It’s no exaggeration to refer to author Alexander McCall Smith as “world famous.” The Scottish author’s 1999 novel, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency — now a 15-volume series set in Botswana — has been translated into 46 languages. Now on tour for his newest book, The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, he took time from his hotel in New York to talk to The Santa Barbara Independent before heading off to a regal-sounding dinner at the home of a well-known New York philanthropist.
“This is my fourth visit to the U.S. just this year,” McCall Smith said. “I went to Key West for a conference in January and during the summer was in Las Vegas for a librarian’s conference. It was wonderful; there were 20,000 librarians there. Can you imagine?”
Since his books lodged themselves in the hearts of readers all over the world, McCall Smith has had a global touring schedule that sounds overwhelming. “It’s true: I do a great deal of traveling. After the U.S. visit, I’ll be off to Botswana and then Cape Town in South Africa. So far, though, I’m coping.”
Considering his jam-packed travel schedule, it’s difficult to comprehend how McCall Smith, who is also the author of other crime series set in his hometown of Edinburgh, manages to be so prolific. He explained: “I set aside a few months a year just for writing, no touring. Since there are several [book] series going on at once, involving so many characters’ lives, I may think about what one character in Edinburgh — for instance, Bruce [narcissist supreme of the 44 Scotland Street series, whose comeuppance is already in the works] — is doing while I’m working on a book set in Botswana. But I have to concentrate on the book at hand, so I’ll jot down the thought and set it aside for the time being.”
McCall Smith said of his daily writing schedule: “I get up early, about 4:30 in the morning, sometimes earlier, and get in a good three hours of writing. Then in the afternoon I take a siesta. I’m a great believer in siestas.”
The easy-to-laugh, genial McCall Smith talked about his characters as though they were neighbors, which in fact they — or their archetypes — were for the years he spent in Botswana, after earning his law degree at the University of Edinburgh. Born to Scottish parents in what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, McCall Smith went to St. Patrick’s Christian Brothers College, Bulawayo, before enrolling at the University of Edinburgh, where he earned a degree in medical law. He later returned to Africa to help found a law school in Botswana and developed a great affection for its people. Gaborone, capital of Botswana, became the setting of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
“The people of Botswana really are as kind and courteous as they are in my books,” he said. “They’re perhaps not as formal as they’re depicted [his characters, even husband and wife, address each other as Mma and Rra — Mrs. and Mr.], but I wanted to portray their essential dignity. I’m very fond of them.”
The author has a wonderfully wicked sense of humor and thoroughly enjoys writing some of the more reprehensible creatures that serve as foils to the main characters. One of them is Violet, bête noir to Mma Grace Makutsi, codirector of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Violet does her best to sabotage Mma Makutsi’s latest undertaking with a devastating newspaper article. “Violet really is a wicked person,” McCall Smith said, laughing. “What she wrote would have been just ruinous. I had great fun with that.”
One of the things that make McCall Smith’s books so popular, besides their subtle humor, is a focus on the mundane details, not riches. “That’s what I want to get across. It’s not material success that determines happiness — it’s the small events of daily life to be found in precious things like Mma Ramotswe’s old and ragged lace handkerchief, and the smell of rain. That’s where we find meaning in life.” —Charles Donelan
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Alexander McCall Smith Friday, November 14, 8 p.m., at Campbell Hall. For tickets and info, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.