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Lovers on a train
He’s gone from writing about African lady detectives to penning romances set on a train. STEPHEN LEWIS talks to Alexander McCall Smith ahead of a railway-themed date in York.
THERE is something special about being on a train, says Alexander McCall Smith. It is something to do with the way complete strangers are brought together in a place that’s somehow outside of or apart from the everyday world.
“There is a sense almost of isolation within an artificial world, where people who have never met before can end up meeting and talking.”
That makes a train a great place to set a story. Agatha Christie recognised that (hence Murder on the Orient Express), as did Patricia Highsmith in her novel Strangers On A Train, adapted into a cult film by Alfred Hitchcock.
McCall Smith enjoys travelling by train himself – and last September he did one of the great train journeys, riding the Ghan in Australia for almost 2,000 miles from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south.
The name is an abbreviated version of the route’s former nickname, The Afghan Express – a name bestowed in honour of the Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century to help explore the country’s remote interior. “They used to have a camel route through the middle of Australia,” McCall Smith says.
Given his fascination with rail travel, it’s no real surprise that he should have chosen to write a novel set on a train. It is to be called Trains And Lovers (no, the title isn’t inspired by DH Lawrence, though Sons And Lovers is a great title, McCall Smith concedes), and it is set on a train journey from Edinburgh (McCall Smith’s home) to London – via York, of course.
Trains And Lovers isn’t a psychological thriller in the style of Strangers On A Train, however, or even a murder mystery a la Murder On The Orient Express. It is much gentler than either.
A group of characters meet on the train. “And they end up talking to one another about their experiences on other trains, and telling each other stories.” Many of those stories relate to love affairs – hence the title.
McCall Smith, of course, is best known for his Botswana-set series of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels featuring Precious Ramotswe. He was actually brought up in Southern Rhodesia (what is now Zimbabwe), where his father worked as a public prosecutor. He went to Scotland to go to university, got a PhD in law, taught at the Queen’s University in Belfast, and then went to Botswana in 1981, where he helped co-found and teach law at the University of Botswana.
Something about the country struck him. “There is a very particular quality to Botswana. It’s a very good country. They have built it up very well through their own efforts.”
His love for Botswana shines through in the gentle humour of the Ladies Detective Agency novels. But his roving writer’s mind hasn’t been satisfied with only one series of books. He has written several more – including The Sunday Philosophy Club series, and the Edinburgh-set 44 Scotland Street series – as well as penning something like 30 children’s novels.
He also finds time to write the occasional ‘one-off’ novel – and Trains And Lovers is one of those.
There is an interesting story to how it came to be written, he says.
York-based train operator East Coast approached him to write a series of short stories set on an East Coast mainline train. He did, and the stories were published in the company’s magazine given out to passengers.
He wrote five stories in all. “And I so enjoyed doing it, that I decided to write a novel using some of the characters from that series.”
If you were one of the East Coast passengers lucky enough to get a copy of and read those earlier short stories, you’ll doubtless love this new book. Given that East Coast is based in York, it seems only right that York is one of the few stops McCall Smith will be making on a short promotional tour to publicise Trains And Lovers at the beginning of November.
He’ll be at the Tempest Anderson Hall in Museum Gardens on Wednesday November 7 as guest of both the York Literature Festival and the York Museums Trust.
A date not to be missed by lovers of lady detectives and railway romances alike…
• Alexander McCall Smith will talk about his new book Trains And Lovers at the Tempest Anderson Hall on November 7.
Doors open 7.30pm for 8pm start.
Tickets £6 from the Theatre Royal box office on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk