Alexander McCall Smith — overachiever, master of the understatement — sounds a bit apologetic as he explains that he has lost track of the number of books he’s written.
“I actually really stopped counting,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Scotland. “That sounds a bit pretentious, I’m afraid, but if you count the children’s books, it’s over 100. So it’s quite a number.”
Quite a number indeed, given that he started writing in earnest only 20 years ago, when he was 50 — and given that he writes only a couple of hours a day. Any more than that, and “I get a little bit exhausted,” he said.
McCall Smith is the author of several series for adults. (How many? At least five, maybe six, with a new one beginning next year.) But he is perhaps best known for his first, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, been translated into more than 45 languages and made into a show on HBO.
“The Colors of All the Cattle” (Pantheon, 240 pp., $25.95) is the 19th book in that series — unless you include the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency children’s books, of which there are at least five.
You see? It is no wonder that he has given up counting.
McCall Smith’s books are witty, gentle, observant and very human, more akin to Jane Austen than to John Sandford. They are grounded in character rather than drama; the ladies of the detective agency do not solve grisly murders but, instead, might sit around discussing teacups.
“We don’t need pyrotechnics in plot. We don’t need a high body count. Some of my books have been described as ‘crime fiction,’ but they aren’t really, actually, because I don’t have crimes in them. I have examples of human bad behavior.”
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, a country he fell in love with when he traveled there in 1981 to help set up a law school at the University of Botswana.
“I’ve been in Botswana every year since then,” he said. “It’s a remarkable place. The people are so nice — it’s a very spiritual part of the world, very intensely beautiful.”
But he also sets books elsewhere, including Scotland, where he lives. The Sunday Philosophy Club series stars an Edinburgh philosopher named Isabel Dalhousie, and the 44 Scotland Street series has an ensemble cast of characters centered on an Edinburgh apartment building.
McCall Smith gets up most days at 4 a.m., writes for a few hours, and then goes back to bed. “The small hours of the morning — I find that is a very good time to write,” he said. “Quiet. No disturbances. And the mind is very fresh.”
He usually has two novels in progress at a time, and only very occasionally does he find one of his vast array of characters slipping from one book to another. “I have to be a little bit careful about that,” he said. “There have been occasions — certainly one occasion when I slipped between fictional worlds and my editor said, ‘Do you imagine that Mma Makutsi is sounding like Isabel Dalhousie?’
But generally I manage to keep them quite separate.”
Scandinavian non-crime series
Next year, Pantheon will publish the first in a new series set in Scandinavia. “The Department of Sensitive Crimes” is described by the publisher as a novel in which a “Swedish police department is tasked with solving the most unusual, complicated, and, often, insignificant crimes.”
“We’ve all enjoyed Scandinavian noir,” McCall Smith said, so he calls his series “Scandinavian blanc” — Scandinavian crime with no violence and no dead bodies.
The main character is named Ulf Varg — “Ulf means wolf in Swedish and Varg is wolf in Danish, so his name is Wolf Wolf,” McCall Smith said. Varg has a hearing-impaired dog that is the only lip-reading dog in Scandinavia. (“I’m having great fun with this,” he said, almost unnecessarily.)
The Scandinavian blanc book will be published in April. Pantheon will issue the second in his Paul Stuart series (“The Second Worst Restaurant in France”) in July and the 20th in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series next November.
So has anyone figured out a precise number of books he’s written? After several emails, his publicist finally concluded that between novels, photography books, academic books, cookbooks and children’s books, Alexander McCall Smith has written 110 books.