The Penmen Profile: International Bestseller Alexander McCall Smith

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar

Alexander McCall Smith’s impressive repertoire of more than 100 books span many genres, including academic non-fiction, fiction and children’s books. His work is published in 47 languages and he has publishers all around the world. Since the publication of his first book in 1980, the international bestseller has won numerous awards.

Described by The Wall Street Journal as “a tapestry of extraordinaire nuance and richness,” McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series sold more than 20 million copies in English and was adapted into a one season television comedy-drama. McCall Smith took time out of his day for an interview with The Penmen Review.

Have you always written?
Yes, I have always written, since I was a child. I would feel very strange if I wasn’t in the process of writing something.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I start with a very basic idea – a notion, an image, perhaps an idea for a scene. The characters then just seem to walk onto the page. Because I write serial novels, the characters often develop over the course of several books.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
Like most authors, I had a long wait before I was eventually published. I am glad that I did not give up during that period. Once I had published a successful novel, I was very pleased to find out that I could then write about the things that I had always wanted to write about.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I have been influenced, I think, by a wide range of authors. I very much like the novels of R.K Narayan, and have been very influenced by the poetry of W.H. Auden, whose work is a constant inspiration.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“Collected Shorter Poems” by W. H. Auden:

I discovered W.H. Auden’s collection in my mid- twenties. I had heard of Auden and had read one or two of his poems, but this was my first proper discovery of his work. This lead to a literary enthusiasm that has lasted my lifetime. Auden influenced the way I look at the world, and therefore the way I write about it. Because he concerns himself with our personal response to the world, there is an intimacy about his work that I think has affected my novels. Auden was one of the great humane voices of twentieth century literature and I never tire of reading his work.

“Swami and Friends” by R. K. Narayan:

R.K. Narayan was the first Indian novelist writing in English to reach a wide audience abroad. He wrote a whole series of novels set in an Indian town called Malgudi. This, and the other novels in the series, were important for me because without having read them I am sure that I could not have written “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series. Narayan showed me how to describe the daily life of a small town and how to make small things big. I owe him an immense debt of gratitude.

“Rikki Tikki Tavi” by Rudyard Kipling:

I was a keen reader as a boy. I read my way through a great deal of the usual children’s literature. I loved school stories and adventure books and yearned for adventures myself. I knew this book more or less by heart at a very early age.

Visit McCall Smith’s website to view a complete list of his books and awards.