Alexander McCall Smith: "It's very easy to love Scotland"
Conversations with Alexander McCall Smith come with a soundtrack. Instructions to listen to this or that composer are followed by quiet moments of reverie as the author recalls his favourite refrains. It’s all so dignified you daren’t interrupt.
“Do you know the piece? Oh, it’s lovely! I’m going to play it on my iPad while we’re talking. Just a few bars. I promise I won’t inflict the whole thing on you.”
He’s talking about “Soave Sia Il Vento”, Mozart’s trio from the Italian opera, Così Fan Tutte.
It’s the piece, Alexander tells me, that he listens to each time he begins a new chapter in the Sunday Philosophy Club series. It obviously does the trick, as he’s recently published the eleventh instalment.
“I think it’s the most beautiful piece of music ever composed,” he muses after a few moments pass, just enjoying the music.
“The words are so beautifully moving: ‘May the breeze that takes you on your journey be a gentle one, and may all your desires be fulfilled.’ Isn’t that nice? To say that to someone about to go off on a journey is a lovely thought.”
Playing with the "Really Terrible Orchestra"
A lovely thought indeed, but a tangential one. Alexander, much like Isabel, the heroine of A Distant View of Everything (his latest Sunday Philosophy Club novel) excels at tangents.
“I would have loved to be a pig farmer, but alas it was never given to me to be that. They’re such intelligent creatures. We have a house up in the Highlands and I got involved in a little pig project in Morvern, Argyle. The difficulty is that it’s impossible to keep them as a farming enterprise on such a small scale.”
Pig rearing is just one of many eccentric hobbies, including a taste for Belgian shoes and his founding membership of the “Really Terrible Orchestra”, in which Alexander plays the bassoon. It’s a wonder that he finds the time, amid a routine that sees him write at a formidable rate of 1,000 words an hour. Is it necessary, he ponders, to live an interesting life in order to write interesting fiction?
“I don’t think you have to be Ernest Hemingway and go deep-sea fishing and bullfighting, but it’s very important to be involved in the world and in people in particular.”
"Scotland is a particularly beautiful country and I think that beauty is sometimes heart-stopping"
“Now, what I really love,” his voice lowers conspiratorially, “is listening in—discreetly of course—to other people’s conversations. The trouble with mobile phones is that you only hear what one side is saying. I think, instead of a silent carriage, they should have train coaches where if you’re going to make a call, you have to plug your phone into the system so it broadcasts both sides of the conversation.” He explodes into a warm, full-bodied laugh.
“I think that’s a very practical suggestion that should be taken up by somebody!” That last bit is spoken louder than the rest, as if imagining tiny National Rail representatives hidden in the walls.
It’s a suggestion born of experience—Alexander has spent a great deal of time travelling. Born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia), he moved to Scotland as a young man to study law, eventually gaining his PhD there. Lecturing stints in Belfast and Botswana followed, and even after settling down in Edinburgh with his wife Elizabeth in 1984, the duty to promote his (now over 80) novels still sees him fly across the world on a regular basis.
No matter how far he strays, however, it seems Scotland will always have his heart.
“Scotland is a particularly beautiful country and I think that beauty is sometimes heart-stopping. Certainly, it has difficult a history, but it’s a poetic, engaging place. It’s very easy to feel strongly about Scotland.”
Read more: 15 reasons to go to Northern Scotland
Photographed in his beloved city of Edinburgh. Image via City of Literature
Scottish politics, however, the author won’t be drawn on. “I tend not to get involved in the public discussion of political issues. I feel that my role as a writer is separate from that. I don’t think another referendum would change my approach to writing about Scotland at all.”
Alexander would rather talk about the way the place makes him feel than the rules that govern it. “If you happen to like pipe music and you hear a piece such as “Mist Covered Mountains”—which is a gorgeous pipe tune—then the spine tingles. I do think that Scotland evokes complex emotions.”
“Do you have Spotify?” he asks, keenly. Another tangent. “The Penguin Café Orchestra. Put that one on your list as well. Sometimes I play that when I’m writing the Scotland Street books. It’s unbelievably beautiful, but difficult to place musically. Spotify is the most wonderful celestial jukebox isn’t it?”
Generous with his time and his tastes, Alexander seems as attune to small acts of kindness as the protagonist of his latest novel. “Isobel is in a very comfortable financial position and she sometimes feels embarrassed by it, but she’s got a very strong sense of duty to others,” he explains.
“The question of how far one needs to go in helping other people, is a day-to-day issue for most of us. To what extent do we have a duty to our friends, for example? And what is the extent of one’s moral duty to others in the world, who are worse off than oneself? What does one do about beggars in the street and so on? All of these questions are actually quite difficult,” he sighs.
“I don’t think you have to be Ernest Hemingway, but it’s very important to be involved in the world and in people in particular”
One suspects that the highly successful Sunday Philosophy Club series is Alexander’s own forum for mulling these things over. “I suppose the world has always been troubled but the last few years we’ve been very conscious of the fact that people are knocking on our doors, and that there are people not far away who are in desperate straits.”
“What the internet and other forms of modern communication have done is brought it home that there are great differences in material good fortune. If you’re living in a remote village in India, or perhaps sub-Saharan Africa, and you can get images of a life of ease and material plenty elsewhere then that’s obviously going to have certain consequences.”
Africa, particularly Southern Africa, has played a central role to Alexander’s oeuvre. Botswana, where the author co-founded the country’s first university in 1982, formed the backdrop for his most popular series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
Spanning 17 novels, the series has now sold over 20 million copies worldwide and cemented its success with adaptations for both Radio 4 and a BBC/HBO television series, the latter of which was produced by celebrated filmmaker Richard Curtis.
It’s no understatement to say that readers love these characters. And it’s not an affection that Alexander takes lightly.
“People invest in the characters and sometimes they live their lives in the company of the characters. We’re often sent mail telling us that Mma Precious Ramotswe [the fictional founder of the detective agency] has been with them through difficult experiences, such as chemotherapy.
“It’s very, very touching and we take it very seriously. I’ve had people saying things like, ‘I read this book with my dying husband and it was the last thing we read together.’ And you then feel a great sense of responsibility, and so you can’t let anything happen to your characters that would cause undue distress in the minds of the readers. Not that one slavishly observes what the readers want, but you have to be aware of it.”
He confesses that his respect for his readers has at times caused him to lament a creative decision. “I sometimes realise that I haven’t conveyed things properly, or that I’ve written something which, on reflection, I might wish to write differently. You become very aware of how people can get quite emotional about fictional characters.”
There’s another brief, quiet sigh. “You know, I sometimes feel that these interviews are a free form of psychotherapy.”
He pauses, silent again, until that mischievous laugh bubbles back to the surface. “Where should I send the cheque?”
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