How I write: Alexander McCall Smith
Published: October 1, 2004
|Precious Ramotswe began as a character in one of Alexander McCall Smith's short stories, then the short story grew into a novel and the novel into his popular The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency mystery series. Like Smith, readers can't get enough of the irrepressible Botswanan woman of ample girth, who uses intuition and common sense to help her clients. Smith, who is a medical law professor at Edinburgh University, has written more than 50 books, including the popular children's book The Perfect Hamburger and The Forensic Aspects of Sleep. |
Credits: Novels include The Full Cupboard of Life (2004), The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2004) and Morality for Beautiful Girls (2002).
That question can be answered at all sorts of levels. Somebody says, "I enjoy telling a story," or "I write because it entertains me." That's an explanation at one level, but it's not the real explanation. I always thought that many people write in order to make sense of the world and their experiences. Many people write in order to deal with personal pain. Indeed, look at the many writers who touch upon the theme of childhood--that's because they want to confront their own childhood, and they want to make sense of it. Or they experience nostalgic feelings for the lost world of childhood, land of lost content, lost Eden. These are very powerful psychological motives. Writing is designed to heal that fracture in people's lives because most people have lost something. The whole world is a process that is slipping away from us. Writing is an attempt to respond to that, to capture the moment, to help to heal that sense of separation and loss in many cases.
In so far as I can answer your question without having gone through or wanted to go through any sort of deep personal analysis, I would say I have a sense of separation and loss because I spent my early years in Africa. I was born in Africa and spent my childhood in Zimbabwe. It is not without significance, in terms of what I've been saying, that I write about a somewhat Eden-like vision of Africa.
There's quite a long time in which I'm just mulling over some of the issues that I might bring up. Then I sit down, and I make a brief plan. The detail really comes as I write it. I generally have an idea what the main topics are going to be, the main developments, the setting. The setting or course is terribly important. For most novels, thinking about the setting, the characters, is going to take up a lot of the preparatory time. In the case of a series, you already have that. I don't have to sit down and think fresh about who's going to do what, because the characters are already there, and they will just develop. What they will do will come quite naturally.
Be of good heart. Even if you feel you're not getting anywhere with your writing, or if you're encountering difficulties or disappointments. The thing to do is to continue and to persist. Because there is always a chance that it may work.
The other thing I say is control the ego. The ego gets in the way of writing, and people who are inclined to be autobiographical in their writing or too concerned about their personal reaction to the world actually are going to find it difficult to develop good writing. You have to put the ego to one side and train yourself to observe other people and get involved with the reality of other people. It's amazing how many people don't do that. Stop worrying about yourself and immerse yourself in the other. Listen to what other people are saying. Eavesdrop shamelessly--within the law.