New series, new setting for the ever-popular Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith is one of the world's most beloved authors—his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, which inspired an HBO series, have sold more than 20 million copies, and most of his 60-plus novels have become bestsellers. Though they're set in disparate locales, Smith's works are linked by their gentle humor and generous spirit. His latest book, Corduroy Mansions, depends on the chaos that can arise when many people simply go about the job of living their lives in a small pocket within a larger city—London. It was first published as a serial—in print, and via podcast—by the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph newspaper and has just been released in the U.S. McCall Smith took a moment to speak to BookPage about the appeal of writing series and where he gets his sense of humor.
Writing series (at last count you have five on the go now) is your bread and butter. What is the allure to writing continuing series rather than stand-alone fiction? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all of your creations?I love getting back to the same characters. Going back to a series is like meeting an old friend. Sometimes, though, I feel that I have rather many fictional characters milling about me—but I don't lose any sleep over it!
In some sense Corduroy Mansions feels very English and almost like a print version of such British staples as the long-running soap Coronation Street. Were you at all influenced by that show (or any other)?I don't think that I have been influenced by any television show. Soap operas, of course, are simply long-running stories—sagas, I suppose. I think that the idea of people leading fairly intimate lives in the middle of a great city is an intriguing one—I often think about that when I am in a large city and see people conducting their lives as if they were in a village—meeting neighbours, taking an interest in local issues and so on. We create such spaces for ourselves in the middle of these large conurbations.
Corduroy Mansions is the first in a new series set in London. How is writing about it different than writing about Edinburgh or Botswana? What made you choose London as the setting for this story?I wrote this for the Daily Telegraph, which has a large circulation in England. I thought that it would be interesting for my English readers to have a story set in London.
A lot of the fun of your books is the humor you put into them. Are there other writers whose sense of humor you admire?I very much admire the English humorous writer, E.F. Benson (the Mapp and Lucia novels). Barbara Pym was very funny, in an understated sort of way. David Sedaris is wickedly amusing.
Philosophy plays a part in much of your work—there's a great scene in Corduroy Mansions where a character speculates on Freud as applied to the banking crisis. Do you often find yourself applying a philosophical outlook to everyday life?I suppose that I do. Philosophy should be about everyday life as well as about more theoretical issues.
You’ve published serial fiction, short story collections, children’s books and even academic texts on law and ethics. Is there any genre you haven’t tackled yet that you’d love to have a go at?No, I don't think so. Mind you, now that you come to mention it, I suppose that it would be interesting to tackle a stage play. Yes, now let's think . . .
Corduroy Mansions was first released as weekly serial online, much as the works of Charles Dickens and other Victorian writers were. What made you decide to write a new series in this way?I have always been aware that Dickens used this method of publishing, but I don't think that is what inspired me. I was more inspired, I suppose, by Armistead Maupin, who revived this form of novel with his Tales of the City. In fact, it was a meeting with Armistead in San Francisco, at a party at Amy Tan's house, that gave me the idea. I am most grateful to him for that inspiration! My first newspaper novel was Scotland Street—now coming up for its sixth year. I started this new series because I enjoyed the form so much.
With the ever-increasing popularity of the internet and ebooks, several notable authors have taken to releasing their books for free online. To some extent Corduroy Mansions is an expansion on this concept. What were your motivations in releasing the book online for free first?It was the newspaper's idea. I was very pleased that we would reach a new audience. I also liked the idea of a daily conversation with my readers.
>One of your most popular works is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Given that those novels always involve a dash of mystery, they must involve some degree of plotting. Did you find that in writing this way your writing became more flexible and spontaneous? To what extent was plot influenced by reader reactions?Corduory Mansions just evolved as I wrote it. I had no idea of the plot beforehand—other than a general idea of who the characters would be. I responded to readers as I went along. The internet made it possible for this response to be quite quick.
When it comes to publication rates, few authors are as prodigious as you! How do you manage to write so unceasingly? Do you ever worry you might one day find your creative well has run dry?
I hope it won't! I very much enjoy what I do, and I suppose that helps.