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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


We all buy books that we don't read.
Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History in Time', Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy'.

The first line is important often that's the only line readers read.

I had no characters, no plot but there was no other problem.

Such were the revelations that flowed freely at the talk delivered by the creator of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith.

On a Tuesday night, the Playden at Singapore's Arts House came alive with the sound of unbridled laughter, often the author's own. I've spent the better part of this morning, trying to imitate it, much to the amusement of everyone around.

"He doesn't actually laugh like that?"
"You bet he does, I have it on tape," I respond.

That laughter was enough to send my camera rolling literally at least thrice resulting in rather shaky visuals at some points. Apart from the visuals I came back educated and entertained, quite like the rest of the audience that queued for almost an hour to get their books signed.

Such is the charm of McCall Smith.

I first read him and met him when I was putting together a special for the Singapore Writers Festival and was charmed by his characters, Mma 'Precious' Ramotswe in particular. It was a character that he had seen 15 years before he actually created it. The picture was that of a woman chasing a chicken in Botswana. That's the power of that aha moment. That's also why he advocated the need for a little notebook (red or otherwise) to jot down your thoughts because you never quite know when it'll all fit together.

A 'serial writer' several of his books and characters have been based on things he's heard, events he's seen or comments that have touched him. He's happy to give his readers what they want - cake eating, tea drinking, fixing cars, or fixing life's other problems. Along the way, his books have ended up doing a lot for his readers and for Botswana as well.

"You know there is actually a No 1 Ladies Detective Agency Tour. A one-day tour and a two-day tour. I don't know what they do over two days, I guess they probably take it slower."

Apart from the tours in Botswana, he's been doing the rounds with 'Blue Shoes and Happiness.' Yes, the apprentices are still apprentices, but he did assure everyone present something will move along in their lives. Considering he's got 11 books planned in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, it might take a bit of waiting.

"A reader once wrote to me and asked how long does stay an apprentice in Botswana? (immense laughter all round) So I'll have to do something with them," he revealed as he talked about the immensely popular series.

The stories will continue and will be read by people across the world in over 40 languages. While on one level, his stories seem to be that of the characters that the growing legion of McCall Smith fans have come to love, they are also a celebration of life itself. In a rare serious moment in the talk, McCall Smith acknowledged, "there are problems and there always will be, but there are also lots of people who lead lives of quality and dignity in exceptionally difficult circumstances" and it is there lives that he has chosen to talk about and chronicle.

Like a master calligrapher, he spoke of the brush stroke, the one fluid touch that help draw attention to an issue or a problem rather than drumming about it ceaselessly. His books have more than proved that. "The bush tea sellers love me."

He talked about his characters. 'Precious' which was the same of his friend's daughter, ended up being scribbled somewhere in his note pad and got a life of its own the series.

There was no time for scribbling though when it came to 44 Scotland Street series. It all started with a column he wrote that was followed by lunch with the Editor of The Scotsman paper. In his piece, McCall Smith had said it was a pity that the days of serial novels in newspapers were over. As it turned out, not quite. The Editor proposed a serialised novel, to which the author responded:
"I couldn't do it weekly."
"Whoever, said weekly, we'd like it daily."

With that there was no turning back. Real people ended up being characters in the stories that followed resulting in 'Espresso Tales' and more.

Fiction, McCall Smith admitted is created in the sub-conscious mind, little ideas, little things people say, hence the importance of listening.

As someone who has delved into the minds of readers it was interesting to see a question on whether J K Rowling would kill Harry Potter and what impact would this have on young readers. McCall Smith had it spot on. He couldn't imagine what Rowling would do with Potter, "it will reveal itself on the said date at the said time." But children, he pointed out are exceptionally resilient, they are used to monsters, they are used to things being eaten up, so long as the end result is something guey.

With that, he left us adults with lots of points to ponder over before starting on book signing, which went long past dinner. Whoever said writers had it easy?

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