Friday, November 15, 2013

Books and writing: Alexander McCall Smith

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Alexander McCall Smith (AMS) in person, quite possibly the world's most prolific author, living or dead.

AMS began by launching into a long story about the Really Terrible Orchestra, which he founded with his wife for those of us who cannot play our instruments. He says that he does not actually play the bassoon, but rather plays part of the bassoon, the part that does not include the very difficult high notes. And when performing with his orchestra he simply stops when the music gets too difficult and waits for the "more accessible" portions of the score.

He quite accurately reports that we all actually learned the clarinet at some point in our childhoods (I did!), something that is often unearthed in psychotherapy sessions as "Suppressed Clarinet Memories". And he recommends that when starting our own Really Terrible Orchestra we seek out a conductor who is currently before the courts and will accept the role of conductor as a sort of plea bargain deal so as to avoid jail time.

The man is a freak among writers, putting out around five books a year, each taking him a couple of months. He does not plot or plan but simply sits and writes, saying it all emerges from his subconscious. And while he makes it sound easy, we should note that the man works from 4 till 7am most mornings, followed by a nap, and then more writing. He reports that he writes 1000 words per hour.

AMS advises writers that they must get the first line right, then goes on to say this is because it is likely to be the only one that is actually read, especially by critics who have the power to write 3,000 word reviews based upon this first sentence.

His most well-known series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, started as a short story which then became a novel about a woman in Botswana - Precious Ramotswe - starting a small business on the death of her father. He is now up to the 15th book in the series - putting out a new one each year -  and has no intention of stopping until he himself "stops".

AMS's affection for Botswana, and his regard for the values that define this nation, are genuine. He says the response to the books in Botswana has mostly been positive, but there are of course critics who complain he does not address the serious problems the country faces. And while he acknowledges that these problems are real, he is unapologetic in choosing to focus his energy on the positive, which for him include the fact that the country has been consistently democratic since gaining independence in 1966 and has chosen to keep the profits gained from the diamond industry in public hands.

AMS regularly has "conversations with his characters" and with five (or is it six?) different series on the go - a book a year for each I believe - it is quite something that he manages to juggle so many characters and plot lines.

Bertie from the 44 Scotland Street series - the boy who remained 6 for 8 years and is my personal favourite - is the character he gets asked about most often by audiences who often wish that Precious Ramotswe or Isabel Dalhousie, the Edinburgh ethicist, might swoop in and save him from his mother Irene. As a mother of another saxophone playing son - although not one who attended a Very Advanced Kindergarten or is involved in psychotherapy - I do wonder if I might be placed by AMS in the same basket as Irene who represents the modern plague of the "Very Pushy Mothers". (Yes, he does raise my feminist hackles on this point).

This man is no tortured artist. AMS cracked himself up frequently during his talk, and not more so than reporting on the poor Community College student who asked him the most serious of questions "Do you suffer?" to which he responded "No, I don't. I'm quite content actually."

AMS is currently working on a modern day version of Jane Austen's Emma, which he says has been the most tremendous fun to write. And it is that sense of fun, the joy that he conveys in person and on the page, that makes me predict that it will no doubt be a pleasure to read.

As the organisers of the appearance attempted to draw the event to a close, calling for just one more question, AMS insisted there be at least two more. One suspects that this lovely, slightly rumpled, kilt wearing man enjoys these appearances at least as much as his devoted audience.


  1. Thanks for this Michelle. I do love his Isabel Dalhousie stories the best. I've never read Bertie, I must try. I also recommend listening to Hugh Laurie read his von Igelfeld stories. All of his stories are formulaic and basic in on way, easy to read...which sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it isn't. It's his superb use of language and believable and lovable characters that make these stories, ad that is talent!! Lucky you :)