Alexander McCall Smith: “Portraying the world as a vale of tears is a curious view of life”

From a Washington Post interview with author Alexander McCall Smith by Karen McPherson, coordinator of children and teen services at the Takoma Park, Maryland, library.

Alexander McCall Smith was a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh when he published his debut novel, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” in 1998, at age 50. Since then, McCall Smith has published more than 60 adult novels, 15-plus children’s books and a memoir. . . .

I was able, with “The No 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency,” to write books which I suppose are rather gentle and in which there is no blood and gore and no confrontation. The publishers, some of them said to me, “You’ve got to have more edge, you’ve got to be more confrontational, more modern.” I think the success of “Ladies Detective” book made a big difference. I could write about more joyful, more affirmative things. . . .

I think some people will take the view that I have a rose-tinted view of the world or that I’m not writing about reality. I can see why they might say that, but I would be inclined to disagree with them because I think that human life consists of the utterly bleak and suffering in all its varieties on the one hand, and then on the other, it’s full of the potential for joy, for happiness, for fellowship and friendship and love. And for most people, what they’re wanting in life, probably their greatest desire, is to be loved. Love is the spring that drives life, the mechanism that drives life, and it drives our attitude toward the world as well. These are things which should have their place in literature, and I think are a very, very big part of life, and the pathological in life is a relatively small part.

Portraying the world as a vale of tears in which aggression becomes the default position and where people talk to one another in snarls, is to me a curious view of life. Since so much of the time our entertainment is focused on the sensational and cruelty and human failing, we can persuade ourselves that that is all there is in life. In my view, that seems to be not only bizarre, it’s unhealthy. We need to contemplate the pathological from time to time. We wouldn’t want a dollop of constant equanimity. We need things to be sharpened up from time to time, and we all like a good thriller. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t forget that there are other things.

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