BY SARAH LAURENCE
Alexander McCall Smith takes off his crumpled cream hat and smiles and nods yet again to the next person in the line. He is busy greeting the people who have bought a ticket to hear him speak here, at the 2013 edition of the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Standing in his navy blazer outside the door of the venue he personally welcomes each person in the snaking line. Behind him, Exclusive Books has set out a table of his novels for anyone who would like to take home a signed copy. I’m standing at the back of the line, enjoying the sun and the conversations of the people around me as they chatter excitedly about how good they’ve heard his talks are, and how nice he is.
My interview with Professor McCall Smith (“call me Sandy”) is only tomorrow, but I’ve come to observe his public chat with Michele Magwood, in the hope that it will narrow down and direct the conversation I will have with the big, friendly literary giant. As I get to the front of the line, Sandy is still there, showing no signs of fatigue or boredom. He shakes my hand and thanks me for coming and I am struck by how genuine and how interested he is in his individual readers.
When our Sunday appointment rolls around, I am able to extract him gently from a few adoring fans and we comfortably settle down to scones and tea.
You’re very active on different forms of social media. What are the pros and cons of being so in touch with your readers, and of social media as a whole?
That was at the suggestion of my publishers. I did communicate with electronic newsletters but they suggested I started to use Facebook as a form of communication – it is a lot less static than conventional media. So I started to do that. I quite enjoyed doing postings on Facebook – with thirty-something thousand members, it’s a nice way of speaking to people. Twitter was at the insistence of my New York publishers. I was a bit slow at starting and then I found that I quite liked it. I found the challenge at expressing something succinctly in 140 characters quite something – I have fun with it. I know there are people who are hostile towards social media but there is a very positive side to it. There must be an awful lot of people whose lives are lonely or isolated and I do find that it is a good way of being part of a larger group of people and that’s all very positive. I suppose that the negative side is the narcissistic side: it encourages a form of exhibitionism. People leading their lives in public – there is a certain amount of narcissism in that.
You receive many requests to kill off some of your more painful characters. Why is it important to have some flawed characters?
Flawed characters are interesting. They wouldn’t want something to be monochrome and filled with people who are virtuous – and so I think one should have flawed characters to give the light and shade in the picture. Although with most of the flawed characters, you want to make sure that people see their side of the argument, see what the flawed characters are about. So Cat [the deli-owning flirtatious niece of Isabel in The Sunday Philosophy Club series] – she has rather too many boyfriends and really won’t settle but, at the same time, we see that she wants what the rest of humanity wants – which is to be loved and appreciated. So having a flawed character is quite a useful way of making the point about the universal human need for love and approbation – everybody wants friends and everybody wants their friends to like them.
You have very strong female characters and narrators. Is that from having so many women in your house?
I don’t think so. I don’t know where that comes from other than a certain admiration for a strong female character in life. When you meet these strong women, they can be pretty impressive and sometimes they can be a bit overwhelming. Mma Ramotswe is a strong character and a very nice character. She’s perfect, actually, in my view – but she’s not too perfect.
Your charity work ranges from your opera house (which you recently brought to a close) to something to do with rabies. How did you become involved in that?
I’m the patron of the Alliance for Rabies Control which is setting out to eradicate rabies in as many areas as possible. Through inoculation you can actually make certain areas rabies-free. It is a very wonderful cause. I went with them to Tanzania.
You have a self-standing novel coming out in February 2014 that you’ve said you are very excited about. Why are you excited about this particular project?
I’m very keen on the plot – I’ve got this very exciting plot and I’ve written half of the book so far. And it starts off in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, moves to the UK, moves to Australia, and then goes to Singapore. These are all places that I know. I’m quite interested in the idea of enduring love: somebody being in love with somebody over the years, and of that not being reciprocated or even if it is reciprocated, events and the world conspire against it. I think that idea of romance, and lasting romance, is a strong one and the idea that somebody can love another for a long time and possibly even maybe not be able to declare it is poignant. So this story is really about a girl who has a child who comes to admire this boy. I don’t want to give the story away, but that’s enough to get excited about.
What do you think Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie, the philosopher from the Sunday Philosophy Club series, would have to say about South Africa today?
That’s a very interesting question. Mma Ramotswe would understand South Africa, obviously, and I think she’d be positive. She’s a great admirer of Seretse Khama, and she would say that Seretse Khama was in the same moral stature as Nelson Mandela. She would say that they are in the same bracket, although I suppose nobody really has quite the same mantel as Mr Mandela. She would be positive and she says at several points that she believes in forgiving, people getting forgiveness and she believes in co-operation and people getting on. She would see a lot in South Africa which is pointing in a direction which is very optimistic, and there is! I think she would see that. She would say that that is wonderful.
Isabel would be interested in the cultural and moral complexity of people’s lives. I think that living in South Africa involves a particular set of moral and personal challenges, as living in any complex part of the world does. I think Isabel would be very sensitive to moral nuances, to the different sensitivities and moral undercurrents which are in this society.
You have very close ties to South Africa and Botswana, but you were born in Zimbabwe. Do you go back there often?
No I don’t – I’m completely out of touch with it. I spent my childhood there and the rest of my life I have spent mainly in Scotland with one or two little periods elsewhere. I think it was just the way that things developed. The University of Edinburgh, for whom I worked, had an old link with the joint university that they had and I taught for six months at, as it was then, the University College of Swaziland and then I had a project in Lesotho where I spent quite a few years and then I went to Botswana – so I’ve been more involved in those countries and really lost touch with Zimbabwe. I think Zimbabwe’s situation is a bit better than it was, but it is still a country which has its difficulties.
Speaking of the University of Edinburgh, you have started the Isabel Dalhousie fellowship there. Tell me a bit about that.
It is a fellowship I established to have a visiting fellow who would come to the institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. The idea was that we would be able to invite people of intellectual or artistic distinction who would come and spend some time with the institute. We’ve got the second set of fellows there at the moment. The first one was WH Auden’s executor, Edward Mendelson; he and his wife came for a month last year. We’ve currently got the Irish poet Michael Longley and his wife, who is professor of English at Queens in Belfast and an authority on Edward Thomas. They just arrived last week and will be there for a month. I find it very pleasant.
You’ve said that fiction does not need to be so dreary to be wonderful. I enjoy the fact that your books are on the lighter side of life and still so beautifully written.
I think you can actually say things about profound issues, but lightly. You don’t have to hammer people over the head with it. And if you are too unsubtle about it, people won’t read them. We don’t want to sit and wallow in problems, we can read the newspapers for that. So although there are books that can deal with dilemmas, you don’t want it all the time. Somebody who does that very well is JM Coetzee — Disgrace is a book that is just so searingly, searingly uncomfortable, but a major book. I could hardly bring myself to finish that book it was so uncomfortable. But wonderful, wonderful: a very important book, and of course he brings that off beautifully. I think one wants other things that act as a counterpoint to that.
Do you think that lighter books still saying something quite profound are taken less seriously by the world at large?
Yes, probably. There’s a very strong, intellectually snobbish attitude to that. The literary establishment can be very condescending towards anything that is successful and think that by that very fact it must be frothy, but that’s not necessarily true.
Isabel says to Jamie in The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds when she is thinking about the word “innocency” that “the difference lies in the poetry”. How important is that poetry, that lyrical way of using language to your work?
The sound of the prose is very important because it moves the reader. You can move the reader through language. And if you move the reader through language, you attract the sympathy of the reader and the reader is on board. There are structural issues in prose — you can tell if it is clunky prose or prose that flows, prose that approaches the beauty of poetry. There is a big difference between poetry and that which is not poetry, so I think you can use the emotive power of fiction, the power that language gives. You can use it instrumentally to make sure that the language you use communicates with the reader: the reader is asked to consider certain things.
Do you have any plans to stop writing?
There will be an end, obviously [laughing] – at some stage I’ll succumb to whatever I’m going to succumb to, but I’m not going to bring it to a premature end. I’ve just signed contracts for the next two (Volumes 15 and 16) of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency so I’ll continue with that and I’m enjoying it very much indeed. The only problem is time, really. My programme is just so busy, and I’d like to try and be able to get a handle on that which we try to do. My assistant is very good and she sort of urges me to say no to things but I often sort of say “Oh well, I’ll try”. I’d like to get more writing time; I’d like to create larger spaces in my schedule.
Alexander McCall Smith’s most recent novel, The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, is published by Abacus, R140.