What began as a short story for Alexander McCall Smith accidentally turned into a nearly 20-year literary engagement with the country of Botswana. His latest novel is the 18th in his “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, titled “The House of Unexpected Sisters.”
Smith, 69, introduced readers to Mma Ramotswe (Mma is an honorific much like “Madam”) in the book that launched the series in the United Kingdom in 1998. In his series, he follows Botswana’s only female detective in stories that examine human nature with gentleness and humor.
The prolific Smith, who has written or contributed to more than 100 books, was reached by phone at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland, in advance of his Nov. 17 appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Q: How did this series begin?
A: The series began, surprisingly enough, as a short story, which just goes to show how wrong I was when I thought I was writing a short story. I ended up with a long literary conversation with Botswana. That came because I had lived and worked in Botswana years ago and I was rather taken with the country. My initial involvement was working at the University of Botswana, from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where I worked. I was there every year for a period and got to know the country a bit better. I wanted to write about it eventually but didn’t imagine that I would engage in such a long conversation. I wrote one novel, which was called “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” which was a single novel, and that was based on what I thought would be a short story that I expanded into a novel. Then I wrote sequel after sequel after sequel and became totally caught up in it. I write other books as well of course, but I’ve kept the Botswana series going for almost 20 years.
Q: Why do you think they’re so popular?
A: I think people very much like the character of Precious Ramotswe, who is the heroine of these books. They’re interested in the setting, which is unusual. Botswana is a very attractive and interesting country. It’s a success story in Africa. The books are about kindness and courtesy, which I think people like. I suppose most of us feel that the world can be a trying, difficult place, and I think we’re receptive to books that portray people of a calm disposition, that portray human kindness and human decency. People like that. We might feel that we have rather too much confrontation and conflict in the world. Particularly now I think we’re feeling that, with the general world situation being very disturbing. We want to be reminded of something that’s different.
Q: The title would lead one to believe that these are crime novels.
A: But they aren’t. I think she just happens to have a detective agency. I chose to give her a detective agency because it provided her with an entree into all sorts of human problems. Mma Ramotswe is concerned with human difficulties and helping people in their difficulty. She’s concerned with the problems that people have in their day-to-day lives. The detective agency is a device for her to have all sorts of people walking in through the front door of her little office and giving her an insight into their private lives.
Q: It’s almost like she’s more of a therapist than a detective.
A: She is more of a therapist, or an agony aunt, one of these advice columnists. She’s a rolled-up therapist, agony aunt, ordinary aunt, the whole works.
Q: What other series do you write?
A: I have the Isabel Dalhousie series, in which I’ve written 12 novels. Isabel is a moral philosopher who lives in Edinburgh. She, like Mma Ramotswe, concerns herself with people’s problems. Then there’s a series called 44 Scotland Street, which also has 12 volumes in it. That’s a serial novel that appears, as the old serial novels appeared in the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, chapter by chapter as I write it. It appears in the newspaper, then comes out as a book. Then I have various other series where I’ve done three or four novels in the series but not as many as the main series.
Q: You’re quite prolific. Does a day go by that you don’t write?
A: Usually I write every day. Obviously there will be some days where I have too many other things to do. I’ve just come back from a UK book tour, and it was rather difficult to write because I was doing two events a day. But generally speaking I write every day.
Q: What is your favorite place to travel?
A: Oh my goodness. I suppose I find that a little bit difficult to answer because I tend to enjoy wherever I go. I’m very fond of Australia, I like the landscape and I like the whole feel of the continent. I like India. I like everywhere really. I usually very much enjoy my American tours. I’ve been in every state except the Dakotas. It’s not just because you’re in the Midwest that I say this, but I like the Midwest. I like the friendliness of the American Midwest. I think people who live there don’t notice it so much, but I find it a very courteous and friendly place.
Q: Is there anywhere you haven’t been to that you’re burning to go?
A: I would like someday to go to Nepal. There are one or two places in South America I’d like to go. I’ve never been to Bolivia.
Q: When you travel, do you use an e-reader or take books?
A: I tend to take physical books, but my wife uses an e-reader. She finds it quite convenient. I love the feel of the conventional book. I think it’s terribly well-designed for its purpose.