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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Alexander McCall Smith on his career and the lead character in his Botswana-based detective novels

The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith discusses his phenomenal work rate and hit series The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency ahead of his appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. David Levenson / Getty Images
The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. David Levenson / Getty Images

Alexander McCall Smith doesn’t merely write fast – he is a bona fide book machine.

The British novelist says he has written more than 50 books in the past 12 years, churning them out – in the best possible sense of the phrase – at a pace of 1,000 words an hour.

When I call him at his home in Edinburgh, he tells me he was awake at 2.30am that morning, hammering away at one of the three books he’s currently working on – fresh volumes in his best-known series: Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries, The 44 Scotland Street Series, and of course, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

The 66-year-old credits his remarkable productivity to an ability to write in a trance-like “dissociated state”, accessing otherwise locked-off parts of his subconscious. The upshot is that McCall Smith does very little planning for a book, and says that often when he begins, he has no idea of how the stories will end.

“I don’t say this in any boastful way,” he says, “but I do write very quickly – 1,000 words an hour.

“I’m quite interested in the psychology of this, in that I don’t have to think about what’s going to happen. I sit at the keyboard and enter into what a psychiatrist would call a minor dissected state, and it all just comes very quickly and ready-formed, without me having to sit and cogitate about it.

“And I don’t really have to do very much to it – I very, very rarely have to edit it at all.”

He wasn’t always so prolific, though. McCall Smith worked the bulk of his life as a professor of medical law at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He dabbled in children’s writing on the side, publishing dozens of books between 1980 and 2000 (“one”, he tells me, gleefully “did rather well and is still in print”).

At the turn of the millennium he published The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, one of a handful of novels he had been flirting with during the 1990s.

Published by Polygon, the book’s original print run was only 1,500 copies. Now, 16 years later and after a steady flow of one new volume per year, the series has gone on to sell more than 20 million copies, spawned an HBO-BBC television series, a series of radio plays and even a companion cookbook.

Even today, a decade and a half later, McCall Smith seems rather surprised by the phenomenon he created.

“It was 1,500 copies published by a small firm,” he says. “I remember when they got through them they came to me and said: ‘Well, we may even consider a reprint, we may do another 500.’ And I thought: ‘Steady on, you don’t want to overdo the thing.’

“It wasn’t very lucrative at all, but I was reconciled at that time: ‘OK, this is where I sit.’ I was perfectly happy with that and didn’t anticipate this success happening.”

Success did not come overnight. The author credits word of mouth for helping to grow the books’ popularity. Then, after the fourth volume, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, was published, the United States caught on – The New York Times ran a full-page profile and publishers began queuing up.

“I remember the pre­cise moment when my life changed,” says McCall Smith. “The books had been acquired by Random Hou­se in New York and I went over in a fair­ly modest way to meet my new editor. I thought that I’d have about half an hour and be shown the door. But I got this wonderful welcome, they hired a whole restaurant for lunch with all sorts of people. I arrived at 11am and went out into the street at 4pm and thought: ‘Oh heavens, this life is different now.’ ”

Only then did McCall take a “temporary” sabbatical from his university job to embark on the 12-year writing blitz that has produced 50 books. In 2006 he was honoured with a CBE for his services to literature.

And it all began with one woman – Mma Precious Ramotswe, the precocious private investigator at the heart of The No 1 Ladies Detective Series. A warm and humane Botswana woman, she has hooked millions of readers across the globe, the character had been conceived nearly two decades earlier, when McCall Smith worked briefly in Swaziland in 1980.

During a trip over the border to visit friends in Botswana, he watched aghast as a woman wrung a chicken’s neck – the writer’s lunch for the following day – and decided to “write about someone like that one of these days”.

The picture was fleshed out during a nine-month stay in Botswana a year later, and annual visits to the African country thereafter. He also drew from experiences growing up in neighbouring Zimbabwe and it is this unique insider knowledge that lends his prose its insightful voice.

“Oh – I would say I owe Mma Ramotswe just about everything,” he says with a laugh.

“What was wonderful is that I was then able to write not just that series, but other things which I might not have been able to write in the literary marketplace had I not been travelling on the shirttails of The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”

• Alexander McCall Smith will lead the talk The Wonderful World of Mma Ramotswe on Friday, March 6, at 10am, and another titled Scotland Street, Sunday Philosophy and Corduroy at 11.30am on Saturday, March 7. Both events are at InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. Tickets cost Dh70 and are available at www.emirateslitfest.com

rgarratt@thenational.ae