“Most authors seem to moan about their books being made into films, but I've been very lucky," says Alexander McCall Smith.
Legions of fans will get to make their own judgment when The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the series based on McCall Smith's internationally popular series of books about Botswanan sleuth Precious Ramotswe, premieres tonight on HBO.
"They've done a gorgeous job," McCall Smith says. "They were very respectful of the ethos of the books. And with Botswana itself, they've done a lovely job. They've done us proud."
The series' two-hour first episode is the first feature-length film made entirely in Botswana, a place dear to McCall Smith, 60. His family is Scottish, but he was born in what is now Zimbabwe, the nation just to the north of Botswana in southern Africa. He has spent much time in Botswana over the years (he helped establish its first law school in the 1980s), and the No. 1 Ladies' books have made the country and its people familiar and endearing to countless readers who otherwise might know nothing about them.
Fans know that one of the great charms of the books is their voice. "In Botswana they speak English very well," McCall Smith says. "It's common for them to switch between English and Setswana (the native language), and I've tried in the books to capture the cadences of African English. It's very correct. There's a slight air of formality, compared to how English is spoken in other countries, that I think is very attractive."
McCall Smith says the series captures that well. He is particularly impressed with the performances of Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe and Anika Noni Rose as her somewhat peculiar secretary, Mma Makutsi.
(That "Mma"? It's a Setswana honorific for women, the equivalent of "Madam," pronounced "mah," with a slight hesitation on the "m." Men are addressed as "Rra," pronounced "rar.")
Scott, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, and Rose, who won a best featured actress Tony for Caroline, or Change, are African-American, and neither had been to Africa before.
"They did actually very well with the body language and with the accent. It's very difficult to do credibly." McCall Smith says Scott even impressed his Botswanan friends in a few scenes in which she speaks Setswana. "The dialect coach told me she has a very, very good ear, which you would expect from a musician."
Playing Mma Ramotswe is a demanding task. Not only is she a smart, strong, independent, big-hearted woman, she has devoted fans all over the world — the books have sold 15 million copies in English and been translated into dozens of other languages. "I've just been to Australia" on book tour, McCall Smith says, "and the books have a big following in India. I've just spent a week at the big book fair there."
Although they are mysteries, the novels don't dwell on violence, instead focusing on human foibles and flaws that Mma Ramotswe sets straight with gentle wisdom and wry humor. Even their titles are charming, such as Morality for Beautiful Girls, Blue Shoes and Happiness and, coming in April, the 10th in the series: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (that last phrase being Mma Ramotswe's dignified way of describing her frame).
For many Americans, the only common images of sub-Saharan Africa are those in the news: war, disaster, famine and strife. The Botswana in McCall Smith's books, and in the series, is warmly beautiful and boasts a rich traditional culture. "It's not something I had set out to do, to write a contrary vision of Africa," he says. "But in retrospect, yes, it's what I'm in effect doing."
Media coverage of problems there is necessary, he says, but can produce a one-sided picture. "Just like everyplace else, there are many people leading very good lives and doing a very good job of it. I think the film captures that generosity of spirit and dignity."
He says he loves to hear from fans who have been inspired by his books to travel to Botswana and come back as fond of the place and people as he is. Tourism is vitally important to Botswana with the collapse of the diamond market, a major industry there. "They are suffering greatly, so when I hear from people who visit, it just makes me feel warm inside."
The No.1 Ladies' books are hardly McCall Smith's only project. Asked how many books he has written, he says, "I think it's about 60. I haven't counted recently. I know that sounds like an affectation, but it's true."
He has indeed written more than 60, including three other fiction series in addition to No. 1 Ladies', a shelf's worth of children's books and a dozen legal texts. McCall Smith retired as emeritus professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has worked with many organizations as an expert on bioethics and medical law.
He and his wife have two daughters and live in Edinburgh in the same neighborhood as another bestselling mystery author, Ian Rankin, and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling.
McCall Smith writes several books a year, and last year wrote an online serialized novel, Corduroy Mansions, published on the London Daily Telegraph's Web site five days a week, a chapter a day — with instant feedback from readers.
"It was great fun," he says. "It meant I could respond to readers' suggestions, and I did. They had lots of suggestions about characters they wanted to see more of and so forth. Quite interesting. I'll probably be doing another."
When he's not writing, McCall Smith and his wife are enthusiastic participants in something called the Really Terrible Orchestra, which they founded about 10 years ago. "It's for people who really can't play an instrument at all well." The orchestra has about 55 members, and there are three offshoots in U.S. cities.
"We have a concert in New York, at Town Hall no less, coming up April 1," he says. "We make the most dreadful sound, but people love it.
"I'll be playing the euphonium. Very badly."
Once he has wrapped up touring for the HBO series, he'll take a few days off and then hit the road for Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. Its title refers to one of Mma Ramotswe's favorite rituals, her endless cups of redbush tea.
When McCall Smith began writing the books, bush tea was little known outside of Africa. Now you can buy redbush tea, also called rooibos, at many U.S. grocery stores. Is it the power of Precious?
"Bush tea was very much a minority taste," McCall Smith says. "But Mma Ramotswe has succeeded in persuading people to drink it."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.