No 1 writer of detective tales


He turns out at least four books a year which are translated into 42 languages and devoured by millions around the world. To call Alexander McCall Smith a prolific author is an understatement – he’s more like a one-man literary industry.

Relaxing in a chair with a cup of tea in his hand he fills us in on his travelling schedule.

He spent January writing in the Cayman Islands, now he’s in South Africa to discuss a plan for a musical of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with theatre veteran Nicholas Ellenbogen. Then it’s off to Botswana to receive the Presidential Order of Merit.

“Getting a medal is very nice, you know,” he says.

Will it be one of those that can be worn around the neck?

“Ooh, I do hope so,” Alexander chortles.

The author, born in then Rhodesia and now living in Scotland, has often come under fire from critics who say he sees Africa through rose-tinted glasses by ignoring issues such as Aids, poverty and corruption.

Alexander (62) can’t see what the fuss is about.

“I think there’s space for books that deal with the positive and the affirmative,” he says. “There’s this feeling that when dealing with Africa you can tell only the bad news. Where’s the hope?”

Clearly his 40 million readers agree.

Before he released his first Detective Agency novel in 1998 few people had heard of Alexander McCall Smith even though he’d written more than 30 books.

Back then writing was just a hobby – after completing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh he became a medical law lecturer. He’d unwind by writing short stories and children’s books in his spare time.

Music is his other passion. A few years ago he passed his Grade 4 euphonium exam and he also plays bassoon in the Really Terrible Orchestra. Anyone is welcome to join the orchestra, he says, just as long as they don’t show any noticeable musical talent.

“People love listening to us and waiting to hear what’s going to go wrong. In London we got a standing ovation – though it could have been the audience jumping to their feet to escape as quickly as possible,” Alexander says, roaring with laughter.

He’s still chuckling as he leans forward and confides, “You know it’s sometimes very satisfying to do something really, really badly.”

Read the full interview in YOU, 17 March 2011.

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