Interview: Alexander McCall Smith

This year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival will be Alexander McCall Smith’s third festival. ‘It’s in a lovely part of the country and I really like its atmosphere.’ It also gives him a chance to do something he relishes meeting his readers. ‘I find it very useful to find out what people are thinking about the books. They often come up with very constructive suggestions.

One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is that you create a community and you share these characters with the readers. Readers can draw your attention to something you have not been aware of their insights can be enlightening.’ Readers are something he has a lot of. He has sold 20 million copies of his books, which have been translated into 45 languages. He is perhaps best known for his ‘No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, set in Botswana. Two of his other series are set in Edinburgh, where he lives. A son of the Empire his father was a prosecutor in Rhodesia he was educated in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, until going to Edinburgh University to study law. Unlike his father, he did not practise, instead becoming an academic lawyer, first at Queen’s University, Belfast, and then back in Edinburgh. Medical law became his speciality as ‘it involves so many fascinating human issues. Scientific advance is changing the way we lead our lives and raising many legal and ethical questions’. His wife retired from being a GP this year, and his two daughters are medical students.

As part of his job at Edinburgh University, he worked in Botswana. He still visits every year. ‘I admire Botswana and like the people, so the ‘No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ books are a celebration of the virtues of a remarkable country. They are also a reasonably positive picture of Africa. There are many negative things one can say about countries in Africa these things have to be said, and they are said. However, there is another much more positive side. There’s a great deal that people who don’t particularly know Africa would find attractive and moving and interesting, but which doesn’t get as much attention as it might.’ Does the media give an unfair picture of Africa then? ‘No, I certainly wouldn’t say that it gives a perfectly accurate picture. However, news is dominated by the negative because problems are news. Something like corruption has to be covered it would be dreadful if it wasn’t.

But people make a mistake if they believe all there is in Africa is dysfunction, suffering and political and economic failure.’ Mr McCall Smith seems slightly surprised at the suggestion that his books deliberately look on the bright side. ‘I don’t consciously have that agenda, but I accept that the literary territory in which I operate is at the more positive end of the spectrum. Our life is formed of some bleak aspects and some frankly terrible aspects and it has ever been thus but it is also composed of things that we can see as affirmative and edifying, so it is perfectly reasonable to write about these things as well. Enhancing our moral imagination is one of the most important functions of literature. It can also equip one to see things in the world that are worthy of celebration, or the contemplation of which might help us in our progress through life.’

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As a relaxation from writing, he has a collection of wind instruments, which he loves ‘tootling about on’. He and his wife began the Really Terrible Orchestra, for the ‘pretty musically challenged’. The orchestra played a sell-out concert at Cadogan Hall last year. ‘We don’t sound too bad. Well, actually, we do. But I think people enjoy going to a concert where something is likely to go wrong and we don’t disappoint.’ The orchestra will play New York Town Hall on April 1, he says proudly. April Fool’s Day, I remark. ‘Yes, I don’t think that’s entirely coincidental,’ he laughs. Does he have regrets about becoming a full-time writer comparatively late in life? ‘No great regrets, no. It helps as a writer to have done something else.’ Does he miss academia? ‘To an extent yes, but I think one’s life has different stages in it, and it’s quite stimulating to change careers.’ Is this his final career change? ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he laughs. ‘I would have loved to have learnt to be a stone carver, but it’s too late now. So yes, it probably will be I think I’ll write until I drop.’ Alexander McCall Smith will be appearing at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday October 11. For tickets, telephone 0844 576 8970 or visit www.

Where is your favourite place in Britain?
The Western Isles

What is your favourite building in Britain?
A friend’s manor house in Cambridge. It’s a place of great beauty with a wonderful atmosphere of peace

Who is your hero?
W. H. Auden—his work has great humane intelligence