Confessions of a serial wordsmith

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Alexander McCall Smith admits he's in a bit of a spin after penning 60 or so books ahead of TV debut

A WEARY look crosses author Alexander McCall Smith's face as he makes a string of confessions. First up, he doesn't actually know how many books he's written.

Next, he's not seen the finished film of his first and possibly most famous novel, destined for television screens in the next few weeks.

Finally, he's not even glimpsed the slightly cheeky tea commercial clearly inspired by his "traditionally built" heroine, the courteous, sensible and witty Mma Ramotswe – a character whose giant personality and slightly bumbling approach to solving crime has become one of the best-loved figures on the bookshop shelves.

As one of the most prolific writers around, who churns out beautifully crafted, often witty and absorbing chapters of two books at a time, he can be forgiven.

Still trying to balance his body clock after a trip to the other side of the world – he's not long back at his Merchiston villa after an event for writers in Florida and prior to that a literary festival in Sri Lanka – McCall Smith has rather given up on trying to keep track of anything other than what his writing duties are for the day and when he can head for his afternoon nap.

He is sitting at his busy writing desk in a cluttered study on the first floor of the home he shares with his wife, Bruntsfield GP, Elizabeth, co-founder of his other great interest, the Really Terrible Orchestra, in which he plays bassoon badly.

The writing room – walls lined with heaving bookcases – is bathed in gentle sunlight, his desk groans under the weight of African objet d'art, a strikingly modern Apple iMac dominates the vast worktop alongside a credit card-sized iPod and a note from his PA listing three key writing jobs that are, for the day at least, his priority.

He sips from a battered blue and white china mug, a v-shaped chunk is missing from the rim, yet the bestselling author who by now must have made a decent fortune from his 60 or so books and the sale of at least one set of film rights, clearly doesn't mind.

Instead he is dwelling on the transformation of his 1988 Botswana-based novel, The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, from the printed page to the small screen courtesy of Oscar-winning English Patient director Anthony Minghella and leading lady, jazz songstress but movie novice, Jill Scott.

"I haven't seen the film," he concedes, "but the excerpts I have seen have been very powerful. The trailer is really lovely.

"I saw them filming in Botswana, I saw the set and met the actors."

It's been a tall order transposing a bestselling novel, remarkable for its fine morals and lack of blood and gore, to the screen. Indeed, original thoughts that it might be for cinema release were eventually replaced with a realisation that Mma Ramotswe's gentle pace and the relatively minor crimes she solves might not have cinema goers queuing around the block.

Nevertheless, McCall Smith does let slip that the first television screening of his books – thought to be scheduled for Easter – will be one of many.

"Anthony Minghella wants to make a series. So there will be a TV series which will have many films. But I'm really not to say anything," he chuckles, eyes sparkling.

"It seemed to take a long time from when I first sold the film rights, but I gather that is often the case," he explains. "Then Antony Minghella said he wanted to make the film – I very much admired the films of his that I had seen. But it's a very complicated business getting everything lined up. It involves such large logistics, it was complicated, but they did it."

His initial concerns that the book would be given glossy Hollywood treatment were unfounded. Instead, Minghella and his crew headed to Botswana – a country which had never before hosted a movie, but which greeted the opportunity with the same courtesy and enthusiasm you might expect Mma Ramotswe to welcome a troubled client with.

"I was pleased it was filmed in Botswana, I was keen that something that had such a strong association with that country should continue to be associated with it," he remarks.

"It's much cheaper to make things in a studio in Hollywood than to make them on location in Botswana, but I'm happy to say they did."

It's a major milestone in the softly-spoken, acutely intelligent author's career. Now retired as Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University, he first set about writing in 1980 when he cautiously entered a Chambers competition for new writers and found himself a winner in the children's book category.

It was 1988 before Mma Ramotswe made her first appearance. Today he is seamlessly working on two books from two other series, both at the same time.

"It's a pretty busy existence," he says, masterful in understatement. "I'm writing four books a year. Now I have two books on the go: volume five of Isabel Dalhousie and volume five of Scotland Street, which is in The Scotsman.

"I'm often up at 4am, I'll write for several hours before going back to bed briefly. So far today, I have written a chapter of Scotland Street and will write a chapter of Isabel Dalhousie later."

The results are a string of books which frequently top bestsellers lists. Not bad for an author who originally reckoned his style would be appreciated by only a niche audience of readers.

"I was reconciled to being a writer with a small readership," admits the 59-year-old father of two daughters, Lucy, 23, and Emily, 19. "At the stage my books were published everyone seemed to be more interested in rather grittier sorts of books."

Their popularity exploded thanks to the American market, where readers couldn't get enough of the simple, highly moral and respectful ways of the Botswana detective and her associates.

Indeed, it's a perfect antidote to a society which McCall Smith agrees has lost track of its own morals.

"We have always had social problems, we have to keep what we see today in perspective. In some respects, Scotland is a better place to live then it was some time ago.

"But the society we have created can have its negative side. Statistics about the unhappiness of children suffering are really rather bleak and there are fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves about what is going wrong," he declares.

"We need to recreate a civic society and part of that is having a sense of respect for one another. We are now creating a totally amoral generation where none of the basic building blocks of society have been instilled in people."

Perhaps a little dose of Mma Ramotswe, a journey to Botswana and an insight into its people's courteous ways, brought to us by Edinburgh's Alexander McCall Smith is exactly what we need.


ALEXANDER McCall Smith was born to a Scottish father and Southern Rhodesian mother and was raised in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He went to school in Bulawayo, near the border with Botswana.

He came to Scotland when he was 18 to pursue his academic career and has lived here ever since. His wife, Elizabeth is a GP in Bruntsfield and they have two daughters.

The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency was the first in a string of Botswana-based novels featuring his best known character, Mma Ramotswe. It was later followed by a series of novellas featuring a fictional German professor, Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld; the Isabel Dalhousie Sunday Philosphy Club series featuring a quaint 40-something Edinburgh detective; and his Scotland Street serial.

In addition he has published several books of short stories.

He lives in Merchiston in an area dubbed "Bestsellers' Corner" within walking distance of fellow authors Ian Rankin and JK Rowling.

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