Interview with Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith photo by Graham Clark
Alexander McCall Smith photo by Graham Clark


Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the acclaimed No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which has been translated into 45 languages and sold over 20 million copies worldwide. He was born in what is now Zimbabwe and was educated there and in Scotland.

For many years he was Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, where he is now professor emeritus. In the 1980s he returned to Africa for several years to help establish a law school at the University of Botswana.

In addition to his university work, McCall Smith served for four years as the Vice Chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the U.K., the Chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, and a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO.

McCall Smith answered questions from Spotlight Editor Martha Henry, just as the twelfth book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series hit bookstores.

SPOTLIGHT: Your No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, a country that has the second highest HIV prevalence in the world. As a writer, you made a conscious choice not to feature the AIDS epidemic in your books. Can you briefly explain why?

MCCALL SMITH: I do make occasional mention of the AIDS epidemic in my Botswana books, but only very gently. There is more than one reason for this approach. There is a tendency on the part of outsiders who write about sub-Saharan Africa to pathologize the place. This means that they dwell on the negative and thereby convey a very one-sided impression of Africa. I do not wish to do that. If I had mentioned AIDS more frequently, the books could have become tragedies, which was certainly not my intention. I think, too, that when dealing with the pain of others one has to be very careful. People do not wish to be portrayed as sick or infectious, and I do not wish to portray them in that way. AIDS is part of the reality of life in Botswana, but there is far more to the country than that.

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, your most recent book in the series, is dedicated to Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative and the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership. The dedication reads, “This book is for Professor Max Essex of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, in admiration of the work that he has done.” Do you think readers will make the explicit link between AIDS and Botswana or am I reading too much into that?

MCCALL SMITH: I think that readers will assume that Professor Essex has made a great contribution to Botswana.
You have been a frequent visitor to Botswana since 1981. Has the HIV/AIDS epidemic changed your view of the country?

MCCALL SMITH: No, my view of Botswana has not been changed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I think that the essential nature of the country has remained constant, even in the face of this appalling tragedy.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Photo CC-BY Meggernie 2006
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Photo CC-BY Meggernie 2006

Most Americans who know anything about Botswana probably know about it because of your books. Is that an odd responsibility for you?

MCCALL SMITH: I am very conscious of the fact that many Americans form their impression of Botswana from my books and I do feel a sense of responsibility for that. I feel that I must do two things: I must portray Botswana in a careful fashion and I must make sure that I do not mislead my readers. I think my readers understand that I concentrate on the good facets of the country rather than on its problems. These problems are referred to, but I do not put them center stage and I think my readers understand why that is so.