EAIFL: An Interview with Alexander McCall Smith – The Humble Scot

Posted on March 14, 2010

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Alexander McCall

When I scored an interview with Alexander McCall Smith, I was so ecstatic that I walked into the room without my pen and notepad. Only after excusing myself to hurry out and get them, did we finally sit down for an interview. Sorry, chat.

Best known as the man behind The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Alexander McCall has also quite prolifically digressed into writing for children, as well as publishing numerous academic texts on Law. And although McCall was clearly one of the more popular novelists at the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature, he spoke with the humility of a man with no achievements to his name.

Welcome to Dubai, Mr.McCall. How do you find the city so far?

I have to say, Dubai is a fascinating city. The last time I was here it was 10 years ago, and I can barely recognize the place now!

And what’s really struck me about the place is the diversity of the residents here, more than anywhere else I’ve seen in the world.

So tell me about your most popular book/series, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. Was it always meant to be a series?

Well, I started writing the first book a good 12 years ago in 1998, and it has ‘bred’ a good 11 books since then. Out of the 46 languages it’s been translated into, the most recent and the one I feel most at home with, is the one in Scots. A language on its own yes, to which a person who speaks proper English will only make sense 80% of the time [laughs].

When I set out to write the first book of the series, I never imagined that it would evolve this far. I had originally intended on it being a title on its own.

Would you say that it was the eventual success of the first book that actually encouraged you to branch it further? How do you know then when a book is going to evolve into a series?

More than the story, in this case it’s about the character of your novel. If the principal character of your story is one you can find your readers relating to on a deeper level, and you know that he/she is someone they might want to keep on reading about, that’s when you know. The story can be built on, but the character has to be firmly believed in.

And the best thing about writing a series, is that you don’t have to keep re-introducing your character. It gives you a chance to jump right to the plot.

How much of yourself do you let seep into your books?

[Laughs] You know, many authors claim that they see themselves in every third page of their novels; I have to say I give myself away in every sentence. Although I might be reflected more in one character (not necessarily the protagonist that too) than another, I’ve noticed that there’s a little bit of me in all of my characters.

So basically you’re all over the place.

Precisely. [Laughs]

On a more serious note however as an author of fiction, although you might allow fragments of your character to seep into your novels, it is important to ensure that your opinion doesn’t.

We’re not here to use our characters to lecture the reader on a particular thought or viewpoint. Instead we learn to glean how much of an opinion can be portrayed to the reader via a character, and subsequently utilize that knowledge in shaping the novel.

Do you have a particular tool or strategy you like to use when writing? A particular emotion maybe, that you tend to play with?

I don’t think I have an agenda per say when writing. Simply put, I write what I want to.

What I like to highlight in my novels however, is the quirkiness of life. Those little odd moments, that make it what it is.

So there is an intrinsic message you’re trying to relay.

Well, unknowingly I suppose.  For instance, I’m an advocate for non-violence. There are so many things to celebrate in this world, this life; why resort to violence to solve our problems when tolerance and forgiveness is the more befitting weapon?

And my main character Ramotswe is very forgiving if you haven’t noticed already. We live in a society where everyone loves to play the blame game. But Ramotswe always forgives.

At this point the conversation took a very interesting turn. Literally. Much to my surprise, the interviewee turned interviewer when McCall started asking me questions about my life.

On having discovered that I was Sri Lankan, McCall very excitedly indulged in a discourse about the country; the people, the politics and the Galle Literary Festival which he had recently attended.

He was such an easy conversationalist , up until the point he suddenly got all serious and asked of me:

“Do you by any chance write m’dear? I mean, have you had a go at any stories?”

To which I replied that unfortunately I haven’t, and that although it would definitely be something I’d love to attempt, I’ve always considered having to write a book a very daunting endeavour.

At this juncture McCall sat up in his seat, looked me in the eye and very gravely chastised: “Don’t you ever say that. I say go for it. Pick up a pen and start writing, even for just a short story to get you started.

I can tell you have the potential to write some well thought out, yet humorous stories. Consider this me vouching for you.”

Needless to say, I was downright elated. Here I was being properly flattered by one of the greats of the business; it’s no wondermy ego was properly stroked.

We parted too soon, as McCall was scheduled to meet his wife at the hotel lobby. But he did make it a point to get a business card off me before we parted ways.

Now I doubt I’ll ever hear from him again, and for all I know this is just another motivational pep-talk he gives every other wannabe writer; but it had me seeing stars all the same. It’s encouraging to have that sort of endorsement (albeit a loose contract), and I’m slightly more confident enough to seriously consider starting on that book of mine.

Whatever, and whenever that is.

To have a look at the entire schedule or for more information on session reservations, visit the EAIFL official website: www.emirateslitfest.com

For individual reviews of the festival’s sessions, visit www.moneymunot.com, www.shaahima.wordpress.com, www.hishamwyne.wordpress.com, and www.ana-aqra2.blogspot.com

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