Q&A: Edward Mendelson & Alexander McCall Smith

In May, I discovered Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do for You (see Editors’ Picks, LJ 7/13 [ow.ly/p1mGj]), published this month by Princeton University Press as part of the “Writers on Writers” series. In it, the author of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series shares how the life and poetry of W.H. Auden (1907–73) has profoundly influenced his own life and writing career. I was taken by both McCall Smith’s (ctr.) personality and his subject and wrote to Edward Mendelson (l.; English, Columbia Univ.; Later Auden; Early Auden), Auden’s literary executor, who answered my questions about Auden via email. I then spoke to the UK-based McCall Smith by phone. Each man provided insights into Auden’s poetry, McCall Smith’s book, and himself.—Annalisa Pesek

Alexander McCall Smith

What prompted you to write this book?

I was very excited when Princeton approached me with the idea. It was something I had hoped to do, to put in order my thoughts about Auden’s work. It was a wonderful opportunity to share with people what I learned from Auden, and that was a very important thing in starting to write the book. I wanted to say, yes, this is a poet’s work I have found tremendously useful in my own life, and this is why he appeals to me so much.

If we see a movie or hear a piece of music or read a letter that really resonates with us, one of our first reactions is to want to talk to our friends about it. This comes from our human desire to share, and this book gave me the opportunity to share with my readers, and with those who might be my readers only with this book, what it is about Auden that appeals to me. I suppose it’s quite possible that at the same time it deals with how Auden’s work has been bound up in my own life.

How did Auden transform you?

What first struck me when I began to read Auden—I started reading him in my twenties—was his voice. It was so beautiful and so different [and yet] very characteristic, and it came through very clearly. I was very much impressed by the depth of the character [that] lies behind the poems and the range of [Auden’s] interests. And I suppose it was just the beautiful quality of [the words] that really had a profound effect on me…what first attracted me was the beauty of the words.

Who is your audience?

This book was written to show my enthusiasm for this particular poet to people who may disagree with his work or don’t really know it or would like to know more about him.

I certainly hope it will be read by some of my readers who normally read fiction and read my fiction and [that] it will introduce them to Auden’s work if they don’t really know about it. And I would hope that it might persuade people to look at and to know about other poets.

Edward Mendelson

Edward Mendelson

Because you became Auden’s executor when you were very young, perhaps you could share insights you have gained on how a person’s response to Auden evolves over time. Do your impressions of Auden echo those of McCall Smith’s?

I first got seriously interested in Auden because he seemed to know more about the reality of human experience than anyone else I’d ever read. I never expected literature to know more about truth than supposedly “objective” ways of thinking, but it did. Over the years, I’ve found that Auden knew even more than I had imagined. This, I think, is exactly what Alexander McCall Smith describes.

McCall Smith describes the profound effect Auden has had on his life by saying, “We are changed because we now understand something we did not understand before….” For me, the person who has had this effect is Auden. What is McCall Smith referring to as Auden’s transforming effect?

What is transforming, I think, is the way Auden makes it harder to deceive oneself. This, too, is what McCall Smith describes.

What do you think poetry and detective stories have in common?

[A] good poem has a lot in common with a good detective story; they both give the pleasure of seeing order and meaning emerge out of what seemed disorder and bewilderment.

Do you write poetry?

No, but I did until my early twenties, when I had read enough Auden to realize that I could never do anything like it. If I had gotten interested in some lesser poet, I might still be writing poems.

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Bk. 14), is forthcoming in November from Random House.

Annalisa Pesek About Annalisa Pesek

Annalisa Pesek (apesek@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor, LJ Book Review
[photograph by John Sarsgard]