Alexander McCall Smith Photo: From Reader's Digest
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2004), a gentle story about a ‘traditionally built’ lady detective living in Botswana, was the book that launched Alexander McCall Smith, a professor of medical law in Edinburgh, into the world of global publishing. After eight books, Mma Ramotswe, the central character, has become a household name in thirty-eight languages.
Now aged sixty, Alexander McCall Smith is a prolific author. La’s Orchestra Saves the World focuses on life in Suffolk during a thirty-year period of global turbulence. ‘I thought the nineteen thirties was an interesting period because of the growing crisis in Europe,’ McCall Smith explains. ‘I decided to trace the history of somebody involved in that time.’
La (short for Lavender) first appeared in a series for Radio 3. McCall Smith says that at that time he had the character, the orchestra and the bones for the story but needed a location. ‘Then I thought of Suffolk. I had an aunt who lived there and when I was a child I would go and stay with her, so I got to know the countryside a little.’ McCall Smith returned to Suffolk to reacquaint himself, hoping to add texture to La’s surroundings. ‘I love those little lanes with their old metal road signs, and those huge open skies. I wanted to get across a sense of place, so I was looking at what was growing in the gardens, things like that.
‘I had a very strong sense of La moving from London to Suffolk after her marriage failed. As she gets to know people in the community, there’s a gradual build-up of tension with the international situation getting worse and worse until along comes the Second World War. It was a period of tremendous heroism. I really admire what so many people did then and how they rose to the occasion. The whole idea of the book is that even those who weren’t on the front line were able to contribute something. In La’s case she got an amateur orchestra going. It’s a story about how music really can make a big difference to people.’
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