Over nine volumes of the Botswana-set No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (there are 14 planned), author Alexander McCall Smith has written of the simple, lighthearted mysteries solved by Precious Ramotswe (often addressed as Mma pronounced "ma" Ramotswe). His latest, Tea Time For the Traditionally Built, trods much of the same territory. McCall Smith spoke to TIME about why all fiction doesn't need to be sad, the public's obsession with the idea of a hopeless Africa, and why "real" mystery writers are cooler than he.
A co-worker of mine informed me that she's attended two weddings where passages from your Ladies Detective Agency books were read during the ceremony. Is this something that happens regularly? (See the top 10 fiction books.)
Yes, it happens quite a lot. I love it and I occasionally write special passages for them, where Mma Ramotswe pays particular attention to the people getting married. I think that people find that there are passages [from these books] which resonate with them, and which say something about matters that people will think about at weddings.
Do you have a close relationship with your readers?
Yes. I think this is a concomitant of writing a series of novels. If you do that, people obviously develop fairly close relationships with the characters, more so than with just a one-off novel. We get a lot of letters and emails and we try to respond to all of them. I get really, seriously moving messages.
Can you describe some?
I had one I won't mention where this reader came from but I had an email from a reader that had gone into a bookshop. She didn't explain what the issue was, but she decided that she wasn't going to continue to live. And she came across Mma Ramotswe, and this changed her mind about taking her life. And she wrote me a very nice email saying that this had happened. Well, what can one say in those circumstances? We also get a lot of messages from people who have, say, been having chemotherapy. That's a very common thing.
Have those experiences made you look at fiction in a different way?
It does, actually. I was up at Harvard giving a lecture to the Center for Ethics. I chose to speak about exactly this. I spoke about what the responsibility of the writer is. I mentioned, during that lecture, how surprised I had been by the personal ramifications, the human ramifications of writing fiction. It carries with it remarkable implications in terms of what your responsibility is towards people who are investing a lot of emotion in your stories.
Fairly soon after these books had taken off, I became aware of that fact that, in a sense, I no longer owned the characters. I couldn't really do anything to the characters which would greviously disappoint or shock the readership. Of course, I could theoretically do that, but I wouldn't ever want to do that, because I would be aware of the impact.
The thing that's been written ever since you started this series is that your work is too optimistic. And your response has always been, "So what?"
Well, maybe my previous responses have been a bit cavalier. Fiction is able to encompass books that are bleak and which dwell on the manifold and terrible problems of our times. But I don't think that all books need to have that particular focus. If you look at music, do we expect all composers to write dirges? The answer surely is no. There are many other emotions and moods which music can deal with or engage with. And similarly with art. With painting one would expect that there are some which are dark and gloomy and threatening and other paintings that are filed with light and optimism.
But when it comes to literature, there's this curious argument put forth by an extraordinary amount of people that fiction must always dwell on difficulties, and if you write about a situation without dealing with all the difficulties that are attendant on the particular time or place you're writing about, that you're somehow not doing your job as a writer. That seems to me to be an extraordinary argument. My Botswana books are positive, and I've never really sought to deny that. They are positive. They present a very positive picture of the country. And I think that that is perfectly defensible given that there is so much written about Africa which is entirely negative.
Do you think there's a tendency to only want to focus on the negative when it comes to Africa?
Because of this tendency to concentrate on the negative, people expect it. So they're surprised when something other than that is done in relation to Africa. I don't think that people are malevolent. They're just so accustomed to saying that it's a broken continent, and a disaster area, that they just expect it. And they feel, therefore, that something that doesn't adopt that is somehow misleading.
But I do think that there is another approach. Botswana, after all, is a very successful country. It's a remarkable country. All these difficulties that one finds in many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa actually really don't apply so much to Botswana. Botswana is actually very peaceful. It's democratic. It never was in debt. They've been fortunate, they've had diamonds. And of course now there's a bit of difficulty with the diamond industry. So they're suffering in Botswana but not to the extent that they're suffering in many other countries in the region.
This phrase you use as the title of your book is the way Mma Ramotswe has referred to herself, before. In other words, she's a little on the big side. When you were first conceiving the character, was she always going to be "traditionally built?"
Yes, she was. I thought of her, insofar as I saw her and when it comes to the character, I'm not a particularly visual writer in that I never see their faces, though I do see their general presence as comfortably padded, well-padded. And that's where I came up with the expression "traditionally built." It sort of flowed from a discussion she had about traditional notions of beauty in Africa, which would tend to celebrate fleshiness. It indicates that she's not going to be swayed by passing fashion. Her build is traditional. It shows that she is comfortable with herself, and she will find a good way of describing the way she is, rather than a negative way.
You've typically been reluctant in the past to comment on political matters, especially when it comes to Zimbabwe, where you were born. Why is that, especially since so much has happened there in the past year?
I generally tend and it doesn't just apply to African politics but I usually keep out of political comment. As a writer, I have readers who will have a range of political views. I don't think they look to me for political guidance. It's a bit of an abuse of a position to do that. I draw a distinction between the private side of one's live and the public.
You said in the past that you don't see these books as mysteries. Do you regret titling that first book The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency?
I don't think so. I think that these are slight mysteries. They can be read by people who read mysteries. And I know that a lot of those people do. They realize in fact that I dont observe the conventions, and also they realize we don't have in these books real crime, and we certainly don't have any bodies. Some readers, though, actually feel disappointed by that and will say these aren't real mysteries. Well, they aren't, and I never would assert that they are. Sometimes I'll go to these mystery conventions, and the real mystery writers don't look like me. They wear dark t-shirts and look really cool.
You're known for your ability to write extremely quickly. Do you ever wish you could slow down, just for sanity's sake?
I use an analogy of which I have no actual knowledge namely tightrope walking. I have never walked on a tightrope, and indeed know nothing about it. But I imagine that tightrope walkers don't actually look down while they're doing their thing, they look ahead, which is the sort of approach I take. If you look at what my commitments are, I'm doing either four or five books a year, which is breaking all the rules of publishing. And If I stop to think, "Well my goodness me, what am I going to do," I would fall off the rope.