Author enjoys positive focus on life

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.
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 Cathedral.

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 physical landscape.

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 solving crime.

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.

-eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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