March 29, 2011

Finding inspiration for a No. 1 series

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Where do the people in books come from? Authors are often asked this question, and they often find difficulty in answering. As the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of novels, I am often asked how it is that I have ended up writing about a woman who lives far away in Botswana, when I am a man living at the other end of the world. This strikes people as rather strange, and I suppose that in a sense it is.

I decided to write about a woman from Botswana some years ago, when I witnessed the remarkable sight of a woman chasing a chicken about the yard in a Botswana village. The chicken came off second best, and was duly dispatched to provide the next day's lunch. But what remained in my mind was the cheerfulness of the woman who performed this rather everyday task. And I thought that one day, I might write about a woman who was competent and resourceful and who was born in that particular village.

Years passed before I sat down to write a story about just such a woman. My wife and I were spending some time in the south of France. I sat down at the desk in the house in which we were staying and wrote a short story about a woman called Precious Ramotswe, who inherits cattle from her father and sells them. She decides to set up a small detective agency with the proceeds, rather than to establish a more mundane and safer business. I enjoyed writing this short story, and I found that I liked the character I had created. At the end of the story, it occurred to me that I should write further stories about this woman, and I did so. These became a book and the book became a series. These books then completely changed my life.

I had not intended to write a mystery series, and indeed there is comparatively little mystery in these books. They are really the story of one woman, Precious Ramotswe, and of those who play a part in her life her fiance, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni; her assistant, Mma. Makutsi; and her friend, the matron of an orphan farm, Mma. Potokwani. They are the sorts of people who might escape notice, except for one thing: they are all, in their various ways, good people.

I decided to write books about good people for a set of very particular reasons. I think that there are so many books which stress the dysfunctional in life, that deal with conflict and tragedy. In my books, everybody behaves rather well towards one another. They are polite people they use courteous language, they understand and forgive, they are kind. And why not? Why should we not have books about people like that? People have said to me that I am a Utopian novelist. Some people suggest that there cannot be people like this, that Precious Ramotswe cannot exist. I disagree! Botswana is a remarkable country which has made a great success of itself. It is has shown that countries in Africa can be well run and prosperous. And what is more, there are plenty of people in African countries who are leading profoundly decent lives, often in conditions of some difficulty. I hope that my books show that this is all possible. And if these books are, as some people have suggested, a love letter to a country, then I am proud to sign my name to that love letter.

The fifth book in the series, The Full Cupboard of Life, has just been published in the United States. I have finished work on the manuscript of the sixth, which will be published next year. With each visit I make to the world of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the more I become attached to the characters and involved in their lives. They are very real to me, as I suppose must be inevitable if one is writing a series of this nature. So I hear their voices. Mma. Ramotswe, too, is at my elbow, giving me occasional pieces of advice. And if she were to walk in the door tomorrow, I know that we would sit down together and have a cup of her favorite bush tea. And then we might go for a walk, and look out over that landscape that she loves so much, with its wide plains and its thorn trees, and its great, echoing empty sky.


Alexander McCall Smith was born in Africa and currently lives in Scotland, where he teaches medical law at Edinburgh University. His latest book is The Full Cupboard of Life, the fifth installment in the best-selling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.


Alexander McCall Smith

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The Full Cupboard of Life

The Full Cupboard of Life

By Alexander McCall Smith
ISBN 9780375422188

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