Book Week Scotland: Alexander McCall Smith

National Book Week

Book Week Scotland runs from 18-24 November, 2019.

What better way to help celebrate the power of reading than by revisiting this interview with renowned author Alexander McCall Smith?

When Features Ed Alex caught up with McCall Smith, he was keen to highlight the similarities between his own work, and the work “The People’s Friend” has carried on for the last 150 years.

The number of short stories the “Friend” must have published over our 150 years is enormous, but one author who is fast catching up with us is Alexander McCall Smith.

Sandy, to his friends, is one of the world’s most popular and prolific writers, with over 100 books in print – including series, non-fiction and children’s books – and when I caught up with him recently at only ten o’clock in the morning, he’d already written over 3,000 words on his latest

“I was up in the small hours so I have done several chapters of ‘Scotland Street’ and a chapter of another project already. That’s not meant to sound boastful, but for me that’s just the way it works!”

Working regularly is what Alexander says is key to his ability to be so productive.

Stories are every bit as important now as they always were

“It’s no different from playing scales on the piano or going for a run – these are all developing your motor skills. Keeping those neural pathways open!”

“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series alone has sold over 20 million copies in its English version, and has been translated into a further 46 languages. Proof, if any were needed, that the power of story-telling is as relevant today as it has ever been.

“Technological changes have enabled people to tell their own stories.

“I think it is very significant that blogs and internet sites where people can actually be creative and tell stories are very, very popular – fan fiction and things like that.

“Now people are telling stories in all sorts of contexts, through drama and on television and films, and people are spending a lot of time participating in stories on Netflix and other places. Stories are every bit as important as they always were.”

We have always aimed to uplift readers

There’s almost an obligation these days for writers and journalists to acknowledge a darker side to life in their work.

Both the public and press can be quick to criticise a portrayal of a character that doesn’t acknowledge darker truths – take Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum in “The Greatest Showman” film, or even Mr McCall Smith for evoking an Africa without focus on famine or war in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels.

It’s something we’re very aware of at the “Friend”, as we have always aimed to uplift readers with our stories since the very first issue.

“Fiction is not just one exclusive vision of the world, but has room for more,” Alexander says.

“Suffering exists and there are many writers who portray it with great clarity and sympathy, but there is room for a portrayal of the more positive features because that is what life is composed of.

“I think it would be ridiculous if everybody wrote bleak and uncompromisingly depressing material.”

It’s just one of a number of things the “Friend” has in common with the author, including publishing a mixture of serialised and stand-alone stories.

I just discover that I like the characters

Arguably his most popular books have been the series, but there was never a plan for each of them to be such long-running tales.

“In the case of ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ – which is my longest running series – I had no idea that I would even write a sequel!

“But I did and we are coming up to volume twenty. I just discover that I like the characters or that the character has got more to say and so they develop into a series.

“There is great enjoyment in getting to know the characters over a long period of time. The familiarity of characters allows you to develop their lives, and I think there is a pleasure in witnessing the unfolding of their lives.

“It is a relationship between people and characters whom they follow regularly which gives great pleasure.

“And the writer doesn’t have to invent a new set of characters each time!”

If you don’t have sympathy got a place or indeed characters, then that shows

Returning to similar locations also has a reassuring feel to it, but there’s more than just a pleasant familiarity to Alexander’s descriptions of his favourite locales.

Botswana and Edinburgh, by way of example, are drawn as warmly and deftly as any of his characters.

Does he love the places he writes about as much as the people?

“That’s an interesting question. I think that if you don’t have sympathy for a place or indeed characters, then that shows.

“People actually have to like the characters, be able to see some of the world from their perspective.

“Even people who are flawed in some way usually have a human side to them. It’s part of the novelist’s function to recognise that people who are unpleasant actually also have their hopes and desires – and maybe a reason for their unpleasantness.

“Even the most ferocious villains have got a mother somewhere – or maybe they like growing roses!”

Still going strong

But which of his own characters does he feel the most sympathy with?

“On most subjects I find myself in agreement with Mma Ramotswe, which is extraordinary. But Isobel Dalhousie is the one I’m probably closest to.

“People ask me if I’m Bertie from the ‘Scotland Street’ books, or rather if I once was! I don’t base my characters on real people, though. Mma Ramotswe is based on my many experiences of people of a similar type.

“When I do put people in they appear under their own name with their consent, because when they’re in a book people can’t answer back!”

Though the same concerns haven’t held back Alexander’s friend and fellow author Ian Rankin, who has told him he’s bumped off versions of Alexander several times in his crime novels!

Fortunately, the real Alexander McCall Smith is still going strong and generating books that make us all feel a little bit better about the world — just as we’ll keep doing here at the “Friend”.

Click here for more on Book Week Scotland.

We’re all book lovers here at the “Friend” — find out what we’re currently reading by clicking here.

Sharon from our Production team is going one better, tackling National Novel Writing Month. You can follow her progress by clicking here.

Iain McDonald

Iain is Digital Content Editor at the "Friend", making him responsible for managing flow of interesting and entertaining content on the magazine's website and social media channels.