Alexander McCall Smith — overachiever, master of the understatement — sounds a bit apologetic as he explains that he has lost track of the number of books he’s written.
“I actually really stopped counting,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Scotland. “That sounds a bit pretentious, I’m afraid, but if you count the children’s books, it’s over 100. So it’s quite a number.”
Quite a number indeed, given that he started writing in earnest only 20 years ago, when he was 50 — and given that he writes only a couple of hours a day. Any more than that, and “I get a little bit exhausted,” he said. “But I’m in a very fortunate position of being able to write quickly. And that does make a real difference.”
McCall Smith will be at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Nov. 14, rounding out the final chapter of this season’s Talking Volumes book club. He is the author of several series for adults. (How many? At least five, maybe six, with a new one beginning next year.) But he is perhaps best known for his first, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, has been translated into more than 45 languages and was made into a show on HBO.
“The Colors of All the Cattle,” out Tuesday, is the 19th book in that series — unless you include the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency children’s books, of which there are at least five.
You see? It is no wonder that he has given up counting.
McCall Smith’s books are witty, gentle, observant and very human, more akin to Jane Austen than to John Sandford. They are grounded in character rather than drama; the ladies of the detective agency do not solve grisly murders but, instead, might sit around discussing teacups.
“I love writing people’s conversations,” McCall Smith said. “I very much enjoy observing people — as I think we all do — and I think if one is a writer one has to have a strong interest in the lives of others.
“We don’t need pyrotechnics in plot. We don’t need a high body count. Some of my books have been described as ‘crime fiction,’ but they aren’t really, actually, because I don’t have crimes in them. I have examples of human bad behavior.”
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, a country he fell in love with when he traveled there in 1981 to help set up a law school at the University of Botswana.
“I’ve been in Botswana every year since then,” he said. “It’s a remarkable place. The people are so nice — it’s a very spiritual part of the world, very intensely beautiful.”
But he also sets books elsewhere, including Scotland, where he lives. The Sunday Philosophy Club series stars an Edinburgh philosopher named Isabel Dalhousie, and the 44 Scotland Street series has an ensemble cast of characters centered on an Edinburgh apartment building. (That series includes perhaps his most beloved character, an endearing 7-year-old boy named Bertie.)
From professor to author
McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where his father was a public prosecutor. At 17, he moved to Edinburgh to study, eventually earning a doctorate and becoming a professor of medical law. He had always been interested in writing — but he was always interested in a lot of things: medicine, law, music (in 1999, he and his wife started the Really Terrible Orchestra, where he plays contrabassoon and she plays the flute), the out-of-doors, food, travel, the African continent.
“I remember I used to scribble away when I was a little boy,” he said. He wrote children’s books and short stories while teaching at the University of Edinburgh, but things really took off the year he turned 50. That was the year “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” was published, and it became an unexpected hit. McCall Smith soon had to make a choice.
“I had to make a decision as to what I wanted to be, and I decided to be a full-time author,” he said. “It was not without some regret — I enjoyed my previous career. But it really wasn’t possible to carry on with that. So I did that, and I haven’t really looked back.”
A strong sense of place
The location is as important as the characters in his novels. “Place is often terribly important to us,” he said. “And to describe it is to describe our feelings for the world.”
He heads out on book tour several times a year, finding beauty just about wherever he goes. He feels at home in sub-Saharan Africa. He finds some of Australia’s landscapes “quite haunting.” He loves a chain of uninhabited islands off the Scottish coast so deeply that he bought them and is placing them in trust to protect them forever.
In the United States, he is deeply fond of Muncie, Ind., and ever since his first visit (where he received “a lovely welcome from the people”) he has dropped references to that city into many of his novels.
“And Bloomington, Indiana — very lovely. I like those college towns,” he said. “Oxford, Mississippi. They’ve got a gorgeous square in the middle of town, and you almost expect to see Atticus Finch walk past.”
McCall Smith gets up most days at 4 a.m., writes for a few hours, and then goes back to bed. “The small hours of the morning — I find that is a very good time to write,” he said. “Quiet. No disturbances. And the mind is very fresh.”
He usually has two novels in progress at a time, and only very occasionally does he find one of his vast array of characters slipping from one book to another. “I have to be a little bit careful about that,” he said. “There have been occasions — certainly one occasion when I slipped between fictional worlds and my editor said, ‘Do you imagine that Mma Makutsi is sounding like Isabel Dalhousie?’ But generally I manage to keep them quite separate.”
Next year, Pantheon will publish the first in a new series set in Scandinavia. “The Department of Sensitive Crimes” is described by the publisher as a novel in which a “Swedish police department is tasked with solving the most unusual, complicated, and, often, insignificant crimes.”
“We’ve all enjoyed Scandinavian noir,” McCall Smith said, so he calls his series “Scandinavian blanc” — Scandinavian crime with no violence and no dead bodies.
The main character is named Ulf Varg — “Ulf means wolf in Swedish and Varg is wolf in Danish, so his name is Wolf Wolf,” McCall Smith said. Varg has a hearing-impaired dog that is the only lip-reading dog in Scandinavia. (“I’m having great fun with this,” he said, almost unnecessarily.)
The Scandinavian blanc book will be published in April. Pantheon will issue the second in his Paul Stuart series (“The Second Worst Restaurant in France”) in July and the 20th in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series next November.
So has anyone figured out a precise number of books he’s written? After several e-mails, his publicist finally concluded that between novels, photography books, academic books, cookbooks and children’s books, Alexander McCall Smith has written 110 books.