Author Alexander McCall Smith takes part in conversation
with writer Liam McIlvanney for the Dunedin Writers and
Readers Festival before a near full St Paul's Cathedral on
Saturday. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
His writing's focus on the positive side of life was one
he could defend philosophically, prolific author Alexander
McCall Smith told those at a soldout event at the Dunedin
Writers and Readers Festival on Saturday.
McCall Smith, of Edinburgh, author of the No.1 Ladies'
Detective Agency series, and the 44 Scotland
Street novels, appeared in conversation with
Dunedin-based Scottish writer Liam McIlvanney at St Paul's
Asked about the Botswana-based detective series, McCall Smith
said he had never set out to rewrite Heart of
Darkness, and said many other writers effectively did, by
focusing on the region's social ills.
The Zimbabwean-born writer did not believe social problems
should be ignored - but they were for others to write. His
novels were not divorced from real life, though. His
portrayal of strong African women characters reflected the
remarkably resourceful and practical personalities nurtured
in that part of the world.
The self-deprecating former professor of law, whose responses
were often humorous and light-hearted, said the ''wonderful
power'' of a novelist allowed him to recast the social and
His ''cheerfully low tech'' detective novels ignored the
advance of technology. He viewed mobile phones as a privacy
invasion, and had not used them as literary devices for
He felt he did not quite fit in to the so-called Tartan Noir
crime writers' group, which included Ian Rankin, Val
McDermid, and the conversation convener, McIlvanney.
Asked about his portrayal of dogs, McCall Smith revealed a
special fascination for their psychology. Exhibiting emotions
and intentions, as characters they could be vehicles to
explore human follies such as temptation.
He joked the ''cat lobby'' sometimes asked why similar
portrayals of feline behaviour were not explored in his
novels. Cats, he explained, were ''psychopaths'' with ''no
existential doubts'' about their place in the world.
McCall Smith recently completed a rewrite of Jane Austen's
Emma, which is to be published in November.
Asked by the publisher to update the work, he engaged in ''30
seconds of profound thought'' before jumping at the chance.
The novel took him just two months to write, and was the most
enjoyable thing he had done for years.
He had been tempted to relocate it to Scotland, but
Emma was too essentially English to contemplate such a
move. As a writer of series of novels, he was often given
suggestions for character and plot development.
''People get very involved in characters if you have a
series. They feel that they know these people. These people
are their friends.''
His novels often included places he had recently visited, he
said, joking that Dunedin might crop up soon in his work.