Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith makes no excuses. He writes breezy and entertaining novels about a “traditionally built” female detective whose cases often require only conversation to solve. He also paints the books’ unlikely setting – Botswana in southern Africa – with rainbow colors, providing a stark contrast to the continent’s oft-bleak portraits.
“I try to write about the decency of Africa,” he said, sitting in his suite at the Edgewater Hotel on Thursday. “I fully realize the accusations of being a utopian novelist. I’m happy to be that.”
McCall Smith, 55, resembles his characters’ traits: polite to an extreme, quick to smile, generous with his time and, yes, socially aware.
In 1998, McCall Smith, a former law professor, wrote “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” for a small Scottish publisher and received good reviews and mediocre sales. It was enough for him to write a sequel.
Four years later, major New York and London publishing houses, prompted by word of mouth from booksellers, launched “Ladies’ Detective Agency” and it became a rare worldwide pop-lit phenomenon. Since September 2002, the five-book series has more than 4 million copies in print. The books have been translated into 27 languages with Serbian and Icelandic being the most recent additions.
Thursday night, several hundred fans filled Borders Books’ second floor on Madison’s West Side for McCall Smith’s appearance. He didn’t disappoint. Instead of reading from his books, he spent 70 minutes chatting about his characters – his readers remain protective of the wise and kind-hearted detective Precious Ramotswe – and answering, as he said, “questions and complaints.”
The most recurring criticism of his books, including the newly published “The Full Cupboard of Life”: Africa’s misery, while mentioned, is not at the forefront of McCall Smith’s “Detective” series.
“That’s not by accident,” he said during the interview at the Edgewater. “If you think of the Western literary gaze on Africa, you think of (Joseph Conrad’s bleak) Heart of Darkness.’ Writers are still writing that. The horrors of Africa are covered well.”
If McCall Smith seems cold toward Africa’s hardships, the opposite is true. He speaks at length about the problems of Africa, where he was born and raised. (His Scottish father worked as an attorney for a former British territory near Botswana.)
AIDS, poverty and corruption are mentioned in passing throughout the series, though McCall Smith, who returns to Botswana each year, discusses each subject with detail and compassion during an interview.
McCall Smith, however, said he wants to highlight the Botswana people’s “generosity of spirit, integrity and humor.” Setting charming tales in an African country helps him “portray a world where I see lives I admire in a country I admire.”
In Botswana, the books have been well received by the democratic government.
“I’ve had a very generous reaction,” he said. “There is not a great tradition of reading novels in the general population. But I think they’re slightly amused by it.”
McCall Smith is under contract to write three more “Detective” books, with the sixth one already completed and set for American publication in early 2005. He also fights the titles’ impression that he writes mystery novels.
“They aren’t really mysteries,” he said. “We don’t have any bodies. We don’t have any crimes! The biggest thing that happens is the drinking of tea.” He laughed. “It’s a new genre of tea-and-cake novels.”
The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at Borders savored McCall Smith’s charming appearance. Wearing a red kilt, gray jacket and green tie, he managed to turn a typically staid reading into a relaxing conversation.
Talk to the series’ fans and they say they enjoy the books’ light tone.
In the front row, several members of a Fort Atkinson book club arrived two hours before McCall Smith’s appearance. One reader complimented his characters’ “good outlook on life”; another noted “his sweetness.”
“And the people in his stories are so kind to each other,” said Barbara Pernacciaro of Fort Atkinson.
Miramax is developing a cable TV series based on the books. “English Patient” director Anthony Minghella will produce the show.
A prolific writer who has written everything from children’s books to academic works, McCall Smith will begin another detective series, set in London, this fall. He also writes a popular daily fiction series for a Scottish newspaper.
McCall Smith is busy, but he acknowledges he’s living “every author’s dream.” His modesty remains. He practically apologizes for wearing new shoes bought in an upscale English shop.
The success “has turned my life upside down. It really has,” he said. “I’m 55 and it’s quite a good time to happen. I think if it happened much earlier your head could be turned.”