Author Alexander McCall Smith honoured by National Arts Club in New York

Writer Alexander McCall Smith is to be presented with Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club in New York.
Writer Alexander McCall Smith is to be presented with Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club in New York.
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It is one of the most prestigious private art clubs in the world which has bestowed its Medal of Honor on the world’s literary and artistic greats such as Arthur Miller, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood.

Last night Alexander McCall Smith, best-known for The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, will became the 2017 winner of the major literary award from the National Arts Club in New York in recognition of his achievement in literature.

Speaking from New York ahead of the glittering gala, Edinburgh-based McCall Smith said he owed a great deal of his early success as a novelist to his American readers who embraced the tale of Mma Precious Ramotswe and her small detective agency in Botswana which he believed gave them some comfort after the tragedy and trauma of the Twin Towers attack.

More than 20 million copies of the books have been sold in English language editions and have been translated into 46 languages worldwide.

“I’m particularly pleased this is an American award because my books first took off in America.

“The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was first published at a very difficult time for people in the States. It was after 9/11 and I think they were a bit traumatised,” McCall Smith said.

“I think the way Mma Ramotswe is a very forgiving, reassuring figure may have helped. I think they liked the gentleness of her world. The world can be a bit of a vale of tears at times, a very trying place. Mma Ramotswe is the very antithesis of that.”

“I’m delighted the National Arts Club has thought of me. I’m very touched and it’s wonderful to be here. It feels pretty daunting to be put into the company of those who have gone before me.

“I was pleased to see that WH Auden was a previous recipient as he is one of my very great enthusiasms.”

McCall Smith added that his ‘44 Scotland Street’ books set in Edinburgh’s New Town, and which started off as daily instalments for The Scotsman, had also developed a large fan base in the US.

“The Americans love it. When they come to Edinburgh they go to Scotland Street looking for number 44, which doesn’t exist. There are lots of local references which they love,” he said.

“When I started my ‘44 Scotland Street’ it was at the request of Iain Martin, who was the editor then. I thought it would just be for my readers in Edinburgh and the east of Scotland but it’s taken off all over the world.”

A spokeswoman for the club said McCall Smith’s work evoked human decency.

“The National Arts Club is proud to honour Alexander McCall Smith with its 2017 medal of honour for achievement in literature.

“The breadth of his body of work vividly evokes places and characters who are infused with humanity, decency, wit and humour.”

The club, whose past members have included three US presidents - Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Dwight D. Eisenhower - was founded in 1898 by author and poet Charles De Kay, the literary and art critic for The New York Times as a gathering place foe artists of all genres as well as art lovers and patrons.

Its aim is “to stimulate, foster, and promote public interest in the arts and to educate the American people in the fine arts.”

Previous winners:

1968 Louis Auchincloss

1969 WH Auden

1970 SJ Perelman

1971 Ada Louise Huxtable

1972 Norman Cousins

1973 Anthony Burgess

1974 Eudora Welty

1975 Tennessee Williams

1976 Norman Mailer

1978 Saul Bellow

1979 Allen Ginsberg

1980 Isaac Bashevis Singer

1981 Leon Edel

1982 Barbara Tuchman

1983 James Laughlin

1984 John Updike

1985 Joseph Campbell

1986 Marguerite Yourcenar

1987 Robertson Davies

1988 Carlos Fuentes

1989 James Merrill

1990 Iris Murdoch

1991 Philip Roth

1992 Arthur Miller

1993 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

1994 Richard Wilbur

1995 William Styron

1996 E.L. Doctorow

1997 Margaret Atwood

1998 Grace Paley

1999 Toni Morrison

2000 Nadine Gordimer

2001 Tom Wolfe

2002 Edna O’Brien

2003 Sir Tom Stoppard

2004 Shirley Hazzard

2005 Alice Munro

2006 P.D. James

2007 Chinua Achebe

2008 Don DeLillo

2009 Joyce Carol Oates

2010 David McCullough

2011 Edward Albee

2012 Martin Amis

2013 Salman Rushdie

2014 John Ashbery

2015 Paul Auster

2016 Jane Smiley