Interview With Alexander McCall SmithAlexander McCall Smith is a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He is the author of over fifty books on a wide range of subjects, including specialist titles such as Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana, children's books such as The Perfect Hamburger, and a collection of stories called Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is his first mystery novel. It tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to "help people with problems in their lives." Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.
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The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is my first foray into this territory, although I do not think of it as a mystery. I like to think of it as a novel about a woman who happens to be a private detective. Mind you, I suppose that makes it a mystery ... of a sort.
Your detective, Precious Ramotswe, is a wonderfully unique character—a Botswana woman of traditional build who decides to become a professional private detective. Is Precious based on someone that you knew when you lived in Botswana or is she a creation of your imagination?
There is no particular person upon whom Precious Ramotswe is based, but there is an incident. Years ago I was in Botswana, staying with friends in a small town called Mochudi. A woman in the town wished to give my friends a chicken to celebrate Botswana National Day. I watched as this woman—traditionally built, like Mma Ramotswe—chased the chicken round the yard and eventually caught it. She made a clucking noise as she ran. The chicken looked miserable. She looked very cheerful. At that moment I thought that I might write a book about a cheerful woman of traditional build.
Did you know immediately that the story of Mma Ramotswe would be the basis for an entire series of novels?
No, I did not. What happened is that I became so fond of the character that I could not let her go. To leave her where she was at the end of the first novel would have been rather like getting up and leaving the room in the middle of a conversation—rather rude.
It is rare for an author to explore the evolution from amateur sleuth to professional detective, but one of the most appealing aspects of Precious's character is that she doesn't always know what she's doing. In Tears of the Giraffe (the sequel to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), she even sends away for an instructional manual, Principles of Private Detection. What interests you about "education of the detective"?
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Although Mma Ramotswe is confronted by greed, lust, dishonesty, and murderous intent, these novels are rather optimistic and often humorous in tone. How do you maintain this rather delicate balance?
I think that many people living in Africa—in circumstances which are sometimes quite difficult—maintain that balance themselves, and with great dignity. I think that I merely reflect what is there in those fine people.
In the Precious Ramotswe novels, Botswana emerges as a vivid character and a wonderful place to live. What do you hope that American readers will discover about Africa while reading these novels?
I very much hope that American readers will get a glimpse of the remarkable qualities of Botswana. It is a very special country and I think that it particularly chimes with many of the values which Americans feel very strongly about—respect for the rule of law and for individual freedom. I hope that readers will also see in these portrayals of Botswana some of the great traditional virtues in Africa—in particular, courtesy and a striking natural dignity.
How have these books been received in Botswana? What about other parts of Africa?
I was recently in Botswana and I was delighted to find that people there liked the books. I was worried that they might have reservations about an outsider writing about their society. No. They appear to like the way in which their world is portrayed. I believe that they recognize themselves in them.
You were born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and you have also lived in Botswana, the United States, and Edinburgh. In what ways have your international travels informed your writing?
The fact that I have been all over the world means that I tend to use a variety of locations for my work. I think it is important for a writer to see other societies and attempt to understand them. Of course, you have to be careful. It is easy to get things wrong. One might put palm trees in the wrong place, for example in New York.
Do you see the Precious Ramotswe books within the context of the tradition of the classic African novel of writers like Isak Dinesen and Chinua Achebe? Or do you see them as a revamping of the mystery genre?
I think that these books might be difficult to put into any particular tradition. They are obviously about Africa, but they are very different from the works you mention. Some people say that they remind them of the novels of that great Indian writer R.K. Narayan, which is very flattering, but I suppose I can see the similarities in the world which his and my books portray.
Anthony Minghella, who has directed The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley recently optioned The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency to be a major motion picture. Will you be involved in the production in any way?
I hope that this goes ahead as planned. They have shown me a script, which I read with interest. They said that I could come and see the shooting, one of these days. I shall stand well back and I suspect that I shall say nothing.
The Precious Ramotswe books have a devoted following. Have you ever had the opportunity to meet with the Mma Ramotswe fan club that is based in New York? What question are you most frequently asked by your fans?
There seem to be many fans of the books in the U.S.A. I receive wonderfully warm letters from American readers, which I greatly enjoy. As far as New York is concerned, there is a splendid group of readers whom I met when I was last there. They love Mma Ramotswe and she would love them too. They, like many other readers, ask me when Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni will eventually get married. I must think about that.
Next spring, Pantheon Books will publish the fourth in the series of the Precious Ramotswe novels. Will there be other books in the series as well?
I hope so. I am writing the fifth at the moment and I am thinking of the sixth.
In addition to writing novels, you are also a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University, and as if that wasn't enough to keep you busy, you also conduct a symphony. How do you find the time to do it all?
I struggle to find the time to do things. I have many commitments, but writing these books is such a pleasure for me that I shall always find the time, somehow. I don't conduct a symphony—I play in a distinctly amateur orchestra, of which I am the co-founder. I play the bassoon, but not the entire instrument, as I dislike the very high notes and stop at the high D, which I think is quite high enough. This orchestra is pretty awful, and that is why it bears the name The Really Terrible Orchestra. This brings it a wide and enthusiastic following. Recently we had a request from an American amateur orchestra to use our name. We said of course. So somewhere in the U.S. there is a bad amateur orchestra called The Really Terrible Orchestra. They will go far, perhaps.
Posted with permission of the publisher.