On Monday 26th January, best-selling writer Alexander McCall Smith begins a 'daily novel' in The Scotsman - something no British newspaper has ever offered its readers. Here he explains why writing about New Town flat-dwellers has been more enjoyable than anything he's ever done.
(44 Scotland Street is only available to purchasers of The Scotsman newspaper. To secure your copy of the paper, wherever you live, call our subscriptions hotline on 0131 620 8400 (+44 131 620 8400 from outside the UK) or email email@example.com. Alternatively, subscribe to The Scotsman's daily download - the electronic edition with the same full-colour layout and the same original articles and graphics as the printed edition.)
It is a gentle joke worthy of an Alexander McCall Smith novel; one of those rueful little ironies which pepper the lives of characters such as Precious Ramotswe and Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Inglefeld.
For the last decade the author of the best-selling No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Portuguese Irregular Verbs has been holed up in his comfortable study in Edinburgh conjuring up the red dust of Botswana and the absurdities of German academia. Now an international literary sensation whose star is perched somewhere between Canis Major and Orion’s belt, his growing band of fans are about to savour for the first time his take on his native Edinburgh. The only trouble is that in the last year McCall Smith has seen as much of Edinburgh as an agoraphobic Glaswegian.
There has been a book signing tour of Australia, a trip to Botswana, three demanding American book tours and numerous visits to London and mainland Europe. He has just returned from the US where he was the guest of the Palm Beach Literary Society - "such a charming group of ladies" - and tomorrow he is off to Oxford; a journey from the sublime to the sublime if McCall Smith is to be believed. He is a man so engagingly Micawberish in his outlook that he could send a cheery postcard from the seventh circle of hell.
But today he is at home in his spacious Victorian conversion in Edinburgh; a house overflowing with books, rugs, objets d’art and an eclectic collection of paintings. It makes the V&A look a bit Spartan. While McCall Smith goes off to make cappuccino, I wait in the drawing room, a salon which reflects the attributes of its owner. It is warm, comfortable, untidy, stimulating, amusing, old-fashioned - the music on the piano is "My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair" - and harbours some surprising incongruities, the main one being a faded picture of the Queen.
"It came with the house," says McCall Smith. "We thought we’d just leave it where it was. It’s not meant to be making a point." What sort of people leave photographs of the Queen about the place? People who buy and sell in Merchiston, apparently. It can only be a matter of time, however, before HM dashes off a letter. McCall Smith’s fans range from teenagers to octogenarians but he does hold a special appeal for well-bred ladies of a certain age. He has received fan mail and a signed photograph from Laura Bush.
The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has sold three million copies worldwide. The books squat at the top of international best-sellers lists for indecently long periods and they have now been published in 22 languages, the latest being Icelandic.
Like his Macedonian namesake, this Alexander has no more lands to conquer. Instead of weeping, he has turned his perceptive eye on his home city. For the next six months, every weekday in The Scotsman, McCall Smith will publish a daily excerpt from 44 Scotland Street, a new novel he has written especially for this newspaper’s readers.
"I’m having more fun than I have ever had writing anything," he says of this new project. "It’s a marvellous thing to be able to write in 850-word chunks. You can do a series of vignettes and you can play around with these characters and their lives. It is just working so comfortably from my point of view. I’m very pleased to be doing it."
The first 50 excerpts of the story have already been written but it is still very much a work in progress. "I have a rough idea what is going to happen," he says. "but the actual detail is vague and I’d be happy to take direction from Scotsman readers. I’m very eager to hear from them. They may be able to influence the direction of the story."
44 Scotland Street, set in a fictitious building in the real street, is vintage McCall Smith; light, clever, elegant and funny but underpinned by the moral dilemmas of everyday life and his characters’ struggles to resolve them. He may have been born in Southern Rhodesia, educated in Bulawayo, and be only marginally less well-travelled than Buzz Aldrin, but his grasp of the cadences and nuances of Edinburgh life is as firm as the Castle’s foundations.
"In Edinburgh one has such a good choice of characters," he says. "One can write in all sorts of people and get away with it." One of McCall Smith’s particular talents is his ability to portray archetypes without resorting to stereotype or clich. Thus we immediately recognise the Edinburgh chartered surveyor who is a stalwart of the local Conservative Association, who lives in the Braids and who dreams of membership to Muirfield golf club. In McCall Smith’s hands such characters retain charm and novelty. He can simultaneously arouse our mirth and our empathy.
"We have the Stockbridge mother, who is rather pushy, with the prodigiously talented son," says McCall Smith by way of introduction to 44 Scotland Street. "Little Bertie is making good progress with the saxophone and with his Italian. His mother is a great follower of Melanie Klein.
"Then we have Domenica Macdonald, who is typical of a certain sort of intellectual Edinburgh lady of whom there are a considerable number. There used to be a very considerable number. These were formidable, impressive people with a strong civic sense. Rather like Miss Jean Brodie, they saw themselves as citizens of a much broader intellectual world. These people are still with us and Domenica Macdonald is an example of that type. We’ve all met that kind of person. Often they have a very dry wit.
"There is Bruce, who goes to a fashionable New Town bar and is very keen on rugby. He is a surveyor and again he is a type. If you go to Murrayfield when the crowd is coming out you will see thousands of Bruces. We have Ronnie and Pete who are in the furniture restoration business. There are a lot of people in the furniture restoration business in Edinburgh," he says, laughing. "There really is a lot of restoring going on."
The idea of a serial novel is not new. Much of the literature of the 19th century was published in weekly magazines and newspapers. McCall Smith is in good company: Dickens, Tolstoy, Henry James and Balzac were all proponents of the form. In the US, Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City were published in weekly instalments in the San Francisco Chronicle and Stephen King has published serially on the internet. Where McCall Smith breaks new ground is in publishing daily.
It was a chance meeting with Maupin at a party thrown for McCall Smith in San Francisco by the celebrity author Amy Tan that started the chain of events which led to Scotland Street.
"I subsequently mentioned in an article that it was a pity newspapers here didn’t do serial novels and that is when the proposal came from The Scotsman," he says. "I thought it was rather a good idea. Over lunch I said it was quite a tall order to do a weekly instalment which is when they said: ‘Actually, we’d like it daily.’
"My agent said: ‘You’ve agreed to what?’ Then I discovered it was a very entertaining and enjoyable process. The characters just walked on to the stage uninvited. They flocked in. They were knocking on my door asking to be admitted".
Edinburgh lends itself to this kind of treatment in the way other cities do not. "Edinburgh, particularly the New Town, is a bit of a stage," says McCall Smith. "People are used to meeting these characters on the stage. They are kenspeckle figures. There is a very strong civic sense in Edinburgh. In my view it makes perfect sense to have this backdrop of a New Town street and a particular stair in a New Town street."
The story revolves around the comings and goings at No 44 Scotland Street, with its multiple occupancy flats of the kind that Robin Cook is so keen to abolish. "Scotland Street is a wonderful name for a street and a wonderful name for a story," says McCall Smith. "It is quite an interesting street in the east end of the New Town. It’s not as grand as Drummond Place and it is verging towards the Bohemian end of the New Town. There is a good mixture. There are haute bourgeoisie as well as students."
The tale is light and amusing and skips along at a good pace. Part of the fun is in spotting familiar characters. Look out for the occasional politician, churchman or thinly disguised establishment big cheese.
"Writing a serial novel of this sort does bring home the moral responsibility of the author," says McCall Smith. "I am very conscious of my responsibility for the characters, more so than in a conventional novel. They have an open future at the moment. It’s a curious thing. Maybe it is because they are more real and it is more immediate. The act of developing these characters is heightened, it’s more vivid. It is about the life in which I am currently participating, in which we are all participating."
Regular readers of his work will know that McCall Smith, Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University and, until recently, vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission and a member of Unesco's bioethics commission, has a sense of morality more highly developed than the average bishop’s.
He has recently been involved in a minor literary spat over the moral responsibilities of the author which the Scottish literary scene, with predictable but depressing myopia, has chosen to misrepresent as a stooshie between McCall Smith and Irvine Welsh over whose books best define Scotland.
44 Scotland Street tackles issues of trust and honesty, snobbery and hypocrisy, love and loss. "I’m very interested in the ethical dilemmas that people face in their day-to-day lives," he says. "I think everyone is interested in that. We now have newspapers - The Scotsman included - running newspaper columns in which moral advice is offered. I think people enjoy thinking about these things."
But shouldn’t we be working out these problems for ourselves?
"I think that the newspaper columns which give that sort of advice are useful because they do demonstrate how one would go about looking at moral issues other than on a simply intuitive basis," he says. "They do identify dimensions and they assist people to go through this process themselves. There is, of course, also a voyeuristic pleasure that people get in considering the problems of others. Fiction is one way in which we see the issues illuminated and embodied. So if we are concerned about an issue of loyalty, for example, it is enlightening to read about it in fiction. That is happening in 44 Scotland Street but not in a heavy way I hope. This is a light novel. It is social observation, a jeu d’esprit. It is intended to entertain but I would hope to get across some issues of the human condition in it."
McCall Smith’s fiction has a certain timeless quality but the huge appetite for it suggests it captures something of the zeitgeist. It is a phenomenon he finds hard to explain.
"The world is a very confusing place and as it becomes more pluralistic and morally ambiguous, people look for certainties. But it is a very complex picture. Everybody has a desire to find some meaning in their lives. There is a growing interest in fiction which amuses and edifies, perhaps as an antidote to the bleak vision. People are rejecting nihilism."
The publication of 44 Scotland Street punctuates a remarkable 12 months in his life. Almost a year ago I travelled with him to New York, where Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of his Botswanan series, was already a sensation. But nothing could quite prepare him for the overwhelming demands of the past year.
In the autumn he won the 20,000 Saga literary award and was short-listed for the American Booksellers’ Association book of the year. In the last few months the film deal with Anthony Minghella and Sidney Pollack has been concluded. But he continues to work part-time as an academic.
"It’s been an extraordinary year," says McCall Smith. "I feel quite overwhelmed by it. I’m delighted that this has happened to the books. They have taken off all over the world and that gives me very great pleasure. I’ve been truly astonished at how Mma Ramotswe seems to be talking to so many people in so many different cultures. It has been a year of touring around and meeting all sorts of interesting people."
He is still reeling a little from the extravagance of Palm Beach. "It is the most opulent place I have ever been. It is said that in the height of the season at Palm Beach, 25 per cent of America’s wealth is concentrated there".
But there are drawbacks to this kind of success. "I have very little time left," he says. "I have no time to myself. Every day is filled with commitments. I have to travel a great deal. That’s not easy. In this coming year I will be making more than six visits to the United States. I’m meant to be visiting Denmark, Italy, France and Spain and heaven knows where else. In theory I can control what I do but in practice it is more difficult. I would like to have a little more peace. Next year I would like some time for self-isolation."
Such a hectic schedule would be difficult for anybody but you sense there are particular predicaments for McCall Smith. He is by nature an unhurried man. He not only stops to smell the roses but the honeysuckle and the jasmine too. He is generous with his time and takes on projects which most authors of his stature would deem beneath them. In New York he treated two of his original fans - a lady of a certain age and her grown-up, stay-at-home son - to dinner at the Harvard Club. These days he finds himself having to say no for the first time and it genuinely pains him.
His much-prized anonymity is beginning to go and there are daily letters from causes asking for his support. "I don’t mind that so much," he says. "It is the pressure on time, the constant demands, which are difficult. I wouldn’t want to be inaccessible and I do have assistance now which has helped, but it is pretty relentless pressure. It has somewhat stressed me, though I’m not collapsing."
The anchors in his life are his wife Elizabeth, a doctor, and his daughters Lucy, who is studying at Cambridge, and Emily, who is destined for medical school next year. The money - and he is signing deals worth hundreds of thousands of pounds - has not changed him, he says. There is that great African status symbol, a Mercedes Benz, in the drive - custard-coloured, readers should note - but he still buys his cars second-hand from his neighbour as he has done for years.
Twelve months ago he was able jokily to toy with - and reject - the idea of buying a pepper farm in India. Now one senses his wealth weighs more heavily on him. "It hasn’t changed my general lifestyle," he says. "There are requests for support every single day. I’ve identified certain causes I’m interested in supporting. I’m setting up a trust in Botswana which will give very direct and immediate help to families affected by AIDS and I will be doing some things with Book Aid, which sends books to developing countries."
But if the constant travelling and bureaucracy occasionally sap his spirit, the writing more than compensates. The sixth Precious Ramotswe book will be published this year along with the first in a new series centred on a lady philosopher, Isabel Dalhousie. And then, of course, there is 44 Scotland Street, the project that has given him most pleasure.
"It has been wonderful to take it with me wherever I go, to dip in and out of it," he says. And there creeps into his voice a slight note of envy for the gentle, unhurried, engaging lives he has bequeathed to his creations.
• 44 Scotland Street is only available to purchasers of The Scotsman newspaper. To secure your copy of the paper, call our subscriptions hotline on 0131 620 8400 (+44 131 620 8400 from outside the UK) or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, subscribe to The Scotsman's daily download - the electronic edition with the same full-colour layout and the same original articles and graphics as the printed edition.