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Spotlight on popular authors

Talking with Alexander McCall Smith


Alexander McCall Smith says that spending time with a new woman was “a little bit difficult at first.” After all, he has been with the inimitable Precious Ramotswe of No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame for five books. Yet, since Mma Ramotswe finally married Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, she may not need Mr. McCall Smith as much. That’s all right. He has discovered Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher and amateur sleuth ( THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB ).

“I wanted to write about somebody who lived in Edinburgh, and she just walked in,” says McCall Smith. After many years in Botswana, McCall Smith himself now lives in Edinburgh, where he is a semiretired professor of medical law at the university. Back to Isabel. “She lives in the same neighborhood as my wife and I do.” That is to say, she lives in an imagined house in the same neighborhood.

The shift from one woman to another may not be as drastic as it sounds. Both characters contemplate the large issues, says McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe is “a bit of a philosopher,” and Isabel is a professional philosopher. And, however different their backgrounds, they are both women.

“I enjoy writing about women,” McCall Smith says, adding that he didn’t set out deliberately to write books in which the main characters are women. It just happened, and along the way he discovered that he likes their company. “I find the view of the world which women have is an intriguing one, the way it values relationships and is concerned with moral issues in daily life. Women also say things about people and situations that men are too inhibited to say.”

One woman whom McCall Smith particularly admires is Lisette Lecat, narrator of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. “She is absolutely wonderful,” he says. “Hers is the most staggering performance.” And then, as if he has said too much, “Anyway, anyway."

His enthusiasm is heartfelt. For, unlike authors who are uncomfortable hearing their novels transformed into spoken word, McCall Smith loves listening to the audio versions of his books. (He is much anticipating his first listen to THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB.) “It’s lovely hearing the words interpreted by a professional. I find that it rather enhances the experience for me and makes the prose sound better in a way. It gives the experience of my book to me all afresh.”

McCall Smith listens to more than his own books. In fact, he’s a confirmed audiophile. “I have found a whole new way of listening,” he says, his voice rushing along with enthusiasm. “I download the books onto my computer and load them onto my iPod. With my iPod, I can have the book literally in my top pocket. I can have 100 books in my pocket!”

At the moment, McCall Smith’s iPod holds music and “a very fine set of BBC-produced Raymond Chandler dramatizations.” He also has the British audio production of his book of short stories, entitled PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS, read by actor Hugh Laurie.

“He’s so funny,” says the author/audiobook fan. “In fact, he’s quite extraordinary. I’ve listened several times.” McCall Smith laughs with remembered pleasure. “You will have to hear it,” he says. “Hugh Laurie does the most wonderful German accent.”—Aurelia Scott

DEC 04/ JAN 05
© AudioFile 2004, Portland, Maine

Photo © Graham Clark

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