Alexander McCall Smith is the author of over 60 books, including the bestselling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.
Why do you write?
Like most writers, I write because I feel that I have to. It’s not exactly a compulsion, but it’s quite close to that. Writing makes sense of one’s world, which is what most of us want to do on some level or other.
Which novelists do you admire?
I like the usual suspects – the great 19th-century novelists such as Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Dickens – but I very much enjoy reading twentieth-century and contemporary novels too. Graham Greene was a great master.
R. K. Narayan, the Indian writer who created a wonderful series of books set in the small Indian town of Malgudi, is one of my great literary heroes. He is something of a miniaturist, as is Barbara Pym, another enthusiasm of mine. Then, for a bit of humor, I greatly admire E. F. Benson and his Mapp and Lucia novels.
Describe the route to your first novel being published…
I started as a writer of children’s books. I entered a writing competition and was fortunate enough to be one of the winners. After writing numerous children’s books I started to write short stories and then progressed to writing novels.
How has having a literary agent helped you?
At a very early stage in my writing career, I acquired an agent. I was very fortunate to have Gina Pollinger on my side, and she continued to represent me until her retirement. I then went to Caroline Walsh at David Higham Associates, who has done a wonderful job for me. A good agent is above the price of rubies.
In what ways do you ’service’ your books?
If one is fortunate enough to have one’s books taken up in a significant way, there is a tremendous amount to do in ‘servicing’ the books. I do a lot of traveling and often attend literary festivals and other events all over the world. Although it can be quite burdensome, it is always very interesting to meet the readers, and I think that is what keeps me going.
What advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
I think that many novelists at the beginning of their careers spend far too much time writing and then tinkering with their first book.
My advice is to write a book and then immediately go on to the next one and to the one after that. In other words, the more you write, the better you will become.
Alexander McCall Smith has written over 60 books for adults and children, as well as a variety of academic legal texts. Best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the latest addition – The Double Comfort Safari Club – is published in March 2010.