Alexander McCall Smith – role model for the humble writer

By PHIL FITZPATRICK – 28 October 2018, Keith Jackson & Friends PNG Attitude

TUMBY BAY – When I published the first of my Inspector Metaubooks about an elderly but shrewd policeman in Port Moresby, a couple of reviewers obliquely compared it to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.

I had vaguely heard of McCall Smith and the comments prompted me to read his books. I quickly became hooked and have been a devoted fan of Mama Precious Ramotswe and her detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana, ever since.

I am currently reading the nineteenth in the series, ‘The Colours of all the Cattle’.

The series is hugely popular and has sold over 20 million copies in English alone since the first book came out in 1998.

As with many popular book series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency has resulted in many copycats. Thankfully my three Inspector Metau books don’t fall into this category.

As for the writing, I’m way out of McCall Smith’s league in so many ways.

We were both born in 1948. I’ve published about a dozen books. He’s published well over 80 and is still going strong.

McCall Smith’s output is prodigious. His first book was a children’s story, ‘The White Hippo’, published in 1980. Since then he’s averaged about two books a year.

When he’s at home in Edinburgh, Scotland, he churns out 5,000 words a day. He even writes when he’s travelling but slows down a bit to 2-3,000 words a day. In full flight he averages about 1,000 words an hour.

I get books sent to me for editing or publication that hardly total 30,000 words. The authors think they are full length novels. It would take McCall Smith less than a week to produce one of similar length. He could knock out 50 of them in a year.

What got me hooked on The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series was the setting and the simple style. McCall Smith has written several other series set in Scotland and other places but they don’t appeal to me.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agencysetting is Botswana, a sub-Saharan nation of about two million people in Western Africa. Like its neighbour, Namibia, it has always been a stable representative democracy. Both places are about the same size and have healthy growing economies.

They are the antithesis of what we perceive when we consider African nations plagued by corruption and ruled by violent dictators. And Namibia makes an incredibly good beer. Windhoek Lager is even better than SP.

The style of McCall Smith’s books, especially The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, is deceptively simple. They describe everyday events in plain English. They are genial, mundane and fascinating all at the same time.

They are the sort of books I would expect to be popular in Papua New Guinea. I’ve seen plenty of copies in second hand stores so hopefully people are reading them.

They are, in fact, reminiscent of several Papua New Guinean writers. Here I’m thinking about Baka Bina’s ‘Man of Calibre’, Emmanuel Peni’s ‘Sibona’ and Francis Nii’s ‘Paradise in Peril’.

McCall Smith started out by entering a literary competition. He submitted a novel and a children’s book. The children’s book won. After that his writing took off like a rocket.

His secret seems to be an uncanny sense of the ordinary, a wry sense of humour and lots of hard but enjoyable work.

Simple, really.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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