Alexander McCall Smith has a kind of rumpled gregariousness that makes interviewing him rather difficult.
Not that the best-selling novelist isn’t forthcoming; it is more a matter of avoiding complacency, of not allowing yourself to simply close your eyes and let this exceptional storyteller carry you away with tales of Indian literary festivals, of outback graves and magic charms and the enduring merits of Mozart. With four new books arriving this year, it seemed an ideal time to determine exactly what kind of voodoo the outrageously prolific McCall Smith has tapped into.
“We mustn’t laugh at voodoo,” he says, chuckling. “I was in the Caribbean a couple of years ago, on the island of Martinique. There was a voodoo shop in the port where we were moored, and it was absolutely fascinating. There were little bottles of coloured liquid for every purpose. If you wanted to deal with your enemies you’d buy this colour, if you wanted a successful business venture you’d buy another. And then on one side of the room was all the religious stuff, so if you didn’t want to put all your eggs in one basket you could buy your holy soap or candles. But to actually answer your question, I suppose I’m very lucky in that I write quite quickly, so that’s what really enables me. Plus I get up very early in the morning and get two or three hours of uninterrupted work before the world starts, which is quite useful. You do have to have a certain amount of structure, of routine in your life if you want to write in a serious fashion.”
The author of around 18,000 books, give or take, McCall Smith has an output that puts many of his contemporaries to shame, and crucially, it is a fine balance of quantity and quality. Across numerous series – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions to name a few – are found characters of such charm and familiarity it is like discovering a vintage jacket that fits perfectly and has pockets full of old letters. It is a testament to his craft that across each world, the voice of the author – the nuance and tone – is incredibly varied.
“I do have different voices for different series of books. I write the No. 1 Ladies’ books in a particular tone, and there’s a certain feel or style I suppose to the narrative there. The Isabel Dalhousie books are written in a different way to my Scotland Street series, and then you have the standalones. I suppose I’m conscious of the fact that I’m going into different worlds when I sit down to write a particular book, which is reflected as well in any music I might play. I do quite like having music playing when I sit down to write, though not necessarily when I carry on doing so. When I’m sitting down to write an Isabel Dalhousie book I will play a particular piece of music to put me in the mood, which is the ‘Soave Sia Il Vento’ trio from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. I’ll also play the Penguin Cafe Orchestra when I start writing the Scotland Street stories, and so on.”
A recurring accolade across his oeuvre is McCall Smith’s sense of setting. It becomes a tangible aspect of each story – so strong, in fact, it is very nearly a character all to itself. Yet there is a contrary school of thought that suggests good setting should remain nearly unnoticeable; it envelops the reader unawares.
“Setting is very important in my mind – I regard it as being central, and perhaps even more important than character or plot. I tend to think first of setting, and then the other elements fall into place. But I do think that when you’re describing a setting, you must use a very delicate brush. I don’t think you need to lay on an excessively detailed description; that will destroy the sense of discovery. For example, in my Botswana books I will pay attention to setting, because I want to convey the very special atmosphere of that part of Africa. You can do that in my view by saying something about the sky, about the build-up of rain clouds. I find I can do the same thing when I’m describing something set in Australia. [For] my Trains And Lovers book I did a trip around Lake Eyre, and we went to a place called Coward Springs. I went for a walk along a dry riverbed and came across a grave. A child’s grave. It was very poignant, as it had obviously been made many years ago and said nothing about who the child had been. That became an instant in Trains And Lovers, so place there was very, very important.”
McCall Smith’s upcoming conversation at the Seymour Centre will no doubt provide further insight into the genesis of many of his creations, as well as the man himself; charting the separation of author and individual today makes for a rather impossible task.
“I think as one goes through life, as long as you don’t close your mind, you come to understand more about human nature and human foibles. You have a natural tendency to become more embedded in your attitudes – I think that’s always a danger. But with every year that passes, you see more of human life, and you might understand people a bit more. You’ve had more practice in working out how people tick.”
Alexander McCall Smith: Unexpected Love Stories is on Friday March 4 at the Seymour Centre.