He’s a 65-year-old, white, Rhodesian-born British writer and a professor emeritus of medical law; she’s middle-aged, black, and Botswana’s first “traditionally sized” female detective. He is the author, penning between 3,000 and 5,000 words a day; she is the protagonist, a self-taught sleuth based in Gaborone. Alexander McCall Smith couldn’t be more different to Mma Ramotswe, and yet, he crafted her so successfully that she is now the lead in a series of 14 books, with a 15th on the way.
Since 1998, McCall Smith’s award-winning The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has sold more than 20 million copies in English, been translated into 45 languages and topped bestseller lists – it has also been transformed into a HBO TV series and adapted to radio for BBC. It takes quite the creative mind to come up with such a compelling recipe for success, not to mention such compelling, albeit unconventional, characters.
“If my characters appear eccentric”, McCall Smith tells MiNDFOOD in an exclusive interview, “it is because I rather enjoy slightly eccentric people and there are rather more of those than one might imagine.”
While Mma Ramotswe is certainly McCall Smith’s most well-known character, she was not his first. Over his career the author has published more than 70 books, including the nine-book strong The Sunday Philosophy Club series and 44 Scotland Street series, as well as more than a dozen children’s novels, many of which were written while McCall Smith was teaching law a Queens University Belfast.
Returning to southern Africa in the 1980s, McCall Smith established and taught law at the University of Botswana while co-writing the leading (and only) work on criminal law in the country. An avid musician, he also helped to found Botswana’s first centre for opera training, the Number 1 Ladies’ Opera House.
Before his crime series became a bestseller, the scholar had been granted honorary degrees by nine universities and was a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh; eight years into the series he was granted a CBE for services to literature.
“My inspiration comes from simply keeping my eyes open and listening to what people say,” he says. “People are infinitely fascinating and they are very good about providing inspiration for authors.”
Regardless of whether he is writing about a self-made female sleuth, a student growing up in Edinburgh or a forty-something philosopher, McCall Smith has a talent for developing remarkably likeable, and always complex, personalities, not to mention detailed portraits of the destinations they call home.
“I think that we all have a strong interest in the day to day matters of life,” he says. “It is in relation to small things that one most easily sees the quirks of the human personality.”
New Zealand’s Huka Lodge will host Alexander McCall Smith for an intimate dinner on May 24. The event is complimentary to lodge guests. Other events happening at Huka Lodge as part of their 90 year anniversary celebrations includes a dinner with Eleanor Catton (author of The Luminaries) an Italian Opera weekend with Sydney’s iconic chef Stefano Manfredi. Visit hukalodge.co.nz.