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The SRB Interview: Alexander McCall Smith – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Alexander McCall Smith

November 3, 2015 | by SRB

Alexander McCall Smith’s fingers must move faster than Alfred Brendel’s. Among the most productive and successful writers at work today, he has published in the region of 80 books (excluding academic works), among them The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (16 titles), which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide; 44 Scotland Street (10 titles), and the Sunday Philosophy Club novels, featuring Isabel Dalhousie (10 titles). He has received various awards and honours, including the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. In the past two months alone he has published The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, The Revolving Door of Life, the first of a new children’s series, School Ship Tobermory, and an introduction to a new edition of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. He lives in an elegant house, surrounded by trees and garden, in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, with his doctor wife Elizabeth. He has two adult daughters. He spoke to Rosemary Goring in his spacious study, where his desk is strewn with books, papers and spectacles. The walls are lined to the ceiling with books and paintings, among them, beside the large fireplace, an Italian Renaisssance portrait which he believes is of King James V. In a small adjoining room McCall Smith’s secretary, Lesley, is at work. She brings tea. McCall Smith is lightly tanned, dressed in chinos and shirt, and speaks in perfect and grammatical sentences. His voice is calm and soothing and could be marketed as an antidepressant; his conversation is punctuated frequently with laughter. His svelte Tonkinese cat, Augustus Basil, initially joined the discussion before jumping into a pink plush chair and sleeping through the rest of it.

SRB: Could you tell me a bit about your writing routine? 

MS: To a certain extent that depends where I am, in that I have to do a lot of touring and that changes my routine. Generally speaking if I’m at home, or perhaps staying somewhere else and writing there, I will often write very early in the morning. So, I would get up at three or four o’clock in the morning, and I would tend to work until about half past six. And then I go back to bed, and have a second sleep, so to speak, which I find very restorative. I’m not sure where exactly one is in the cycle at that stage, but I find it a pleasant stage of the sleep cycle.

And then I will write later on in the morning depending on what else there is to do. This morning, for instance, has mostly been taken with correspondence, and a lot of mornings are taken up with correspondence. Lesley will come through and we will deal with correspondence, that’s letters from readers, and associated things. I tend not to write in the afternoon but will perhaps write again in the late afternoon, early evening, and then may well write in the evening as well, depending obviously on what is going on.

When I’m actively working on a book, I will write anything between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day. Occasionally I might have a day where I write a little bit more. I write on a word processor, as I suspect most people now do. I find that there is a different voice if I use a pen. I think it’s a question of brain pathways. A word processor provides an opportunity to develop different brain pathways, a pen involves different processes, there’s a bit more hand-mind coordination, obviously, but I think there is in my view a different voice.

How would that manifest itself?

It would manifest itself stylistically. Word processing has made it easier to write perhaps more complex, longer sentences. I think that when word processing first became common there was quite a bit of interest in what effect it would have on prose. I think many people felt that word processing would result in logorrhoea setting in, in that it made it so easy to spew forth the words. I remember I read a book back in those days, called Electronic Language, which looked at the philosophical and linguistic implications of word processing, and the thesis that there were different brain states involved.

My own experience is that yes, it does facilitate expression, word processing encourages loquacity, prolixity, but you can still write tight, structured prose with it. I think it lends itself to casual ungrammatical prose, in that stream of consciousness writing is very easy with word processing.

So I use the computer. And generally speaking, it emerges in pretty much the finished state. I think that I possibly enter what psychiatrists would describe as a mildly dissociative state. In that I am aware of my surroundings – obviously I will respond to anybody speaking to me, the telephone ringing and things of that sort – but I am actually engaged in direct contact with the subconscious mind. Because I think fiction to a very considerable extent emerges from the subconscious mind. So I sit there, I don’t have to say to myself, what am I going to do next, what is going to happen next? There isn’t that cogitative process. It just comes, it flows. And that, I think, is because I am accessing the subconscious mind, which is creating the narratives. Because the human mind as you know is always interrogating the world and asking ‘What if?’ questions. We’re not conscious of that going on, but we’re doing it all the time. The mind is doing a whole series of rapid computations. With fiction, the subconscious mind is making it up. That explains why the writer can sit at the desk and begin to write something which surprises him or her.

And you get surprised?

Yes. Developments occur. And it had not occurred to my conscious mind that x or y is going to happen, but it happens, and that happens all the time.

So it’s a bit like going to the cinema not knowing what’s going to be screened. You get up, you sit down, and you are almost entertaining yourself?

I think so. It is like that. I don’t exactly hear a voice, because that sounds a little bit sinister. But I hear a rhythm. I hear a metre, and then the words fit into that.

Is that a musical thing or a poetic thing?

I think it’s possibly in the area of musical or poetic sensitivities. I hear – just pass me that book [he is given The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, and reads the opening sentence]. ‘Mma Ramotswe remembered exactly how it was that the subject of taking a holiday arose.’ I’m hearing tum ti tum, ti ti ti tum… and the words come.

Have you spoken to other writers about this?

I’ve spoken to composer friends, about how they compose. I remember one composer friend I talked to about that, he hears the music, the melody perhaps, or some supporting harmony, or whatever. I can’t do that. I can’t look at a musical score and hear it; I am full of admiration for people who can do it. But musical friends of mine can do that. Whereas I can plug into the flow, when it comes to prose. So that’s why it happens quite quickly. Because it’s 1000 words an hour, that’s the rate at which I usually write.

Do you think writers like Balzac or Dickens were similar? People are always very suspicious of productivity. Yet you look at some of the great writers of the past who have written as if it’s a continuation of them, almost.

I think that’s very interesting, and I certainly would agree with you that if I read Dickens that must be going on. Dickens has a flow. I get the strong impression of flow in Jane Austen.

She’s a string quartet.

She is, yes, definitely! But mind you, that raises all sorts of interesting issues about synesthesia, such as what colour you see when you read Jane Austen…

You were a professor for many years, then the arc of your career dramatically changed. Was it a comfortable process, or were you at times unsettled by what was becoming your other life?

I don’t think I was unsettled by it. There came a point at which I had to make a decision, that was a decision I made fourteen, fifteen years ago, when I decided I would become a full-time writer. I don’t think I found it unsettling. I found it a little bit difficult towards the end of my professional career, my other career. I found it difficult, I suppose, to cope with the demands that were beginning to be made, and that is what triggered the decision. Initially I took an unpaid leave of absence – universities are always very pleased when people take unpaid leave of absence, because it shortens the pay roll. But the University of Edinburgh was very good about that. I took unpaid leave of absence, intending to return, but then I realized I couldn’t, the other career had become too consuming.

I think that I found it interesting to be fully involved in a world that I had been involved in on the edges for years. I had a long association with publishing in Edinburgh, it did go back quite a bit. And that association with publishing in Edinburgh has actually been very important to me over the years. I’ve much appreciated it, and it’s been a very great privilege to be able to be involved with the publishing industry in a small way, a peripheral way. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been keen to keep my association with Scottish publishing. Obviously the books had acquired further legs, so to speak, which meant that I had publishers elsewhere. But the Scottish publishing side has been really important and I’ve always enjoyed that.

Have you found – because the intellectual stimulus of your first career must have been intense –  that this is as satisfying, or is it more enriching?

I would say it is perhaps more enriching, in my particular case because it enables me to get involved in various intellectual pursuits, which might have been not central to what I was doing before. I was Professor of Medical Law at the university, and that’s a very interesting discipline, because not only is it law but it also involves a very substantial element of ethical issues and public policy issues. So I was involved with those fairly heavily. I was the UK member of the UNESCO International Bioethics Commission, so we were dealing with bioethical issues at that world level, which was fascinating. For example the International Declaration on the Human Genome was that commission’s responsibility.

And another thing I did in my legal career was criminal law, and criminal law is very much concerned with issues of liability and responsibility and accountability. So I was particularly interested in the interface between notions of responsibility and accountability in the philosophical sense, namely, in what circumstances do we hold somebody responsible for an act? And indeed the analysis of human action I was  particularly interested in. My PhD was in the analysis of free action and forced action, which raises all sorts of interesting issues. So I had been working in these rather fascinating areas of philosophy of action and philosophy of responsibility. All of which I don’t regret, not only was it interesting, but it also provided me with, I suppose, a certain interest in human action, and that is something a novelist must be concerned about.

You can hear an echo of all this in your books.

And I think people are very interested in moral dilemmas. That’s one of the reasons why I started the Isabel Dalhousie series, because the Isabel Dalhousie novels are entirely about that. They are entirely concerned with questions as to how one particular person should live. And of course we are all interested in the major issue of how we should all live.  People really do take a great interest in that, although they may not realize of how much interest that is to them. If posed in a theoretical way, interest could be  killed stone dead if you were to say, ‘Let us consider the philosophical implications of…’

But you can actually explore that through fiction, and I think that is one of the principal roles of fiction, which is to enable us to experience vicariously the issues that are fundamental to our personal lives. When we read about somebody else’s difficulties and somebody else’s issues, not only is that sharpening our moral imagination, it’s defining the issues for us. So Isabel is always going on about what should she do. She can hardly walk to Bruntsfield to get a cup of coffee  without thinking of the…. Some of the readers might say, ‘Oh, here she goes again.’ But a lot of them say, no, this is what they like. The letters go both ways. We do get letters saying, this woman keeps going on about whether you can read a postcard addressed to somebody else or something of that sort. Why doesn’t she just do it! And others say, no, this is something I have really wondered about. Should I read somebody else’s postcard? Is a postcard a public document?

There’s such a philosophical and moral – not moralistic – mind behind all your work. The obvious question is, are you a religious person or is there any element of that informing your work?

No, I don’t think that is there. In fact, I don’t intend to put it there. I have a very vague position on that, in that I suspect it is very similar to a position that an awful lot of people have in this particular human era: that it is quite difficult for people in our society to say that they have firm beliefs of a religious nature. Yet at the same time I am sympathetic to that, and I am sympathetic to people who do say that and have that in their lives.

My position would be that I think it is very important to have a spiritual element to one’s life. Now, how you express that is, in my view, not the main issue. What language you use to clothe those spiritual feelings, those very deep feelings of  spirituality and appreciation of the world and of others, which are deep and profound matters that we all feel – and we all go through spells in our life when, if we aren’t aware of those, we’re probably not cultivating our personal internal garden as we might.

Having said all that, if you take the Mma Ramotwse books, Mma Ramotswe does actually go to church but the reason she goes to church is that in Gabarone in Botswana, where she is, probably something like 80-90 per cent of the population go to church. It would be quite unusual there to come across somebody who said ‘I don’t believe in anything’. It really would be. The actual statistics in Botswana are interesting. In the last figures I read, 50 per cent of the population were members of a church and went to church regularly; 25 per cent were members of a church and  went to a church relatively infrequently; and 25 per cent had a mixture of animistic belief and mainstream Christian belief. So those were people who had a vague  concept of the ancestors, etc, or were slightly pantheistic.

So Mma Ramotswe has that in her life. She doesn’t go on about it. But it’s there, and that is what you would find. So if you spoke to somebody like Mma Ramotswe in Botswana, and she’s a fairly typical Botswana lady, there are lots of people like her, if you spoke to her she would say things like, ‘God bless you’, or ‘May God look after you’, or something of that sort, meaning it very  nicely, it would be very comforting, She really would mean it.

I’m just making it believable, making it realistic that she has that. Isabel Dalhousie, by contrast, is more typical of a post-Christian era, in which she says she finds it difficult to believe any literal claims of religion. And yet she can go to a religious service and she would say there is a spiritual side to us.

That’s very long-winded answer to your question. The answer is, no, there isn’t a specific religious agenda, that would be inappropriate for my writing.

Does it partly explain your popularity, so many of us being post-Christian … 

… in this country.

You’re right. Not in America.

One can engage with people who have a particular religious faith, and say, I understand exactly. You can participate in ritualistic practice. You can look at a religious ritual and say that is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, though when you analyse it you think, this is meaningless.

So, something like prayer: you can say, I don’t think anybody is listening to this, but that’s not the point. The point is that somebody is expressing themselves in terms of a sentiment towards others, or a sentiment towards the world, which is very important, and that’s the significance of a ritualistic practice. If you look at a ritualistic practice from the outside, if you say, Oh come on, why don’t you eat pork, or why can’t you do whatever it is, that’s missing the point that what that ritual is doing for those people is saying something about the way they value the world and they value community and the value of who they happen to be historically.

Something like a Jewish dinner on a Friday evening, before the Sabbath, that’s saying an awful lot about what it means to be a member of that community. I have a lot of Jewish friends who do that, but if you said to them, does this say anything true, they may not actually even believe in God, but they still would go through with it. That’s the same with the Christian religion. You can go to hear a choir sing Evensong in a cathedral, and be immensely elevated and comforted by it. Or you can look at the words of that wonderful book of Cranmerian prose, The Book of Common Prayer, in the Episcopalian tradition. Look at the words of the marriage service: ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together…’. Now, that’s so powerful. Firstly it’s saying ‘Dearly beloved’, it’s addressing other people as loved. ‘We are gathered here together’ – there’s a sense of community. Beautiful prose. The funeral service: ‘Man that is born of woman has but a short time to live…’ All of this is immensely powerful. And of course linguistically powerful.

You can hear that, as you say it.

James VI’s great contribution to humanity, in my view.

Madman though he was.

I think he imposed a bit of peace and order that was sorely needed.

So long as you weren’t in any way witch-like, you were totally fine…

It’s very interesting to think of him as a gay king, which adds another dimension to him. And think of his dreadful childhood, he was the pupil of [George] Buchanan, it was a severe training, and he meets his cousin Esmé Stuart from France, who falls in love with him, his one moment of love and happiness taken from him.

To move on to a more cheerful subject, everything you write is infused with a droll, humorous or quizzical outlook. Is that how you see the world anyway, or is it only when you’re writing?

That’s an interesting question. It is probably the way I see the world. It’s distilled in the writing. I certainly see the comic aspects of the world. I think that you can look at world events today and in one way you can either weep over the sheer awfulness of the world, it is a vale of tears. Or you can see a lot of it as musical comedy. You can look at politics and you can either shake your head and say, this is terrible for whatever reason, depending on your political stance. Or you can say, now we’ve heard everything. It’s very colourful. UK politics, leaving aside Scottish politics for a moment, UK politics are extremely colourful.

But of course you have to be serious about it, and life is hard and difficult and there are terrible things happening. I think there’s no point in dwelling exclusively on the dysfunctional and the confrontational and the morbid, because that actually produces a morbid outlook. Okay, we know we’re almost into borrowed time on global warming and degradation of the environment. We know we are creating exactly the right conditions for the revenge of the microbes. We seem to be getting away with it by the skin of our teeth. People said HIV was going to be the agent of Malthusian doom. It wasn’t. Thank heavens we dodged that one. All of these immensely depressing problems, and the issue of informal nuclear proliferation is so awful as to hardly bear thinking about, it’s possible that somebody might detonate a nuclear bomb in a sort of freelance context. Let alone the possibility of the outbreak of World War Three.

So you could spend your time concentrating on that, and you could end up being thoroughly depressed about the prospects for humanity. If you wrote just about that, or you wrote in that register, you would really depress people even further. So I don’t think you make light of the human condition, but you can nonetheless say there are other strings in our life and we need those if we’re going to have the ability to carry on. And to tackle them. You can use humour to assert values. You can use humour to say something poignant about somebody’s little personal ambitions. which I try to do.

All of that is perfectly legitimate. At the end of the day you would hope you have affirmed the humanity of your characters, and that the readers engage with them in a sympathetic way, and the readers will see them as being an instance of the humanity we all possess.

One of the main dangers we face in our political and social life is seeing people as The Other, and forgetting that the people who are on the receiving end of injustice and deprivation and various forms of unhappiness are exactly like us and are our brethren.

I’ve just returned from Greece. I was sailing around the Dodecanese islands. And of course, there it was. And we saw it. We came across an abandoned large rubber boat, life jackets on the shore, etc. We saw these people in Kos. I went for a walk into the town, and there they were on the streets, families living on the streets, sleeping on cardboard. And then a column of about 150 people came round the corner with some Greek security people around them. We’d seen a Greek naval vessel coming in, they’d been picked up at sea. And now here they were. The Greeks were treating them perfectly civilly, the Greeks just want to move them on.

You see this tide of humanity. That raises all sorts of issues in Western Europe. Some of these were Syrians who were fleeing for their lives, and obviously you feel the greatest possible sympathy for them. But these things test our sympathy. While I was watching this, through my mind ran the lines of Auden’s wonderful poem ‘Refugee Blues’. He wrote a very moving poem about refugees in the 1930s, as spoken by a refugee couple, and the refrain, when they’re talking about the people talking in a hostile way about them, the refrain is, ‘He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.’

We have lots of tests of our charity. I think fiction plays a really important role in the  moral conversation that we have with each other. In that fiction enables us to understand the perspective, the experience of other people. That’s why children’s books are so important Because children’s books really create a moral imagination. Absolutely fundamental. If you look at what a children’s book is saying subliminally to a child, it is saying, ‘This is what it’s like to be…’ Sometimes it’s overt, sometimes it’s subconscious. Something like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie is such a sympathetic character. His poverty, described in the beginning, where his grandparents lie in bed to keep warm during the day, things like that. A child who reads that will understand that there are people who don’t have what they have.

That’s where you started, writing children’s books.

I wrote a lot of children’s books. I still do. I’ve just started a new series. Last night I just got the first copy of it. It’s based in Tobermory, as the title [School Ship Tobermory] suggests and it’s about a school ship. The kids go off  – it’s illustrated by Iain McIntosh – they go off to various places around the world, the ship’s based in Mull. It’s a boarding school story-cum Patrick O’Brian!  And we’ve got some very good baddies. We’ve got Geoffrey Shark, and Maximilian Flubber, people like that. Matron is wonderful. She was an Olympic diver. She’s married to the ship’s cook. I’ve signed up for three, the Americans have bought the first three.

Your talking about the morbid outlook earlier brings us naturally to Scottish miserabilism. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to  me you could almost see yourself as a one-man crusade against it.

No. I wouldn’t want to portray myself as against it, because I think there’s a role for every approach, and every view. So literature would be very blank if it were all Pollyanna’s latest observations. We have to, there must be writers who reflect the harsh face or the sadness of life, and who report dysfunction and who report all forms of social and personal pathology. I don’t say there isn’t a role for that at all. There is. All that I would say is that that shouldn’t be taken as the exclusive and only defensible position, or necessarily the best position or the default position.

I’ve been accused of being a utopian writer, or people say, ‘You look at the world through rose-tinted spectacles.’ I don’t, actually. I actually really deal with a lot of sadness in the books. It’s just that the overall tenor is affirmative. One contemplates the sadness or the bleak, and then you can work to overcome it. That’s a defensible philosophical position. So I’m certainly not engaged in any crusade against that at all.

All that I would say is there are alternative visions and the alternative visions form part of our reality. People also say to me, ‘Oh well, you write about  bourgeois Edinburgh or middle-class Edinburgh.’ I say, yes, I do. If you look at  Scotland Street we’ve got a range of characters. Big Lou wouldn’t want to describe herself as that. Angus would say he’s bohemian. Domenica would say that she, being an anthropologist, is above all descriptions. Irene would say she is way above it because she’s so advanced and progressive. Bertie would see through all of that. And Cyril’s just a dog!

Actually, if you look at Edinburgh and do an occupational analysis of Edinburgh, you’ll find it’s actually a very middle-class city. Something like four-fifths of the population earn their living through white-collar pursuits. Now I think therefore you can’t really look at me and say you’re not really reflecting reality, when obviously you are. I would say it doesn’t matter. Obviously you don’t want literature that reads like The Great Gatsby or something of that sort. But actually it’s not the point. You can write about people of any background, you should be open to any reality. The Botswana books are about very ordinary people. Mma Makutse comes from a very poor background, and her inner life is not dictated by that. That affects the way she looks at the world, and she’s strived and she’s been very conscious of her status, because she’s been so much at the bottom of things in the past. So my characters in my books are actually mostly, relatively ordinary people.

If you think about Edinburgh society and its stratifications, the richness of that is a gift for a novelist, is it not?

Edinburgh lends itself to all sorts of investigation. Edinburgh has changed socially really remarkably in recent decades. It’s a much more open city. It’s much less rigid than it used to be. I remember the rather old-fashioned, disapproving Edinburgh. There are still echoes of it around, just slightly disapproving of anybody who does … anything!

It’s often women who are disapproving.

Oh yes! This is an absolutely true story. I was walking up Churchill, a few years ago,  and there were two echt Edinburgh, Morningside ladies in front of me, and I couldn’t  help hear their conversation: ‘Would you look at the state of the pavements.’ And the other one said, ‘Yes. Just like the rest of the world.’ Now that really encapsulates it.

Obviously most beautifully the definitive statement of that is Muriel Spark. Jean Brodie. The problem is, that’s been done so beautifully in that novel, everything else is just watching her chariot wheels going past. When Jean Brodie says of the headmistress, ‘She’s trying to intimidate us by the use of quarter hours.’ Or the chemistry teacher: ‘We  must be careful. He has the means to blow us all up.’

Maggie Smith wrecked the role for anybody else. She just got it. I love the little echoes you hear of that, occasionally, echoes of that old-fashioned Edinburgh approach to things.

My editor wanted me to ask, if you could be a fictional character, who would you choose?

That’s interesting, really interesting. [There is a very long pause.] I’m not trying to filter them out, for one that will cause least embarrassment. [We can hear a hedge trimmer in a garden nearby.] I’m quite an admirer of Mr Woodhouse in Emma. Mr Woodhouse gets a bad press. He’s very fussy and disapproving, and worried about draughts. And damp. I could probably be Mr Woodhouse. Which isn’t a very heroic choice. Or – oh, well I mean, we’re all Jack Aubrey, from Patrick O’Brian. It’ll have to be a joint choice. Jack Aubrey at sea, from Patrick O’Brian and Mr Woodhouse. I’m a keen sailor, hence my admiration for Jack Aubrey.

And in fact you could be him.

That’s really kind but that’s really pushing it!  Jack Aubrey was obviously what Patrick O’Brian wanted to be. Because Patrick O’Brian made up a whole history for himself.

He left a wife, and changed his name, and all that…


Exactly, yes. Part of that was, he said that at the age of 16, whatever, he ran away to sea with a friend. Now that’s what the books are about. Those books are about friendship, between Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. But there’s a prolonged fantasy of going off on a ship, with a friend. It’s interesting. In fact, I know a lot of people, a lot of my friends would like to be Jack Aubrey. Very few of them, in fact none of them, would want to be Mr Woodhouse. Men love the Patrick O’Brian novels. They don’t like them for the action, so I don’t read Patrick O’Brian for the scenes of pursuit when the ships are chasing one another across the sea. I read him for the enclosed world, and the sense of being away, the sense of escape. They are great fantasies of escape, and indeed that’s what happens when you get on a boat. You sail off and you are actually detaching yourself from your normal world, and you become part of a self-contained world, and it’s immensely exciting.

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