Alexander McCall Smith is top dog for productivity

How much can a writer produce in a day? If productivity is where it's at, Edinburgh's Alexander McCall Smith has got to be near the top of the leader board, averaging 1,000 words an hour, with the hours between 3am and 6am rated particularly productive.

Alexander McCall Smith at the Book Festival. Picture: Alistair Linford
Alexander McCall Smith at the Book Festival. Picture: Alistair Linford

In the 17 years since the publication of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, he has produced 17 Mma Ramotswe novels, 11 Isabel Dalhousie books, 12 in the 44 Scotland Street series plus stand-alone novels and books for children.

He remains an enduring favourite at the Book Festival, with his events among the first in the programme to sell out. So there was much anticipation in the Main Theatre on Tuesday when he arrived with not one but three new books to talk about, including a new Mma Ramotswe novel, The House of Unexpected Sisters, so hot off the press that a finished copy was handed to him just before the event began.

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McCall Smith seems to have an endless supply of charm and pleasantness, not to mention an unfailing gift for lifting the lace doilie of middle-class Edinburgh society and enabling it to laugh gently at its own mores.

Those concerned about the plight of Bertie, the seven-year-old hero of 44 Scotland Street, will be delighted that the new novel, A Time of Love and Tartan, has him attending a rugby match at Murrayfield where Scotland beat the All Blacks 13-0. Such is the beauty of fiction.

McCall seems to have endless energy, too, and is frequently engaged in charity projects, most recently a collaboration with composer Sally Beamish to benefit the victims of human trafficking.

He used his Book Festival event to announce another new project, a musical based on The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, currently in development with Graham Weir, formerly of the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which included a preview of its feel-
good, African-influenced soundtrack.

Not far behind McCall Smith in productivity is Peter May who, in addition to his best-selling trilogy of noir novels set on the Isle of Lewis, has developed successful crime series set in China and in France. He starts work at 6am, producing 3,000 words a day.

Addressing another sell-out Book Festival crowd, he talked about the final novel featuring half-Scottish, half-Italian forensic scientist Enzo Macleod, Cast Iron, and a new stand-alone Western Isles book set against the backdrop of the Harris tweed industry, which he described as “probably the best thing I’ve written since The Black House”.

Given that Cast Iron is currently sitting at number three in the bestseller charts, he reflected on how very different things had looked in 2005 when both The Black House and the first Enzo Macleod novel had been rejected by countless British publishers. The Black House was initially published in France, and the first Enzo Files novel in the United States, before going on to success in the UK.

The day began with two more Scottish novels, both many miles from McCall Smith’s Edinburgh and May’s Lewis.

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Literary journalist Annalena McAfee spent five years writing Hame, her encyclopedic account of an invented island, Fascaray, and the fictional poet with which the island is associated.

She described the magnum opus as “a love letter to Scotland, or an extremely long asylum application to Nicola Sturgeon”.

She was joined on stage by Polly Clark, writing not about a fictional poet but a real one.

Her highly acclaimed first novel Larchfield interweaves the story of the young W H Auden, who taught for two years at a boys’ school in the West coast town of Helensburgh, with that of a young present-day poet struggling to adjust to new motherhood.