‘Follow your heart. If you don’t, it shows’: How I write, by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 100 books including poetry, short stories, children’s novels as well as detective and general fiction. He grew up in Zimbabwe before moving to Edinburgh to study law at the University, where he later became a lecturer in medical law and continues as Emeritus Professor. He writes around five books a year, with standalone novel The Pavilion in the Clouds out now and the latest in his popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series released next week

When I am in Edinburgh, I write in my book-lined study. I like having my library around me, as I often need to look something up. A very light room, facing west, it gets light from four large windows.

Describe your working day

I often get up at 3am and work for a couple of hours. It is a strange time – the Irish call it the Hour of the Wolf. My mind is very fresh then and I usually make good progress with whatever I am working on. Then I return to bed for a few hours before starting the day again. Breakfast is over by nine, and by then I have already done much of my day’s work. I will, however, continue at my desk until lunchtime. I prefer to have a siesta in the afternoon and often write after dinner, between 8pm and 11pm.

Any rituals?

I often listen to music, carefully matching my listening to the mood of the book on which I am working. When I sit down to write my Isabel Dalhousie novels, I always listen to a particular piece of Mozart, the trio Soave sia il vento from Cosí. It’s the most beautiful piece of music ever written (in my view) and a great source of inspiration. I also like listening to the Penguin Café Orchestra, particularly when I am writing a Mma Ramotswe book. I like to have a clear desk. Clutter slows one down.

You’ll have published three books by the end of summer and six by the end of the year. How do you juggle them all?

I often have more than one book on the go at a time and find it helpful to be able to switch between fictional universes. Usually, though, the book with a pressing deadline takes precedence. I have to control myself a bit, keeping new story ideas on the back boiler until I have finished the things I am currently working on.



What inspired your new, standalone novel?

The Pavilion in the Clouds was inspired by my travels in Sri Lanka. The tea estates in that part of the country – when it was Ceylon – were often run by Scots. Indeed, the Scots made a very major contribution to the development of the tea industry there. Many of the estates still bear Scottish names. After a trip to the tea estates in the highlands there I thought it would be interesting to write about the lives of tea planters and this novel is the result.

Do you most enjoy writing for adults or children?

Adults. It is not easy to write for children: one has to use just as many devices as one does in writing for adults. And children can tell if you don’t mean what you write! They are very demanding readers.

Do you pre-plan?

I am always impressed by authors who have everything plotted out in advance. I have a general idea of what will happen, but as I write the book, the plot takes all sorts of twists and turns that I had not envisaged at the beginning. That is the way I like to work, and I think it gives the story an organic feel. In my view, a great deal of fiction comes from the subconscious mind. It is that part of the mind that interrogates the world and responds to it, and suggests possibilities. Things can happen in the book that I had no idea were going to happen. This means, too, that characters can acquire a life of their own and surprise me with what they do.

Have your working methods evolved over the years?

I very much hope that I am a bit the wiser after four decades! I have certainly learned a lot of lessons. I have also relaxed a bit, I think: I no longer feel that I have to write what I think is likely to find favour. I now write what I believe in and do not concern myself with any notions of what the literary marketplace might want. When I am asked for advice by people embarking on a writing career, I always say: “Follow your heart.” If you don’t, it shows.

You worked at the University of Edinburgh for many years and continue there as Emeritus Professor of Law. How do the working lives as an academic and an author compare?

I miss the students. Occasionally I am asked to conduct a seminar in a university somewhere or other, and it brings it back to me how much I enjoyed discussing issues with students. And when I attend a graduation ceremony, I find myself choking up with emotion. I find it very moving to see the students saying goodbye to an institution that has nurtured them and to the friends they have made in their university years. The friends of that time are often the best friends we ever make. I am very interested in friendship as a theme, and write a lot about it in my books.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

I am very fortunate in never having suffered from this. I think that writer’s block is, in most cases, depression.

What’s your go-to reference book?

Chambers Dictionary is never far from my desk. I love it. I have many other dictionaries (a whole bookcase of them) including dictionaries of slang, which make for most amusing reading. I love dictionaries and have some very obscure ones – such as a Melanesian Pidgin dictionary. I have dictionaries of the Scots language and I love discovering Scots words that I have not heard used before.

When do you clock off?

I tend to fade at 10 or 11 at night. I start to listen to an audio book then, but am asleep within minutes. I have many unfinished audio books as a result.

Does the news agenda influence your writing?

I tend not to get material from the radio news, but I do from the newspapers. I love hearing about local issues – they are often very colourful. When travelling, I used – in the past – to read local telephone directories. You would be surprised at the social detail you could find in them. Nowadays, of course, those directories are no more – a great loss.

Do you take a break after finishing a novel?

I award myself a break of a day or two. I do not take longer, as I tend to be itching to start the next book.

What are you working on now?

Several projects. I am writing volume 15 of the Scotland Street series. I enjoy that immensely, as that series features some of my favourite characters (such as Bertie). At the same time, I am working on the next Isabel Dalhousie novel. That is a series set in Edinburgh. I take great pleasure in that because I can write about the city in which I live. Isabel is a philosopher, so that gives me the opportunity to write about philosophy, a subject in which I have a strong interest. I am also working on a commissioned screenplay for a film and a number of collaborative projects with composers. I very much enjoy writing poetry for setting by composers, and I usually have several such projects on the go. I am a columnist with several publications, and that keeps me busy.

The Pavilion in the Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon, £14.99) is available now. The Joy and Light Bus Company – his 22nd No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel – is published next week (September 2) by Little, Brown


The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992