A few years before HBO turned Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency into a show, casting Jill Scott as the female Sherlock Holmes of Botswana, I read the first in this very, very long series of novels. You can be as cynical as you want, the story is actually quite enthralling and amusing. My mom was the one who suggested I check it out. She's read probably all of the author's books, including those in his many other series (check out this absurdly long list). So when she saw he was speaking opening night at 2014's Miami Book Fair International, we had to go.
I was honestly a little hesitant, but as it turns out, the fair's main man, Books & Books' Mitchell Kaplan prefaced the reading with very true words: "You only have to see Alexander McCall Smith once before you want to see him again."
First off, the guy came out in a kilt, tie, knee-high socks, and a sporran.
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Smith is an African-born Brit who is also an emeritus professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh. His humor is a bit highbrow, nuanced, and totally clever. Cultural jokes and references may have been lost on non-Anglophiles or non-news-watchers.
Listening to Smith speak was like watching the British version of Antiques Roadshow -- it sort of sounds rambling, but is peppered with brilliant bits of irreverent wit and titillating humor. He did the whole presentation in little comedic bits, saying more than once: "This is going down hill quickly." Which can only mean it's going in the right direction. He even set himself into well-deserved short fits of high-pitched giggles a handful of times.
He joked that you have to usually correct the person who introduces you, saying that oftentimes they're "talking about another author altogether." Then adding, it's at that point that "you excuse yourself."
It was mentioned that Smith plays bassoon in something called the Really Terrible Orchestra. His correction was that he can't actually play the bassoon -- past a certain note. The orchestra is a very real thing and has actual auditions. Their goal as a group is simply to finish all at the same time. They've performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and played at New York City Hall. Of the New Yorkers, he said, "They actually did get the joke." He encouraged us to start our own Really Terrible Orchestra, noting that they've inspired a few more in the U.S.
His next joke was letting us know that he was there to speak for 35 minutes. "I believe it's polite to tell people how long you're going to speak... because people want to sleep, and now they know how long they have." These sleepy folks had until the questions, comments and "complaints" session.
He did offer some literary advice. "Even if you make mistakes," he advised, "you've got to get the first sentence right." The main reason for that is because, he pointed out, "That's the only one most people read." He included those who write 2,000-word New York Times book reviews in that category of readers.
Smith offered three of his favorite examples of wonderful first sentences. First was Karen Blixen's Out of Africa: "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills."
Next was Rose Macaulay's curious first line from The Towers of Trebizond: "'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."
And his other favorite was from a novella written by 9 1/2-year-old Daisy Ashford in 1919 in The Young Visiters (that's the spelling): "Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42." The crowd, of course laughed.
At this point he asked: "You must be wondering where this talk is going?" His answer -- forward, backward, sideways even.
Smith called himself someone affected by serial novelism. There's "no known cure," he explained. "You write serial novels, and then you die."
After that, he got into the history of his most famous character, Mma Precious Ramotswe -- why he chose to have her open a detective agency and not a dry cleaner, for instance. He explained that when he kept putting off her marriage to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, after few books, the editors suggested he add the word "wedding" to the title to remind him to get her hitched.
He went into detail about Bertie Pollock, the focus of his 44 Scotland Street series, talking about his pushy mother (he asserted that Edinburgh has "a very serious problem with very pushy mothers," more than in the rest of Scotland. The authorities, he explained, are aware of this situation).
After two short readings came the Q&A session. The room was dominated by white ladies just past middle age, who at first seemed hesitant to come to the mic. It'd be hard to rival his quick wit. "If nobody wants to start with the first question, we can start with the second," he said good-naturedly.
In the first, we learned that he is writing a children's book about a cat who lives all his nine lives simultaneously. During the actual second question, a woman came forward and said she read his books on the way to Botswana, and she thought he was a she. Alexandra McCall Smith. It was there someone was able to actually joke about him wearing a skirt.
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Next, a guy asked about Bertie's relationship with his aforementioned pushy mother. Smith said that usually when people ask questions of this sort, they are themselves psychiatrists or psychologists, turns out the guy isn't, but his dad is. We were all impressed by the man's smooth way with people.
There wasn't much of a crowd, but when you're up against Ira Glass dancing down the street in Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host, you're bound to have a few fans missing. Hopefully next Smith decides to give up the life of a serial novelist and get into standup. The world could use a few more funny, smart men onstage, joking about intelligent things with class and a touch of the absurd.
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