In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith

Image courtesy | Birlinn, UK

Alexander McCall Smith is a greatly acclaimed Scottish author, who has amassed a titanic oeuvre featuring children's fiction, academic non-fiction and poetry works. An avid participant in the Galle Literary Festival, he had steadfastly returned to Sri Lanka for the festival this year following its 4 year hiatus. ARTRA had the privilege of sitting down with this prolific writer at the Galle Fort Hotel, a venue where we were exhibiting the Art Trail, the visual arts component parallel to the literary and gourmet programmes of the festival. (Read  Upon The Transformation of the Galle Fort into a Living Museum and Behind the Alternative Voice of Pure Evil | London for an enlightening review of Art Trail 2024) In this session, McCall Smith amiably discussed authoring prose such as the children’s fiction detective series “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” as well as poetry, unearthing his unique perspectives on the intersection between art and literature as an author,  art collector and appreciator of classic paintings and poetry. 

Q | You have written works such as the acclaimed No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which are stories championed by Southern African characters, culture and stories. What inspired you to make that choice, to speak through that setting? 

Well, I had worked in Botswana and had come to get to know the country. I was struck by many aspects of the country. I found the people extremely courteous and kind and met many people whom I considered resourceful and interesting. I wrote about one such lady, Precious Momotswe and I thought I would maybe write one short story about her. But I became rather involved in her life and the life of her friends and one short story became 24 novels so far-- right now I’m working on volume 25! So, that goes to show you how wrong you can be in your initial assumptions.

Q | How do you feel that has contributed to the promotion of art and literature in African, Asian and non-centrally Western settings?

I’m very interested in art. It’s one of my main intellectual interests and so in a number of my novels, there are characters who are artists. I raise issues of art, particularly in my ‘Scotland Street’ novels, which are set in Edinburgh, where one of the main characters is a painter. Often, he discusses Scottish art and aspects of the history of Scottish art, though my interests are broader than that. I don’t think that my books make a particular contribution to artistic issues, but I do like to have my characters reflect on art. They tend to be people who are sensitive to artistic questions and questions of design and architecture. Of course, more broadly, architecture is part of the setting against which fiction takes place and therefore, I am very interested in describing architectural settings in my books. I think that the more I study art and art history, the more I feel that art has so much to tell us about life. I think it’s fascinating when you are assisted by somebody who understands the historical context of a painting, and how your appreciation of it is expanded. I find that is true of the paintings in my own modest collection, when I have somebody looking at them, they will say things which change my whole understanding of them. 

Q | You’ve written works across a wide range of genres, from children’s fiction to academic non-fiction to poetry– what was it like for you to transition from prose to poetry? Was that a process that required adjustment? 

That raises very interesting questions. I think that the line between poetry and prose is a delicate one and often quite fluid. In that poetry can be seen as a particular form of prose– a concentrated form of prose. Poetry is a distillation of thought into relatively few lines and words, though prose also has the capacity to be poetic. So, if you read a piece of prose in which attention is paid in some form of consideration to which poetry pays attention; it may be difficult to neatly distinguish between prose and poetry. I think that poetry and the awareness of poetry help a writer of prose to make the prose richer and to help to add to its musicality. You can have a piece of prose which is intensely poetic and musical when you read it, and ideally, I think that good poets should take into account considerations of meter and rhythm as opposed to being entirely functional. Prose is designed to be read by the human voice and the human voice and language have their natural rhythms.

Q | ARTRA Magazine is Sri Lanka’s only modern and contemporary art magazine, and here at the Galle Literary Festival, it comprises not only literature but also film, music, food and visual art through the Art Trail program. From the perspective of art as a medium, be it visual or written, what is your opinion of the intersection between art and literature? 

I think that the intersection between art and literature is a very rich area for reflection. What I find particularly interesting is when a work in literature sets out to explain or expand upon a work of art, which is seen in particular forms of poetry which are devoted to addressing visual mediums, like a painting. For example, the works of the great bard W.H. Auden– whose work I very much admire and I’ve written a book about– has one particular poem which always comes to mind when I consider the relationship between poetry and painting. He wrote a poem named ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’  on Pieter Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, which is a very famous painting. In Brussels, where we see Icarus falling from the sky, we see him fall into the sea after his wings have melted. Auden talks about this painting in his poem and it heightens our understanding and appreciation of the painting to read what Auden has to say about it. It has these striking initial lines ‘About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how they understood/ Its human position’. As he describes this, he brings out the individual features of the painting through his verses. Poetry can help us to appreciate visual art and in the visual arts are, of course, the reaction to a work of art which can be expressed poetically. So, they are all closely connected– born of the same artistic response.

Q | You occupy a space in English literature and global literature that cannot be understated. As a greatly established writer with decades of experience as a celebrated literary figure, what is your belief towards establishing platforms for burgeoning writers and artists?

Well, I think that everybody involved in the arts has to start somewhere. If we have the good fortune to be established in a particular area of the arts, then I think we have a duty to do whatever we can to help the next generation of poets, writers, and painters to reach their potential. Nobody gets to where he or she is except by climbing up a ladder and once you’ve climbed up the ladder, the last thing you must do is take the ladder up with you. You keep the ladder for those following. In concrete terms, things like venturing programs are very useful. I think that it is essential for established practitioners in the arts to assist magazines, galleries, and artistic institutions. 

Beginning his writing career in the 1970s, Alexander McCall Smith has penned works such as the aforementioned ‘The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’, ’44 Scotland Street’ and ‘Pavilion in the Clouds’, a novel based in 1930s Ceylon. In addition, he has written books of poetry including ‘In a Time of Distance: And Other Poems’ and “I Think of You & Other Poems’. Originally a Scottish legal scholar, he has written and contributed to more than 100 books over the course of his illustrious career, and has been the recipient of numerous international awards including The Martin Beck Award for ‘The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ in 2004.


Written by Namalee Siriwardhane

Edited by Kavinu Cooray


6th March, 2024 Visual Art | Paintings