quarta-feira, 11 de dezembro de 2013

McCall Smith has many books brewing, just like bush tea By Carol Memmot, USA TODAY

McCall Smith has many books brewing, just like bush tea
By Carol Memmot, USA TODAY

Alexander McCall Smith

     EDINBURGH — Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith, creator of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, owns way too many books.
     That's why, on this unusually mild fall day, he's apologizing for the "banging and crashing" as workers refurbish an upstairs library so the author can shelve his vast collection of titles – many of which, not surprisingly, he has written.
     Best known for his popular series starring "lady detective" Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s only female private eye, the prolific McCall Smith is also the author of four other ongoing series, about 40 children's books –The Perfect Hamburger has been in print for 30 years – and 14 non-fiction titles, including Law and Medical Ethics. His books are published in 45 languages.
     "That's why we have a shelving problem," he says with a laugh, and he will burst into spontaneous laughter many times over the next two hours. "We're doing about four books a year translated into 20 to 25 languages, and the publishers usually send six complimentary copies of each. So that's 50 to 60 editions coming into the house."
     His newest, La's Orchestra Saves the World (Pantheon, $23.95), will be published Tuesday. It's a stand-alone novel about a woman who leads an amateur orchestra in World War II-era England and her relationship with a Polish immigrant. It was inspired by a short story McCall Smith wrote for the BBC and his interest in rural Suffolk. "I like that particular bit of England," he says, "and I was really interested in what had actually happened to the Poles during World War II and how badly they were treated."
     McCall Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, a recently retired physician, have lived in this sand-colored stone Victorian in the stately Merchiston neighborhood, about 10 minutes from the center of this ancient city, for 25 years. It's where they raised their daughters, Lucy, 26, and Emily, 23, who are studying medicine.
     It's a literary neighborhood.
      Ian Rankin, Scotland’s  top-selling crime novelist – he's the author of the Inspector Rebus series – lives two doors down. "He's a very nice chap," McCall Smith says. "We often meet for coffee at a nearby Starbucks.”
     And J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame "lives just around the corner," he says. "She's very charming but very private."

A private, humble man
     McCall Smith, 61, has welcomed a reporter into his home, but he's somewhat private, too. He speaks humbly of his writing career and the popularity of his books.
     "I think I'm quite fortunate in being able to write very quickly," McCall Smith says. "I think if I was doing something I regarded as unpleasant, it would be another matter. I enjoy it very much."
     Others are more willing to praise him.
     "I'm not familiar with any other person who's routinely producing three books a year all by themselves," says Edward Kastenmeier, McCall Smith's editor at Pantheon, his U.S. hardcover publisher. "Sandy (McCall Smith insists on being called Sandy) is producing a phenomenal body of work and writes every word that comes out under his name."
     In the office where McCall Smith, seated in a blue leather chair, writes at least a few hours a day, his cat Augustus Basil rubbing against his ankles, the shelves are packed floor to ceiling with books including his first children's title, The White Hippo, published when he was 28.
     The surface of his mammoth wooden desk reflects a sense of whimsy and the serious business of writing books. There's a basket woven in Botswana (the setting for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), lamps decorated with monkeys, and a glass lion. There's a computer, piles of tiny notebooks in which he keeps track of the various series he writes, several pairs of glasses, stacks of papers, a coffee mug and, of course, more books.
     The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the first book in that series, was first published in 1998 by a small Edinburgh publisher. First print run: 1,500 copies. "After that, I think," McCall Smith says, "they printed 500 more."
     The novel's inspiration came years earlier.
     "There was one particular moment when I thought I'd write about a woman in Botswana," he says, recalling a woman he met in Africa in 1981. "It was not a meeting of great significance, or so I thought."
     The woman was going to give him a chicken that would eventually become his lunch. "She was running spectacularly around her backyard chasing the chicken," he says. "She caught the chicken and wrung its neck with very little ceremony and handed it over to us, and I thought: 'What a woman.' I thought about what sort of life she had had. I just had an impression of a character."
     The series – there are now 10 novels in print – also had a run on television earlier this year. HBO Entertainment in association with The Weinstein Co. and the BBC produced a feature-length pilot that HBO ran in March, as well as six more episodes. Jill Scott starred as Mma Ramotswe; the supporting cast included   Anika Noni Rose as Mma Grace Makutsi, the detective agency's efficient office manager, and Lucian Msamati as J.L.B. Matekoni, Precious' love interest and eventual husband.
     The series' future is unclear. "HBO and TWC (Weinstein) continue to be in discussions about ways of continuing this franchise," according to a joint statement.

Hand-selling helped
     Surprisingly, McCall Smith credits American fans and booksellers for what would eventually become his global success. "I owe it entirely to Americans," he says. "I'm very grateful and don't intend to ever forget it."
     A bookseller who began recommending McCall Smith's books a decade ago was Jane Jacobs of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass. While working at the Concord Bookshop, she read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The book was distributed in the USA at that time by Columbia University Press.
     "I thought it was the most calming thing," Jacobs says. "It took me to a different culture and totally away from the frenetic pace of this world. I was in love with her (Precious) and thought I could sell the book to any number of people." And, she says, as soon as she started telling people about the book "it took off."
     Jacobs calls the novels "lady reading but not chick lit and not old-lady-lit reading. Precious is appealing because she's overcoming all kinds of obstacles." Though the books are sometimes touted as mysteries, Jacobs says "they're not very mysterious. She solves little problems, life problems, not mysteries."
     Readers are apt to relish scenes in which Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi sip bush tea while dissecting the mysterious behavior of men more than their investigations into missing relatives and stolen vans.
     McCall Smith says he doesn't really consider the books crime novels. "Only in the most attenuated sense are they mysteries," he says. "I'm using some of the conventions of the genre, but what I really do is write about people and places."
     And they are people and places McCall Smith knows well.
     He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where his father worked as a public prosecutor. He moved back to Scotland when he was a teen, studied law at the University of Edinburgh and became a recognized expert on medical law and bioethics.

More irons in the fire
     Global fame as a novelist didn't come until he was in his 50s.
     Random House began publishing McCall Smith's books in the USA in 2002. Kastenmeier thinks the timing, less than a year after 9/11, was relevant to their success. "I think it was a very good moment in the U.S. to be publishing material that was very heartwarming and charming."
     Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, 10th in the series, was published earlier this year. It reached No. 13 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list. McCall Smith is under contract to write at least four more.
     But the lives of his beloved Botswana characters aren't the only ones on his mind.
     This year he also published The Lost Art of Gratitude, fifth in the Sunday Philosophy Club series.
     A start of a new series, Corduroy Mansions, will be published in the USA in 2010.
     In addition to writing novels, McCall Smith's travels to promote his books over the next year will take him to England, India, Australia, Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong and Canada. He'll visit a number of U.S. cities, including Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.
     He also finds time to play bassoon in The Really Terrible Orchestra, which he helped found in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s. The amateur group gives standing-room-only concerts – even traveling to New York for a sold-out concert at New York Town Hall in April. McCall Smith says with a laugh, "We always sound just a little bit on the flat side."
     A lot is going on in McCall Smith's life, but he has found time to pursue a new venture: raising exotic British saddleback pigs on a farm in western Scotland.
     When asked for what purpose, he says, again with a laugh, "Alas, it's the fate that many pigs meet."

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