Best-selling novelist Alexander McCall Smith talks to ROZ PATERSON about the glittering literary career that he has carved out in the later years of his life.
The life of Riley? In years to come, they may call it the life of McCall Smith.
Literary success, of the stupefying 40-million-and-counting-books-sold-worldwide variety, came relatively late to the creator of Precious Ramotswe, Isabel Dalhousie and a dog named Freddie de la Hay.
But came it did, and to a life already gilded with good fortune and professional acclaim.
Prior to his second incarnation as the Edinburgh New Town’s scribe of light yet meaningful matters, Alexander McCall Smith was a professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University, an advisor to the British government, thanks to his expertise in the area of genetics, and to Unesco.
Prior to that, he lived in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, and later helped to establish Botswana’s faculty of law.
These days, he wears luxury Belgian shoes, counts JK Rowling and Ian Rankin as neighbours, tours the world in the name of literature, and turns out novels in such quantity they only leave his fans begging for more.
A charmed life? He doesn’t demurr.
He misses the academic life, “the contact with the students, and with the public issues, which were very interesting issues, and very intellectually stimulating.”
All this notwithstanding, at the grand old age of 50, he launched his first novel.
The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, featuring Mme Ramotswe, a stunning African backdrop and currently running to 12 novels, went on to sell some 20 million copies worldwide, be translated into 44 languages, and made into a BBC film by the late Anthony Minghella, who co-wrote the script with Richard Curtis.
Not bad for a dusty old academic, you might say.
Thus, he found himself “in the very fortunate position of being able to choose whether I wrote full-time or stayed on.”
Needless to say, he chose the literary life. “This led to a whole range of new experiences and I am conscious of my good fortune, being able to lead a very different existence.”
A very busy, lively, gratifying one, by the sounds of it.
Scheduling an interview with him takes time and patience, not because he’s a difficult customer – quite the reverse, in fact – but because he’s so interminably busy.
There’s the writing itself, more of which later, the promotional tours and, most enviably, the literary festivals around the globe. Being an international bestseller has perks beyond handsome royalties, you know.
To give an example, following a peaceful sojourn in Argyll with his wife, Elizabeth, a retired GP, where they annually rest, take the air, and get their messages by boat from Mull, McCall Smith’s off to North America for a book tour, then Australia for another tour, followed by Bali for a literary festival.
“I travel quite a lot,” he concedes, graciously.
At home, he’s very much at home, a noted local figure with a genial air that almost invites people to stop and tell him what they think of his books. Which they often do.
One of the reasons he so enjoys a good public reading is because his readers are not only very interesting, taking in all ages, nations, professions and walks of life, but also very opinionated. “They tell me what should happen next (to his characters). And I take what they say seriously. I take note.”
McCall Smith enjoys his fame, but in a very grounded way, it seems. “I was very fortunate that (literary success) came to me later in life.
“You’re not affected by it in a negative way, when you’re older.
“At 25, it could have an odd effect on you. But starting out at 50, well, you’re already who you are.”
Another advantage of maturity for the writer is that, over the course of a lifetime, you collect a wealth of usable material. “If you keep your eyes open, you build up a knowledge of how people are, and (as a writer), you can draw on this bank of experiences.
“If I think of myself in my early 20s, compared to now, it’s chalk and cheese. I think, as you grow older, you – hopefully – build up a better understanding of people, more tolerance, more understanding.
“My characters are not real” – (apart from the real, real people, who feature as cameos, such as former Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell, inserted rather flatteringly as a passing hero who saves a dog’s life) – “but in some cases, yes, I’ve met people like that, but the characters are always composites.
“I think it’s unfair to base a character on a real person, they have no chance to answer back.”
But McCall certainly answers back when I suggest that his novels, including The Unbearable Lightness of Scones and Espresso Tales, veer somewhat away from the grittier side of life.
It is, he says rather tartly, a “curious” question.
“There is surely a role for a whole range of attitudes and moods in literature, why just gritty and bleak?
“There are bleak dimensions (to life), it can be a vale of tears, and literature can and does reflect that. But there are other sides to the human condition, sides that are not pathological.
“You wouldn’t criticise a composer for not restricting himself to minor key dirges, or a painter to gloomy blues and blacks.
“Why then criticise a writer?”
Millions of readers certainly don’t and, dutifully, he produces books and serials with an almost Dickensian dedication, writing the 44 Scotland Street serial for the Scotsman newspaper and producing roughly four to five novels a year.
To achieve this, “You have to be disciplined. I’ve always written, and it comes to me quite quickly. I don’t have to sit and agonise.”
Like Anthony Trollope, who shocked his contemporaries by knocking out 2000 crisp words first thing, before going off to work at the Post Office – Victorian writers were supposed to clutch their heads in torment before penning a word or two before dawn – McCall Smith puts in the hours in a business-like fashion before going off to do, well, something else.
Like Trollope, McCall Smith does it in his head while he gets on with other things. “I think writing fiction relies on having contact with the subconscious mind, which is always exploring and asking questions.”
And with that, he signs off. He has holidays to take, books to write, and a frankly grand old life to live.