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About Smith 

Moral philosophy, detective fiction and The Kalahari Typing School for Men — Alexander McCall Smith on writing the 'why-dunnit'

Thursday, Aug 14 2003
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

When I met up with Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith at the Biltmore Hotel recently, he apologized for being late — two minutes — and then gave me a small straw basket. “Hand Made in Botswana,” read the tag. Those familiar with Smith’s novels will know that it was just such a basket that Mma Ramotswe, his pragmatic, hefty Botswanan lady detective, presents to a client at the end of Tears of the Giraffe, the second novel in his series:

It was a traditional Botswana basket, with a design worked into the weaving.

“These little marks here are tears,” [Mma Ramotswe] said.

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“The giraffe gives its tears to the women and they weave them into the basket.”

The American woman took the basket politely, in the proper Botswana way of receiving a gift — with both hands. How rude were people who took a gift with one hand, as if snatching it from the donor; she knew better.

“You are very kind, Mma,” she said. “But why did the giraffe give its tears?”

Mma Ramotswe shrugged; she had never thought about it. “I suppose that it means that we can all give something,” she said. “A giraffe has nothing else to give — only tears.”

I forgot and took the basket with one hand, darn it.

That afternoon, Smith and I drove to the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax and sat at an outside table. A mildly tall, pale Scotsman in his mid-50s, Smith was born in Zimbabwe and now lives in Edinburgh, where he teaches medical law at the University of Edinburgh. His wife is a general practitioner. Each year, they visit doctor friends in Botswana, and Smith finds new material for his lady detective, whose name he pronounces “Mmmma Ram — otts — wee.” The Mma has almost a hum. I tried several times to imitate him.

“It’s easiest to just say Ma,” he said.

The first glimmer Smith had of his now-beloved detective came during one of these trips, when he watched an equally hefty Botswanan woman chase a chicken; while the chicken looked miserable, the woman looked very cheerful. He first put her into a short story in 1996. A year later he was in the South of France. “I just suddenly thought — it was a very happy day — I’d write about such a woman with a little private detective agency who solves other people’s problems.” The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was published in 1998. This was followed by Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls and this season’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men.

Mma Ramotswe has a devoted following in Britain, America and Botswana. Her work has less to do with solving crimes than with sorting through the moral questions of each “case”: If a butcher’s wife has a wealthy lover who sends the butcher’s son to a fine school, should that affair be ended? When a man wants to make amends for youthful indiscretions, how should those amends be done? Mma Ramotswe is no prude; in fact, she’s so direct and practical that some readers write to her at Smith’s Web site for advice about their problems. Smith himself speaks of her as if he were just as curious as his fans to find out what Mma Ramotswe will do next.

The detective agency also has a secretary — the Watson to Mma Ramotswe’s Holmes. Mma Makutsi (“Mama-cootsie”) also serves as the assistant manager at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, which is owned by Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, an excellent mechanic who is always called — no matter how intimate the acquaintance — by his full name. And what about Mma Potokwani, the matron of the local orphanage, who pushes Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni into his major commitments?

“She exists!” exclaimed Smith. “She’s real. She was the matron of the orphanage. I saw her three months ago. Her real name is Betty, and she’s very traditionally built. A very competent woman who would do anything for the kids. When the BBC did a film about the writing of my books, they asked her a question and she spoke for 50 minutes and didn’t once draw a breath. It was wonderful!”

 

Moral philosophy, a mechanic’s clinical depression, a pushy orphanage matron: Really, such topics are hardly standard detective fare. Indeed, Smith readily admitted he would prefer that his books were seen not as detective fiction but as, well, novels. “I’m not interested in detective fiction, I don’t read it, and I’m certainly no expert; and being seen as a detective writer makes me feel a bit of a fraud.” Morality, however, does interest him. In particular, he finds in Botswanan manners and the traditional moral code (called botho) a dignified, communitarian system.

Indeed, Botswana is one of the few countries in Africa that has managed to use the wealth of its natural resources — diamonds and minerals — to the benefit of its populace. At the same time, AIDS and poverty are rampant there. Four out of 10 adults are said to be HIV positive, the highest rate of infection in Africa. While Smith’s characters are not unscathed by these twin catastrophes — Mma Makutsi, for example, owns one pair of shoes, shares an outside water tap with many neighbors and nurses a brother dying from AIDS — some readers have complained that Smith underplays the darker, more chaotic aspects of the country, and suggested that he sees Botswana through a soft lens.

“I don’t talk about AIDS directly for a reason, and I don’t talk about the inequal distribution of wealth very much, either,” he said with firmness. “I feel that, generally speaking, Botswana is a decent society doing rather well in difficult circumstances, and that’s what interests me. If I wrote about other things it wouldn’t be about this.”

Smith sat back, then promptly leaned forward again, speaking with even more heat. “AIDS is a cataclysmic disaster. It’s unspeakably tragic; the people there feel it acutely and are saddened by it and embarrassed by it, and I don’t want to contribute to that embarrassment. Most of the people are good and benevolent, and this is a very legitimate thing to dwell on!”

He stopped and caught himself and smiled. “Sorry. I sound very pompous.” He laughed. “I do think it’s true!” Then, more quietly, “I have met a lot of doctors and nurses in Botswana who are Mma Ramotswe readers. One doctor from Pennsylvania told me that reading Mma Ramotswe spurred him to come to Botswana in the first place. When he arrived, he bought a map and looked for Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.”

As a Mma Ramotswe reader myself, I can appreciate the allegiance and interest in Botswana her books generate; they are charming, full of lore and lovely description of Botswana, and manage to wear profound moral freight quite lightly. In fact, they are so swift and entertaining to read, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to write them.

“It hasn’t been a chore at all, really a pleasure,” said Smith. “The books write themselves.” They write themselves, he went on to admit, at the rate of 4,000 words on a good day, a good day being from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Plus, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels are not the only novels he’s writing — they are not even the only novel series Smith has in the works. He has finished two books in a series featuring a half-Scottish, half-American moral philosopher named Isabel Dalhousie who solves people’s problems. Yet another series forthcoming from Smith’s British publisher was already self-published with a friend (have I mentioned that he also co-runs a small press?) and consists of “entertainments” involving the very tall, ridiculous philologist Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld.

“So how long does it take you to write one of these novels?” This was a question that I, as a novelist, couldn’t help but ask.

Smith actually pushed his chair back as if to dodge the question. A pause. Then, a bit sheepish, he drew forward again. “Uh . . . my publisher told me never to answer that question.”

Back at the Biltmore, Smith rummaged in his suitcase for another gift: the British edition of number five, The Full Cupboard of Life, which will be released in the U.S. next year. “Things happen in this book!” he promised.

Upon leaving, I phoned a friend who is such a big Mma Ramotswe fan, she’d given up coffee in favor of the lady detective’s beverage of choice: bush tea. I’d promised a full report.

“So . . .” my friend immediately wanted to know. “Is he her?

I thought about the man I’d just seen trying to refasten an overpacked, bashed-up suitcase held shut with a nylon strap. Where else could Mma Ramotswe come from? “Yes,” I told her. “I suppose he is.”

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