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National Book Festival: 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' Novelist Alexander McCall Smith

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Alexander McCall Smith
Novelist
Friday, September 19, 2008; 11:00 AM

Nearly 70 authors will be on the National Mall Saturday, September 27 for the 2008 Library of Congress National Book Festival.

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Among them will be novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie series and many other books, including the latest Dalhousie novel, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. He was online Friday, September 19 to talk about his novels, his other career as a lawyer and law professor, and the new No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency TV series.

A transcript follows.

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Alexander McCall Smith: Hello, this is Alexander McCall Smith here in Edinburgh, Scotland. I am looking forward to answering questions.

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Detroit, MI: I am curious about your personal life, such as where is your main residence and do you live with family?

Alexander McCall Smith: I live in Edinburgh, in Scotland. I live there with my wife, Elizabeth, who is a doctor. We have two daughters, both of whom are medical students at present. And a cat - Augustus Basil, who is sitting outside my study as I write this.

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Montclair, NJ: I am sure many will ask this: How do you manage to write so many new books each year?

Alexander McCall Smith: I write four or five a books a year. That means that I usually have one on the go. I am fortunate in being able to write quickly - 1000 words an hour.

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Denver, Colorado: Mr. Smith, you said fans love to point out mistakes in your books. Do you ever go back and correct the mistakes in future editions of your books?

Alexander McCall Smith: When I remember to do so, which is not always, I'm afraid! I visited Denver recently - you have a wonderful bookstore there, the Tattered Cover. And some mountains of course!

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Arlington, VA: Mr. McCall Smith! What a pleasure. Please resolve a long-standing debate.

How would you pronounce Rra and Mma when reading the books aloud?

Alexander McCall Smith: Mma is pronounced mar, with a hesitation on the m. Not mama exactly, but as if stuttering on the m. mmmar! Rra is rar with a rolled r - like the Scottish r.

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Birmingham, Alabama: Could you tell us about the TV project about Mma. Ramotswe? Will it be in the U.S.?

Alexander McCall Smith: Nice to hear from Birmingham, Alabama. I was there last year - a very pretty part of the world, I thought. And I love Mobile, with its oak trees. Now to answer the question - the TV series is being filmed right at the moment in Botswana. HBO will be broadcasting it next year in the US. They have already made a feature length film, starring Jill Scott (the singer) and that was shown in the UK and will be shown in the US next year too. It's a fabulous film - the last film made by Anthony Minghella, that great director.

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Washington DC: Do you speak different languages, if you do, what are they? Thanks

Alexander McCall Smith: I can read more languages than I speak! I speak French and Italian - not very well, alas, but I can get by. I read German and Spanish. I can read Latin (I did a lot of Latin at school.) I'm afraid I do not speak any African languages, although I can understand a little bit of the Zulu-related languages, but only a tiny bit.

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Brooklyn, New York: Could you recommend a good introductory book of Scottish poems for my wife?

Alexander McCall Smith: Not off the top of my head. However, there was a lovely collection of Scottish love poems edited by Antonia Fraser called Scottish Love Poems. She might like that. Then there is Robert Burns, of course - he was our greatest poet. Look for a collection of his work - there are many such collections.

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Toronto, Canada: When you were in Toronto, and introduced at the lunch time meeting at City Hall, you were introduced as "Sandy" -- no Alexander -- no Alexander McCall Smith -- just "Sandy". Are you just Sandy Smith?

Alexander McCall Smith: Alexander is often shortened in Scotland to Sandy. My surname is McCall Smith (two words). My friends all call me Sandy. (I enjoyed being in Toronto - I go there once a year, usually. I am an Associate Fellow of Massey College there.)

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Peoria, Arizona: I keep hoping one of your books will answer the following 2 questions:

(l) What does J.L.B. stand for - when will we find out?

(2) Why is he addressed as Mr. while all other men are called Rra?

Many thanks for many hours of enjoyment.

Margot

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you, Margot. I am never going to announce in the books what JLB stands for. However ... if you promise to keep this confidential, I shall tell you. John Limpopo Basil - and he's embarrassed by the Basil.

In Botswana people can use either Mr or Rra.

Thank you for your kind words.

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Stratford, NJ: How old is Precious? I hope I'm not being rude!

Alexander McCall Smith: No, you are not being rude - she would tell you herself, I think! I would say that she's 42. Does that seem right? Or 39 possibly.

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Fairfax, VA: Are you ever accused of romanticizing Botswana and glossing over problems that exist within the country? And, if you were to pick up your stories of Mma Ramotswe and plop them into another country, what country would it be, in terms of having that strain of optimism and strong human spirit that comes through in your writing about Botswana?

I love your stories and hope you will continue the tales about Mma Ramotswe for a long time to come.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you for your generous words about the books.

Yes, I am accused of romanticizing Botswana, but usually only by those who do not know the country! I have never made any secret of the fact that I concentrate on the positive side of things - and why not? Life consists of positive and negative features, and I think that it is permissible to write about both.

Your second question is very interesting. I'm not sure what the answer is, Scotland? Maybe!

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Richmond, VA: I love the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I have traveled to Africa 3 times and your novels really "sound" like Africa. The characters are so realistic I feel like I am there. They conjure up many fond memories. What is your connection to Africa? Do you travel there to get ideas for your books or to do research?

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you. I am very pleased that the books bring back happy memories of your trips to Africa.

I spent my childhood in Zimbabwe - indeed I was born there. I go to Botswana every year, and sometimes visit other African countries too. Last year I was in Rwanda - earlier this year I was in South Africa. I tend not to do research as such - I just absorb the atmosphere of places I go to.

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Boston, Mass: Thank you so much for chatting with us this morning/afternoon! I adore Mma Ramotswe. Is she based on anyone in particular you knew while living in Africa? Also- the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency books often seem like they could be taking place decades ago. I notice that references to AIDS and other modern problems seem to be appearing more often in the recent books. How do you decide when to work these in? And, one last question- when was the last time you were in Africa, and which country/ies did you visit? What about Botswana in particular?

Alexander McCall Smith: Mma Ramotswe is not based on any one person. There are, however, many people like her. I have met many women in Botswana and elsewhere who have many of her qualities.

As to the time setting of the books - I think of them as being in the present, but, if this makes sense, it is a somewhat old-fashioned present! I think that with books like that one can be a little bit vague about chronology.

As to visits, please see my answer to an earlier question.

I hope you enjoy the future books in the series!

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Sedro-Woolley, WA: Any chance that Bertie might visit Botswana and have an encounter with Mma Ramotswe? I, and many other fans, would love it! (I work in a library and I know this.) Zelda Mae

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Zelda Mae - I'm afraid that there is little chance that Bertie will visit Botswana and meet Mma Ramostwe. It would be fun, though! Bertie, by the way, is one of my favorite characters.

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Katonah, N.Y.: How do you really feel about the color/colour crushed strawberry?

Alexander McCall Smith: Hah! Lovely question! I quite like it, but don't tell anybody. I have a pair of trousers in that colour.

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Arlington, VA: Would you like to see Scotland become an wholly independent nation, like your famous fellow, and recently published, Scot?

Alexander McCall Smith: Interesting question! I prefer not to get too involved in public about these matters. I hope you don't mind, then, if I don't answer directly. Put it this way: I can see both sides of that particular issue. (What an evasive answer!)

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Carroll, Ohio: Do you have any plans to bring Mma Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie, or Charlie Dalhousie and Bertie (for instance) together in a future story? I would love to have some of the characters from one series "cross over" into another series and get to know one another.

Like millions of readers, I have fallen in love with both Scotland and Africa because of your writings. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you for your kind remarks.

It would be fun to mix all the characters, but I think that this could cause some confusion!

Come and visit us in Scotland! Bring your umbrella!

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Livermore, CA: Isabel Dalhousie is one of the most compellingly creative characters in modern literature. I'm anxious to see how the relationship between her and Cat develops, especially with the addition of Isabel and Jamie's son. Any hints for an overeager fan?

Alexander McCall Smith: Thanks for what you say about Isabel. Yes, Cat is a bit of a problem. I think that she will still need some time before she settles down - and she has very bad taste in boyfriends. More problems there The next book is about to come out in the USA - The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. We see more of Christopher Dove, that oily philosophy professor.

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Irvine, CA: You are one of my favorite authors, and I have read all of your books and look forward to receiving and reading my copy of The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday when it comes out at the end of this month. I was wondering how you keep each series (the characters, voice and tone) straight. For example, when you are writing a No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novel, does Isabel Dalhousie or Bruce from Scotland Street ever "show up" in your thoughts?

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you for what you say about the books - it is very kind of you.

Your question is an interesting one - usually I manage to keep the books and their worlds apart from one another. I suppose that I have different internal voices. I once got Mma Ramotswe mixed up with Isabel. Edward Kastenmeier, my editor in New York (and one of the very best editors in the world), pointed out to me that Mma Ramotswe was suddenly sounding like Isabel - and he was right. I changed the manuscript accordingly.

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Pittsburgh, Pa: Your female characters are fully-developed fascinating creatures. To what do you attribute your talent for bringing women to life?

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you. I don't know. I suppose that I find the conversation of women interesting. Mind you, I find men's conversation interesting too, as long as they are not talking about sport. I find that pretty dull. I like talking about cars, though, but only for two minutes.

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Boulder, CO: Do you have any tips/suggestions for young people who have an interest in pursuing writing?

Thanks! Lindsey (16 yrs.)

Alexander McCall Smith: Hello Lindsey. Yes, if you want to write, do two things - read lots of books and also, in your own writing, practise. Just write and write and then write again. persist. And never be put off or discouraged. You can do it! Good luck with your writing career. Perhaps one day you will be sitting there answering on-line questions for the Washington Post.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How much time do you spend as an attorney? When do you find time to write along with your legal work and teaching?

Alexander McCall Smith: I was a law professor rather than a practising attorney. I used to write in my spare time, such as it was, before I became a full-time writer.

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Ramona, California: I am hoping to encourage you to record more of your events or books. I have listened to your CD of your New York talk many times to hear your irresistibly cheering laugh and enjoy your very fun sense of humor. Thanks so much for all you do to make life better.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you very much for this. I am glad that you enjoyed that talk.

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Austin, Texas: I have a question about the upcoming TV series. I know it is or will be soon available in the UK. As Director of the Kalahari Peoples Fund, a US 501(c)(3) nonprofit benefiting the peoples of the Kalahari Desert and running two websites, KPN www.kalaharipeoples.net, and KPF www.kalaharipeoples.org, I receive many inquiries about when and how the series will be available in the US. Please let us know so we can advertise it on the websites! Thanks.

Alexander McCall Smith: I look forward to being in Austin later this month (on my forthcoming tour). What great work your Fund does - it is a great cause. (Anybody reading this should look at their website - well worth supporting.)

The series will be shown by HBO next year. I can't say when - bit it is definitely next year. HBO will make an announcement in due course.

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Cardiff UK : Love your books - when are you going to come back to the UK and come to Cardiff? Your dedicated UK fans would love to see you! By the way, I think, you are the best advert for Edinburgh! We recently did a tour of all your book locations and whilst there asked the Scottish Portrait Gallery why they haven't your portrait hanging in there YET. Is Isabelle based on someone you know? Looking forward with pleasure to reading the next installment of your work! One of your novels helped me through a nine hour wait in a NHS A & E ... thank you!

Pauline

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Pauline - Thank you for your kind words. I shall be doing a UK tour early in October when I come back from the US. (I am in Edinburgh at the moment.) I do not think that this tour includes Cardiff, but I shall speak to the person who organizes my trips and tell her that you have invited me there! I hope to do an event in Cardiff as a result - let's see.

Nine hours wait in the A and E (British term for Emergency Room.) Oh dear. I shall mention that to Gordon Brown when I see him next!

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Columbia, MD: Were you involved in the screenplay of the HBO movie? I can just imagine Precious' quick wit and beautiful spirit being portrayed by the beautiful, full-figured, Jill Scott. Did you have any say in choosing her to play the role of Precious?

Alexander McCall Smith: Jill Scott is absolutely fantastic as Mma Ramotswe. She was superb in the film and should be equally good in the television series. She is in Botswana right now filming it.

I met her in Botswana last year and I was very impressed with her. She is a very modest and courteous person.

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Anonymous: I think Basil is a nice name. Nothing to be ashamed of, at all. Sorry this isn't a question.

Alexander McCall Smith: I like the name Basil too. Our cat is called Augustus Basil.

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Littleton, Colorado: Is there a chance you will start a new book series? If so, any hints what it might be about?

Alexander McCall Smith: I have just started a new series, which is being published on the Daily Telegraph site in the UK. www.telegraph.co.uk It is an online novel that will be published as a book later.

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Sedro-Woolley, WA: I'm not surprised that Bertie is one of your favorites! His latest adventure, and related comeuppance of his mum, was a treasure. Love Over Scotland is one of your best novels so far! I LOVED reading it, with all the side roads and detail. However, I did have some difficulty picturing 6-year-old Bertie playing a tenor sax on the streets of Paris. Wouldn't he have needed a box or something to stand on? By the way, I kept a list of unfamiliar words and reached 25 at the end! Good challenge, and thank you!

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you. A box would certainly have helped in Paris.

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Circus Gardens, Edinburgh: I grew up in the New Town (although I live now in NW Washington, DC) and just wanted to congratulate you on "Scotland Street," which I thought perfectly captured the unique and sometimes bizarre Edinburgh New Town society.

I was also very surprised to see that an old family friend - Peter Backhouse - popped up in the book. I was a regular at his morning choir practice when I was a schoolboy!

Alexander McCall Smith: Hello! My daughters were also in Peter's choir when they were at the Academy - early morning sessions, as I recall. Peter Backhouse is a great man.

I hope that you're enjoying Washington.

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Gaithersburg, MD: Mr. McCall, Thanks for Mma Ramotswe, she was my gentle company during a period of deep personal grief. I've always wondered if the manner of speaking of your characters, specifically ending with a brief summary of what they have said, is entirely from your imagination, or it is based on the way people from the region actually speak? Thanks, again

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you. I am very pleased that Mma Ramotswe was able to help you in your sadness. She sends you her blessings.

Yes, people do speak like that. African English is very correct and very nice to listen to.

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Arlington, VA: Have you had time recently to again play the contra-bassoon in the "Really Terrible Orchestra" (RTO) you founded?

Alexander McCall Smith: Not much time. I occasionally go to rehearsals.

Goodness - look at the time. I don't know whether I shall be able to answer all the questions in the time allocated to me. I hope that people don't think I'm rudely ignoring them.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Hi Alexander, I am addicted to your books. They are the only ones I do not lend to anyone. I am ridiculously possessive of them. I am an aspiring writer as my parents are both storytellers. Were your parents storytellers as well, or did your gift for writing just come to you? Thank you for the hours of wonderful words you have given me.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thanks for your kind words. Winnipeg is a nice place to live. I was there the year before last. Carol Shields lived there, did she not. I like her books.

No, my parents were not storytellers.

Best of luck with your writing career!

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Coral Springs, Fla.: I've read about 60 percent of all of your different series and see a common thread of quirky but lovely "weaknesses" in most of your male characters - i.e., Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni from No. 1 Ladies Detective series and Matthew from 44 Scotland Street series. The women are typically strong, sometimes almost full of themselves, and I must say, lovely too. Is this a coincidence or are you making a statement? I love your writing, your humor, and frankly, I have been reading only your books for the past several months. Can't seem to get enough! Thank you!

Alexander McCall Smith: Thanks so much for those generous remarks.

No, I don't think I'm making a statement about the male characters. As you say, they have their positive points too.

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Columbia, SC: I love the books about the Number One Ladies Detective agency, and I have read all of them at least three times, but I do not plan to see the movie: I have my own view of the characters based on my experience of living in Zambia for 10 years, and I do not want someone else's idea of what they look like or how they speak! But, more power to those who do not have my bias and I hope they will enjoy the movie, I still would like everyone to read the books, though. I do hope there will be another book soon.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you. I am currently working on volume ten in the Ramotswe series. That will be published next spring.

I know what you mean about not wanting to see a movie of something that you imagine yourself. However, I really can promise you that you would not be disappointed by the movie they have made. It really is good.

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Bridgewater, VA: Hello: I got word of this session because I'm a member of the AMS fan club. I'm 75 and I've never been in a fan club before. I've taken great pleasure from your various series, especially the No. 1 Ladies series. My mother, who was in her 90's, had been reading them aloud to a nearly blind neighbor of hers in the retirement home where she lived. When it began to be too much for her, I took over the "task" and read to us all. We love the gentle humor and genuine entanglements and problems the ladies confront and successfully solve. Thanks so much for your contributions. I live in Virginia, but have gone online to see if I can find your column in the Scottish newspapers, so far to no avail. Is there a link for America's foremost fan? Thanks. Pat

Alexander McCall Smith: Hello, and thank you for telling me about your mother and the neighbor. Please pass on my warmest regards.

My online story can be seen at: www.telegraph.co.uk If you go to the bottom of that page you will see Corduroy Mansions. Click on that and it will take you to the story.

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Anonymous: Did you ever eat a mopani (sp?) worm? If so, what did it taste like (please don't say chicken)?

Alexander McCall Smith: No, I did not, I'm afraid. I'm not sure what they taste like. Crocodile, perhaps?

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Jayita, Mumbai: My sister and I are great fans of your books and thanks to our efforts we've turned most of our intimate acquaintances into fans too. We each have our own private copies of your books. By reading all your books, I understand you are interested in and have lot of knowledge of psychiatry. Would that assessment be correct? As a psychiatrist myself, I would like to know how your interest in this field came about.

Alexander McCall Smith: Hello. I have been in Mumbai several times - what a fascinating city you live in! As to your question, my wife worked as a psychiatrist at one stage and my father-in-law was a psychiatrist. I have many friends who are psychiatrists.

I am delighted that you are enjoying my books and I send you my warmest regards.

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Galway, Eire: hi Alexander, I love reading your books, they remind me of my time in Gaborone, Botswana in the early 1980s. I can really relate to some of your characters! I just want to know if you ever worked with a friend of mine who taught at the uni. Her name was Paula Peterson. I hope to hear much more from Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makusti and JLB. I just love them and you are so clever. best wishes, Caroline

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Caroline, I can't recall Paula Peterson. We might have met, but my memory fails me on that, I'm afraid.

I'm glad that you are enjoying the books!

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Dupont Circle, Washington, DC: Will we ever see gay characters in any of your Edinburgh books? I so love all of your writing, but would welcome the addition of a gay character or two. Many thanks for hours of pleasure!

Alexander McCall Smith: Yes, that is a good idea. I shall try to do that. By the way, I really like Kramer's Bookstore as well as that used bookstore just off the circle.

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Ashland, VA: Just wanted to say thanks for all the great writing - you are one of the few authors that both my husband and I enjoy, and can chat about the stories at length. We love some characters, loathe others, and basically just have a good time discussing them.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thanks very much!

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Ridgefield, CT: I am so looking forward to the next #1 Ladies Detective Agency - have you any new characters? Your books are delightful and I was just missing all of the characters at the #1 Ladies Detective Agency.

Thank you. Mary

Alexander McCall Smith: Hello Mary. A few new characters in the new book - clients of Mma Ramostwe. perhaps we need a new permanent character - I'll think about that!

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Newark, DE: Your lady detectives and their entourages are so true to life, I feel like I've been to Africa! Thanks for hours of enjoyable reading.

Alexander McCall Smith: And thank you for saying that!

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Rogers, Arkansas: I have no question, just a comment... I absolutely, positively LOVE Precious!!! What a pistol (that's what she would be called by us here in the South). Next week we're discussing this book in our new ladies' book club and I can't wait! A mug of bush tea and a discussion on your brilliant mind and fabulous character you created. Thank you Mr. McCall Smith for your delicious contribution to literature, and for creating for us a lovely woman model in Precious for us to admire!

Alexander McCall Smith: I'm glad to hear that you will be drinking red bush tea at the book club. Give my regards to the other members please!

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Dear Mr. McCall Smith, I met you many years ago when you came to Montreal to talk about your lovely novels. I read all of your work, but I have a soft spot for Von Igelfeld and his buddies! I would like to know if you will be writing about their current expeditions soon?!

Eagerly awaiting more about the precious professors, Marina

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Marina, I shall be writing another von Igelfeld novel at the end of this year. I have many more humiliations lined up for him!

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Oklahoma City: Welcome to the States. Question: Do you think the Really Terrible Orchestra will eventually add a choral ensemble to the mix? I really love your books. Regards, Robert Oklahoma City

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Robert, I am looking forward to arriving in the USA next Tuesday. I love going there as people are so kind and welcoming. Thank you!

People have occasionally suggested a choral element to the Really Terrible Orchestra, but we have not yet tried that. We shall be playing in New York next year, by the way. We are going to do a concert at the New York Town Hall.

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Warwick, NY : What were you like as a kid growing up?

What is your favorite book that you have written?

Is there a book you liked especially as a child?

Alexander McCall Smith: An ordinary boy, I think! As a child I loved Kipling's story of Rikki Tikki Tavi.

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Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Hi, I am from Malawi and absolutely love your No. 1 Detective series, when is Mma Ramotswe going to work in conjunction with the police?

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you for your kind words. I don't think she will work with the police as she is not that sort of detective. She is more concerned with small, personal problems.

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New Haven, Kentucky: Dear Mr. McCall Smith,

Don't you believe that paper dolls of your characters would be just a fabulous idea? Imagine paper dolls of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, or Mr. JLB Matekoni!! I would love Bertie, Ulysses, Irene, Stuart, not to mention Cyril and his wonderful owner! Or what about Isabel Dalhousie and her handsome lover and her son? I have a particular fondness for Dr. Dr. von Igelfeld and his colleagues. So I would love to be at the Mall on Saturday. Hope I can get someone to go with me!

Best regards to you and your family, Bonnie

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Bonnie,Thank you! I hope that you make it to the Mall on that Saturday. Look out for me - I shall be the one in the kilt!

Paper dolls? What a wonderful idea. Will you make them?

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Bergen, Norway: Hi,

first let me say that I love your writing and have all the books in several series. I have seen you on tv as well and think you are wonderful.

My questions: It seems that fiction writers largely devote themselves to deeply melancholic themes, and most certainly display melancholic views of the world. You, on the other hand, write about everyday issues, both the good and the bad, and in such a good spirit. What philosophical views do you take on the world? How can writers avoid being dark and still not write superfictional novels? Do you see yourself as somehow contributing to new ways of fiction writing?

- Marit

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Marit, First of all, thank you for your nice remarks. I think that it is perfectly possible to write about positive things and still be reasonably accurate about the world. As to my personal philosophy, I suppose you might say that I am reasonably optimistic - I see no point in being despondent. We might as well enjoy ourselves during our brief tenure of this life.

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Elkins, WV: Mr. McCall Smith,

Our library sometimes shelves your books under "M" for McCall Smith and sometimes under "S" for Smith which is very confusing. Where would YOU shelve them? I am a big fan and have read all the books you've written, so keep them coming! I have a whole bookshelf devoted to your books with space for the new ones.

Thank you, Linda

Alexander McCall Smith: Dear Linda, I hope hat I am not causing a shelving crisis in your home! I would prefer to see the books under M, but I often find them under S. I also find my novels shelved under Mystery in bookstores - many of my novels are not mysteries at all, but one gets classified in a particular way and it sticks.

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Albuquerque, NM: Please ask him to pronounce some of his character's names and places in The Ladies No 1 Detective Series! I have read them all and I still don't know how to pronounce the names!

Tell him to keep writing! We love these novels.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you. If you listen to the recorded Books audio version of the books you will hear the names pronounced. See if they are available in your local library - there are some very good recordings of the books.

I was in Albuquerque for the first time last year and I really liked your city.

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St. Louis, MO: P.D. James talks about the mystery novel as "bringing order out of disorder." What do you think about this aspect of the genre, and its relation to the type (if any) of reader it attracts? Is this aspect of the mystery related to how your characters "resolve ordinary dilemmas and moral issues?" What special insights into human notions of right and wrong do you believe your books provide? Thank you.

Alexander McCall Smith: I think P.D. James is right. Auden made a similar point. Mystery fiction - what we call crime fiction in the UK - usually involves a balancing of the moral scales. Justice is done and the guilty are punished. I suspect that there is a strong wish in all of us that this should happen. In my Mma Ramotswe novels, however, there is usually little punishment - Mma Ramotswe prefers to change people, to forgive them.

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Columbus, Georgia: In one of your early stories of the Ladies' Detective Series there was a boy that "smelled like a lion" in the desert. I always expected him to be mentioned again in a story. Will we hear about him? Thank you so much for the stories from Africa. The time I spend with these stories are a special time that renews my faith in the kindness of people.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you very much for what you say. That boy came into the story and then disappeared. I must admit that I didn't really know what to do with him. But I think that life is like that - people wander in and out of our lives and matters are not always resolved.

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Toronto, ON, Canada: Hello Mr. McCall Smith. I just wanted to say how much I love all of your adult series. It is an absolute joy to immerse myself in your stories. I'm originally from Trinidad, and even though that's not in Africa, I see so many similarities between the way your characters view and run their businesses in No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and some business people I know back home. I love it! Thank you once again, Rachel

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you for this! Yes, I go to the Caribbean virtually every year (we have friends there) and I often think that I see things on the islands that remind me of Mma Ramotswe's world. I take it that you know that V.S. Naipaul books such as A house for Mr Biswas - I think they are rather enjoyable.

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Woodland Hills, CA: My children LOVED your two books in the Max & Maddy series. Do you plan to write any more?

Alexander McCall Smith: I occasionally write new children's books. It would be enjoyable revisiting Max and Maddy. Maybe ...

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St Louis, MO: Please tell me you are a fan of Barbara Pym--your sense of humor is so similar. I love your work!!

Alexander McCall Smith: Well spotted! Yes, she is one of my favorite writers and I am an Honorary Member of the Barbara Pym Society!

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Lititz, Pennsylvania: Dear Sandy, Have you considered knocking off Bertie's Mom and having him, Stuart and Baby be adopted into Isabel's care? Or, someone else wonderful coming on the scene to be a real Mom/wife? Please consider it and thank you so much for your wonderful stories. We loved seeing you at Florida Southern--the biggest treat of our year!!

Alexander McCall Smith: Nice to hear from you! People often ask me to deal with Bertie's mother, but the problem is - that would cause distress to Bertie. And I wouldn't want that!

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Lexington, KY: I've really enjoyed the "Scotland Street" series, which I understand appeared originally in an Edinburgh newspaper. Is Mr. McCall Smith still writing these and, if so, when can we expect another installment?

Alexander McCall Smith: More Scotland Street books will be published in the US. The next one will be called The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (next year)

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Pittsfield, MA: Your Scotland Street stories would make a wonderful television series. Is there any upcoming plan for this?

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you. No plans at present, although somebody optioned the series. Nothing happened.

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Atlanta, GA : We are a group of ladies from Atlanta who are now joining your fan club and reading ALL of your books.

We are coming to Washington to the Book Festival for the express purpose of meeting you. We don't want to miss you, so what time will you be the Pavilion?

We also submitted a letter through your web site on Saturday night, September 13th inviting you to a luncheon in honor of Mma. Precious Ramotswe on Tuesday, October 21, 2008. Would you do us the honor?

washingtonpost.com: Alexander McCall Smith is scheduled to be in the Fiction and Mystery Pavilion from 10-10:30 a.m. and then signing books from 11:30-12:30.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you so much. I very much look forward to meeting you in Washington. Please come and introduce yourselves after the talk. I shall be signing.

I have not received your kind invitation to lunch. I would have loved to accept it, but alas on that date I shall be in Scotland, entertaining my sister and brother-in-law who are coming to see me from Canada.

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Strong, Maine: As a former resident of the New Town, now living in the deep woods of Maine, I love being reminded of my former life - so absolutely true, the characters! Who, in the Scotland Street series, do you most bond with, in "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" terms.

Alexander McCall Smith: A very interesting question, which I am worried about answering! I think that I may identify with quite a number of the characters. That is necessary as a writer if one is to get into the shoes of others. Am I Angus Lordie? Possibly.

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Conyers, GA: Do you always wear a kilt? And when you do, what do you wear underneath it?

Alexander McCall Smith: I wear a kilt to my events in the USA and Canada. People like visitors to dress up. As to your other question,

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New York, NY: Mr. Smith: Congratulations on your success.

Question: when will Bertie's mother get her comeuppance and his father stand up for himself and kids? The more I read of this plot the more it makes me uncomfortable. I just do not think the mother character is funny anymore; she is in effect "abusing" her son and the rest of the family.

Respectfully,

Frank

Alexander McCall Smith: I understand what you mean. perhaps Bertie's situation is getting too difficult. I shall think about this.

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Danville, KY: You lead such a full and varied life! When do you find time to write? Do you have a firm schedule that you stick to? And how do you write--computer?

Alexander McCall Smith: I seem to be pretty busy. I use a computer to write.

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Melbourne, Florida: I belong to A.McC.S. Fan Club and certainly wish I could attend the Book Festival to ask this question -- in person! I have read all of his Precious and Isabel series along with my Book Club here at Indian River Colony Club. ..... Please tell us what J.L.B. Matekoni's name is.. (certainly NOT Johnson Lyndon Baines). You are our favorite - Mr. Smith!!!

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you for your kind remarks! I'm sorry that you cannot get to Washington for the Book Festival.

JLB is John Limpopo Basil, but keep that confidential please.

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Washington, DC: I'm always so impressed at how convincingly you write from the feminine perspective. How do you do it?! Please forgive me for asking a sexist question, but I really am intrigued!

Alexander McCall Smith: It's a perfectly reasonable question. I think that as writer one has to be able to imagine oneself in the position of others, even if their experience is very different from one's own. I enjoy women's conversation, and I think that helps me to describe them in fiction.

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Windsor, Colorado: I read once you and Ian Rankin are friends. Do you do pub crawls together?

Alexander McCall Smith: Ian Rankin is my neighbour two doors down. No, we don't do pub crawls! I very rarely go to a pub. However, we do go to ... Starbucks together! There is a Starbucks not far from where we live and we sometimes go and have coffee there.

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Morehead, KY: Dear Mr. McCall Smith,

I have read most of your novels and am especially enjoying the Scotland Street series. I'm curious to know if you are similar to any particular characters in your books. I imagine you a little like Pat's father.

Best wishes from eastern Kentucky.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thank you for this. It's difficult for me to say whether I am like any of the characters. I suppose that it would be quite nice to be like Pat's father!

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New York,NY: Will Mma Ramotswe ever find out who left her that pumpkin in one of the first books? Thank you for writing such wonderful stories.

Alexander McCall Smith: Thanks for your kind words. That pumpkin business! The problem is ... I don't know who left it there! Any ideas?

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Henderson, NV: I wanted to know if the TV Series you mention in your email will be broadcast in the U.S. or only in the UK? Thank you, Helene

Alexander McCall Smith: In the US it will be broadcast by HBO next year. I hope that you enjoy it!

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Bethesda, MD: Will you be adding any more books to the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series?

Alexander McCall Smith: Yes, I shall write a new von Igelfeld book at the end of this year. I hope that you enjoy it.

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Anonymous: We read your book for a study club here in Smithville, TN. Not only a wonderful discussion pursued, but the ladies in our club were amazed that you understood the female mind so well. I love all the quotes you put into the book. It feels like your characters are real friends. Do these characters portray real individuals in your life or completely fictional?

Alexander McCall Smith: Some of my characters are a mixture of various aspects of people I have met. others are pure invention.

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Manassas VA : I love your "Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" books! I am looking forward to the TV series. I have now added Botswana on my dream travel list.

Alexander McCall Smith: I hope that one day you manage to get to Botswana. I think that you will love it. And Mma Ramotswe will be there to welcome you - Mma Makutsi will have put on the kettle and the redbush tea will be at the ready. Hold on ... I think I can see them. Yes, there they are, sitting outside the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Gaborone. And Mma Ramostwe is raising her cup to drink your health. She sends you her blessings, all the way from Botswana, over those many miles of empty ocean. She says: Pula! Pula! Pula! Which is the way they wish good fortune in Botswana. And Mma Makutsi is saying something too. Yes, there she is. She says the same thing.

Good bye!

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