Philadelphia — It started with a woman chasing a chicken in her yard. The setting was a little village in Botswana.
Alexander McCall Smith watched her and told himself: “Someday I’ll write about a woman in Africa.”
Lounging in the domed foyer of the Ritz-Carlton last week, Smith was describing the germ, the very beginning, of what became “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels, international best-sellers set in Botswana and featuring the detective (and semiprofessional confidant) Precious Ramotswe. The novels made their U.S. television last Sunday as an HBO series (shot on location), with Philadelphia’s own Jill Scott as Precious. The 10th “Ladies’ Detective” novel — “Tea Time for the Traditionally Built,” another of his delightful titles — is just about to hit here. In case he ever gets bored, he has four other series going.
Back to the germ: As Smith watched his host for lunch chase the chicken “with admirable coolness and dispatch,” he didn’t yet know his fictive “woman in Africa” would be a detective.
“Sometimes, you can look at a woman, or a man for that matter, in Africa, and take a credible stab at imagining what their lives have been,” Smith says. “You can see the relative poverty, all the hard work, the children, looking after her man, in many cases running a small business. And on top of all that, you can see dignity, a real integrity.”
As he warms to the topic, Smith orders tea (it is getting on toward 4 p.m., after all) and discusses his reactions as his novels were transformed into a TV series.
“No writers were harmed in the making of this film,” he says. “As the ‘parent,’ so to speak, of the books, I suppose I was a little anxious at first. But when I learned that Anthony Minghella would be involved” — Minghella was executive producer and directed the feature-length opener of the series before his death in March 2008 — “I was quite reassured. He was such a fine director, so sympathetic.” As for Jill Scott, he says, she is “very good indeed, wonderful energy.”
Smith’s life has sprawled between two continents. Born in what is now Zimbabwe, he studied law at the University of Edinburgh, went to Botswana to teach law, and then settled with his family in Edinburgh for good. He is an emeritus professor at the university’s law school. All of which account for his abiding love of Africa and his interest in matters of ethics and character.
“Really, I don’t think plot is my strong suit,” he says. “My novels are character-driven. I tend to begin a novel with little notion of where it will end up. I like to set up situations and conversations and see how they reveal character.”
Almost always in his novels, there’s a problem or mystery to be solved. And whether the protagonist is Ramotswe, or Isabel Dalhousie (philosopher, friend, and thoughtful person living in Edinburgh, of the “Sunday Philosophy Club” series), or Pat Macgregor of the “44 Scotland Street” series, the solution of that mystery usually parallels the solution of several characters’ personal problems.
Not all Smith protagonists are women, but there’s an unmistakable attraction to female characters: their ideas, their friendships, their takes on art, politics, jokes, and loss, their ways of giving and taking advice.
He sidesteps a suggestion of a feminist subtext. “I certainly tend not to engage in issues of that nature,” he says. “But anyone who looks at the second half of the 20th century sees a great battle for better treatment of women.” That battle has borne fruit in Botswana, which “used to be a very patriarchal society, where women did so much, often unthanked.” Women have shown themselves to be good at running small businesses, and throughout Africa have developed a reputation for being good risks for micro-loans: “If you give a woman enough to buy a sewing machine or a couple of goats,” Smith says, “you know it’s going to be used well.”
Some critics — largely Western and U.S. academic critics, predictably uneasy that a man with white skin (albeit an African-born man) would write African characters and create an African viewpoint — have called Smith’s books condescending or patronizing.
Reviewers in Africa have been much more receptive, largely because the books show a more hopeful side of African life. Accused of ignoring the continent’s pain, Smith has said, “I don’t ignore it; I just don’t write about it,” leaving that to the many other writers who dwell on failed states, HIV/AIDS, desertification and poverty.
Written as unapologetic entertainment, the books take aim not at colonialism or racism, but at how people discover and handle their personal challenges. That has brought great public appeal: When the HBO series debuted recently in the U.K., more than five million viewers tuned in the first week.
If it sees any condescension at all, the government of Botswana is keeping mum; instead, it is hoping the HBO series spurs tourism and investment and is spending $5 million worldwide to plump the series and its setting.
Throughout the books runs a remarkable respect for traditional codes of behavior, and for Botswanans’ evident pride in their country. “They have good reason to feel proud,” Smith says. “Independent Botswana is a very recent state, a well-run state on a continent that has attracted attention, unfortunately, at least in the West, for states that are the opposite.”
How does he keep all his series separate? Smith says he has no set pattern. “Not to indulge in amateur neuroscience,” he says, “but I think there is some compartmentalization going on. The subconscious dictates much of this, I think; it’s always hatching what-ifs. By the time I sit down to the keyboard, I discover all sorts of wonderful things already going on.”