Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith confesses to 'serial novelism'
By Lou Fancher Contra Costa Times
In the land of fiction, and occasionally in everyday life, phenomena happen. So it was no surprise when 350 East Bay residents turned up at the Lafayette Veterans Hall recently to hear a man in a skirt talk about tea.
It was Alexander McCall Smith, a Scotsman in a traditional plaid kilt and pastel pink shirt and the author of a tower of best-selling novels. And in a rollicking, 50-minute rendition of "life according to Smith," beverages served only as bookends.
"People say there must be some symbolic meanings to tea," he said, acknowledging his books' frequent references, "(It's) very nice, because I just write about tea when I'm stuck."
Standing well over six feet tall, everything about McCall Smith looms large: he has a Ph.D. in law, 60 books bearing his name, writes at a rate of 1,000 words per hour and plays bassoon in a part-time troupe he cofounded, "The Really Terrible Orchestra."
"I go into a sort of trance." he said. "I hear a beat, a rhythm and the words go into the rhythm. I sometimes liken it to walking on a tightrope. I think you don't look down."
He's talking about writing, and unlike his musical technique ("I play up to the high E, then I stop," he says, chuckling cheerfully), there are no brakes.
The vehicle driving his "serial noveling" travels at top speeds, producing the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, Isabel Dalhousie Novels, the "44 Scotland Street" series, "Corduroy Mansions" and the "Professor Dr. von Igelfeld" novellas.
He visits the countries in which his stories are set, but there's one terrain he claims he will never understand -- the film industry. Despite numerous mealtime meetings with film executives and a successful HBO series, no movie has been produced, causing him to conclude, "Next time I sell film rights, I'm selling them directly to a restaurant."
Like his books, McCall Smith's speaking style pelts a listener with quips and clever, softly-lobbed doublespeak.
"I'm going to speak 40 minutes: I think it's polite to tell people how long," he said. "Many people like to sleep during the presentation and it's nice to know how long that will last."
It was hard to imagine sleeping, especially when the fuzzy-haired giant of literature shared the secret machinations of his detecting characters, or the back story for how he churns out best-sellers like an imagination factory.
Inspiration comes from favorite lines he quoted in rapid succession. From "Out of Africa" to "The Towers of Trebizond" ("It's terrific. It's got mention of camels, family and religion," he exclaimed), to a 9-year old's utterance in "The Young Visitors" ("Mr. Saltina was an elderly man of 42,"), McCall Smith clearly adores the very small things in life.
"Literature doesn't have to deal with massively large issues," he insisted. "One can make remarks about the world by looking at the small scale."
Indeed, his "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series began as a short story. It has blossomed into 14 books and shows no sign of ceasing.
"Serial novelism: there's no known cure," he joked. "The mild version; you write one serial, then quit. At the other end of the spectrum, you write a large number and then are dead."
Killing characters off, he said, is necessary for the "44 Scotland Street" books, which have their genesis in the Bay Area. It was at a party in San Francisco that he met a daily-chapter novelist. McCall Smith wrote an article on the subject and was invited by an editor in Scotland to begin a series of his own.
"The consequence is that if you introduce a character you don't like, you can't rewrite them out. You have to get rid of them. Where's so and so? Oh, he's gone. Done."
But characters like 6-year old Bertie and his excessively hover-crafting mother Irene are permanent and ageless, he assured the audience. Perhaps, because they capture his elegant elixir of tease and taunt.
"Bertie's had to learn the saxophone, Italian, yoga for tots and goes to psychotherapy (and) advanced kindergarten while his mother goes to a floatarian to de-stress. All Bertie wants is a Swiss Army penknife ... which is all that little boys and men really want."
At the end of a jolly Q and A, the author -- who had fed the crowd a steady diet of jokes -- received a favor in return: a plate of homemade shortbread from a fellow Scot who'd come to hear him speak.
Accepting the plate (and poem buried beneath), his mind came full circle to liquid refreshment. "Has anyone got a whiskey?" he asked.