Welcome to the McCall Smith club
PUBLISHED: 12:47 30 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:47 30 September 2014
Alex Hewitt/Writer Pictures
His lady detectives have made him an international success, but now author Alexander McCall Smith has turned his attention to Jane Austen. Catherine Larner talks to him as he looks forward to a visit to Suffolk
She’s not running her own ladies’ detective agency nor residing in Scotland, but Jane Austen’s meddling matchmaker, Emma, has just been given the Alexander McCall Smith treatment.
Publishers have asked well known authors to write new versions of each of the six classic novels as part of what’s been called The Austen Project. Joanna Trollope has written a new Sense and Sensibility and crime writer Val McDermid has updated Northanger Abbey. Emma is the third in the series
“It’s such a wonderful novel,” says McCall Smith, who will be in Suffolk at the end of October to talk about his work. “It’s a world in which no great developments happen, but nonetheless is a wonderful theatre for human nature. And it’s about humour. I love social comedy and I think Jane Austen is screamingly funny.”
Modern audiences, who may or may not have appreciated the subtleties of Austen’s prose, are sure to share his enjoyment of her work with his retelling.
“I am not in the business of upsetting my readers,” says McCall Smith (known as Sandy). “I don’t think that is something I should be doing. My role is to make my readers feel better about life and the world.”
Now very much an international brand, McCall Smith’s charming, uplifting and entertaining books are translated into 46 languages, involving 50 publishers worldwide, and have reputedly sold some 40 million copies to date. There are the long-running series 44 Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions, The Sunday Philosophy Club and, of course, the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as well as standalone novels, academic works and children’s stories and also, lately, operas. But why take on Jane Austen?
“Obviously nobody can improve on Jane Austen, but [her books] contain such universal themes,” he says, and we can delight in the familiarity of the story. “As children we say, ‘read that book again’. I think adults have that in them as well – it’s rather like hearing a good joke over and over again.
“It’s a great treat to be able to do a new version. It took me about 30 seconds of profound thought to say yes!” he says of the invitation. “And I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with the characters.”
In the McCall Smith version, Emma drives a Mini Cooper and has studied interior design at the University of Bath, her father is paranoid about infection so is never far from a hand sanitiser, Frank Churchill has been living in Australia and Mr Elton drives a BMW “something-something”.
What’s more, the Woodhouse family now live in Norfolk, not far from Holt. There are visits to Cambridge and to Aldeburgh (where Benjamin Britten is seen buying meat at the butcher’s), and Mr Elton has a declining property portfolio comprising two blocks of flats in Norwich and Ipswich.
“The original Emma was set in a place that has now been swallowed up by London,” says McCall Smith. “I wanted to have a sense of the English countryside, but you have a bit of a battle to find it. Norfolk still has a nice rural feel.”
And East Anglia is an area that holds fond memories for him. He remembers visits to aunts living near Bury St Edmunds when he was a student. The wide, open skies and little lanes of Suffolk were the setting for his novel La’s Orchestra Saves the World.
“I have always thought Suffolk lovely,” he says. “Places I know and like do occur in my fiction.” Africa and Scotland are more commonly associated with the author, of course, and released around the same time as Emma are two more new books with these settings. There’s the latest in the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café – with the wonderful Mma Ramotswe, set in Botswana and A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh, accompanying a collection of engravings and photographs collated by the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
And there’s yet another new title. September saw the publication of Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party, a novel about a large American who holidays in Ireland with rather unfortunate, but amusing, consequences.
McCall Smith is currently working on two other books, the next Isabel Dalhousie and the next in the 44 Scotland Street series. He’s prolific – Emma took him just two months to write.
“At the end I was just so sorry that I had finished it,” he says. “I so loved it. I enjoy the whole process [of writing] very much indeed, and this is what continues to motivate me. When I am doing a series it’s always very enjoyable going back to familiar characters.”
He also relishes talking to his readers about his books and is currently on an extensive, and punishing, schedule of speaking engagements throughout the country. His mischievous sense of humour, sparkling eyes and infectious giggle delight audiences who love him as much as a speaker as a writer.
“The books get people together and when I visit them it feels like we’re all in a really big club,” he says.
Alexander McCall Smith will be speaking at a literary lunch at Seckford Hall Hotel for Browsers Bookshop on Thursday, October 30 (01394 388890) and in the evening University Campus Suffolk for the Suffolk Book League www.sbl.org.uk