SCOTT SIMON, host:
Alexander McCall Smith has written more books in 10 years than most people have read. Mr. Smith, who's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books have become number one world best sellers, has opened a second literary vein: a series of Isabel Dalhousie novels, in which the single, serious, inquisitive and adventurous woman of a certain age, Isabel Dalhousie, the editor of The Review Of Applied Ethics in Edinburgh, explores the mysteries of ethics and philosophy as she sees them present themselves in everyday life. The latest novel in this series is The Right Attitude to Rain.
Mr. Smith, who also writes a newspaper series as well as his novels, and is professor emeritus of medical law at University of Edinburgh, joins us now from the studios of member station KXJZ in Sacramento, California.
Mr. Smith, thanks so much for being with us.
Professor ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH (University of Edinburgh): Thank you very much.
SIMON: Do you simply write more than any one publisher can put out?
Prof. SMITH: Well, not quite. Although I remember when I was first taken up by my existing London publishers, they shook a finger at me and said, one book a year, that's the rule. But we've broken that and have continued to do so. This year I did four novels.
SIMON: And I assume you're writing at least a couple of other novels as we speak.
Prof. SMITH: Yes, I am. Yes.
SIMON: So you were touring with one novel and talking about that. And you are writing at least one other novel.
Prof. SMITH: Yes.
SIMON: Is that difficult?
Prof. SMITH: Well, as long as you remember which book you're writing. I think that's very important. On one occasion, a couple of years ago, my editor in New York, Edward Kastenmeier, was reading a manuscript of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. And he said, hold on a minute, I think that at one point here, Mma Ramotswe, of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starts to talk like Isabel Dalhousie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SMITH: And I looked at it and he was correct. Characters had slipped.
SIMON: Were did Isabel Dalhousie come from in the creative process?
Prof. SMITH: I think that what probably motivated me to write about such a person was the desire to write about a particular sort of woman whom one meets in a city like Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a fairly intellectual city and there are certain sorts of intellectual women who I think are really very fascinating people. So I thought that it would be rather fun to write about a moral philosopher who tends to cogitate at some length about the philosophical implications of her day to day life. Probably she does it a bit too much.
SIMON: You set up a section very nicely that I wanted you to read, if we could, please. Isabel, who of course, as we have noted, is the editor of The Review of Applied Ethics in Edinburgh, is musing about the ethics of e-mail, or at least returned correspondence by email.
Prof. SMITH: Certainly, yes.
Do you have to answer every e-mail that you get? Is ignoring an electronic message as rude as looking straight through somebody, who addresses a remark to you? And what, she wondered, was a reasonable delay between getting a message and responding to it? One of her authors had sent her an inquiry only two hours after sending an initial e-mail. Did you get my message? Can you give me a response? That, thought Isabel, could be the beginning of a new tyranny.
Advances in technology were greeted with great enthusiasm and applause, then the tyranny emerged. Look at cars. They destroyed cities and communities, they laid waste to the land. Our worship at their altars choked us of our very air, constrained us to narrow paths beside their great avenues, cut us down.
And yet she thought of her green Swedish car, which she loved to drive on the open roads, which could take her from Edinburgh to the west coast to Mell, to the Isle of Skye even, in four or five hours, just an afternoon. The same trip had taken the choleric Dr. Johnson weeks, and had been the cause of great discomfort and complaint. It was an exciting tyranny then, one which we liked.
SIMON: I notice, of course, there's no resolution to those questions that she raises, and perhaps there isn't any in real life. But does that sort summarize the basis of the different elements in Isabel Dalhousie's character - she's ruminating so much, she sometimes doesn't resolve?
Prof. SMITH: I think that's right. I think Isabel's problem is that she hasn't sorted out a balance between introspection and thinking about the implications of what you're doing, on the one hand, and actually needing to act on the other hand.
SIMON: There's a character at one point who reminds her - she says, people are human, you should think about that too.
Prof. SMITH: Yes. Yes, that's right. I think that that's a necessary reminder to be given to somebody who thinks too much about the implications of action, that ultimately people are going to be moved by very human considerations, as well as by these more lofty philosophical considerations.
SIMON: Isabel also doesn't know what to make of an attraction she has to a young man. Yes, indeed, a young man, who's 14 years her junior.
Prof. SMITH: Yes. Well, that is something which I thought about very hard before I put it into the book, because I'd been under pressure from readers to give Isabel a bit more of an emotional life, and certainly to give her a bit of a love life.
One of the interesting things about having a character who is developed over a number of books is that readers feel that they know that character, that that character becomes a friend. And so with Isabel the pressure was from people who said, come on now, give her a chance of happiness. Some friends of mine, for example, who took this up with me were really very exercised by it, and really concerned about Isabel as if she was a real person, saying, you really must allow her to have a bit of a fling. And indeed, I noticed that one of the early reviews of The Right Attitude to Rain says, hurrah, at last...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SMITH: ...a development of this sort is occurring with one of my heroines, which I'm perfectly happy about.
SIMON: Yeah. Do you think when people look back on all the series of novels and characters that you're doing, you would like them to recognize a kind of overall theme, or strain, or identity?
Prof. SMITH: I think what I might like is for people to say that the books looked at the very small things in our lives, the minor events, the tiny things. I think we need to have these sort of quiet spaces where people ruminate on issues and drink tea. So maybe I'm coming around to the conclusion that these are tea novels, if that category - if we can invent that category.
SIMON: Mr. Smith, always a delight to talk to you. Thank you so much.
Prof. SMITH: Thank you very much indeed, Scott. Thank you.
SIMON: Alexander McCall Smith. His latest novel - this one in the Isabel Dalhousie series - is The Right Attitude to Rain. And you can read a bit of the first chapter of The Right Attitude to Rain on our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.
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