Alexander McCall Smith
Not every best-selling author would be so forgiving to a small-town reporter who had stood him up for a phone interview.
But as his fiction demonstrates, Smith is - well, he's a nice man. The 57-year-old author was born and raised in Zimbabwe, has been a resident of Scotland most of his adult life and regularly visits every place from Australia to Africa to North America to research and/or promote his books.
So he understands how somebody can mess up time-zone differences.
McCall Smith is a featured part of Get Lit! 2006. Together with Jess Walter, Spokane based author of the Edgar Award-nominated novel "Citizen Vince," he will read from his works at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Met.
In a half-hour conversation from his Scotland home, McCall Smith - a former professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh - discussed everything from his "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series to how hard it is to get tomatoes with his scrambled eggs in America to the notion that genre fiction can be bona-fide literature.
But our talk began first with his graciousness regarding the missed interview.
Alexander McCall Smith: You don't have to worry about that. That's so easily done. You don't have to apologize at all. I fully understand. Life is very complicated, and when time zones come into it, it gets impossible. You people have such a difficult job.
Dan Webster: Wait a minute. I have a difficult job? How many books have you written now? Over 50 was the estimate I saw.
AMS: Well, yes, but that's over a number of years.
DW: Over a number of years? Some people don't write five books in a lifetime. But 50?
AMS: Well, I have to say that a number of those early ones were children's books, so I don't know whether I should count them as full books.
DW: Even so … I've looked at several interviews with you online and there's a lot of information there, but there are some questions that I couldn't find the answer to. For example, how did you just simply begin writing at all?
AMS: Well, I guess I always just wanted to do it. In my 20s I was writing short stories, dabbling really. And then by a curious set of coincidences I found myself writing children's books, which I hadn't really planned to do. And those became reasonably successful, so I did that for a number of years. And at the same time, as I say, I was writing odd bits and pieces. And then I started to write novels. And I'm now principally a novelist.
DW: I know you're a law professor …
AMS: I was, I was. I'm no longer. I have emeritus status.
DW: I know that what goes on in academia is that you have to publish scholarly articles. Did you begin writing in that style?
AMS: No, it was both actually. I was writing academic works, but in my spare time I was writing in a different way. I was writing fiction. So I was one of those people who was doing both.
DW: And that's my next question. How is it possible to go back and forth? Because they're such different styles of writing. I mean, putting commas in the right place is the same thing, but the tone, the tenor …
AMS: I know what you mean. I didn't find that too problematic in that I think that one can move into different voices in my writing. When I'm writing nonfiction, it's a particular voice than when I'm writing. And different sorts of fiction have different voices as well. So I suppose I was just able to do that, and I was very lucky. But that's how I was able to juggle these various balls.
DW: When you speak of voices, that's particularly relevant to your work. Because I guess what you're most known for in this country is "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series. And you chose not only to set it in Africa, which I know that you know, but you use a woman's voice. And that's very interesting. Why did you choose a woman's voice to tell your stories in?
AMS: Oddly enough, it wasn't a deliberate choice. I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to do this, I'm going to write in a woman's voice." I just found myself doing it. I had thought that I would like to write about a woman who lived in Botswana and her life, her background. And I just seemed to slip into her voice. I suppose that was the first time that I had written in a sustained way in a woman's voice. I'd written short stories before, some of which were from a woman's perspective. But I found that I quite enjoyed that. I've done quite a bit of it since then, but I never really think about it actually, interestingly enough.
DW: That's something that many male writers wouldn't be brave enough to do.
AMS: I didn't think that it was an issue. I think people do find it odd that a man should write from a woman's point of view, in that I suppose statistically fewer men do that than female writers take the voice of men. Women novelists often write about men and they usually get it right. Sometimes one reads a book by a woman author - I had that experience last year, I was reading a book by a female writer and I thought, "No, she hasn't got the man right. This is not what a man thinks."
DW: Particularly when you get into hardboiled mystery fiction, it's is a little bit difficult to do that. But it's one thing to write in the voice of a woman - and I don't know anything about the life of Africa, I don't know anything about the cultures there - but from everything I read you do it convincingly.
AMS: Well, that's very kind of you to say that. I guess I keep my eyes open, I listen to people, I talk to people and certainly whenever I go back to Botswana I'm very much in the business of listening to people and observing them. As I am all the time, actually. Writers do that, so I think that's part of the battle, to be able to think one's self into the shoes of the other. That's what a writer must be able to do.
DW: You were born in '48, correct? When in '48?
AMS: August. I'm 57 now.
DW: I was born in October of '47, so I have a few months on you.
AMS: We're a good vintage, aren't we? This is about the time of life, I mean, I pride myself on really enjoying this stage of life. Touch wood, we're not too decrepit, and at the same time we've seen quite a bit.
DW: Absolutely. And it's true that the older I get the less I know.
AMS: In terms of certainties.
DW: That's exactly my point.
AMS: I think that that's right. It's interesting. I was reflecting on this the other day, that as you go through life you … acquire a certain wisdom about the world. One thing I think we have to do is watch that we don't get crotchety. That's one think we have to watch, not getting crotchety about breakfast not being right. I stay in a lot of hotels, and I was in one city, I won't say which one, but I was in a city in the United States three or four months ago. And I asked for scrambled egg. And scrambled egg was definitely there. But I asked for scrambled egg and tomato, and the waitress said, "No." (laughs) And I was pronouncing tomato the right way. I wasn't coming up with the British pronunciation of to-MAH-to. I was using the appropriate American pronunciation, and she said, "No, you can't have a tomato." And this was because she was thinking in terms of what was available. And I was so taken aback by this, and I said, "OK, just bring me scrambled eggs and bacon." And about three or four minutes later she came back to me and she said, "You can have your tomato." (laughs) That's the sort of thing where I just thought, "Well, really, this is the last straw. You have to contain yourself."
DW: The way I try to keep young is through the people I work with, several of whom are in their 20s. And other than the fact that I lost track of popular music 20 years ago, I do all right.
AMS: And when you say, "Peter, Paul and Mary," they say, "Who?"
DW: I teach a class at Gonzaga University, and I was showing a short film to my class. It was weird and eerie but derivative. There are only so many stories you can tell. And I was saying, "Of course, this is very much like 'Twilight Zone.' " And they just looked at me. And I said, " 'Twilight Zone.' Of course you've heard of that." And they hadn't.
AMS: These things happen. My situation is even worse. I actually have heard of the "Twilight Zone," but I actually don't watch any television. So this whole wave of cultural references just goes by me, I look blank half the time (laughs). People think I'm deaf. I don't know what they're talking about."
DW: Get Lit! is a literary festival. It started off as one of those wine-and-cheese poetry recitals. But it has evolved over the years. Even so, we do have a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners, so it still does have that feeling of academic pretension about it. How does what you do - I mean, mystery literature can be looked down upon - how do you think that fits into what we call, quote-unquote, legitimate literature?
AMS: Well, mine I don't think are proper mysteries in that we don't have murders and clues and things like that. I'm just really using the detective agency as a vehicle for writing about society and writing about people. But, obviously, there are some novels which are very much genre novels, which never rise above the genre where it's all fairly predictable. But I think you really can't say that anything that deals with crime or detection is in a sort of ghetto, not literature. I think that's a very snobbish view to take of it. They can be very literary, and much more literary than some of the pretentious, very self-consciously literary novels are. So pretentious that nobody can read, and nobody reads them anyway. And one can think of writers in this genre who were remarkably good writers and who wrote terribly well. Raymond Chandler wrote very well-constructed novels, very sparse prose, good prose. Hemingwayesque, in a sense. And Hemingway is another writer who wrote about the world of action and events and yet there were some very beautiful passages in his books. Somerset Maugham, again. These are people who are all writing about matters which I suppose could be considered at some level to be beneath the attention of the literary novel. So I think that one shouldn't judge a book by its subject matter, at all. Take Patricia Highsmith, who wrote books that often are said to be just psychological thrillers. But they're much more than that. They're not mere thrillers.
DW: Read the Ripley series.
AMS: Ripley's a good example. The Ripley series are, I mean, they're creepy. She's got a wonderful ability to describe the psychopathic personality. But there are others which I think are really marvelous as well. "People Who Knock on the Door," "Dark Water." I think she was a very, very fine writer.
DW: I'm going to have to go and check those out.
AMS: Patricia Highsmith is the only writer who can frighten me. Certainly books like "Deep Water" are frightening, whereas normally I would never be frightened by the written word. But reading Patricia Highsmith, my goodness me.
DW: I'm glad that you mentioned Raymond Chandler. I think that real writers always refer back to him. He's the man who taught me the difference between a metaphor and a simile. And nobody writes that style better than he did. It was in a hardboiled manner, but boy …
AMS: One of the reasons why he was such a good writer, I think, was that it was very clear prose. The plots could get very complicated, but the prose was clear. I think that clear prose without too many adjectives, succinct, cogent … and that's all very good.