There was a reserved pew for the media, which was fortunate: the cathedral was full at a quarter to two on a gorgeous afternoon in the Dunedin autumn.
There was the scent of a cathedral: cool stone, dark wood, incense and yesterday’s wax. The stained glass windows were aglow and the pews were awash with murmurs of anticipation (interior, below). Word had got out that the writer we were there to meet was a man of charm, wisdom and wit.
Then there were two men on stage, and a swell of applause. One of the men wore a dark suit and a full beard. This was the host – Scottish writer and Dunedin resident, Liam McIlvanney. He introduced Edinburgh-based English writer Alexander McCall-Smith with a wonderful and generous description, speaking in a Scots baritone of McCall-Smith’s “astonishing popularity” and “addictive fiction.” He mentioned that McCall-Smith has written five wildly successful fiction series and sold tens of millions of books, is the author of collections of short stories, academic works, and over thirty books for children, and that he also holds honorary doctorates from nine universities.
Even in his slightly rumpled jacket, Alexander McCall-Smith (right) was not intimidated by his own credentials. He opened his mouth and it was immediately clear that his talent and eloquence is not confined to his writing desk. He began with an anecdote about the orchestra in which he plays the bassoon, an orchestra for terrible players that is going from weakness to weakness. He tried to hold back his own laughter as he talked. The audience didn’t – we were rolling in the aisles, or at least giggling in the pews from the outset.
With quietly well-timed prompts from McIlvanney, McCall-Smith roved through a range of topics: his initial academic career in medical then criminal law; the risks and pleasures inherent in serializing a novel (having to maintain momentum and send in copy, even when rounding Cape Horn and losing internet connection; not being able to kill off characters during revision); absorbing reader feedback (“You need to get rid of Bruce”); maintaining a character as a six-year-old for eight years (“He was really looking forward to his seventh birthday party”); spending a year in Belfast at the height of ‘the troubles’ and discovering Northern Irish writers; WH Auden; ‘Tartan Noir’; the fallibility of festival microphones; and a tongue-in-cheek refutation of malls and mobile phones (“There’s a lot to be said for the power of denial – I just refuse to recognise any changes I don’t like.”)
Interspersed with and leavening the hilarious anecdotes and spontaneous asides were many insights into McCall-Smith’s ethics, ideals and optimistic outlook. He presented as a deep and generous thinker, curious enough about life to constantly find the humour in it. Even when the topic at hand was relatively serious, he couldn’t seem to prevent himself finding a funny angle, voice rising and cracking as another fit of giggles erupted. He was constantly verbally ‘elbowing’ his onstage companion; McIlvanney did well to keep a straight face. The beard might have helped. The rest of us gave our facial muscles a good workout.
Then it was question time, which McIlvanney had to curtail as McCall-Smith could have gone on all afternoon. Rousing applause then echoed from the rafters. A little regretfully, we rose as one and shuffled down the marbled aisles, murmuring thanks to the organizers of the Writers and Readers Festival, a departing congregation with numb backsides but warm hearts.
Event attended by Aaron Blaker, on behalf of Booksellers NZ