Interview: Alexander McCall Smith on the ideas that underpin his series 44 Scotland Street
EVEN when you interview writers as often as I do, when you have read almost everything they have published, there are still some things about their work that you often don’t find out.
Sometimes they don’t want to talk about them. Those two o’clock in the morning moments when, plagued with doubt, they contemplated scrapping the whole novel. When the story that they had begun so confidently, seemed to be slipping through their fingers. When the plot seemed to be twisting out of shape, the ending either impossibly distant or faintly preposterous.
“Do you ever,” I ask Alexander McCall Smith, “have any moments like that with 44 Scotland Street?”
I would understand if he did. I’ve lost track of the number of writers who have told me that, halfway through their novel – even ones which have gone on to win awards or top the bestseller charts – they despaired of ever being able to pull the thing together, or threw the manuscript into the rubbish bin, only to have it rescued by a partner who had more faith in it than they did. Even Ian Rankin – according to his wife Miranda in a recent documentary – when writing his novels, tends to despair that he can’t work out how to move the plot further forward. Usually, she said, this happens round about page 65.
Writing a serial novel in a daily newspaper must surely be even harder. Whenever McCall Smith, Rankin’s next door but one neighbour in Merchiston, reaches page 65 in the next volume of 44 Scotland Street, the first pages will already have appeared in this newspaper. He can’t go back and correct them, yet he still won’t have worked out how to bring the plot to a conclusion. This is, therefore, literary funambulism – tightrope-walking – of a high order: at least when a tightrope-walker sets out, he has a clear end in sight. When McCall Smith sets out to write a new volume of 44 Scotland Street, he doesn’t. He has already written 20 episodes for the new series, which begins in The Scotsman on Monday, but still only has the vaguest of ideas where it is going to take us by the time he reaches the 80th, or final, episode in the book.
So it is, I feel, an eminently reasonable question to ask McCall Smith when we meet for lunch.
“It’s not an issue for me,” he says, with a slight hesitation and a vaguely apologetic smile. “I think I have an overall sense of atmosphere for whatever story I want to write. And with Scotland Street, for me, it’s just a question of allowing that to come, and going into that register.”
Over the past eight books, it’s become clearer what that register is: 44 Scotland Street is Edinburgh, but a rather sunnier, gentler version of the city than many of its inhabitants might recognise. In it, the streets have not been torn up for tramworks, there is no hint of recession, virtually no politics, and certainly none of the kind of crimes Ian Rankin might be puzzling out in his nearby study. It’s not quite an haut-bourgeois paradise, but it’s near enough: its worries are comic misunderstandings not existential despair, its manners and morality unambiguously clear, its appreciation of the good things in life (art, friendship, humour) unforced. As gallery owner Matthew pointed out in an earlier volume: “There is nothing wrong in appreciating a bourgeois paradise when every other sort of paradise on offer had proved to be exactly the opposite of what paradise should be.”
“Against that though,” McCall Smith points out, “the social composition of Scotland Street is more varied than one might imagine. There’s nothing particularly grand about Domenica Macdonald, an anthropologist, who was born in Scotland Street. Angus Lordie is an artist who isn’t particularly well off, though he’s hardly living in a garret. So yes, it’s predominantly an Edinburgh middle-class drama, but not entirely – Big Lou comes from a farm in Angus, Elspeth doesn’t come from a particularly elevated background, and so on.”
Building a detailed ultra-realistic portrait of the city of the kind that social historians in the future will be pore over is in any case, not something he deliberately sets out to do. “One might well say that not mentioning trams in Edinburgh is like writing about the Blitz in London and not mentioning that there were any bombs falling. But with fiction, you don’t necessarily want to tie yourself down to the current moment, because that will lead to a book becoming dated quite quickly.
“So yes, this is escapist fiction, but I don’t think that need be a pejorative term. We can read something in order to escape the tedium, the grim realities or the distress of our lives, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to live – for even a short time – in a world that is fundamentally benign.”
Does that mean he has to be in a benign mood to write it? “No. The mood can be created by the act of writing itself. Let’s say I was feeling low and I sat down to write Scotland Street. I couldn’t remain like that because I would be transported into the world of those characters. So the mood of the characters can change my own mood. It’s like people saying, when it’s cold, think of the Caribbean and you’ll feel warmer – it’s that sort of mind over matter, or in this case mind over mind.”
One of the great pleasures and privileges of my job is that not only do I read episodes of 44 Scotland Street before it appears in The Scotsman but that occasionally I also discuss possible future plotlines with its author. At one stage, he was contemplating writing about the death of a child (not, I should add, his central character, the ubiquitously popular Bertie). I advised him to go ahead and write it, but when I ask him whether he has, he told me that he had decided not to.
That, I think, is what he means when he talks about the emotional register of Scotland Street. “We have lost (comically boring retired solicitor) Ramsay Dunbar and (Glasgow gangster) Lard O’Connor, but I don’t want to have too much mortality in these stories, because that is not what people look to them for. From the mail I get, the readers are very clear on this.”
He could, he agrees, write about infant death in his standalone fiction – indeed, he does so, and very movingly, in his latest book, Trains and Lovers – but the very fact that he doesn’t in 44 Scotland Street doesn’t mean that he can’t write about deep issues.
“The story of Bertie (who will turn seven in the new series but remains much put-upon by his pushy mother) is really about freedom and its repression. Big Lou is about the search for love and about disappointment and looking after people.
“The themes are there, but they are told in the context of day-to-day little stories, and that is what people respond to. They see these little moral issues cropping up – how we treat our friends and so on – in what might seem like mundane stories about Edinburgh, but that’s why they are read elsewhere. That’s why Bertie, for example, has so many fans in India – because his story, which is also about parental ambition for one’s child – chimes very strongly with readers there too.”
It’s while we are talking about Bertie – who as regular Scotsman readers will know, is routinely dragged off for needless psychotherapy sessions by his mother Irene – that our conversation drifts towards Freud. He asks me if I know WH Auden’s poem In memory of Sigmund Freud. When I tell him that I don’t, he quotes from it, that part in which the poet writes about the liberating effect of psychoanalytical theory, not least on “the child, unlucky in his little State/some hearth where freedom is excluded”, which almost encapsulates poor Bertie’s plight as a child whose mother is determined to give him the best possible start in life (saxophone lessons, yoga, Italian classes) and is unable to see how that denies him the right to the freedoms of a normal boyhood.
And that’s relevant because as well as writing the next volume of Scotland Street this year McCall Smith reveals that this year he will also be publishing his own study of Auden’s poetry.
“It will be out in the autumn from Princeton University Press and the working title is What WH Auden Can Do For You. It’s about my own personal discovery of Auden, and there’s quite a bit about his development as a poet, where I’m trying to tie that up with his own experience of life.
“There is so much that is forgiving and understanding about his poetry, and I am constantly moved by it. I think he can open up our eyes to a new way of appreciating and sympathising with the world.
“I like him most when he is being sympathetic. Take for example, his poem Streams, where he talks about “wishing for the least of men/Their figures of splendour, their holy places.” He is saying he wants that for the least, the most humble of men … it’s just such a marvellous human understanding.”
All of which might seem a long way from Scotland Street. But look again. Look at its absence of malice, at the lack of cruelty in its comedy. Look at the underpinning of thoughtfulness and respect for others that lie behind its stories, no matter how small they are.
Behind the smiles, behind the storylines, there’s a coherent, thought-out, way of looking at the world that is both humane and moral. And that, I think, is why McCall Smith never gets stuck at page 65, never gets the two o’clock in the morning doubts about how to push on with the plot.
Like I said, it’s literary funambulism of the highest order. And even though that word has roots in Latin (funis, rope; ambulare, to walk), in the case of Scotland Street at least, I think we should forget that. It’s more straightforward altogether. It’s just plain good fun.
• Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street returns to The Scotsman on Monday. For the first time, episodes will also be at swts.oldsite.jpimedia.uk for 48 hours after publication