As on the page, so on the stage, you never know exactly what you’re going to get with Alexander McCall Smith. Turn to Page 29 in today’s paper, and he’s talking about civilisation and plate-licking. He was in similarly eclectic form at the Edinburgh Book Festival last night in a conversation that bounced around from monasticism to comedy and most things in between.
Progress, he suggested, can be a mixed blessing. His new standalone novel, The Pavilion in the Clouds, is set in Ceylon in the 1930s, when a full-blown shipboard affair on the long voyage out was a plausible plot twist. Now it really isn’t. Opera could be similarly hamstrung by medical advances: if Mimi is given an antibiotic early on, La Boheme would really suffer. And only after he pointed it out did I realise the obvious truth that no-one has ever used a computer, never mind a mobile phone, in all 22 of his Mma Ramotswe novels.
Fortunately, he does, and sitting at his keyboard, is so productive that this year alone he has produced five series novels. He writes, he said, in a kind of dissociative trance, when he doesn’t know what words are coming next but he can rely on them – 4,000 on a good day – being grammatical. Sometimes, not least when writing Scotland Street, he finds it hard to keep a straight face – a condition that, even beneath their masks, seemed to affect last night’s audience too.
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