National Press Club

Prolific author of "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series promotes lighthearted novels

April 16, 2012 | By Jack Williams |

Author Alexander McCall Smith speaks at a National Press Club Book Rap, April 14

Author Alexander McCall Smith speaks at a National Press Club Book Rap, April 14

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The prolific and popular writer Alexander McCall Smith kept a ballroom audience chuckling and laughing out loud Saturday as he made a case for novels that don’t focus on social problems.

McCall Smith is touring the United States promoting and signing “The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection,” the 13th in the series focused on Precious Ramotswe, “the kindest and best detective in Botswana,” as the dust jacket says.

He’s also promoting a children’s book: “The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case.”

In addition to this series, McCall Smith has written novels in four other series, short stories, and 21 children’s books. He is a co-author of several academic law texts.

“People accuse me of being utopian,” he said. “I do not write about social problems. I think there is room for books that take a positive spin.”

Referring to his Precious Ramotswe series, he said: “Outsiders tend to look at the negative side of sub-Saharan Africa.” Nevertheless, “the positive side is very, very positive; Botswana has achieved so much.”

McCall Smith invited Tebelelo Seretse, Botswana’s ambassador to the United States, who was in the audience, to briefly share the lectern.

“His books have shown how Africans can make Africa work,” she said.

McCall Smith was born in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, and earned a Ph.D. in law from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

His connection with Botswana began in 1981, when he helped found the University of Botswana and taught law there. He’s lived in Edinburgh since 1984, where he was a professor of medical law and is now an emeritus professor.

He told the Club audience that the Precious Ramotswe series began with a woman he saw in Botswana and wondered “what’s her story. I decided to write about an intelligent woman.”

It began as a short story, which grew into a novel and then the series because “I suffer from serial novelism. I kept on because I so liked the character.”

He goes “into a dissociative state” when he writes because “fiction comes from the subconscious. I have to allow it to come from the mind.” Such work “for many writers is a way of confronting things in themselves. It can be very therapeutic.”

The many people “who think they have a book in them... need an x-ray.,” he joked. Today’s “imaging techniques can tell what kind of book.” For instance, “You have a biography in you.”

He said “to write you have to empathize with people.” As for questions about how he can “think like a woman: if I were wearing my kilt maybe you wouldn’t ask that. You should be able to put yourselves in a woman’s shoes; some men rather enjoy doing that.”