Perfectly smashing! – Alexander McCall Smith at the Howard County Library

April 13, 2011 at 12:22 pm (books, Library, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

The chairs were arranged so that Alexander McCall Smith would enter the room via a central aisle.  This he did, shaking hands with audience members as he made his way to the podium. I was pleased to note that he was attired in a kilt, but I could not get a photo due to the surrounding crowd.

From the moment this distinguished gentleman began to speak, he had us in the palm of his hand. He was by turns informative, serious, lively, and thoughtful. But more than anything, it was his  ready, facile wit that produced great entertainment for his captivated audience.

The ostensible topic of McCall Smith’s talk was “The Very Small Things of Life.” And from time to time, he did return to that subject. But mostly he ranged far and wide, covering a variety of topics, from precocious young authors like Daisy Ashford, to favorite first lines of novels, to the vagaries of book clubs, to various aspects of his own works and his life as a writer. (He digressed – and then he digressed from his digressions!)

First lines, he assured us, must be as memorable as you can make them because often reviewers and critics get no further than that into the work at hand. This does not stop them from reviewing said work. He was very definite about this.

He cited two of his favorite first lines. The first is from Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen, also known by her pseudonym Isak Dinesen:

‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.’

Out of Africa is obviously a title cherished by McCall Smith. He recalled traveling to Denmark and visiting the home of Karen Blixen, which has been kept as it was as a memorial to the author.

The second of his favorite first lines comes from The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay:

‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’ 

McCall Smith was especially entertaining in the subject of book clubs, though he trod somewhat carefully, knowing there were plenty of participants in this activity in his audience. First, he begged us to be merciful, as the authors we were discussing might be suffering from a painful malady, like gallstones. Particularly gallstones. (I didn’t quite “get” this specific reference. Perhaps he himself has had to endure that particular affliction?) He opined that nearly every book club has one member who knows far more than everyone else and isn’t shy about parading that fact in front of everyone. As a remedy for this problem, he suggests quoting Proust, adding that he own a Proust concordance that’s marvelously handy for the purpose. It allows him to quote the great French novelist on virtually any topic without having actually read the novels! He also suggested that book groups draw up a constitution. Then, when someone is engaging in irritating behavior, someone else can point out that she  – and it’s almost invariably a “she” – is violating the rules laid down by said document.

(At a meeting last night of our mystery discussion group, the Usual Suspects, we began implementing this last suggestion, in spirit anyway. Members were asked to raise their hands when they wished to speak. And a small bell is now rung in order to bring the group – great talkers all, especially on any matter related to books or libraries – to order. As yet, we have no written constitution.)

At this point in the proceedings, McCall Smith interrupted himself – “You may wonder where this talk is going?” He reminded us of the title, The Very Small Things of Life, but really, no one was worried about what direction he was taking; we were all having too much fun!

He now segued into a discussion of his work. Calling himself a victim of “serial novelism,” he revealed that he is currently writing no fewer than five distinct series! There is, he informed us, no cure for this ailment. One simply keeps writing additions to the series and then one dies. For example, take Patrick O’Brian, distinguished author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels. These number twenty, with a twenty-first entry left unfinished. The fact that O’Brian is now deceased proves McCall Smith’s point about “serial novelism” being incurable!)

The most famous series now being written by McCall Smiths is, of course, the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Apparently the eponymous first novel was supposed to be a one off, but McCall Smith left the question of the Precious Ramotswe-J.L.B. Matekoni nuptials unresolved. His editor suggested that he resolve it in a sequel.  Unfortunately, Tears of the Giraffe failed to offer this  resolution, and so another novel needed to be written. This was Morality for Beautiful Girls. Still no wedding! In fact, the marriage does not take place until the fifth novel in the series, The Full Cupboard of Life.   (Don’t miss the terrific narration of these books, done by Lisette Lecat.)

A vital component  of Precious Ramotswe’s back story involves the dying wish of her father Obed Ramotswe, that loving father and fine judge of cattle. His directive to his daughter: sell the herd and use the funds to start a little business. Now McCall Smith actually had some trouble deciding what that business should be. It might, for instance, have been a dry cleaning operation. He considered whether this might have initiated a whole new subgenre of literature. Think how libraries and bookstores might then have looked. You’d wander through them and see aisles marked History, Biography, Politics,…Dry Cleaning…

Here, McCall Smith brought up the subject of the Detective Agency’s sole and vital reference work: The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Anderson. This book, he declared, is driving him crazy! Apparently readers keep asking him how to obtain a copy. It is, of course, purely  product of his amazingly fertile imagination, but who knows – He may have to break down and write it some day.

Meanwhile, though, he gave us a delicious tip: In a future installment in the series, the Great Man himself will travel to Botswana and honor Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi with a visit to the Detective Agency office! It is then that the two women discover something rather surprising about Clovis Anderson…but Readers, I will let you find out for yourselves, in a future installment, what that something is….

McCall Smith reassured us that there will be “tiny white van developments” down the road. Many readers, it seems, have mourned the death of this faithful yet aged vehicle, Mma Ramotswe’s much loved mode of transportation in the earlier novels. McCall Smith then shared a happy reminiscence of an appearance he made in Santa Barbara, California, where a fan – several fans? – had purchased white vans in honor of Mma Ramotswe! (McCall Smith made several piquant observations about California: The polite form of greeting involved telling your interlocutor about your various problems. and the tiny white van anecdote served as a reminder that Californians were in need of something to do!)

[In this space, I have reviewed The Good Husband of Zebra Drive and The Miracle at Speedy Motors.]

On the subject of the Isabel Dalhousie series, the author stated that the eponymous protagonist and he share an interest in ethics. (Isabel, holders of a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge, is the owner/editor of a small, highly respected professional journal called The Review of Applied Ethics. McCall Smith was the chairman of the British Medical Journal’s Ethics Committee until 2002; he has also served as a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO. ) He also revealed that initially, the relationship between Isabel and Jamie, who is fourteen years her junior, was supposed to be purely platonic. Advised that the development of a full blown romance between the two would be “empowering” for his legion of female readers, McCall Smith altered the nature of the relationship accordingly.

[I’d like to inject a personal note here and say that although I am a great fan of Mma Ramotswe and company, I’m an even greater fan of the Isabel Dalhousie novels. Each one is better than the last! I love the rich admixture of art, literature, philosophy, and passion. The entire series is a love letter to the city of Edinburgh. (If you’ve been there, then you’ll know that splendid small metropolis to be a worthy recipient of such deep affection.) McCall Smith depicts the happiness and heartache, the  vulnerability and certainty that are alternately the lot of Isabel Dalhousie in a way that I find completely convincing. I would have liked to hear more from the author about this extraordinary creation of his, a woman who seems so real that I feel as though I actually know her.

I’ve reviewed the following in this space: The Careful Use of Compliments, The Lost Art of Gratitude, and The Charming Quirks of Others; you might also enjoy Feeling Scottish.]

I tried the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series and did not care for it, but after Sunday’s talk, I’m intrigued with McCall Smith’s two other series. Corduroy Mansions features, among others, a dog named Freddie de la Hay. Freddie is a Pimlico Terrier – and please, people, don’t go looking for a breeder; he made it up! Corduroy Mansions has been running as a serial in The Telegraph, just as 44 Scotland Street has been running in The Scotsman. .  Regarding the aforementioned canine character, The Telegraph informs us:

Freddie was the star of the second book in the Corduroy Mansions series, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, in which he was recruited by MI6 to infiltrate a gang of Russian spies.

( American newspapers might wish to consider doing something along these lines, as they struggle to keep their circulation numbers from plummeting.)

Click here for more information about McCall Smith’s series. 

Finally, returning to the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, McCall Smith informs us that he tries to visit Botswana regularly, in order to renew his knowledge of the country and its people. He admitted that he tries not to be too specific concerning the political and/or technological aspects of society. For instance, there are cell phones in Botswana, but not, he assures us, in his novels about the place. “Anything I don’t like, I ignore,” he stated cheerfully, adding, “There’s a lot to be said for denial!”

The 45 minutes allotted for McCall Smith’s talk flew by.  Then it was time for questions.

Someone asked about the film versions of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. We were overjoyed to hear that there are two more features based on the series in the works at HBO! McCall Smith loved the first series of films, as did most of us who’ve seen them. They are deeply imbued with the spirit of the novels. This was largely due to the unwavering commitment of Anthony Minghella, whose untimely death occurred on the day the first feature film was scheduled to be shown in Britain. (It was shown anyway, as per the family’s wishes.)


Anika Noni Rose as Grace Makutsi, Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe, and Lucian Msamati as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni

McCall Smith was asked about casting for the role of Precious Ramotswe. Apparently many “traditionally built” women presented themselves to him as candidates! He actually did have his own idea about casting question: he favored Sheila Tlou, an acquaintance of his who happens to be Botswana’s Minister of Health. In the event, it was arranged that Ms Tlou would appear in one of the films and have a single line of dialog. Here’s an article on the making of the films. And here’s the trailer:

Someone asked how it is that McCall Smith writes so convincingly from a woman’s viewpoint. His rejoinder was instantaneous: “Well after all, I’m wearing a skirt!” He went on to say that empathy is one of the novelist’s most powerful tools. It’s what enables him to write his woman characters so effectively.

The final question – posed by my book-loving friend Meredith – had to do with a book she particularly esteems: La’s Orchestra Saves the World. McCall Smith thanked her  for her question – in fact, he thanked each person who’d had a query for him. I haven’t read this title, and I learned that it involves Polish fighting forces and Polish prisoners of war in England during the Second World War. McCall Smith spoke with some emotion on this subject. Apparently recognition of the contribution of these individuals was very late in coming, an injustice that was only barely rectified in time. Here’s a review of the novel, and here’s an interesting article in Wikipedia. The book is also about the healing power of music, something in which McCall Smith strongly believes.

Alexander McCall Smith exited as he had entered, shaking hands with those fortunate enough to have aisle seats. I cannot praise his gracious demeanor enough. And his wit and warmth made for a very memorable occasion!


I’d like to put in a word of praise for the way library staff handled this event. The crowd was large, as they knew it would be. It was apparent that plenty of advanced planning had been done. Everything went smoothly, with McCall Smith staying to sign books afterward. President and CEO of the library Valerie Gross thanked him warmly, and thanked the various sponsors who made it possible for the Howard County Library to host the appearance of this internationally acclaimed author. She reminded us that this event was in keeping with the library’s educational mission, and that thanks to the aforementioned sponsors, the many volunteers, and the Friends of the Library, it was offered to  the public at no charge.


  1. Carol said,

    Thanks for this, Roberta. I’m so sorry those nasty germs kept me from attending this “smashing” occasion!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Think of yourself as having attended vicariously, Carol. Feel better fast!

  2. Barbara Seboda said,

    I, too, missed the presentation, but after reading your post I feel as if I had been there! Great job, Roberta.

  3. Pauline Cohen said,

    I was lucky enough to attend the event, and because I got there several hours early (as usual!) and was 2nd in line, was rewarded with a front row seat. It was indeed a magical event. I came away amazed at Mr. McCall Smith’s ability to conjure up quotations–I didn’t observe him referring to notes–and was very impressed with his humility, sense of humor and great intellectual prowess–quite a combination .

  4. demie Aas said,

    Always informative Roberta Thanks : )
    ( Funny thing I had a post about Isabel Dahlousie series with focus on Brother Fox, the other day- I `ve seen a Fox in my garden you see.. I do live near a forest but it was the first time and it was amazingly beautiful. And of course it made me think of Isabel! I am a big fun myself )

  5. Ellen Levin said,

    Roberta, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Alexander McCall Smith did a fantastic job in this blog post on bringing back to me such a delightful evening! Thanks so much for that and for the additional links you provide in your post!

  6. Nan said,

    Lucky, lucky, lucky you!!! Oh, how I would love to have been there. But to tell you the truth, it feels like I was because of your (always) wonderful writing. Thank you so very much. I loved every word. I learned so much. I think the man is a true role model for living. I just did a book report on the latest Mma Ramotswe, and I’m going to go back and give a link to this wonderful posting. Thanks again.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Nan, thanks for your gracious comments. And thanks forr linking to the post on your own delightful blog. (Are those your sheep in the picture, BTW?)

  7. Barbara said,

    I agree wholeheartedly with Nan! Thank you for giving us a chance to live vicariously through you at this event. I have just ready my first Isabel Dalhousie novel and am eager to try more in this series. Although a die-hard Mma Ramotswe fan, I find this new (to me) series absolutely charming. Thanks for this great post!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      And thank you, Barbara, for your gracious comments!

  8. Barbara said,

    Hi Roberta,

    As so often happens when reading your blog, one thing leads to another and I find myself downloading a Bach mass and looking into the history of some fascinating author or another. Well, here I go again……Towers of Trebizond sounds amazing. Have you read it? It is now on my Amazon wishlist until I plow through some of my current books.

  9. kathy d. said,

    Thanks for much for your write-up; it’s excellent.

    I have not read the Botswana series, but I saw the dvd’s of all of the episodes which are in that format, and I loved every episode. The cast is just superb, the humor, warmth, creativity is wonderful. it was just sad that it was over.

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