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Author Alexander McCall Smith: 'At 16 I took myself terrifically seriously. And no one else did'

After studying law and seeing Northern Ireland’s Troubles close up, a competition win led to a life-changing career in writing

Alexander McCall Smith

Image: Kirsty Anderson

Alexander McCall Smith was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, to British parents. He moved to Edinburgh to study law, before teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast. In 1981, McCall Smith co-founded the law school at the University of Botswana, where he also taught.

His first published book was The White Hippo in 1980, which kickstarted a career writing childrens’ books. His breakthrough writing novels came with the publication of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which became a hit in Scotland (he had settled in Edinburgh with his family in 1984) and, after the third book in the series, in the US. To date, McCall Smith has published 24 volumes in the series, which has sold over 20 million worldwide. He is also the author of the popular 44 Scotland Street novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series, as well as many standalone novels and non-fiction titles.

In 2007 he received a CBE for services to literature and in 2011 was honoured by the President of Botswana for services through literature to the country. In 2015 he received the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.

Speaking to the Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Alexander McCall Smith reflects on an awkward adolescence, being in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and the growing realisation he was going to make it as a writer.

I think I was the usual 16-year-old – any time between 14 and about 18 is a really bad time if you’re a boy. You think you know everything but actually you know very little. And the world doesn’t treat you as if you know everything, so it’s a very frustrating time. The adolescent brain is very badly wired. So at 16 I took myself terrifically seriously. And no one else did. 

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I lived in a town called Bulawayo, which was in Zimbabwe. It was very remote, a colonial territory in colonial days. I was at a boys’ school. It was a very quiet existence. I was very interested in writing. I had always written as a child. I had an article published in the local paper when I was about 16, a piece about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. I don’t know why I chose to write about him. 

Alexander McCall Smith in Cambridge in 2004
2004: At a bookshop event in Cambridge for his novel The Sunday Philosophy Club. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

I think I was a pretty typical teenager. I read quite a lot. And I had a strong imaginative life. I spent quite a lot of time in my own company, thinking. I had the idea that I would love to write one day but it was very underdeveloped. I read a lot of poetry, which was probably atypical. And I had a pile of old copies of
The Listener magazine. I used to go through those time and time again. I was very self-consciously intellectual. I regarded myself as knowing more than the other boys at school. 

I decided that I would study law. So I went to Edinburgh university. Then I was offered the chance to study for a PhD. And in the course of that I was offered a job at Queen’s University of Belfast. So I went off to Belfast at a very difficult time. The Troubles were in a very serious state. It was a really significant time, living through a period of great sadness in a society that was torn by terrible divisions and basically a low-grade civil war. You heard explosions, you heard gunfire. But you just lived with it. There were moments when the situation was highly intriguing, and then there were other times when it was just tragic. I shall never forget that time. I was there for about a year and a half. And then I was offered a job back at Edinburgh. 

Alexander McCall Smith receiving his honorary degree from Edinburgh University in 2007
2007: Alexander McCall Smith receiving his honorary degree from Edinburgh University. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I started to write a bit more in Belfast and when I came back to Edinburgh the next major development in my writing life came. I entered a writing competition and was lucky enough to win the children’s fiction section. I then approached an agent in London and over the next few years I wrote a number of children’s books, which started to be published. And so that’s how I started. All the while I had the day job, and I ended up as professor of medical law at Edinburgh. I had a very interesting and satisfying career and was on a lot of government committees.  

And then I wrote the first novel, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. When that took off in a big way internationally, I felt that I was under great pressure to do all sorts of things. So I thought I’d take a leave of absence of three years unpaid to concentrate on my writing. And after a while I realised the books had become all-consuming. 

I went back to Botswana in 1981 to set up a law school in the university. And I continued to have a close connection with Botswana over the years. Then in 1996 I sat down and wrote what I thought would be a single story – how wrong I was – I’ve just finished the 25th volume of… Detective Agency (which is set in Botswana). I was asked to write a sequel then a sequel to the sequel. Then the books were imported by Columbia University Press in New York. And very big publishers, Random House, said, Oh, we want to put these out in America. And then they took off in a pretty dramatic way. 

I remember the moment I knew my life was going to change. I’d gone over to New York to meet my new editor. I went into their office thinking that I’d have a cup of coffee and then be shown the door. But they had a whole restaurant booked for lunch, and they had all these PR people there. And I remember going out of their office that afternoon thinking, my goodness, something is really happening here. I went out on Park Avenue, and I looked up at the sky, in the glittering canyon of the New York streets and I realised that life was going to be different. 

I’ve written about 75 books since then and I’m very grateful for how my life has gone. I’ve lived a total writer’s dream and I’m very conscious of my great fortune. 

If my younger self met me now and I told him what I had done he’d say, ‘Oh, my goodness. Is that true?’ The teenager would look at me and say, do you mean to say that you go all over the world and do these things? Because the sort of life I had as a teenager was very simple. I think he’d be rather overwhelmed. My job enables me to travel a lot. But usually where I really want to be is at home in Edinburgh. But I do know I’ve had experiences that I would otherwise never have had.

I didn’t think about being a dad when I was younger [he has two daughters with his wife Elizabeth]. There may be an interesting difference there between men and women. I think if you asked an 18-year-old woman she might say one day she’d like to be a mother. I think the maternal instinct is a very strong one, stronger than the paternal instinct. Women are much better carers. Women are much more inclined to nurture things and be concerned about others. Women keep friendships going much better than men do. Women are more concerned about the welfare of the broader family. Men just have an instinct to provide. 

I’d tell my younger self, try to think more about other people’s feelings and what they’re thinking. Be more aware of the feelings and sensitivities of others. I would also say very specifically, go talk to people much older than yourself. And listen to what they’ve got to say. That’s something I think we all suddenly realise. I think back to people, and I wish I’d gone to sit with a tape recorder and spoken to them about their experiences. 

2021: At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2021
2021: Alexander McCall Smith enjoying the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Image: Roberto Ricciuti / Getty Images

I remember I occasionally bumped into the famous Hamish Henderson, who was a great folklorist. I used to be on a committee with Peter Higgs, the Nobel-winning physicist of Higgs boson fame. I had a great uncle who had been a doctor in the Battle of the Somme. I didn’t talk to any of them enough. 

If I could relive one moment it would probably be a conversation with my agent, when the writing really did begin to take off. I remember one conversation with one of the agents in London when I was starting to feel a bit overwhelmed. And she said, sit back and enjoy it. You’re about to have a really good experience. 

But actually, the absolute best conversation was probably when I was told my first book was accepted for publication. That’s it. Because never again do you get to have that thrill. 

The Conditions of Unconditional Love (Isabel Dalhousie book 27) by Alexander McCall Smith

The Conditions of Unconditional Love (Isabel Dalhousie book 27) by Alexander McCall Smith is out on 6 June (Abacus, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

Alexander McCall Smith will be at Borders Book Festival on Saturday 15 June at 3.45pm, and on Sunday 16 June at 5.15pm in a joint event with Alistair Moffat.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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