The Many Worlds of Alexander McCall Smith

By James D Watts JR. | Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK), April 15, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Many Worlds of Alexander McCall Smith


James D Watts JR., Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK)


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To some, it may seem akin to running on a treadmill while wearing a straitjacket: Write a 1,100-word chapter of original fiction a day, every day. Repeat about 110 times.

But for Alexander McCall Smith, whose works include two series of novels that began as daily installments in British newspapers before appearing between hardcovers, writing a serial novel is actually quite liberating.

"Having this rather rigid structure has made writing these particular stories a little easier, I think," McCall Smith said, speaking by phone from a New York City hotel where he was staying last week.

"It does require something of a different mindset than one uses for a conventional novel," he said. "There, you can let matters develop more slowly, take your time with the characters, the situation, all those things. But when you need to keep things within that 1,100-word form, you need to concentrate everything, so that it can be almost a self-contained vignette."

McCall Smith had already established himself as an internationally best-selling author with his "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" novels when he was invited to a party hosted by fellow novelist Amy Tan.

There, McCall Smith happened to meet Armistead Maupin, whose "Tales of the City" began as a serial novel in San Francisco newspapers in the 1970s.

"Maupin had revived what was a very time-honored literary tradition," McCall Smith said. "Writers such as Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert all published their work first in installments. And I thought it would be fun to try my hand at it."

The first was "44 Scotland Street," centered around the residents of an apartment block in McCall Smith's hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland. It began in 2004, and the current volume, which appears only in the print edition of The Scotsman, will conclude Friday.

"That's one of my tasks for the coming week," McCall Smith said. "I need to get the final week of chapters done. So I'm working about three or four days ahead of when things are to appear in the paper."

The other serial is "Corduroy Mansions," which McCall Smith writes for London's The Telegraph. It also deals with the lives, loves and everyday concerns of the tenants of a block of flats in the Pimlico section of London.

As is the case with McCall Smith's other work, his serial novels take a decidedly upbeat look at the world, its people and their foibles.

The dilemmas his characters face are rarely matters of life and death, but are rather the products of their own mild eccentricities, and the misunderstandings that arise from too much reticence. And these problems are more likely to be resolved over a good meal or a cup of tea rather than with violence.

It is a literary philosophy that - though perhaps not quite in sync with the current mania for dragon-tattooed girls, vampires or any number of shades of grey - has proven quite successful for McCall Smith. …

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