British writer, Alexander McCall Smith is the reputed author of over 100 literary works. His series, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency has sold over 40 million copies in 46 translations worldwide. A prolific author of fiction, ‘44 Scotland Street’, ‘Corduroy Mansions’ and ‘Young Precious Ramotswe’ are some of his well know books.
Everyone has that one moment in time where they knew, with absolute certainty, that they wanted to write – do you remember yours?
For me, that moment came when I was still fairly young. I think that I was in my mid-teens, although I had been writing even before that. I sent off my first manuscript when I was eight! It was very short (a single page, I think).
You were born in Zimbabwe but you’ve also lived in Botswana, the US and now the UK and you have travelled extensively. How big of a role has travel and your life in different countries and cultures played in your writing?
I think it is very useful to experience a number of places. That expands one’s view of human possibilities. At the same time, I think it is very important to have one place, a special place, that you know well and that you regard as home.
You are very close to your readers and fans. Has this connection with your readers, hearing what they have to say, knowing how your books have changed their lives, affected the way in which you write your books?
The connection with my readers has been of immense value. My readers help me to understand the characters and they also make sure that I know what it is they like in the books. I value reader suggestions very much indeed and often act on them.
A lot of people say that once you struggle with your first few books the rest is quite easy. You’ve written over a 100 so would you agree?
Yes, to an extent. The real battle is getting your first book published. There is an element of luck in that – along with persistence and hard work.
You write several books at once and they all have different stories, different characters, and different plots – how do you go from writing one to the other?
Because of my schedule, I have to have a clear idea of what I am going to write and when. I have periods set aside for each book and then when I have finished, after a gap of a day or two, I start the next.
No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series is perhaps your most celebrated work of fiction exceeding 40 million copies and translations in 46 different languages. Were you surprised at its immediate success?
I was very surprised – and grateful to those early readers.
From when you’ve started to write series back in 1998 to where you are still continuing to write the series today; how have you seen Botswana change and are those changes reflected in the new books or do you continue to adopt the same background you started with?
Like all countries, Botswana has changed quite a bit over the years. At the same time the essential culture, the bedrock of the country, has remained the same. I tend to concentrate on what one might call the traditional Botswana values, but I do acknowledge the change in the books. Generally speaking, my books tend to be set in a quieter time – that is meant to be the present, but it has a lot of features of the past.
While you were writing novels, you were also a professor of medical law and you conducted bio-ethics panels and were involved in countless other ventures which you all gave up to focus on writing. Have you found that change therapeutic? Do you miss anything that you used to do?
I miss some aspects of my former career, but I am, on the whole, very pleased that I became a full-time writer. I think that a career change can be stimulating.
Now that you are a full-time writer; what do you do to wind down and have fun when you have writer's block or when you just need a small break?
I love sailing or generally fiddling about with boats. I also enjoy music and going to the gym. I love the company of friends – for me, the greatest pleasure is talking to friends about … well, about everything.