be an element of historical chance that I began to write about female characters and just continued to do so. I certainly found the idea of a strong female character is an attractive one in Literature.”
Conceding that some people find it surprising that a man should understand and write about women so well, McCall Smith said, “It may be a little bit unusual for a male author to write about women and to have women as his principal protagonists. Female novelists certainly write very confidently and well about men and nobody really comments on that, but people tend to find it surprising that a male author should do it. But it happens and I enjoy it. I enjoy reporting the conversations of women and find the conversations interesting and that is reflected in the novels.”
It may or not be relevant that McCall-Smith has always lived in a predominantly female household. He grew up with three older sisters and now has two daughters, and therefore plenty of advice on which shoes his female characters should wear. It is unsurprising that two of his favourite authors are women, whose approach to writing have much in common with his own.
“I am a great admirer of Barbara Pym. I am a member of the Barbara Pym Society – in fact they have made me an honorary member which is very kind of them. I admire her writing. I admire Jane Austen’s as well. There is a certain interest in social detail, in character, in what people say and the humour of people’s dealings with one another which I find extremely interesting. The sort of thing Jane Austen and Barbara Pym liked commenting on, are indeed the same things I like commenting on.”
Like many immensely successful, well-respected authors and academics, McCall Smith also enjoys writing children’s books. “I’ve written over thirty children’s books and I still occasionally write children’s books.”
McCall Smith recalls with absolute clarity his very first book in print – a children’s book published over 30 years ago.
“I do remember my first book. It was a children’s book published by Hamish Hamilton in 1980. I do remember getting a parcel with six copies in it, sent to me by my agent and that was a very particular moment when I held that first book in my hands, many years ago. I think, for any author, that is a very important moment.”
A man of immense charm and elegance of speech, attributes which abound throughout his work, Alexander McCall Smith makes talking with him effortless and a real pleasure, which is very much like reading one of his books.