by Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n his impeccable British diction (with no trace of a Scottish burr), Zimbabwe-born Scotsman Alexander McCall Smith sounds utterly sincere when he claims he is looking forward to his first visit to Spokane, where he will speak "On Being a Serial Writer" on April 23 at the Met. It's a subject he knows very well. He is just finishing the third volume of the Isabel Dalhousie series -- set in Edinburgh, his hometown -- entitled The Right Attitude to Rain. He's also just kicked out volume three of Edinburgh's answer to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, called Love Over Scotland, which will come out in June. He got the idea from a conversation with Maupin himself, at a party thrown by novelist Amy Tan. 44 Scotland Street and its successor seem to have inspired a small resurgence in the newspaper serial. In the UK, he says, The Observer has followed suit and in Canada the Edmonton Journal is publishing one as well.
At Get Lit, McCall Smith will talk about the affliction of "serial novelism." It's an acute condition and he confesses, "I've got a serious version of it." Serious enough that he finally had to give up a long career teaching law in Edinburgh. But that made it possible for him to deliver number seven in the Precious Ramotswe series, Blue Shoes and Happiness, which will be released this month and will feature plenty of red bush tea and everyday dilemmas. For example, despite Mma Ramotswe's warnings about her traditionally shaped feet, he says Mma Makutsi succumbs to the allure of "an elegant but impractical pair of blue shoes." McCall Smith says he believes in long engagements, so Grace Makutsi's to Phuti Radiphuti continues. But if you've been worried that the series might end once everyone is married off, McCall Smith has good news. He has agreed to write three more books after the first eight are finished.
Some have compared Precious Ramotswe to Miss Marple and called Ladies No. 1 a Botswanan "cozy." But really, Ramotswe is a moral philosopher, like her Scottish counterpart, Isabel Dalhousie. "The books are about women who really reflect on how we should live," McCall Smith says. But where Mma Ramotswe is all intuition and common sense and is never wrong, he points out, Isabel is "much more intense [and] she takes a much more intellectualized approach, though she doesn't always get it right."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ut the philosophical thrust of the novels did not come about by design. "I had no idea I was going to write this kind of thing," he says. "I just thought I'd write about a woman who set up a little detective agency, and about Botswana." The tidal wave of success was unforeseen, and "the books just happened."
Female heroines, featured in both series, were also unplanned, though he thinks they do offer a couple of advantages. While male conversation tends to be more objective, he says, two women talking to each other, like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, will pick up on a wider range of things: "Women can be very sensitive to the nuances of a situation." Which is important, Smith says, because "it is the small details of everyday life, the little issues, which make up people's lives." Our moral choices are bound up in "how we treat our friends and family in minor matters." For men, too, the everyday things figure in a large way, he says, like rooting for the local team. "It may not have universal meaning, but our little worlds mean a great deal to us."
To an outsider at least, McCall Smith's world is a pretty wide one, and it will soon include film. He says director Anthony Minghella, who optioned Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency a couple of years ago, is forging ahead with the film, but McCall Smith has no idea when it might be in theaters. He isn't writing the screenplay -- "I will leave that to the professionals," he says philosophically. "I'm sure they'll make a very good job."
He also confirms, modestly, that his much-vaunted productivity has not been exaggerated. Indeed, when "going at full tilt" he can crank out 1,000 words an hour. This is fiction, after all, and he says, "When one writes, one often gets in touch with one's subconscious mind." Given the large stock of material there, it's more a matter of taking it all down.
He seems to carry the success lightly, saying, "I don't feel pressure on the writing because I enjoy it so much." The pressure comes from all the globe-trotting and other commitments. As problems go, the full schedule of a writer whose work has been published in 29 languages is a good one to have, he acknowledges. "Though I don't have to work, I wouldn't want to sit around. If one just sat around, what would be the point?"
Well, he would have time to play the bassoon -- badly, so he claims, in the Really Terrible Orchestra. Is the RTO really so awful, or is some sort of false modesty at work here?
No, insists McCall Smith, "It really is bad. We're quite cacophonous at times."