National Book Festival Presents Alexander McCall Smith

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>>Shari Werb: Good evening. Thank you for joining
us tonight. This is the fifth event in our new National Book
Festival Presents Series. I’m Shari Werb, Director
of the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement. And among the many
other things that we do, the Center is responsible for organizing the National
Book Festival, which we held for the 19th time
last September. As we’ve come to expect
with the Festival, we saw massive crowds there. I hope you were among
those happy audiences and that you had a
chance to see and hear from your favorite author. It’s not too early to mark
your calendar for what promises to be our biggest and
best festival ever. The 20th National
Book Festival will be on Saturday August 29th, 2020. I hope to see all of
you book lovers there. Thomas Jefferson, the
spiritual founder of the Library of Congress, famously wrote,
I cannot live without books. We initiated this National
Book Festival Presents Series because so many of our
attendees, people like you, who can’t live without books, told us that they love
the Festival so much that they wish it lasts
longer than a day. So, this series is a
response to that desire. And it will feature
authors throughout the year, one at a time with
full spotlight. The series will pick
up again next spring after these next few programs. We like to think that Jefferson
would’ve hardly approved of this series. So, if you would
please bear with me. I want to take an
informal survey. With a show of hands,
if you don’t mind. How many of you have been to a previous National Book
Festival Presents program? One of these in the [inaudible]. Wonderful. Thank you. How many of you have been to
the National Book Festival at the Convention Center? Okay. That’s right. [Laughter]. Great. And how many of you
have visited the Library of Congress before? Excellent. Okay. Great. Thank you. Now, one more final favor. If you don’t mind, if
you could please fill out and return the paper survey
that we distributed at the door. Your input is very helpful to us
in learning about our audiences and planning future programs. We take that information
very seriously. And thank you in advance. We have three more programs
scheduled through November. These authors are
renowned religion writer, Karen Armstrong, Brad
Meltzer, who writes for adults, as well as young people. And Andre Aciman, author
of Call Me by Your Name and its sequel, Find Me. Visit our website at for more information
and for tickets. Okay. I confess, I do
have one more question. How many of you are fans of the number one Ladies
Detective Agency [inaudible]? [ Applause ] Such as the worldwide popularity
of the series that I hardly need to introduce tonight’s author. Alexander McCall Smith is one
of the world’s most prolific and best loved authors. For many years he was a
professor of medical law and worked in universities
in the UK and abroad before turning
his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed
to more than 100 books, including academic titles, short
story collections, and a number of immensely popular
children’s books. His first book, The White
Hippo, for children, was published in 1980. Anyone read that book? Okay. Big fans. But what really shot McCall
Smith into the stratosphere of author popularity was the
Number One Ladies Detective Agency series. This beloved series has sold over 20 million copies
worldwide. And this week, he has
just published his 20th in the series, To the
Land of Long-Lost Friends. According to the New York Times,
McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness
and humanity and his ability to evoke a place and a set of
characters without caricature or condescension have
endeared his books to readers. His awards and his honors
are too numerous to mention. Alexander McCall Smith is joined
tonight by Colleen Shogan, herself an avaricious reader
of mysteries and a writer of critically [inaudible] series
of mystery detective novels, set in various Washington
locations. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll
see a Library of Congress, Washington, who done it. [Laughter]. And now, without further ado, please welcome Alexander McCall
Smith and Colleen Shogan. [ Applause ]>>Colleen Shogan:
Thank you, Shari. What an honor to be
here this evening. Just as a reminder, we
will have time at the end of the session for questions. So, be sure to be keeping
those questions in your head, so we can turn to you at
the end of the program. Some of your best characters, your most famous characters
are detectives of sorts.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan: Of sorts. Tell us why are sleuths as
characters so delightful for both writers
and readers alike.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Well, I think that’s a very
interesting question. I think that the genre
of crime fiction is, of course, very broad. It encompasses all sorts
of, all sorts of folks. But I think that it does
provide a wonderful opportunity to explore human nature
and to write about people and to develop characters. As well as, a terrific
opportunity to write about place. And I think those are two
very, very important elements in the genre of mysteries
or crime fiction, whatever one wants to call them. So, the sleuths are the,
are the protagonists in that particular situation. And people, rather, they get
used to them because they occur in these tend to be series. Crime fiction tends
to be series. So, people feel they
get to know them. Whereas, in the conventional
novel, to call it that, people may encounter
a character. And then, that’s it. And they like the character. But feel that the relationship
isn’t going to continue. And so, the sleuth, we feel,
is around in the long term. And people quite, are
quite warm to that. I think that’s the,
that’s the case. Although, I’m not
really the best person to answer too many questions
about mystery fiction. Because I’m not the
real thing, actually. I mean, you write
proper mysteries. I mean, you, people, people
are bumped off in your books.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: You see, that’s. [Laughter]. That’s the real test. You know, how many
autopsies you have. [Laughter]. I haven’t had a single autopsy
in any of my, any of my books. And it may happen
one of these days. But I haven’t even
had a lab test. So. [Laughter]. You know, Colleen, I wouldn’t
want to criticize crime writers.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: At all. But I mean, they are, I’m not
really a particularly good example of it. Because they tend to wear
rather different clues. They wear sort of darkish
t-shirts with stubble. And they’ve got something,
which is quite important. They’ve got edge. And that’s something
which I’ve been trying to acquire for years. But edge. I just don’t
think I’ve got edge. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: Well,
you bring up a good point. So, you don’t write in the same
tradition as Agatha Christie. Like you said, people
aren’t dying in your books or getting bumped off. But your sleuths do solve
these little puzzles.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan:
These little problems that present themselves. So, tell us how you
come up with these, these conundrums
that you put them in. Is it something that you
observe in everyday life? Do you read about something
and then make note of it? Tell us how you think
about that.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Well, I think some of that is situations
or it will be situations that I’ve encountered. Others that I’ve read about. My background was I used
to be a professor of law. And if you’re a professor of
law, you see all of human nature in the law reports very good. Read a law report and you
see the dreadful things that people do to one another. And also, all sorts
of odd situations. So, for example, in the Number
One Ladies Detective Agency, in the very first book in
the series, there’s a scene where a preacher
takes seven people to, I think the [inaudible] seven, to baptize them in
the Limpopo River. And so, you take seven sinners
down to the edge of the water. And only six come back. And [laughter] there was a
crocodile awaiting there. Now, that was a real
case, which I came across in unpublished law
reports in the documents of the, of the high court. This really rather sad
case, where they’d gone down and the crocodile was lying
and waiting for the baptism. So, that I was, I
was able to use. And suddenly, you hear
people saying things. I like listening to other
people’s conversations. You know, you don’t want
to do it too obviously. You don’t go and do that. [Laughter]. But I wish I had one of these
sort of directional microphones that I could sit in a restaurant
and point at the other tables. Because you hear some
wonderful snippets. But you just hear little bits. I’d like to hear
the whole thing. So, same with cell phones. You know, cell phones are
very bad, a bad thing. Because you just hear one side
of that person’s conversation. And I think in public
places you should be obliged to plug your cell phone
into the PA system. [Laughter]. So, you know, you can all hear. Everybody can hear the.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall Smith: I think that’s a very
practical suggestion. I have made that
suggestion in print. And it wasn’t acted upon. Which, you know,
that’s the problem. We all come up with
useful suggestions. I’ve made suggestions
about airports. I have a column in the
UK, newspaper column. And I occasionally come
up with suggestions for the authorities
to do things. And I, and I’ve been writing
about airports recently. And airports are
very badly designed. And, you know, they don’t. So, things like. I made a suggestion, which they, another one they haven’t acted
upon, was that when you go and you take your baggage
to the baggage counter. You know, you go and check in. You check in your baggage. You should then. There should be a second baggage
counter for emotional baggage. And so. [ Laughter ] You would go and you’d get your
baggage checked in real baggage. And then, you go and declare
your emotional baggage to the other.>>Colleen Shogan: Would
there be a limit on that? Or.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: There would be. There would be. [Laughter]. And some people would
have to pay additional.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Baggage. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: Great. So, let’s talk a little
bit about writing.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan: You’re
extraordinarily prolific. And you publish several
books a year, which means that anytime
you’re writing one book, you’re editing another book. And you’re at least
promoting a third book. Tell us how you approach this. What are some of the
tricks of the trade? And tell us a little bit
about your writing regimen that enables you
to be so prolific.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Well,
I remember when I went to my, I had a new publisher
in London [inaudible]. And this publisher wagging
finger at me and he said, now, just remember not more
than one book a year. And I’d say, oh yes, yes, yes. And. [Laughter]. I proceeded to break the rules. Because that’s one of
the rules of publishing. In fact, really, they say, one
book every other year is the. But I feel that’s
a bit restricted. So, I do rather more
than, more than that. But if you do more than that, you actually have
to have a regime. Well, firstly, as you well know,
Colleen, as a writer yourself. You can’t wait for
the muse to come and tap you on the shoulder. Because the muse
doesn’t do that. You know, she, she,
she just won’t do it. You actually have to sit down
at the desk, and you write.>>Colleen Shogan: It’s
amazing the books don’t write themselves.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: It is extraordinary. I mean, I’m looking
forward to the day when.>>Colleen Shogan: Yes.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
When this will happen. When. [Laughter]. When you’ll have
a computer program that will write the books. And then, the computer
will read them. So, you know, we’ll drop out of
the [laughter], the equation.>>Colleen Shogan: We’ll
just have conversations. [Laughter].>>Alexander McCall Smith:
We’ll just have conversations. But. And, in fact, yes. I mean, book conversations
would be very, very straightforward then. Because somebody would say,
have you read such and such? No. Have you? No, I haven’t neither. And then, it would be,
it would simplify life. However, now what
was your question? It was, oh yes, about. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: Yeah. How do you keep these, how
do you keep it all straight?>>Alexander McCall
Smith: How did I what?>>Colleen Shogan: How do
you keep it all straight? Like, because all
the different books that you are working
on at one time.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Well, I do. Sometimes I will be writing
two books at the same time because of the program
that I have. Usually, there’s a season
for a particular book. So, the Number One
Ladies Detective Agency, each year I write in
January, February, March. And then, I move onto
Scotland Street or whatever. So, I do try to keep
them separate. But inevitably, they’re
going to be overlapped. And then, when I sit down at the
table, I just have to make sure that I remember in which
fictional universe I am at the time.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall Smith: And generally speaking,
that works alright. I once did, however,
get them mixed up. And I received a telephone call
from my editor in New York, Edward Kastenmeier,
who said, oh. I just delivered the latest
[inaudible] manuscript to him. And he said, oh, by
the way, on page 45, [inaudible] is talking exactly
like Isabelle [inaudible]. So, [laughter]. I went and had a look. And Edward was right. So, I realized I’d slipped between [inaudible] suddenly
talking about county and notions and duties to [inaudible]
like that. And that wasn’t quite her. So, I remedied that. So, one can do that. Because you do, you know, you
make mistakes in your books. I don’t know. Well, I’m sure you
haven’t, Colleen. [Laughter]. But we were [inaudible].>>Colleen Shogan: About
the hair color sometimes.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes. And your characters.>>Colleen Shogan:
Very difficult.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Have your characters
changed hair color?>>Colleen Shogan: Yes.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Well,
you just [multiple speakers].>>Colleen Shogan: Yeah, right. They just went to. Right. Exactly.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes. And you.>>Colleen Shogan: But readers
are very attentive to that.>>Alexander McCall Smith: The readers notice
that sort of thing. And there was. The worst case that I read
about was an American novelist, who on page one described,
of the novel, described one of the characters as unfortunately
only having one arm. And on page 142 same character
claps his hands together. [Laughter]. That is, that’s difficult.>>Colleen Shogan:
Yeah, that is difficult.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: I take the view. And I’m sure you’d agree
with me in this respect. That is not the author’s fault. That is an editorial.>>Colleen Shogan:
That’s an editor’s fault. [Laughter].>>Alexander McCall Smith:
The editor [inaudible].>>Colleen Shogan: That’s
a failure of the editor.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
Yes, I think editor’s.>>Colleen Shogan:
Or the agent, maybe.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Or agent. It’s certainly anybody
but the, but the author. There is also, you know
that book, American Psycho? Not a book I’ve read. But, you know, maybe
somebody has read. But, but in that, apparently one of the characters,
the main character. His tie color changes
within a few minutes. He’s wearing a red tie. And then, the next moment
he’s wearing a blue tie. And the only possible
explanation is that he’s got two
ties on at the time, which is the obvious
explanation.>>Colleen Shogan:
The obvious, right. You see that all the time. [Laughter]. Now, many of your
protagonists are women.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan:
What do you enjoy about writing female characters? And do you ever find
it challenging?>>Alexander McCall Smith: Well, I very much enjoy
writing about women. I find the conversation of
women very, very interesting. And I think. I know that it’s fashionable
now, if not de rigueur, to say that there’s
no difference between men and women. And I suppose we’re seeing. In things that matter, we’re seeing those
differences abandoned. And a good thing too,
where, where for example, these differences resulted
in fewer opportunities. And that sort of stuff. So, I think we all
sign up to equality. And that’s quite right. But still, at the same
time, there are differences in conversation, I think. I think. And these are
terrific generalizations. But the thing about
generalizations is that they’re often true.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: That’s [laughter]. You know, that’s why,
that’s why we make them. And I think that the
conversation between men, I often find not quite as
interesting, as conversation between being, between women. Because I think,
generally speaking, men are a little
bit more inclined to avoid the subjective. In that, women will be freer about talking about
their emotions. And men, men have been
trained in the past not to talk about their emotions. Now, that’s changing. And I think that
the old days where, where little boys were
told, boys don’t cry. You know, I think now boys are
being told that they can cry. And indeed, encouraged to cry. Which I think is healthy. But I think many, many
men still have a bit of a legacy of being tough. And edge, I mentioned edge. That’s sort of thing. You’ve got to be tough. It’s quite difficult
to do, actually, if you’re not tough,
trying to be tough. It’s. To walk in
that way is quite.>>Colleen Shogan: Awkward.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
It’s quite [multiple speakers]. Even the way you sit
in a chair, you’re. That sort of. [Laughter]. Tough men sit. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: Actually,
occupy more space, right? That’s the whole point, right? That’s what they, that’s
what they’re training women, right, to occupy more space. And that’s, you know,
[multiple speakers].>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Sit like this. Right. And this is
very interesting. And. Right. Men. Men and toughness
and conversation. So, men, often won’t talk
about their feelings. So, if you go into a bar
and you see a group of men at the bar and you go and. You can bet that they aren’t
talking about their feelings. [Laughter]. Maybe in some bars. There are some bars where. [Laughter]. Where you might get
a bit more of that. But you don’t, you don’t get
a lot of talk about feelings. [Inaudible]. I mean, you can see
how I’m generalizing. I mean, these are
outrageous generalizations. But the point about all
this, if there is a point, is that [laughter],
is that actually if you imagined you
have two male detectives in that little office, in the Number One Ladies
Detective Agency, this one. The conversation would
be completely different. Whereas, with [inaudible],
have wonderful illusions. We have can have
wonderful conversation. So, that’s a rather
long-winded answer to your very, very [inaudible] question about, about writing about,
about women. I just find it, find
it very interesting. Now, then, sometimes people
say to me, how can you, a man, get women right? You know, write about women. Interestingly enough,
they don’t say that to women writers
who write about men.>>Colleen Shogan: No.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
And statistically, I suspect, there are probably fewer
men who write about women than women who write about men.>>Colleen Shogan: Yeah. I think that’s true.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: You know, that one could do some
sort of survey for that. And it would be interesting
to find that out. But there don’t, they don’t
raise that with women. But they do raise
with male writers. I think that, as a writer, you
actually have to be prepared to put yourself in the
shoes of other people. Whatever their historical
experience, their personal experiences. So, you’ve got to put your. If you’re a male writer, you must put yourself
into women’s shoes. And, in fact, there are
some male writers who enjoy that sort of, sort of. [Laughter]. This is going downhill.>>Colleen Shogan: Yeah,
this is [laughter], right. So, let me ask you about one of
your other female characters.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan: We’ll
get back to [inaudible]. One of my favorite characters,
Isabelle [inaudible].>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan:
From Scotland, from the Sunday Philosophy
Club series. Now, she’s an unusual character. She’s a philosopher
and a detective.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan: Of sorts.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan: Why. What was your inspiration
for Isabelle? And why is that combination,
philosopher, detective, so tantalizing?>>Alexander McCall Smith: Well,
I wanted to write about a person who was a philosopher
and who was interested in applied ethics,
which are subjects of considerable interest to me. And philosophy is one of
my, my principle interests. And so, I thought that
that would be rather nice. I wanted to write about a very
intellectual Edinburgh lady. Because we do, we have
some rather intriguing and interesting intellectual
Edinburgh ladies where I live. Of course, the most
famous example of that was Muriel Spark’s
character, Jean Brodie, the, in her novel, The Prime
of Miss Jean Brodie, which is an absolutely
wonderful book. Beautifully portrayed in
the film by Maggie Smith, who played this, this,
this very misguided, but very interested Edinburgh
teacher in the 1930’s. So, I wanted to write
about somebody like that. A little bit on the
brittle side. But actually, fundamentally,
very, very prosocial. And fundamentally
very sympathetic. But with a very intense sense of
where duty and obligation lie. And that, I think, is a really,
really interesting question. That’s a question,
which, I think, most of us actually
struggle with in our lives. The idea of what we have to do. What are the limits of our
moral obligation to others? And Isabelle talks about an
area of moral concern almost as if it’s a circle
circumscribed around her. And what do you do? And this is something
that we all, we all face. We have claims on our
charity, for example. If we walk on the street
and we see a beggar, what. For many of us, that
poses a moral challenge. Do you walk past? Do you say, well, no,
the state should do that? Or are you giving money
to be spent on drugs? All of these things then
make it a difficult. What about friends? What’s our obligation
to friends? That’s something which
Isabelle considers quite a lot. Because we’re all in this
life, we’re allocated one or two heart [inaudible]
friends. The recording angel or whoever
allocates friends to us. We’ll give you one
or two friends who will be a little bit trying. And. [Laughter]. And, you know, we all
have, we all have a friend where you think, oh gosh,
when the telephone goes. And you try to remember
to say, hello. Rather than, oh gosh, when. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: Right. Right.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: When you answer. And that raises rather
interesting questions about what, what are your
friendship has all sorts of interesting moral
implications, which I look at in those books. What do you do if you, if you
actually cease to have something in common with an old friend? And when you get an old friend
you haven’t seen since, say, school days and your
lives have gone like that. And your interests
have gone like that. What, what do you do? Are there still claims
of friendship? I think, at minimum, you
would have to be polite. And you’d have to recognize the,
the echoes of a past friendship. But would you actually
have to be enthusiastic? I remember once we received
a visit in Edinburgh from this chap I
was at school with. We, you know, we had been
at school together at 16. And I’d last seen him
when I was 17, I think. And he came years later. And he. Well, our interests
were very different. The first thing he said
when he came in was, where’s the action in this town. [ Laughter ] You know, I had to confess, I’m not really sure
[laughter] where the action is. And then, everything got worse. Absolutely worse. And he said. He then, he described. My wife was sitting there. Now, I warned her. I said, this chap could
be a little bit tough. And her jaw, my wife’s jaw hit
the table when he got going. Because he started
talking about, you know, what he did when young men
came to visit his daughter. And he said, you know,
I’ve got a shotgun there. And I get the shotgun
and show it to them. You know, this sort of stuff. And this was, you know,
not what we’d expected. And so, it was quite
difficult for me to continue a close
friendship with. [Laughter]. With. In those circumstances. And yet, I couldn’t
say, you know, I’m not interested
in listening to you. That sort of thing. Should we have a
sort of spring clean of our friendships
every so often? And have a review of friendships
around about March or April. And just have a list. And then, well, people do that
with their Christmas card list.>>Colleen Shogan:
They do it on Facebook. They call their. You know, they call their
friends at times, you know.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
And you just, you unfriend.>>Colleen Shogan: Yes.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
Oh, that must be so hurtful.>>Colleen Shogan: Yeah. And you may not make the cut. [Laughter].>>Alexander McCall Smith: And do you know you’ve
been unfriended?>>Colleen Shogan: Yes. You would know. You would know. You won’t see that person
anymore on your feed. So, it’s very cruel.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
That’s very, very cruel. I suppose life is
tough, isn’t it? [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: So, let’s
talk about another character.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan: Not a woman. But, I think, you know,
really, I think, hilarious and very entertaining. And that’s Detective
Ulf Varg from Sweden. So, tell us, some
people may not be as familiar with Detective Varg. Tell us a little bit about him. What’s the Department
of Sensitive Crimes? And are we going to
be seeing more of him?>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes. Well, Ulf Varg had a
rather odd beginning. I was asked some years
ago by masses of Twitter to kick off the Twitter Literary
Festival, which by very, it’s very definition, would
have very brief stories. [Laughter]. With, you know, 140 characters.>>Colleen Shogan:
Reported characters.>>Alexander McCall Smith: And
so, I said, well, you know, I could hardly tell a
story in 140 characters. But I could have a
series of Tweets, say 10, 140-character Tweets
to make a little story. And so, I did it. And I rather enjoyed that. And I decided to create a
character called Ulf Varg, who is a Swedish detective. And the reason why I decided
to create him was that I had, like everybody else, so
enjoyed Scandinavian Noir. Scandinavian Noir is
tremendously popular. And I and my wife really enjoyed
watching these boxed sets of things like, The Killing,
series one, two and three. And the Bridge and Borgan. All of these. And Scandinavia in this
vision is absolutely riddled with crime. I mean, tremendous. [Laughter]. Tremendous number of murders. It’s worse than Midsummer. You know, that little
village where. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: Right, right. Oh yeah, everybody dies.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: I know. And so.>>Colleen Shogan:
There’s nobody left. There’s nobody left.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Carnage. Carnage. And anyway,
and I thought, well, why should the Scandinavian
writers have all the fun with Scandinavian Noir. And I thought I would start. So, I started Scandinavian
blunk [phonetic]. And Scandinavian
blunk is actually where nothing really
serious happens. So, nothing bloody or nasty. And so, I created a
detective for that, who lives in [inaudible]
in Sweden. And Ulf Varg. Wolf means wolf in Danish. And Varg means wolf in Swedish. So, he’s. So, he’s wolf, wolf. [Laughter]. And he has all the issues
of Scandinavian detectives. Because Scandinavian detectives
are generally depressed. In fact, they have to
be depressed [laughter]. When they have their
medical before they are taken onto the force, they are
examined for depression. And if. And eyesight. And you can’t fail. If you’re not sufficiently
depressed, you’re, so sorry, we can’t employ you. And anyways, so, they’re there. They are depressed. And he has a dog called Martin,
who is depressed as well. And Martin is a very nice dog. But he suffers from
seasonal affective disorder. [Laughter]. And.>>Colleen Shogan:
Martin is also, he’s deaf. And.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
He has hearing issue. He’s hearing impaired. And. But he does. He’s been taught to lip read. He’s the only lip
reading [laughter]. He’s the only lip-reading
dog in Sweden.>>Colleen Shogan: In
all of Sweden, right. All of Sweden.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
But you have to face him, you face him very close. You have to look at him very
closely and say, sit, Martin. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan:
It’s very funny. [ Laughter ]>>Alexander McCall
Smith: He also, but sometimes gets mixed up. And he thinks he’s
got to reciprocate. So, he doesn’t, he doesn’t
make a sound when he goes woof. He goes [gasping sound]. [Laughter]. It’s really very odd. But, you know, so, we have
a bit of fun with that. And Wolf has got a
brother called Bjorn Varg, who’s a politician. He’s leader of a political party
called, The Moderate Extremist. And [ Laughter ] And, and he. Him and Bjorn meet
from time to time. And they remember their
childhood, where they went to visit to their
uncle in Stockholm, who made them watch
nonstop [inaudible] films. It was really very,
very difficult. A very difficult childhood. But anyway, we have. And nothing really serious
happens in this because it’s, it is Scandinavian blunk. So, we don’t. We did have a little bit of
balance in the first book. In that somebody was stabbed
in the back of the knee.>>Colleen Shogan: In
the knee, yeah right. Underneath a tent [inaudible]?>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes,
in a tent, somebody was stabbed. But just a very minor injury. Nothing serious. And that raises issue about what
sort of suspect would you look for if the locus of
the injury is the back of the knee, which is quite low. So, you know, you can work out
what the physical description of the suspect might be. Vertically challenged.>>Colleen Shogan: Yes,
vertically challenged. [Laughter]. So, all these characters,
Precious Ramotswe, Ulf Varg.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan:
Isabelle [inaudible]. They seem to be governed
by a common moral sense. And you sort of eluded to that.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Colleen Shogan: If that’s
true, describe it for us. What would that common
moral sense be?>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Well, I think, yes. That’s interesting. I think, that they all,
they obviously all believe in justice, which is the
basic deport position, must be of the hero or
heroin of a crime novel. W.H. Auden wrote an essay
about the crime novel, in which he talked about
the, how important it is in the crime novel for
the scales to be adjusted. That justice must be
achieved at the end. And this is something, which
is so deeply engrained in us. Anybody who has any moral sense. Anybody who isn’t a
grade one, 84 horsepower, six-cylinder psychopath,
would believe in justice. I mean, effectively, we
believe that there must be that eventual balancing
the scales of justice. So, the crime novel
certainly observes that. And indeed, fiction
generally observes that. In that, generally,
we want things to be, to be resolved in that way. In the say way, in which when
we listen to a piece of music, there are very strict
rules about resolution. And if music doesn’t
resolve, we feel it. It resolves. You have to have the right
cadences in the right order in order for the
music to resolve. And that’s the same,
I think, with life, with the moral dimension
of life. And with which we
want a resolution. Having said that, of course,
there are some authors who let their villains
get away with it. And I think, in particular, of a very fine writer,
Patricia Highsmith. Ripley. Ripley. There are five Ripley
novels, I think. Ripley’s never caught. I’d love to write a sequel, in which Ripley meets
his just deserts. But, you know, just
really, we get him. Somebody comes along and,
you know, he’s disposed of all these bodies
and [inaudible]. I really would like to see
Ripley brought to book. But they’re wonderful novels.>>Colleen Shogan: So,
you referred to Auden. I read your short
nonfiction book on Auden.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Oh yes.>>Colleen Shogan: And
it’s this Auden influence. That’s certainly an
influence in your writing.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Absolutely. I mean, Auden is my
greatest literary enthusiasm. I remember the moment
I discovered Auden. And indeed, the very few. I find it difficult to
remember that about any other of the authors that
I particularly like. I can’t remember when I first
read Graham Greene, for example. I very much like him. But I can’t remember
the precise moment when I read a wonderful
Indianist novel, [inaudible], who’s work I like so much. But I do remember reading
Auden for the first time. And that was when I was. It was my first job. I was lecturing at Queens
University in Belfast in Northern Ireland in
a very difficult time. There was a low scale civil war
going on really at that stage. It was a remarkable
and very strange time. And I was in the
University Library and I walked along past the
shelves, poetry shelves. And I saw this collection of
short poems of W.H. Auden. Took it, borrowed it. And opened it and
started to read it. And it’s rather like
that the famous poem when you’re first
looking into [inaudible]. Just this wonderful
sense of discovery of a marvelous humane voice, [inaudible] who seems
to be talking to you. That’s what I’ve felt that this
[inaudible] was addressing me in a very intimate way. And also, with all
these magnificent ideas. This humane voice writing about
so many different subjects. You know, Auden writes about
the attractions of limestone and that wonderful [inaudible]
in praise of limestone. And then, at the same
time, he will write about more conventional
[inaudible], subjects. He wrote a wonderful poem
in memory of Sigmund Freud, which is a poem about
psychoanalysis. Really, really marvelous. Full of beautiful lines,
which just to me say so much. Then, he, one of his most
beautiful poems has two lines, which I think can
actually express an entire or almost entire
philosophy of life. It’s his little poem about
looking up at the stars and realizing that the
stars are indifferent to us. And he says, if equal
affection cannot be, may the more loving one be me. And that’s, when you think
of that, the more you think about that line, it says
so much about, let’s say, an unreciprocated love
or unreturned love. I think we all probably,
or most of us in the course of our lives might have
liked somebody more than they liked us. And so, it’s a very
human feeling that. And to be able to say, well, the
world if you generalize that, if you extrapolate from
that particular experience to the world in general. If the world isn’t going to like
us as much as we like the world, or the world isn’t going
to treat us in the way in which we think
we should be treated by the world, let
us overcome that. And express love towards
the world and other people. And that’s marvelous. So, Auden’s very great. And Isabelle [inaudible]
always quotes Auden. She constantly quotes him. Interesting enough,
some years ago. In fact, many years
ago, just I suppose after the first few Number One
Ladies Detective Agency books had been published, I had
a letter out of the blue from W.H. Auden’s
literary executor, Professor Edward Mendelson
of Columbia University. And Edward Mendelson
was appointed as Auden’s literary
executor when he, Edward, was quite a young man. He was an instructor at Yale. And Auden, I think,
did a very good thing in appointing a young man
as his literary executor. Because most writers
appoint a co-evil. And the, their literary
executor falls off the perch at the same time as they do. [Laughter]. Or just a few weeks after it. So, that’s not much good. So, choose a young
literary executor. You know, even if, even if
they can’t yet write or read. [Laughter]. They’ll be able to. They’ll learn [multiple
speakers]. Yeah. And so, he chose Edward. Anyway, Edward wrote this
wonderful note to me saying that he’d read the
[Inaudible] books. And he said, he thought
that W.H. Auden and Isabelle [inaudible]
would agree on 100 percent of subjects.>>Colleen Shogan: Yeah.>>Alexander McCall Smith: And
I was delighted to get a letter from Auden’s literary executor. So, I wrote back to him and
said, thank you so much. And when I’m next in New
York, can we meet for tea. And he said, yes. And so, I was in New York. And I met Edward and his
wife for a cup of tea. And we had a very
nice conversation. And I said, would
you like to be in one of my Isabelle [inaudible]
books. And he said, well, yes. [Laughter]. And so, I then, what I
did was in the next book, I had Edward Mendelson coming
to Edinburgh in the novel. And delivering a letter on
the sense of neurotic guilt in the works of W.H. Auden. And then, in the
novel, he then goes and has dinner at
Isabelle’s house. The next year, in real life, I
brought him to Edinburgh to give in real life the letter
he’d given in the book.>>Colleen Shogan: But
that’s kind of in reverse.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Yes, in the reverse.>>Colleen Shogan:
It’s in reverse.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: It’s reverse. It’s in reverse. And so, he came to Edinburgh. And he gave a letter. And we had a big attendance. We had 300 people
coming to this. He gave this lecture. And then, after that, I then. He then came back to
dinner at our house, where I had invited all
the other real people who are referred to in
the fictional [inaudible]. So, these were people
who knew one another in the fictional world. But didn’t know one another.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall Smith: And you’d think I’d have better
things to do with my time. But [laughter].>>Colleen Shogan:
Well, this is terrific.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: It was terrific fun.>>Colleen Shogan: Yes. We’re going to go to the
audience for questions. But I think this is
a good time to stop. Because we do have
a surprise for you.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Oh, my goodness.>>Colleen Shogan: Yes,
this is the surprise portion of the program. So, I would like to
invite on stage our head of the Main Reading
Room, Marissa Ball. And she is going to
present to you a gift that I think you will
find very appropriate.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Thank you.>>Colleen Shogan: And
Marissa will talk to us about the gift and
more collection.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Oh, my goodness me. Thank you so much.>>Marissa Ball: So,
timing is perfect. We know that you are
such a huge fan of Auden. And we wanted to share with
you some of the treasures that are hidden within
our collection. So, this is a striking
portrait of him.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Marissa Ball: And next to it is a handwritten
draft of one of his poems.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: My goodness. Thank you so much.>>Marissa Ball:
You’re very welcome.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Thank you very much.>>Marissa Ball:
You’re very welcome. [ Applause ]>>Alexander McCall Smith: That’s really, really
[inaudible]. Thank you so much.>>Colleen Shogan: So,
Marissa, tell us how did we come to have this in our collections
here at the Library of Congress?>>Marissa Ball: I’ll
set the stage for you. Picture it, Chicago,
November 1960. Poetry Magazine is
hosting a fundraising to benefit the Modern
Language Association. And it’s an auction. Up for bidding in the
auction were three sheets of handwritten, fair
copies of the Shield of Achille’s, the
Unknown Citizen. And what we see here,
and I’m going to butcher this,
the [inaudible].>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>Marissa Ball: Auden
wrote these copies to be auctioned off
at the charity event. They were purchased for $1,000 by a fellow published poet
named, Hyman Sobiloff, who donated them just
a few months later, January 1961, to the Library.>>Colleen Shogan: Excellent.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: And that’s absolute. Thank you so much. I really, absolute. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Marissa Ball: Do you
want to hang onto it? Or you want me to take it?>>Alexander McCall Smith: If
you could take it [inaudible]. And I’m so delighted to see
that it’s that particular poem because that’s one of my
favorite poems of Auden. And it says so much about
suffering when he says, that it occurs in the context
of people doing ordinary things.>>Colleen Shogan:
Ordinary things.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
And it’s, I know the painting that he’s writing
about [inaudible]. And it’s such a beautiful poem. I’m really, really
touched and moved. And thank you so much. That’s the most wonderful.>>Colleen Shogan: Thank
you for joining us.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Generous thing. Thank you. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Colleen Shogan: We’re going
to go to the audience now. So, if there are
questions for the audience, for the Alexander McCall Smith, we have about 15 minutes
before the end of our program. I know there has to
be a lot of questions. We didn’t get to as many
Mma Ramotswe questions as I would’ve liked. See, I’m trying to. Okay. So, we have a
few right up here. Where’s our microphones? Oh, a microphone. Okay. We have one over here.>>I have to know
the genesis of one of my favorite characters,
which is Bertie. And why must he be
so long suffering? [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: The
question is about Bertie and about why is he
so long suffered.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Oh, poor. The genesis of Bertie. Poor little Bertie. He’s one of my absolute
favorite characters. He’s. The benefit of those
who may not have met Bertie, he’s in the Scotland
Street books. Bertie’s major problem
is his mother. And [laughter] he’s got
a seriously pushy mother. You know, really
seriously pushy. We’ve got in Edinburgh,
where I live, a big problem with excessively pushy mothers. We’ve got the highest, highest
incidents of anywhere in Britain of excessively pushy mothers. The Scottish government. [Laughter]. The Scottish government
is aware of the problem. But Bertie’s mother
makes him learn Italian. He’s. When he’s six, he learns
Italian, Italian [inaudible]. He goes to yoga lessons
called yoga for tots, where the children are so
small, they had to be pushed into the yoga positions. [Laughter]. He has. He learns the saxophone. And he has psychotherapy. [Laughter]. And where does he come from? I don’t think there’s. There isn’t a model for Bertie. Although, once many years
ago, I saw a little boy in the National Museum of Scotland being
lectured by his father. It wasn’t pushy mother. It was a pushy father. And this little boy
looked utterly bored. And the father was lecturing him about what was in
the display case. And the little boy was looking
off in the other direction. And I think that might be,
might have been the seed of Bertie, the idea of Bertie. He is, I really don’t
know what to do about him because I want him, I
want him to have freedom. He’s. He really wants to be 18. Because he’s read
that when you’re 18, you can leave your mother. [Laughter]. And he’s been, he was
six for eight years in the Scotland Street books.>>Colleen Shogan: Right.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
And then, eventually, I gave him a seventh
birthday after eight years. Gave him the seventh birthday. And he was hoping for
a swiss army pen knife, which he’ll never
get from his mother. But he got two wrapped up
presents from his mother. And the first one, the
first one he opened it with his little heart
beating with excitement. And it was a gender-neutral
play figure. And. [Laughter]. The second one was a
junior UN peacekeeping kit. [ Laughter ] You know, one final
thing about Bertie. I do. Every so often, I
get rid of Bertie’s mother. And Bertie gets a
bit of freedom. And there was one occasion
when Bertie saw an advisement in the newspaper
for a competition to write a new slogan
for [inaudible] Airline, a tourist slogan for Dubai. And Bertie says, would
you enter that, mommy. And she says, no, I don’t
enter competitions, Bertie. Oh, please, mommy. Because he sees it’s
five days away in Dubai. [Laughter]. So, she enters. And she wins. I mean, wins with her slogan, which is so much sound
and so close at hand. And. [Laughter]. So, off she goes. [Laughter]. Off she goes to Dubai. Bertie’s terribly pleased. But [inaudible] her suitcase
goes to Buenos Aires. And so, when she’s in Dubai,
she needs to get a new dress because she’s only got
one dress with her. So, she goes to the shop. And she gets in the hotel. But there’s only one dress, which is a veteran
lady’s [inaudible] outfit. So, she gets this. And, of course, she’s
totally covered. And she’s mistaken for the
new wife of a veteran sheik. [Laughter]. And she’s taken off to
a harem in the desert. And the British [inaudible]
tried to get her released. But the veteran sheik
is having none of it. Because he’s had
a bit of trouble with his wives of recent. And she seems to
have calmed them down by forming a book group. [ Laughter ] And the final little
thing about that. So, Bertie goes off
fishing with his father. They get lost in Pentland
Hills just outside Edinburgh, end up at a farmhouse. And the farmer’s
wife takes them in. Come in and have a cup of tea. I’ll get my husband
to drive you back. And Bertie sees there’s a real
six-year-old boy in this house, leading a real six-year-old
boy’s life. And this little boy, Andy,
is nice to Bertie, and said, would you like to come
and see my things, Bertie? And Bertie, said,
oh, yes please. He takes him upstairs and
Andy opens the drawer. And there is not one, but
six swiss army pen knifes. [Laughter]. And Bertie’s little
heart fills with joy. And Andy reaches for one of
these pen knifes, takes it out. And says, this, Bertie,
is a swiss army pen knife. The Swiss Army fights
only with knifes. [ Laughter ] And so, it continues.>>Colleen Shogan: Terrific.>>Alexander McCall Smith:
I don’t know what we can do.>>Colleen Shogan:
And another question. Do we have anybody else? Maybe over on this side? Down here. We’re coming. Please wait for the microphone.>>You’ve mentioned tea
a couple times tonight. And I’m a big tea drinker. And I am always sort of snuggle
down and when you’re talking about Redbush tea,
or tea in Edinburgh.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes.>>So, I just want to ask
you about the roll of tea in your books and in your life. What is your favorite
kind of tea to drink?>>Alexander McCall Smith:
Well, thank you very much. Indeed, I do like tea. I very much like Redbush
tea or rooibos tea. It’s very good for you. It doesn’t have caffeine. So, if you don’t want caffeine,
Redbush tea is quite good. It’s also, it has all sorts
of properties they claim. The manufacturers or
pickers or producers of rooibos tea claim it can have
application for skin issues. You can pour over your skin
or your head if you wish. [ Laughter ] You know, you’re not obliged to. [Laughter]. So, I like that. I like drinking it. And then, also, I
like ordinary tea. And so, we drink quite, my wife
and I drink quite a lot of tea. We’ve got a wonderful machine, which I don’t know whether
you can get it in America, which is called a tea’s maid,
which sits beside the bed. Does anybody? And you have. It’s got an alarm clock. And you set it. And then, it makes the tea. The water boils. And it goes through a pipe and
into your, into the teapot. It’s a marvelous, one of the
major inventions of our time. [Laughter]. It’s a byproduct
of space research. And. [Laughter]. And anyway. So, I like that. So, those are the teas. Now, the rule in books. Well, tea is very useful. People think that tea has
great symbolism in the books. It doesn’t actually. It’s just [laughter]. It’s just when I can’t
think of anything else to happen, they drink tea. [Laughter]. One may as well be
honest about these things. And that relaxes the reader. Because the ready
thinks, oh, yes. So, that’s why. And the reader can then go off
and make tea and then come back. And then, they [inaudible]. [Laughter].>>Colleen Shogan: Very good. We have time at least
for one more question. One more over here.>>So, my question is, did
you approve of Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose
as Precious and Grace? And would you like
to see Precious and Grace go back to the screen.>>Alexander McCall Smith: Yes. Well, thank you for that. I was very, very happy with
the portrayal of Mma Ramotswe and [inaudible] in
[inaudible] film. They had great difficulty
casting it. You know, it was, I think just
a few weeks before they were due to start filming, they hadn’t
fixed everything up in the, as far as casting was concerned. And then, they got this
tremendously good cast of Jill Scott, who was by way of
being principally a jazz singer. And Anika Noni Rose,
who was an actress. And Lucian Msamati, who
played Mr. JLB Matekoni. He was a classically
trained actor. And it really worked,
worked very well. So, I was really,
really pleased. Before they had that cast,
when they were talking about doing the film and
the television series, for some time, whenever
I went anywhere. I was besieged by
traditionally built ladies. [ Laughter ] Who came to me and said, I’m,
I’m Mma Ramotswe, you know. And they showed me
the portfolio. And I’d say, well, you know,
really I don’t have anything to do with the casting
of the movie. But I did express a
view to the director. I said, to Antony, when he was
looking around for Mma Ramotswe. And they were having
auditions all over the place. Johannesburg, London, Los
Angeles, you know, everywhere. I said, really, I could
recommend somebody. And that was the Minister
of Health in Botswana, whom I knew, Sheila [inaudible]. And Sheila, I knew
would do it very well because she had played
Mma Ramotswe in the [inaudible] Amateur
Dramatic Society production of Mma Ramotswe meets
the Pirates of Penzance. [ Laughter ] And when I said this to the
film people, they, you know, they looked at me as
if I was mad, you know. The Minister of Health. And those [inaudible] me. And. But when they
got to Botswana and they met her,
they realized what. Sheila would’ve been
very, very good. And so, they gave her a roll
as an extra in the film. So, I was proved right. But I think they did it, I
think they did it very well. I’d love it if they made,
they made more films about it. We’ve actually had, we’ve
had some inquiries, I think, my agent’s mentioned to me. But, you know, the film world
is very, is very odd world. And they proceed
according to a time scale and then to no other industry. And also, it was very expensive. They had to build the village. You know, they actually
built the village. And it was a very expensive
process because they filmed it in Botswana, which was great. I mean, we’d had
earlier suggestions that it should be filmed
outside the country. But I very much resisted that. And it was really
lovely to see it again. It would be lovely if they
got the same cast back. That would be great. But I fear that may not,
that may not happen.>>Colleen Shogan: We’ll
look forward to reading more about Mma Ramotswe
in your latest book, To the Land of Long-Lost
Friends, which is terrific. I’ve already read it. And we didn’t get a chance
to talk too much about it. But I know everybody is very
eager and anxious to move over to the signing and
have you sign books. So, if you do have books for
the signing, you can head over to the Whittall Pavilion. And that’s where Alexander
McCall Smith will join you for the signing. You can ask more questions.>>Alexander McCall
Smith: Thank you. [ Applause ]

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