Born in what is now Zimbabwe, having worked as a law professor in Botswana, and now a resident of Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith is no stranger to far away places. His bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mystery series, set in Botswana, has inspired worldwide loyalty among fans, and huge sales. To promote the eighth book in the series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, Smith has just completed one of several tours, which are taking him all over the world. PW caught up with Smith in New York City to talk about Book tours in many nations, the salvation of the novel, and the similarities between Sweden and Boston.
You’ve done this a number of times before and have a huge fan base made up of people who know a lot about the series. What are the events like?
I think it certainly helps if you’re the author of a series of books because obviously people follow what is coming out. I’m always very touched by the number of people who come and by the warmth of their reception. We get very large crowds, usually many, many hundreds. Sometimes we get even higher than that. It’s very encouraging. The opportunity to meet ones readers is extremely useful, because it enables you to get their reaction, and I think that’s something which every author needs to take into account.
Having such a huge audience is a rare for books…
I think that it is probably particularly strong amongst writers who write series because that’s a continuing conversation with people, and I think readers tend to be very loyal and very supporting. When they read a series of books, they feel that they get to know the characters quite intimately. I often feel with my events that it’s almost like a meeting of a club. I know that people come back—people who are in the audience have been at a previous event often. I’ve been really very overwhelmed with the sheer size of the crowds. One was about 600 people. When I do ticketed events organized through the Barkley agency, the events are even larger--we had in Seattle 2100 people. In-store events are often smaller: a couple of hundred people. When you tour the U.S., do you notice differences from state to state?
You notice regional differences. One of the interesting things about being somebody who doesn’t live in the States doing U.S. tours is that you go virtually everywhere. I’ve been to every state now except the Dakotas, Wyoming, and New Mexico. You realize how diverse the United States is. Often the differences are subtle ones—obviously one is getting the same slice of society; ones readership is probably the same throughout the country. I went to Bermingham, Alabama. People had driven from Florida, from Arkansas, from Georgia. And I’ve just been in Iowa City, and people had driven five, six hours to come. You realize how closely people follow books, how caught up they are in the whole thing. They follow books very, very closely. That’s nice to hear. At PW we worry sometimes that nobody’s reading. Oh, they’re reading all right. I suppose my readership is a fairly particular one. It’s quite a broad range of people—I get a lot of families, from teenagers on up to 80 year olds. Then I’ve got a very large number of women readers, but of course they belong to book clubs. I’m of the view that book clubs have been the salvation of the novel. When you tour elsewhere in the world is the scene at your readings different?
It’s much the same, actually. I tour throughout the world. I’ve just done a Scandinavian tour. I was in Finland, Sweden and Denmark. It’s the same people, the same atmosphere. Australia as well—I’m doing two Australian tours this year: same story. I’ve done two Singapore tours. There are the book clubs, and there is the same sort of reader. It’s the same concerns throughout the world. The events I did in Sweden could have been in Boston.