He Said/She Said

Alexander McCall Smith's wildly popular novels prove that you can channel your imagination through any character, no matter how different he (or she) is from you.
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Alexander McCall Smith's books in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series typically hit bestseller lists around the world. But there's nothing typical about this writer.

The Zimbabwe-born author writes from a woman's point of view with such confidence that his readers have no problem falling into a world revolving around a Botswana woman, Precious Ramotswe, and her detective agency. Smith, however, sees nothing strange about his unique voice.

"Writers always have to empathize with others, whom-ever the others may be," he says. "I suppose people find it a little bit odd that a man should write in a woman's voice, but women writers do the equivalent very well."

While the books primarily focus on solving cases, Smith hesitates to categorize the series as "mystery." The stories are more about the relationships between people, he says, especially Mma Ramotswe and her friends. Smith also tries to show the more positive, day-to-day life of Africans, rather than the negative side more prominently covered on the nightly news.

Smith, 56, has finished writing the sixth book in the Agency series and plans to write two more. Also a medical law professor, he's written more than 50 books altogether, with topics ranging from children's stories to more scientific endeavors. He's also written a serial novel, published in a Scottish newspaper.

Lately, though, this busy author has found another woman to capture his interest—Isabel Dalhousie, the heroine of his new mystery series, launched with The Sunday Philosophy Club (Pantheon). Writer's Digest caught up with Smith during his most recent book tour, and we chatted about his writing process, favorite authors and varied reésumé.

What inspired you to create Mma Ramotswe?

The initial idea for an enterprising and impressive Botswana lady came years ago when I was staying with friends in Botswana. We went to see a woman who was preparing to give my friends a chicken for lunch. This woman chased this chicken through the yard—through feathers and dust—and then, rather coolly and with a great smile, rung the poor chicken's neck. And I thought, What a remarkable woman. I might write about somebody like that.

When you first started writing The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, did you ever expect so much positive reaction?

I didn't imagine it would get as big as it did. In the very beginning, it was a short short story. I expanded it because I rather liked Mma Ramotswe; I thought she was such an agreeable person. I was very much enjoying my conversation with her, so to speak. It seemed to me that the whole situation she was in really asked for further treatment. So I continued writing.

Have you found there's a difference in writing your first Agency book and your most recent?

ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH'SRECOMMENDED READING

"I have a very open mind about what I read, and I'm very happy to read all sorts of things and find new authors. It's quite difficult to find new authors that one's particularly keen on," Smith says. But there's one writer Smith recommends without hesitation. "If any of you haven't yet discovered the works of W.H. Auden, what a great treat lies ahead of you," he says. "Auden changed my whole life; reading his poetry changed my entire approach to things. He changed my understanding of the possibilities of language. "For example, his wonderful poem 'In Memory of Sigmund Freud' is the most marvelous communication of the way in which Freudian theory had a great liberating effect in the 20th century. And it just opened my eyes to one way of looking at that. In just so many respects, Auden's such a subtle, intellectually interesting poet."

A writer becomes more adept with each book. You learn something new about the world you're writing about, and you become a bit better at it. And, of course, it's practice. Every time one writes something, it's practice. One should try to get a little bit better with each book. So in some respects, it's easier to start a new book, but in other respects, each book should set higher standards for later on.

What's different about your new heroine, Isabel Dalhousie of The Sunday Philosophy Club, and Mma Ramotswe?

Isabel is more sophisticated, in a sense, than Precious Ramotswe. Isabel's a nice woman, but she's less of a kitchen philosopher; she's the real thing. She's a very acute moral philosopher.

She's got a good sense of humor, as Mma Ramotswe has, so there may be similarities. But in other respects, they're pretty different.

How do you begin writing a new book?

First, I spend time thinking. And then I'll do an outline—just a vague set of notes. Then I'll start writing and, of course, it'll transform and change as I go. As I near the end of my first draft, the book tends to be in almost final form. There will be only a tiny little bit of fiddling about at the end.

What's the difference between writing novels vs. other projects?

I get more pleasure out of novels. I wrote many children's books, but the Mma Ramotswe novels are particularly pleasurable for me. It's because I know the characters so well that I can put humor in the story, and I like putting humor in books. With my novels, I just have good fun.

You've also written a serialized novel for The Scotsman newspaper, which appeared in 850-word installments five days a week over six months. How's that different from writing novels?

Since it's not a serialization of an existing novel, I'm writing it as I go. It's quite an interesting difference. I've discovered that something has to happen in each installment, whereas, if you just wrote a novel and chopped it up into pieces and published it in a serial form, I think it would have a different feel. So it's quite a different technique, but it's a very enjoyable matter, and I'm getting great pleasure from it.

How are newspaper readers reacting to it?

I've had very nice feedback from readers. And also some suggestions for what I should put in. Some of the suggestions I've taken; others, no. There's one character who's a rather narcissistic young man, very good looking, and the female readers really like him. But they also want something unpleasant to happen to him. They want him to lose his job and be humiliated somehow. It's quite funny.

With all these writing projects going on, do you have a regular writing schedule?

When I've got the time to write, I like to start very early, at about 7:00 or 7:30 a.m., and then finish at 11 a.m. If I can get three or four hours done in a day that's great, but I have so many other things to do, it's rare that I'll get a day like that. Therefore, I have to write in between my other duties. Sometimes I might get to write just an hour a day, if that.

Any writing tips to offer?

Have the courage of your convictions, and persist and practice.

It's really important when you finish a work to take a little break and then go straight into the next one. I think that's worth doing because then the next one will be better.

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