In a letter to her niece about novel writing, Jane Austen once remarked: “You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.”
Alexander McCall Smith, the opening speaker for Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, has been delighting a devoted U.S. fan base in much the same way for the past 15 years.
“I love Jane Austen, and I very much like Barbara Pym, who is the 20th century version” of the novelist, McCall Smith said. Noting that Austen once described her circumscribed societies as “the little bit of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush,” he said: “I recognize that that’s the territory in which I work. The small things in life are very important because they stand for the bigger things.”
When discussing McCall Smith’s work — which includes the popular No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Sunday Philosophy Club and 44Scotland Street series — “country village” must be taken a bit metaphorically. The three series are set in two capital cities — Gaborone, Botswana, and Edinburgh, Scotland. And there can be a less pleasant side to village life, such as the claustrophobia that McCall Smith acknowledges in his recent novel The Forever Girl, in which a character describes the Cayman Islands as “a strip of coral in the middle of nowhere with these people I don’t really like.”
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Nevertheless, the author says, “I’m writing about societies which are quite personal, perhaps because I’m hankering after something that’s not there, or is there in less measure than it used to be.”
He believes his readers share that hankering: “People are yearning for neighbors” — a yearning that’s fulfilled in McCall Smith’s gentle tales, where everyone seems to know everyone and, more importantly, care about what befalls them. As Mma Ramotswe muses at the end of The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe, “the world was not always a place of pain and loss, but a place where our simple human affairs — those matters that for all their pettiness still sometimes confounded us — were not insoluble, were not without the possibility of resolution.”
Not that the characters’ creator always knows what is coming next. Although he has said that he writes his books on a strict schedule — he begins the year with a No.1 Ladies’ book, ending with an installment in the Sunday Philosophy Club and sandwiching a 44 Scotland Street novel in between — McCall Smith said that he has not sketched out a story arc for his characters.
“I wish I did, but I don’t. We’re not moving toward any preordained conclusion.”
This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have what one might call premonitions.
“There are some characters that I feel particularly close to. Bertie [a precocious resident of 44 Scotland Street] is one. I wish I could see some glimpse of light in Bertie’s future. And although people like Mma Ramotswe, I get the feeling that she doesn’t need much help from me. I am concerned about Mma Makutsi,” whose entrepreneurial zeal in opening The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe forms the basis of his newly released No.1 Ladies novel.
McCall Smith also “loved being in the company of Mr. Woodhouse,” the father of Austen’s Emma. McCall Smith joins other modern authors including Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid chosen to update the classic works as part of The Austen Project; his retelling will be available in the United States in April. As an emeritus professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, McCall Smith is an inspired choice to bring the patriarch’s hypochondria into the modern era. The original Mr. Woodhouse was careful to avoid drafty rooms; his successor “is very concerned about viruses,” McCall Smith said sympathetically.
While the author might have enjoyed his time with Mr. Woodhouse, that gentleman likely would avoid someone whose frequent flying exposes him to so much recirculated air. When not at home in Edinburgh, McCall Smith travels often to the United States, Australia, the Cayman Islands, Singapore and book fairs around the world; just days after leaving Miami, he will join a small group of fans on a “literary safari” through the Botswana of his No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books.
“There’s a lot of travel, and it’s very energizing. I do enjoy the personal contact with my readers. It’s one of the great consolations of the job and one of the reasons I do book tours,” he said.
Sprinkled among the publisher’s book promotions on his Facebook page are touchingly personal posts. Fans got to read the poem he read at a daughter’s wedding; see a picture of the author and his dog in an appeal for support of an anti-rabies campaign; and receive a thank-you for their good wishes upon the birth of his grandson.
“People by and large are remarkably kind,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky with my readers.”
Meet the author
“An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith”: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College; $15; www.miamibookfair.com