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Book chat with Alexander McCall Smith

We take great delight in introducing you to Alexander McCall Smith, author of many books beloved by the LoveReading team. There is something about his writing that eases into your awareness to spread warmth and good-feeling. He is also skilled in delivering marked observations that encourage thoughtful contemplation. We are currently recommending two of his latest novels in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, To The Land of Long Lost Friends, and How to Raise an Elephant (which is the 21st in the series). Both are as charming, thoughtful and amusing as you would expect. His latest standalone Tiny Tales containing short stories and amuse-bouche cartoon strips is an absolute delight. Alexander McCall Smith is known for writing more than one book a year, sometimes four or five (goodness!), and here we have asked how he does that, and a little more about his writing and book thoughts. A warm welcome to Alexander:

You are well known for “breaking the rules of publishing” and writing up to five books a year. How do ideas come to you, and do they arrive well before or during the writing process?

Tiny TalesIn fact it is SEVEN this year if you include one children’s book – which does indeed break all the rules! Let’s see if I can remember them all:

The Talented Mr Varg – A Detective Varg novel

The Geometry of Holding Hands – An Isabel Dalhousie novel

Tiny Tales – Short Stories and Graphic Tales

How to Raise an Elephant – A No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel

Noah Wild and the Floating Zoo – A Children’s book

In a Time of Distance – My first poetry collection

A Promise of Ankles – A Scotland Street novel.

I am fortunate. I write quickly and can write pretty much anywhere.

Do you have a favourite book cover? (Sorry, rather mean to ask!) 

That is a very difficult one to answer. I was very involved with the design of the first books in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. The books were published by a small publishing-house in these days and in very low numbers. I found the images – some from rather beautiful old stamps – and played around with them on my old computer. They will always hold a special place for me. 

How to Raise an ElephantI have worked with the illustrator Iain McIntosh for many years and always like the covers that he comes up with for Scotland Street, for the American editions of many of the No.1 books and their editions of the Isabel Dalhousie novels. He also comes up with the cover illustrations for my School Ship Tobermory children’s series. 

A few months ago I met an artist at an exhibition in Edinburgh. Her name is Diane Rendle and I was so taken with her work that I recommended her to Little,Brown. Her work is now on the front cover of the latest book in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, How to Raise an Elephant and I am really delighted with it.

You have the gift of being able to write about small details which together build a beautifully vivid picture. Have you always picked up on the detail of life and why do you think it captures people’s attention?

I suppose I’m a naturally curious person. I like nothing more than listening in to conversations in a coffee shop, or on a train. And yes, I do pick up on details. Sometimes I write them down in my notebook, sometimes they are stored in the subconscious mind.

Do you still keep a notebook? 

I carry a notebook with me wherever I go. I like the little moleskin notebooks – the tiny ones - which slip into a pocket very easily.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

We love your No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. When you first started, did you ever think you’d still be writing about Mma Ramotswe 21 books later? Do you still visit Botswana, how has it changed since you first began the series?

I first wrote about Mma Ramotswe in a short story that I wrote for friends. And I so enjoyed our conversation that I carried on and it grew into the first novel. At the end of that first novel she was engaged and the publishers felt it was wrong to leave things like that. So I have the perfect excuse for a second, and a third…

I visit Botswana as often as I can. Usually once a year. I should have been there next month but of course we are all being very careful still and foreign travel is off the cards for me until 2021.

44 Scotland Street is another wonderful series. During your writing year do you write one book at a time in its entirety or have several on the go?

Thank you for that kind comment. I’m very fond of the characters in Scotland Street, especially little Bertie. Scotland Street runs in the pages of the Scotsman newspaper every weekday for three months of the year. It is running right now and I think it is the world’s longest running serial novel. I write the episodes more or less as they appear and then they are collected into book form a few months later.  Each book has its place in the calendar and usually they don’t overlap – but Scotland Street is slightly different because of the serial nature. I tend to write Scotland Street at the same time as I am writing a book in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Or the Ulf Varg series.

I would describe your books as gently thought-provoking and uplifting. When you first began to write how difficult was it to persuade your publishers that your novels didn’t require more of a hardened edge?

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency took off across the world in the year of the September 11 attacks. People needed something uplifting. They needed to escape and I think my books offered them that.

In 2015 you won the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction with the delightful Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party. Did you deliberately set out to write a comic tale? And the question that everyone wants to know is... what happens to the prize pig after the ceremony?

I have to admit that I don’t really know! I hope it went back to live a happy life on a local farm. I certainly didn’t receive any sausages. In addition to the pig, which was then named after one of my characters (in this case, ‘Fatty’), I also received a very large bottle of champagne – a Jeroboam I think – and a complete collection of P.G. Wodehouse novels.

Another rather unfair question, do you prefer writing for children or adults, short stories or novels, standalone books or series?

I particularly enjoyed writing Tiny Tales this year. I worked with Iain McIntosh on 30 very small graphic tales which appeared in the Financial Times newspaper. They are now interspersed amongst short, short stories in the book. These were great fun to do and I am very pleased with them. But I also enjoy meeting up with my characters every year in the various series – The No.1 series, Isabel Dalhousie and Scotland Street.

And finally, you’ve been interviewed a fair few times, is there a question that you’re surprised you haven’t been asked yet?  

I do enjoy the innocent questions that all writers are asked at children’s events – a favourite is ‘how much do you earn?’ I’m not sure that there is any one question that has not been asked… but I’m sure someone will surprise me in the very next interview. 

If you enjoyed this, check out our other 'Author Talk' blog posts. 

If you're looking for more book series recomemendations, click here to check out our 'Fall in Love with a Book Series' Collection.

Comments (55)

Fiona K - 13th October 2020

I've read several of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books and really enjoyed them. I'd love to read the latest in the series.

Julie M - 13th October 2020

I have never read any of Alexander McCall Smith's books. This blog however has me intrigued and I've added the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series to my reading wish list.

Gillian M - 13th October 2020

I haven't read any yet bit this looks great so will definitely try and get hold of some.

Lia B - 13th October 2020

My children absolutely love Noah Wilde and the floating zoo! It’s a fond favourite in our house

Simon H - 13th October 2020

My favourite is The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Jessica J - 13th October 2020

My dad introduced me to his first No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book so I've been waiting for one to get him one for his birthday, I really hope he likes it.

Jenny A - 13th October 2020

How can I not have read any Alexander McCall Smith books yet?

Debbie B - 13th October 2020

I have not read any yet but they are on my reading list

Deborah B - 13th October 2020

I love all his book and went to one of his QA sessions at Hexham book festival a few years ago. One of my favourite books has to be 'he world according to Bertie'.

Lesley S - 13th October 2020

Would love to read these books, will have to start at the beginning and catch up.

Denise D - 13th October 2020

I can't wait to read How to Raise an Elephant, sounds wonderful!

Glynis O - 12th October 2020

I have read all the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, most of the Sunday Philosophy Club books and most of the 44 Scotland Street books, as well as some standalones

Debbie E - 12th October 2020

I have read a few of the No1 Ladies Detective Agency books, the first is my favourite, I read it when I was quite young and remember it well.

charlotte w - 11th October 2020

I've read all of the ladies detective books and i have re read them all in lockdown this year and they were the perfect read - i love them, so uplifing and so inspiring - love the characters - i feel like i have grown with them.

Susan B - 10th October 2020

An interesting and candid interview. How cheeky to ask an author how much they earn! Writing seven books a year is amazing. It has been quite some time since I read any of the Detective Agency books. Must revisit!

Jennifer R - 9th October 2020

I've read To the Land of Long Lost Friends, the descriptions are phenomenal! It's a fantastic book x

Mary B - 7th October 2020

I read and enjoyed 44 Scotland Street, but didn't realise it was the first of a series - I'll be out to look for the rest!

Gaynor V - 6th October 2020

I have read the ladies detective agency - loved the charactes so colourful and it did make me laugh!

Sharon C - 4th October 2020

Ive never read any of your books,but the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and the 44 Scotland Street series sound really interesting,my grandchildren have asked me to get How to raise an elephant for them ,i must admit this granny is as excited to read it as they are

Patricia A - 3rd October 2020

Sadly I have not read any yet but will be on the look out now

adrian p - 2nd October 2020

i LOVED Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party.

Angela N - 2nd October 2020

Despite reading pretty much any fiction, I haven't read any books by this author yet. I must add...oooh a dozen maybe, to my wish list!

Alison A - 1st October 2020

I have read several of Alexander McCall Smiths book , my favourite has to be the first in the series: "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency"

sarah J - 1st October 2020

I was introduced to his stories from Radio 4 dramatisation and recommend everyone read or listen to them

Patricia M - 27th September 2020

My favourite books are the Isabel Dalhousie novels - The Comfort of Saturdays is an ideal 'comfy' read, delightful

Clive H - 25th September 2020

Very interesting

Lynn B - 25th September 2020

The No1 Ladies Dectective Agency is my favourite of his books.

Alan G - 25th September 2020

I have read 90% of the No 1 Ladies books and several books in his other series. Don't really have a favourite - they're all good!

Karen K - 25th September 2020

I haven't read any of the books yet but have added to my list

Susan H - 24th September 2020

I love In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Mary L - 23rd September 2020

I have read most of No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series and looking forwarding to reading this one

amy S - 22nd September 2020

Ive read No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series,and i ,oved them x

Ben M - 22nd September 2020

Great interview. Never read any of Alexander's books, but I have heard many good things.

Pippa A - 22nd September 2020

I always enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's books. They are uplifting and happy. I couldn't possibly choose a favourite though.

Leah T - 21st September 2020

So many of his books I've yet to read!

fiona w - 20th September 2020

I loved the first ook in the series and intend to read the lot

Bryan M - 20th September 2020

I haven't read any of Alexander's books yet, but I am looking forward to reading them

Michelle L - 20th September 2020

I have never had the opportunity to read one of their stories, would love to one day

Pauline C - 20th September 2020

Absolutely love his books attended a book signing in Norwich once.Utterly charming man

Sheena B - 19th September 2020

I read the first few then admit I lost touch

Yolanda D - 19th September 2020

This book sounds right up my street

Janet M - 19th September 2020

I love The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency

tessa p - 19th September 2020

I love The Sunday Philosophy Club. I borrowed it from a relative on holiday and it reminds me so much of that trip, and has lovely wry humour.

Julie C - 19th September 2020

I’ve read the first couple of books but my sister is a big fan and has read far more than me.

Andrea H - 19th September 2020

I have to confess I've never read any but I do know they were extremely popular in my library - constantly requested, especially the new publicaitons.

Claire F - 19th September 2020

An interesting interview with a nice man

Jacqui G - 18th September 2020

I've never got round to reading any of the No1 LDA books,although they've been on my list for ages.

Isabella H - 18th September 2020

I am so excited to start this series!

kim w - 16th September 2020

I have never read an Alexander McCall book. It is an amazing talent to be able to write at least five books a year and I definately will put him on my list of future reads.

TRACEY B - 16th September 2020

The ladies No1 Detective Agency - been meaning to read for ages will definately add it to my list !

Margaret C - 16th September 2020

I've read quite a few from the No1 Ladies Detective series and the Sunday Philosophy Club Series. I don't have a favourite, they are all so good.

Jayne S - 16th September 2020

I have not read one of the books of the series yet. I did find the characters to be so charming when the one of the books of the series was filmed on the BBC a few years ago.

Margaret G - 15th September 2020

Totally AMAZING - wonderful insight -

Amanda W - 15th September 2020

I thoroughly enjoyed the number 1 Ladies Detective agency, it was my first Alexander McCall Smith book and I loved it.

Michelle S - 15th September 2020

Never read any of these books but they look great.

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