RK Narayan’s books were a big influence on me: Alexander McCall Smith

Vinay Kamath | Updated on December 14, 2019

Chasing a muse: Alexander McCall Smith finds conversations with complete strangers in India stimulating   -  VINAY KAMATH

The Scottish author says the iconic Indian writer was the inspiration for his bestselling series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Alexander McCall Smith had just finished an invigorating session at the Tata Lit Fest in Mumbai. The conversation with fellow wordsmith Shashi Tharoor and the festival director Anil Dharker was on the prodigious output of the two authors. The popular Scottish writer said he wrote 2,000–3,000 words a day and, given a chance, could always write more. That would explain how he’d churned out 20 books in his blockbuster The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series set in Botswana. After the books featuring its lovable protagonist, Mma Precious Ramotswe, McCall Smith wrote two series based in Scotland and is now on the fourth set, with a Swedish detective as its main character. His books, translated into 46 languages, have become bestsellers throughout the world, with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series selling 20 million copies in English. In a conversation with BLink, McCall Smith, an expert in bio-ethics and a former professor of medical law, talked about his inspirations, and how RK Narayan’s books were universal — and a big influence on his writing. Excerpts:

You’ve written several series of books; do you have a favourite among them?

I find it difficult to select a favourite as I find that I like all my characters. I’ve got a slightly different voice in each of the series, so that’s a way of saying I don’t have any favourites! I have two series set in Scotland and now I have a Swedish series as well, in which I have created a detective, Ulf Varg. Ulf means wolf in Danish and Varg is wolf in Swedish. I wanted to create a typical Swedish detective, but it’s not really serious. He has all the characteristics of a Swedish detective; he’s a bit depressed and his dog is depressed as well (laughs).

Would you set a series in India?

No, I don’t think so. India to me seems such a complex country, I would get it wrong. You have to be careful of writing about places you don’t really know. I would have thought that India would be a country that would take a long time for an outsider to come to grips with because of the complexity. I find it a fascinating country and I very much like coming here. One of the main influences behind The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is RK Narayan, a great and wonderful writer. I loved his books, especially Malgudi Days. His books were a big influence on me, and I don’t think I would have written The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series the way I did had I not read a lot of Narayan.

That’s wonderful to hear…

I know he’s appreciated in India still, but elsewhere people have forgotten about him, which I think is a great pity.

How were his books an influence on you?

It was just the whole feel of the novels. I forget which one I read first, it may have been Swami and Friends. The whole idea of talking about a small town and its intimacy; it’s something about the way he did it that was very inspiring. So that was a major influence on me.

In a reference to Precious Ramotswe during your conversation with Tharoor and Dharker, you said you were inspired by the sight of a tubby woman running around chasing chickens in a farm in Botswana. How did that scene trigger the character in your imagination?

Often, if you see a particular thing or somebody says something to you, that sight or that remark may lead you to think about creating something. Chance remarks, random sights can all be effectively a root to the inspiration of a book. Seeing a sight, in that case a particular person, made me wonder about her background. If I am at a restaurant, I look at people all around and I wonder what’s their story. And I do that all the time; what makes them tick, what their experiences have been.

How did you come to set The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series in Botswana?

I worked in the University of Botswana several years ago, and that’s when I first came to know the country. I never thought I would write so extensively or have such a long literary conversation with the country, but I ended up doing that. I admire the country much and it’s a fine place. So I wanted to write about what I thought was a good place. The world is full of all sorts of confrontations and unhappiness, and I think people — and I, too, certainly — like a positive setting and a positive story.

How did you develop the Precious Ramotswe character? She’s quite fascinating!

I wanted to write about an enterprising woman in Botswana and that’s how she came along. So, that was the reason for her coming into existence, with me wanting to say something about that society and people I have met there. There are many who are quite like her. I only spent a year there, but I have been going back there for over 30 years. Botswana is changing, as is everywhere.

I am writing about some features in society, which are probably changing because of modern developments, but which I don’t really write about. None of the characters in my book uses a mobile phone. The novel can easily be a fable and be set in a time which may not be quite today, in a place which may not be entirely real. I don’t write fantasy, but you can write in the abstract about places. That’s why RK Narayan’s books transcend time and space, they are universal, because he’s writing about human nature and human types so you don’t have to be particular; the character can stand for something much broader. Narayan did that and so did many other writers. You can transcend the immediate.

Small stories: RK Narayan’s way of talking about a small town and its intimacy profoundly influenced McCall Smith   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


You were a professor of law; how did you find the time to write?

My first book was a children’s book, The White Hippo. I wrote in my spare time, weekends and evenings. Writers have to do that. Well, if I could, I would write the whole day but writing emotionally drains one. I started writing long hand and then started using a laptop.

Do you identify with any of your characters?

I find that I am in agreement with many of my characters, yes!

Do your stories reflect your own optimism in human nature?

Probably yes, because I think the world is full of sorrow and suffering and inequities, but it’s not necessarily a good thing to spend one’s entire time contemplating those issues. You mustn’t run away, but you don’t have to spend all your time thinking about it. Not being optimistic and worrying about the world and taking a bleak view doesn’t help. One may as well be positive. I think positivism rather than optimism (would be the word).

When did you give up law and become a full-time writer?

Around 16 to 17 years ago I stopped law and became a full-time writer, devoting my entire time to writing books. On a good day in Edinburgh I would write 2,000 to 3,000 words. Travelling can be distracting, but can also be stimulating to write and I find it very stimulating being in India as people here enjoy a good conversation. I find that in many places people have stopped talking to others but in India, there’s a tradition of having a good conversation, even with strangers. And for a novelist, that’s very nice.

  • A people’s writer
  • Alexander McCall Smith was born in Bulawayo in what is now Zimbabwe. His father was a public prosecutor there.
  • He writes 4-5 books a year; he has written or contributed to some 100 books.
  • His first volume in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series was published 20 years ago.
  • His new book — Pianos and Flowers — is a collection of short stories, built around black-and-white photographs selected from the archives of The Sunday Times. The stories appeared in the newspaper, but he reshaped them and wrote a few more for the collection, which was released in November 2019.
  • Crime writer Ian Rankin is one of McCall Smith’s neighbours in Edinburgh.

Vinay Kamath

Published on December 12, 2019

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