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Five minutes with Alexander McCall Smith


By peter on 10th November 2015

Rhodesian-born novelist, Alexander McCall Smith, reveals how he breaks the rules of publishing. . . Perhaps best known for creating The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana Alexander is not your average novelist. The former professor of Medical Law – and proud member of The Really Terrible Orchestra – left his successful academic career to devote write full-time following his highly acclaimed No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Since then he has received numerous awards, including the National Book Awards and Author of the Year Award in 2004. In 2007 Alexander was awarded a CBE for services to literature in 2007. He holds honorary doctorates from nine universities in Europe and North America. Alexander talks to Mary Hogarth about success, favourite authors and his love of people watching. What’s the secret of your success? I’m not sure that there is a secret but I do know I have been very fortunate. Building strong working partnerships with agents, publishers and booksellers is important to me. We have a very strong team both here in the UK and through my overseas publishers and American agent. I know I break all known rules of publishing by writing four or five new books a year. But somehow it works. Your three favourite writers are . . . WH Auden - I discovered Auden in my mid twenties when I worked for a while at Queen’s University of Belfast. His work influenced the way I look at the world. I still carry his Collected Shorter Poems with me wherever I go. Nadine Gordimer, her novel, The Conservationist, is very beautifully written. There is a grave sparseness to the prose, but at the same time it conveys atmosphere beautifully. R K Narayan, who wrote a whole series of novels set in an Indian town called Malgudi. I have read them all. You love people watching – has this impacted on your work? All writers find inspiration in the daily lives of those they encounter, snatched conversations overhead at train stations or standing in queues in the supermarket. Edinburgh’s coffee shops are very good places to overhear snippets of conversation. Having published 16 novels in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series - how do you find inspiration for fresh stories? I try to visit Botswana at least once every year to keep the country fresh in my mind. I am very fond of the people of Botswana and a great admirer of that country so I find no shortage of inspiration. I lived there for a time when I was younger. Which has been your favourite to write? It is a little like asking a parent which child is their favourite.  I do enjoy my regular conversations with Precious Ramotswe in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And Bertie . . . poor little Bertie. I do so enjoy writing about Bertie in the Scotland Street series. Recently I have written the first in a new adventure series for young readers, School Ship Tobermory. This has been great fun. Describe a typical writing day. In Edinburgh I would get up at around 4am and write until 7am, then I would go back to bed for an hour or so. Late mornings tend to be taken up with the business side of writing - responding to requests for interviews, answering letters, and reading through contracts. In the afternoon I will go out for a while, then perhaps write again in the late afternoon. Can we have preview of your next novel? The next novel to be published is Chance Developments: Unexpected Love Stories. I have taken five old, black and white or even sepia photographs and imagined the stories behind them - who were those people, what were their stories, why are they smiling, what made them sad. Surprising tales of love and friendship emerged. It offers a window into the past – where love is still all that matters. Three items you would take to a dessert island? The Collected Works of WH Auden A pair of comfortable shoes Can I take my iPad so that I can listen to music? Alexander McCall Smith has three books out this Christmas: The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, the latest in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; Chance Developments, a stand alone novel published in November and School Ship Tobermory – the first in a wonderful new adventure series for children.

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