Alexander McCall Smith, a former law professor, jetted into literary prominence with the publication of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” at the age of 50. He spoke about his new novel, “The Forever Girl,” from his home in Scotland.
“The Forever Girl” looks at the notion of whether each person has only one true love. Do you believe that?
I don’t think it naturally accords with ordinary human experience, but it can be the case for some people. They meet one person perhaps rather early, and that person remains the one they love for the rest of their life. It’s quite a grand theme, particularly poignant if it involves unrequited love or undeclared love.
Your novel also talks of Clover, the main character, feeling “completed” by this other person. Why is that so appealing?
We live in an impermanent world. This story is the opposite of that. If one’s lucky enough to find in this life somebody who makes sense of the world for you, who is the perfect fit emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, that is something we respond to quite warmly. We have ideas of completeness in our general approach to the world. We like music that resolves; we like stories with a satisfactory resolution. And so in relationships, we are attracted by the idea that for one person there may be another who is an ideal fit.
You’re quite bold in writing from the points of view of characters not at all like yourself — Precious Ramotswe of Botswana, Isabel Dalhousie and now the teenage girl Clover. Is this difficult?
I think one has to be careful about doing that, but it seems quite natural to me. I don’t sit there and think, “My goodness, how am I going to see it from the perspective of this other person?” Part of the business of being an author is to be able to put yourself in the shoes of people who are quite different from you. In this book, we meet Clover before she’s even a teenager. Obviously, it’s a different voice for me, but I think most of us can remember what it was like to be 12 or 14. And I’ve had teenage daughters. As long as you keep your eyes open, you can work out how people think. One issue, of course, is how they talk. Obviously, the language used by teenagers can be quite different from the language used by the rest of humanity. I decided not to bother much with that. I mean, if I tried to make the language absolutely realistic, they’d be using the word “like” every sentence really, so we couldn’t have that.
You’re participating in HarperCollins’s Jane Austen Project in which writers create contemporary versions of her novels. What can you tell us about your “Emma,” which will be published later this year?
It’s the best fun I’ve had for ages. I’ve stressed the humorous side because Jane Austen is a wonderfully funny writer in her marvelous, quiet way. I’ve got Italian motorbikes in it; the vicar is breathalyzed and charged with driving under the influence. I toyed with the idea of setting it in Scotland, but then I thought that would be an act of cultural appropriation. Jane Austen is quintessentially English. So I set it in rural England. It was a wonderful thing to be asked to do; it was like being given a great big box of chocolates, and every chocolate had just the filling that one really wanted. When I finished in December, I felt really bereft.
Burns, editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between,” is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England.