The Center for the Arts (CFA) Recital Hall was silent for a moment after James Zoller, professor of writing and literature, asked the audience if they had any questions for visiting author Alexander McCall Smith. The pause continued for a few seconds before McCall Smith chimed in, “Well, if people are concerned with asking the first question, we could always start with the second.” The audience laughed, and several questions for the internationally-known author followed.
On Thursday, October 22, Houghton College hosted McCall Smith for an hour-long Question and Answer session in the CFA, followed by a luncheon with seven English and writing students in the Lennox Dining Hall. McCall Smith is best known for his book series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which follows the adventures of the fictional Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s only female detective. Though he is of Scottish descent and lives in the United Kingdom country now, McCall Smith was born in the country that is now Zimbabwe, and often writes about Africa. According to his official website, he has written and contributed to over 100 books, and many of his series have become worldwide bestsellers.
This visit was made possible through the same means as last year’s Q & A session with Joyce Carol Oates. Like with Oates’ visit, Nicolas Gunning ‘05, the library director for David A. Howe Public Library Director in Wellsville, New York, approached the English and writing department at Houghton to see if they would be willing to help pay for the author’s visit. With this arrangement, McCall Smith would speak at Houghton in addition to the Wellsville library on the same day. Last year, Linda Mills Woolsey, professor of English and former academic dean of the college, agreed to these terms, and used funds from the Dean’s office to sponsor the event. This year, those funds were not available, but the department was able to use funds from the Van Gordon Endowment, a grant that supplies money for projects in the English, writing, and communication departments. Aside from finances, many Houghton faculty and staff worked together to make the event possible, including Jane Miner, the academic departments coordinator for English, education, writing and communication, who set up a gift basket for McCall Smith and worked with Gunning to arrange the details of the visit. Mills Woolsey arranged transportation for McCall Smith, Zoller volunteered to moderate the Q & A session, and Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb, associate professor of English and chair for the department, hosted the student luncheon.
In the Q & A session, Zoller asked the Scottish author several questions about McCall Smith’s transition from a professor of medical law to fiction writer, how he approaches the writing process, and his experiences with the publishing industry. Jordan Trautwein ‘19, who attended both the Q & A and the luncheon, said she thought McCall Smith was especially engaged in the conversation with Zoller, and even though it occasionally felt unfocused, she liked that he mostly answered the questions through stories.
“It was very appropriate for a storyteller,” she said. “It seemed like his life is just a series of stories. He got so excited about telling us stories from his life, other people’s lives, and what he’s observed.”
The stories McCall Smith told in the Q & A included the story of his first lunch with his New York publishers (“I thought lunch was illegal in New York since everyone is so busy”), his African upbringing (“Africa has a spiritual feel to it that has remained with me despite spending the rest of my life in Scotland”), and his driver from Philadelphia to Houghton the previous day (“He told me that he and his brother go to tattoo conventions, what an interesting thing to do”). He also discussed his influences, including poet W. H. Auden, who is the subject of McCall Smith’s 2013 nonfiction book What W. H. Auden Can Do For You.
“I heard him recite his work once,” McCall Smith said. “He was a shambolic figure, came in wearing carpet slippers and a grey suit. We could all see that his zip was undone, but the great man rose above that.”
After answering a few questions from students, McCall Smith joined Lipscomb, Gunning, and seven English and writing majors, including Trautwein and Emma Carpenter ‘18, for lunch in the Lennox Dining Hall.
“He seemed very warm,” said Carpenter of McCall Smith. “I really enjoyed talking with him, and even just listening to him. [The conversation] felt very natural, and his sense of humor really impressed me. I want to read his books now, because that absurdist sense of humor is something I’d like to see in my own writing.”
“It’s such a cool opportunity,” said Trautwein, when asked why she attended both sessions. “This is why I came to Houghton, because I could do things like this.”
Lipscomb, who attended the lunch with the students, affirmed the benefit for students, especially in the English and writing department, to attend events like this.
“Specifically for English and writing students, it’s a good chance to ask questions about the world of publishing, how they do their writerly craft, how to make time for that, and how they got started in writing,” said Lipscomb. “Our students are just starting out, and it’s good for them to be able to see what the end point looks like and what the steps are to getting there. In terms of the campus community, people who are fans get to see the person who created this thing that they love.”
Adding Allegany County to McCall Smith’s North American tour was no easy feat, but the collaboration between Houghton College and the Wellsville Library allowed for a once in a lifetime experience for many Houghton residents and students. In the future, the college and the Wellsville library would like to offer another such experience.
In the meantime, students and professors will have plenty to discuss after McCall Smith’s visit as they continue to follow in this particular great man’s footsteps and tell stories of their own.