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Alexander McCall Smith: Q&A with the author of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series

Creator of 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series dishes on how he comes up with titles, and how he came to embrace Twitter

Scottish writer sat down with North by Northwest to chat titles, characters and Twitter

Alexander McCall Smith said he usually chooses the titles for his novels first, because publishers want to begin writing the blurb for the book before it's even completed. (Getty Images)

Alexander McCall Smith is a very prolific writer.

The Scottish author and retired professor of medical law has written everything from academic texts and children's books to short stories composed entirely on Twitter.

He is arguably best known for his best-selling series The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which follows the adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe, who has founded an agency in Gabarone, the capital of Botswana.

McCall Smith himself grew up in southern Africa — he was born in what was then the British Colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and later moved to Scotland to study law.

He sat down with North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay and some listeners at Barbaro-Jo's Books to Cooks in Vancouver on Nov. 7, in between McCall Smith's tour of the U.S. and Canada to promote his latest book in the series.

Sheryl MacKay: Why is this book called The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine?

Alexander McCall Smith: Titles often have a rather interesting past in that they go through various forms and they can change quite dramatically. I think I started off this title thinking of saying 'the woman who walked somewhere' and I didn't have a particular destination for her. Then eventually we decided that 'in the sunshine', or 'in sunshine' was the best thing for that.

(Alexander McCall Smith)

It suits Mma Ramotswe's character because she's of the sunny disposition and she takes a very positive view of life, so I would've thought that if anybody's going to walk in the sunshine it's Mma Precious Ramotswe.

At one point in the book Mma Ramotswe says it's not important which tree you sit under, as long as you sit under the right tree. What does that mean?

That's right, it's a very puzzling quote. It's a very odd thing for her to say. Like many things Mma Ramotswe might say, they may sound right, but when you look at them closely they can be a bit ambiguous.

So she's always sitting under trees. In eight out of the 16 books there are people sitting under trees for various reasons, and it actually also helps act as a sort of break in the narrative.

What I like to do is to have moments in the narrative where nothing much is happening, where people sit and have a cup of tea. People say to me, 'Well that must be very symbolic. The tea must be symbolizing something very important.' I really have to say no, not really, it's actually just time for tea!

It's time for a bit of a break and then we can start things again. And that I think adds perhaps a leisurely feel to the books which I'm quite happy about because certainly people do quite enjoy reading books where they can enjoy the space around the action.

I've noticed this before in the series, and noticed again in this book, there is a real wistfulness for time gone past and changes in Botswana. Is there more wistfulness in this book?

You're probably right. I didn't necessarily set out to be wistful, but I think probably I am expressing something which I think a lot of people feel — the world has to change, none of us would argue otherwise really, and things are going to change, the towns and cities in which we live are going to become bigger, and we're going to lose the intimacy that we had when life was conducted on a smaller scale.

I suppose Mma Ramotswe feels that a bit, in that the Botswana that she was brought up in was a Botswana of wonderful intimacy where everybody really did know one another, where nobody was a stranger to others.

Anthony Minghella the Oscar-winning director instructs the actress and singer Jill Scott (left) on set in Gaborone, Botswana in 2007. The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency was made into a television series that aired for one season in 2009. It was initially intended to be a movie. (Getty Images)

I feel that you can often define people really definite their essence by talking about their possessions, so  Mma Ramotswe in those books in the early stage has a very much beloved lace handkerchief, which to her represents all the fine things in life that she hasn't had in her life, and it's very important This is an object of beauty. So that little handkerchief, increasingly threadbare, represents a whole world of beauty to her.

I was surprised to find how prolific you've become on Twitter. How do you like that venue for writing?

I never thought I would tweet, but I was asked by my publishers to start issuing these little 140 character statements on the world, and I started it, and I found that I rather enjoyed it. I didn't do the sort of tweet where I say, 'Got out of bed this morning'. I actually saw one tweet a few years ago which said, 'I saw a sheep from the train today', and I think, really? Who's interested in that?

But I started to write little stories on twitter, and had about eight or ten chapters each obviously a couple of lines each and then twitter asked me to kick off their first twitter festival of literature and write them a number of stories and I did, I wrote them a couple of stories and I really enjoyed doing that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

To hear the full recording from Sheryl MacKay's conversation at Barbara-Jo's Books to Cooks, listen to the audio labelled: Alexander McCall Smith, writer of 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series, talks about his new novel, titles and Twitter