Interview with Alexander McCall Smith

May, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith Zimbabwe-born British writer Alexander McCall Smith has spent his career balancing a double life. A respected professor of medical ethics by day, prolific children's book author by night, his writing career fully blossomed at age 50 when his novel, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, became an unexpected publishing sensation. McCall Smith went on to publish ten books about his Botswana-based heroine, Precious Ramotswe, which sold millions of copies around the globe and spawned a TV miniseries this spring. Now retired from academic work, he is knee-deep in four different series, two of which, 44 Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions, were originally serialized in daily newspaper installments. McCall Smith took a pause from his busy writing schedule to talk to Goodreads about his newest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

Goodreads: The The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has generated a lot of discussion about its presentation of Botswana, because it does not include considerable reference to the country's 25% HIV infection rate (one of the highest in the world). What is your response to criticism of this kind?

Alexander McCall Smith: There are many books that deal in more detail with the problems of Africa and, in particular, with the HIV/AIDS issue. I think it is important to remember that, in spite of illness, countries in sub-Saharan Africa keep going as best they can, and therefore we should not concentrate exclusively on writing about the bad things in Africa. There is plenty of good news, and there are many very good things happening there, so why should we not celebrate these?

GR: What can readers expect from your latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built?

AMS: We return to the office of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana, where Mma Ramotswe gets herself involved in the issue of why a football team seems to be losing rather a lot of matches. This is not her usual sort of case, of course, and it goes without saying that she knows nothing about football!

GR: How do you plot a series of such length? Are you planning a story arc that will culminate in a final book, or are you happy to keep writing as long as there is reader interest?

AMS: I shall be writing another four books in the series, taking us up to volume 14. I have no idea how the series will end—I may just keep it going. I am delighted that the series has achieved such a wide and diverse audience.

GR: The HBO series of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the first major production to be shot entirely on location in Botswana. Are you pleased with how the adaptation has captured your characters and the setting?

AMS: I am delighted with the way they have done the series. HBO and the Weinstein Company have done a splendid job. I am particularly impressed with the very good casting—the actors portray the characters extremely well.

GR: A modern-day Dickens, you recently completed your second serial novel, Corduroy Mansions, which was published in daily chapter installments in The Telegraph. How much did you write in advance and how much did you write on the fly? Will you continue to serialize this story?

AMS: Corduroy Mansions was written as it was being published. I was usually about 30 episodes ahead of the online publication. I plan to do another volume in this series beginning this fall, which will also be published in The Telegraph.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AMS: I usually write in the morning, although I sometimes write later in the afternoon and in the evening. There are times when I get up very early to write, but on a typical day I start writing at about 10 a.m. and keep going until lunchtime. I often write when I am traveling—I am away so often on book tours that I have to do this. On my forthcoming tour of the USA I will be finishing the next Isabel Dalhousie book.

GR: Who are some of your influences?

AMS: I very much admire the work of W.H. Auden, the poet, and I also enjoy the work of the Indian author, R.K. Narayan, and Graham Greene.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

AMS: I am reading The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton.

GR: Are you still teaching?

AMS: I am no longer involved with academic work. I retired from my post as Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University a few days ago to concentrate on my writing career. I do miss the students.

GR: It must be difficult to juggle so many series at once. What are you focusing on next?

AMS: At the moment I am finishing the next Isabel Dalhousie book, and I have also started on the next Scotland Street book. In July I will begin the next book in the Mma Ramotswe series, and in August I will start the next volume of Corduroy Mansions.

7 likes · like


Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)

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message 1: by Raymond (new)

Raymond I have recently finished reading "The Kalahari Typing School for Men" and look forward to the rest of the Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I am thrilled to read here that Mr. McCall Smith plans to continue penning these wonderful stories.


message 2: by Laura (new)

Laura I first read some of Mr. McCall Smith's novels this fall and have found the various series delightful. Thank you!


message 3: by Judith (new)

Judith Totally addictive. I've read the first book, plus Tears for a Giraffe, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, and currently reading Blue Shoes, and have ordered all the others. Plus now my husband is also addicted to the HBO series too!


message 4: by Micaela (new)

Micaela I can't wait for another book from the 44 Scotland Street Series. I'm dying to know how Bertie is doing!


message 5: by D/N (new)

D/N MCDERMOTT Isabel is our very favorite. We read them as soon as they are available.


message 6: by Anna-karin (new)

Anna-karin I agree with Mr. McCall's comments re: Botswana. There is so much emphasis on the problems in Africa, and I appreciate the way he celebrates in such a peaceful and loving way the many many good things happening on that vast continent.


message 7: by ingrid (new)

ingrid Please! Try to listen to any of these Mme. Romatswe books on CD (or tape). They are enchanting to listen to, like plays with wonderful readers.


message 8: by Ivy (new)

Ivy "we should not concentrate exclusively on writing about the bad things in Africa" Thank you for showcasing Botswana, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is a beloved collection and Blue Shoes and Happiness is my favorite book so far. I'm currently reading Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.


message 9: by Celine (new)

Celine I loved your character, Ms. Romatswe, and have read with delight several books in that series. This interview makes me want to read Corduroy Mansions. Writing a book as it is being published sounds like the ultimate challenge for an author.


message 10: by Marcy (new)

Marcy I simply adore the series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency! You capture the spirit of Botswana and I love the main characters with all of my heart! I look forward to reading the next novel. I savor each book for its simplicity and honesty. I am really pleased the way HBO captured every character's essence. Thank you Mr. McCall for such a wonderful series!


message 11: by Sally (new)

Sally I have read all of your Precious Romatswe and Isabel Dalhousie books. I simply adore them and enjoy ever minute of the time it takes to read them. I enjoy the delightful women (and men), the colorful descriptions of both Botswana and Scotland, the relaxed, inviting lifestyles and everything else about the stories. I appreciate that you don't dwell on the problems, violence, or any of the other "depressing" aspects of life in these countries. Thank you so much for writing such fabulous books; I consider them my friends.


message 12: by Heidi (new)

Heidi I have loved the #1 Ladies Detective Agency books from the moment I discovered the first one. They are highlights in my life. And the series is simply delightful. I am completely impressed with the actors and I signed up for HBO just because of the shows. I live with them in Botswana and love them for their strength of character, authenticity and fun. I can' wait for the next one. Please keep going, Mr. McCall Smith and Mr. Weinstein.



message 13: by Mollie (new)

Mollie I read The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and it was awesome. Thanks!


message 14: by Shelli (last edited May 13, 2009 09:28AM) (new)

Shelli Mr. McCall Smith is a delightful writer and also a wonderful speaker! I had the opportunity to hear him speak in Portland, OR a few years ago and was absolutely charmed by his humor, wit and obvious enjoyment in what he does! All of his books delightfully address human nature in an honest, yet kind way. I hope he'll keep writing far, far into the future. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, take advantage of the opportunity!


message 15: by Laura (new)

Laura Count me in as another big fan of the Ladies Detective Agency novels. Mr. McCall Smith does address some negative events in these books, such as domestic abuse and prejudice against different ethnic groups within and around Botswana. But it's not the focus of the story, which is always on Mme Ramotswe and the problems she is trying to solve. I look forwarding to reading Tea Time for the Traditionally Built!


message 16: by Ann (new)

Ann I love the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Every time I think I've read the last book, a new one comes along to delight me.
Thanks for providing this interview.


message 17: by Janetroberts (new)

Janetroberts Actually, in the Botswanna series the brother of the assistant detective has a very obvious case of AIDS and it figures largely in the story.
Also..I wondered why the hilarious stories about the professor in Europe were not mentioned..they are unbelievably funny..about the professor of irregular Portuguese verbs..


message 18: by Brenda (new)

Brenda My boyfriend is from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and he and I have become addicted to the HBO series of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. He is not a reader, but the series is a great way for him to enjoy Mr. McCall's writings. Since he grew up in the region he loves revisiting the culture and beautiful people of Southern Africa through this series. He, too, feels it represents the essence of the people and the country.


message 19: by Erin (new)

Erin Courtney I adore the Isabel Dalhousie series, and simply cannot get enough of them! I would love to sit down and have a glass of wine with her (and Jamie, of course!) on a late summer's evening in Edinburgh. So sad that she's not "real" ... The inner dialogue of her character is wonderful. I don't believe I've ever read an author that has such a gift for so realistically writing the thought process of a character's mind.


message 20: by Diana (new)

Diana Wetklow I love the Ladies #1 detective agency books, having read every one including Tea time for Traditionally built Ladies. I totally agree with Mr McCall about printing what is good about Africa instead of focusing with what is bad about it, we could all do more of that in every country. I love the feelings that Mama R. has about her country and fellow countrymen and women. The books make me feel like I am there right along with her. I love the HBO series, the actors the way they stick pretty much to the books, and hope they make more after the series if finished. Diana Wetklow


message 21: by Julie (new)

Julie Alexander McCall Smith is one of my favourite authors. I absolutely love the 44 Scotland Street series and can't wait for the next book. All the characters are wonderful and he writes with such reality. I think we all can admit to knowing someone like them in our daily lives!


message 22: by Jeanne (new)

Jeanne Gehret The Kalahari Typing School for Men has taken me by surprise and charmed me. I'm very pleased to know this is part of a series. I agree with the author that we should celebrate the good things about Botswana, although perhaps it would be interesting to have HIV play a minor role in one of his books. Since I am listening to this on CD, I get the added pleasure of hearing the beautiful African names repeated over and over.


message 23: by Sue (new)

Sue Thank you for the interview. I read your new#1 Ladies Detective Agency books the minute they become available.


Will you ever allow them to be read on eBooks? I own a Kindle and find that format quite helpful for traveling.



message 24: by Peggy (new)

Peggy Bonnington Alexander McCall Smith is about my favorite living author; I read everything from any of his series as soon as it is released. I have just influenced my rather newly developed small book club to choose Portuguese Irregular Verbs for our next month's read and discussion. What a treasure this man is!


message 25: by Anna Marie (new)

Anna Marie I love the HBO series of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, and I'm glad they are true to the book and to the country of Botswana. Having just visited the country of Botswana, I appreciate that the series was filmed there. Each episode shows the charm and warmth of the people and the beauty of the countryside. Botswana and Africa are so much more than desperation and destitution. The series presents all that that country and continent can be.


message 26: by Gill (new)

Gill I wonder if any of the No 1 Ladies Detective agency series, or any of AMS other books are produced as audiobooks or MP3 files. I take a disabled elederly lady to clinics etc. and she said wistfully that she had read the first two of the series but deteriorating sight meant that "Tears of the Giraffe" was the last book she was ever able to read. She would love to be able to hear the others read.


message 27: by Donette (new)

Donette Yes, the No 1 Laides Detective series has been published as audio booksand hearing them speak in the delightful accent just makes the characters even more alive.
I was thrilled when I began to watch the HBO series to hear tha same lilting accent in the mouths of American actors. The casting has captured these charming characters more accurately than any "book to TV" I have ever seen. I also subscribed to HBO specifically to watch the series, and if I were sure that there will be more episodes, I might even keep my subscription. Having read all 10 books, plus watching every TV episode, I have been saturated with Precious Ramotswe and her friends.


message 28: by Gill (new)

Gill Donette wrote: "Yes, the No 1 Laides Detective series has been published as audio booksand hearing them speak in the delightful accent just makes the characters even more alive.
I was thrilled when I began to w..."


Can you tell me who has issued them as audiobooks please? I'd love to be able to pass it on when I take her to collect her pension tomorrow! I love the series myself, but unfortunately I can't read as I drive! ;-) Gill


message 29: by Susan (new)

Susan I love the way that Lisette Lecat reads the books. They are published by a company called "Audio Books." I have been successful in checking them out from my public library. They can be found at www.audiobooksonline.com.

Isn't it wonderful that Mr. Smith is able to write so well from a female perspective? I would love to be able to buy a cup of red bush tea. Maybe it would melt away all of my troubles and clear my head.


message 30: by Gill (new)

Gill Susan wrote: "I love the way that Lisette Lecat reads the books. They are published by a company called "Audio Books." I have been successful in checking them out from my public library. They can be found at ww..."

Thank you for that. I shall tell her tomorrow. I would love to be able to brew you a cup of Rooibos tea as a thankyou, I have some in my cupboard now, bought before I read the first book!



message 31: by Liza (new)

Liza Alexander McCall Smith is one of my favourite authors ever - he is in my too 3! I read everything he rights. I am currently reading The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (a Scotland Street book) and have just finished The Comfort of Saturdays (an Isabel Dalhousie book). I can wait to get my hands on Tea Time for the Traditionally Built - I am waiting for the paperback to be released in Australia. Love all his books!!


message 32: by Tamika (new)

Tamika As a Botswanan I find it exhilarating to finally have an author capture Botswana, and Africa, in all its rich beauty, spirit and humour. One hears so many awful things about Africa through the media and how Africa needs to be developed, which translates as Westernised. These books illustrate how Botswanan's think, love, laugh and have a deep love and understanding of their country and people. Seretse Khama was a good friend to my family and the people of Botswana and I thank the author for describing him as the noble and great man he was. And thank you, Mr McCall Smith, for liberating us traditionally built women!


ღ Carol jinx~☆~ I have read all of the Detective Series books and I loved them. I loved the style, the seemingly laid back style of living and all the pumpkin eating. Also read Espresso Tales. Wonderfully interesting to read.


message 34: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm always interested in female characters written from a male perspective. I like the way Mr. McCall Smith portrays us. I think he loves women; he knows we're not perfect but he loves us in our imperfection. Imagine what a wonderful friend he would be!


message 35: by Rae (new)

Rae Hittinger I have to agree, and I absolutely love how the women are thinking women. I love the infusion of philosophy into what I consider to be my luxury reading. I also am delighted that while reading my favorite genre, mystery, I am encouraged reconsider some basic ideas I hold about morality. I have read many of the Lady detective books and the Sunday Philosophers series. I find them thoroughly engaging.


message 36: by [deleted user] (new)

Another thing I enjoy about the series is that it challenges every day "necessities" we in America take for granted, with absolutely no fanfare. There's a "new" one out and I have it on my BMOC list; can't wait til it gets here!


message 37: by J. D. (new)

J. D. I don't form attachments to people I don't know personally. I find such behavior presumptuous and rather invasive. I am, however, prepared to state that I am prejudiced in favor of Alexander McCall Smith. I'd be very disappointed were I to discover him to be a less thoroughly decent and humane man than I believe him to be. Not a bad storyteller, either.


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