Wit and Wisdom from Alexander McCall Smith

It was a packed house on April 10th to see acclaimed author Alexander McCall Smith. While people shuffled through the pews of the Southminster United Church to find seats, I couldn't help but hear a number of excited fans talking about his books (and the words "charming" and "delightful" popped up quite a bit!) Listening to how warmly these audience members were talking about his work, it was no wonder that the event was sold out.

 

Actually, within ten seconds of hearing our kilt-clad Guest of Honour speak, it was also no wonder that his fans had chosen such affectionate words to describe McCall Smith and his work. He had everyone in stitches in no time, making the words "charming" and "delightful" pop up in my own mind, too. Clearly used to doing speaking engagements, McCall Smith opened with some jokes and a quick discussion about the importance of a novel's first line. His personal favourites include the first lines of Out of Africa (Isak Dinesen) and The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay). In particular, McCall Smith elicited giggles from the audience by emphasizing the intrigue that Rose Macaulay sets up with her first line ("'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass"), noting that "there aren't enough camels in contemporary fiction."

 

As he took his seat opposite the evening's host, Inger Ash Wolfe aka Michael Redhill, McCall Smith asked which glass of water was his, joking: "When you're talking to a writer of mysteries, you have to be careful with the switching glasses...it could be part of the plot."

 

McCall Smith's quick wit was evident in all facets of their conversation, and he struck me as a brilliant man who is genuinely interested in people and what makes them tick. He clearly was not shy about discussing any topic (ranging from Freud's interpretation of the subconscious to Canadian ice fishing), and his good-natured curiosity about life likely feeds into the pleasure that he gets from writing—which is a good thing because he certainly writes a lot!

 

McCall Smith noted that he writes while he travels, and he's currently working to finish a novel in the 44 Scotland Street series. As the novels are first published in serial form in The Scotsman (the daily newspaper in Edinburgh), he must submit a chapter each day to the editor of the paper. "In nine years of doing it, we've never missed a deadline," he said, even though it came close once when he was travelling and lost his internet connection. In addition to his serial novel, McCall Smith is also working to finish another book by the end of June (this year), and yet another book by the end of July (also this year!). This discussion led the host to ask the question that was on everyone's mind: "How do you write so much?"

 

McCall Smith's answer made a lot of jaws drop: "I'm quite fortunate in that I usually write about 1000 words an hour...which will obviously add up." He also noted the importance of having a regime (he gets up early each morning to write for a few hours, sometimes starting at 4am), but the words "1000 words an hour" were the ones that rang the loudest in my ears. (I was a bit slow in picking my own jaw off the floor.) He joked about how it was really the fact that he had a word processor that made it so easy to write quickly, pointing out that authors such as Sir Walter Scott had to write everything out by hand (and imagine how many more books—or how much longer his existing books would have been—if Scott had been able to type them). Jumping to one of the tangents that I ended up quoting the next day (out of context, for my own amusement), McCall Smith explained that Sir Walter Scott had gallstones while he was writing, so he must have been in exceptional discomfort. "If an author had gallstones while writing," he said with a chuckle. "Then book clubs should really be more charitable. You should ask yourselves ahead of time, 'Is this a gallstone novel?'"

 

I must admit that I have a special soft spot for authors who love their characters, and McCall Smith truly seems to love his—especially Bertie from the 44 Scotland Street series. "He came to me out of nowhere," he said. "I'm so fond of that little boy." He is so fond of him, in fact, that he giggled as he regaled the audience with stories about what six-year-old Bertie has encountered and endured in Edinburgh...which, naturally, set the audience into more fits of laughter, too.

 

As the conversation turned to his strong female characters and Africa, McCall Smith countered the criticism that he sometimes receives about sugar-coating life in his novels by stressing that he wants people to know that there are a lot of good news stories happening in Africa, too—that people are "leading constructive lives in the face of very different circumstances. That [positive] reality is part of the picture, as well," he said. "People have the strange idea that fiction must focus on the dysfunction of life, that you're not being realistic unless you focus on the dysfunction."  Being realistic, however, also means understanding that "lots of people in Scotland [for example] are living very straight-forward lives. Very few of them actually go around stabbing each other—except on weekends." (More laughter. I'm surprised that I could take so many notes, given how many times he got everyone laughing. My handwriting did get shaky at times as I tried to write something down in the midst of a cackle, though.) In terms of his strong female characters, McCall Smith noted that what interests him most is women who have to be good at dealing with negative situations (including historical patriarchy) when—or even because—the odds are stacked against them. "Their wit [is] their weapon against the condescension of men." 

 

It is safe to say that Alexander McCall Smith has sky-rocketed to the top of my list of authors with whom I would like to go out for coffee/tea/beer/scotch. I could have listened to him for another hour (at least), but the event came to an end so that he could sign books for his very satisfied fans. If he comes back for a future edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival , I will definitely be buying my ticket well in advance - and I highly recommend that you do the same!