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The world according to Alexander the Great

Bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith on how his career began in Belfast and why his heart lies in Africa

By Laurence White

When best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith appears at the Belfast Festival tomorrow, it will be a home-coming of sorts for him. It was at Queen's University that he began his distinguished academic career as a law lecturer in 1973/74.

It was, he recalls, a very different time in Northern Ireland, although there are still some resonances of that period today.

The first power-sharing Executive was just about to emerge - and die: " A lot of people were optimistic that the new political arrangements would improve the situation, just as they are now," he says. "It was very disappointing for many when things got so bad with the fall of the first power-sharing Executive.

"However, life went on and I enjoyed my year in Northern Ireland immensely. It was a very important time for me in my new career and Queen's had a very distinguished law faculty.

"The problems of Northern Ireland in those days did not blight my sense of the place. I think Belfast is an extraordinary place with the mountains and the light and the countryside. It was the first time I had seen anything of the Ulster countryside.

"I also discovered a number of new writers to me who had a significant influence on my literary career. It was there I first read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore, a wonderful book.

"I also discovered poets like Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon and I met Tom Hadden, a law lecturer who later edited Fortnight magazine. He was a very impressive man."

Mr McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe 59 years ago and lived there until his late teens before coming to Scotland, the birthplace of his parents.

After leaving Queen's he enjoyed a distinguished career as Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, a role he left in 2005 to concentrate on his writing.

Over the years he has been a prolific author, writing more than 60 books, ranging from academic reference books, through children's titles to his now world famous series of novels.

These include the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana; the 44 Scotland Street series about the lives of the assorted residents of an Edinburgh house; the Sunday Philosophy Club series and the Von Igelfeld series.

By any standards, his prodigious output is staggering, producing three or four novels a year. The 44 Scotland Street books first appear in serial form in The Scotsman newspaper - 1,000 words a day - before being published as conventional books.

That means he has to produce those 1,000 words each day no matter where in the world he is and file them to the newspaper.

How does he do it? "I enjoy it. I get great enjoyment from writing and I am fortunate that I write quite quickly. Writing fiction is very different from writing non-fiction. You have to do a lot of research for non-fiction to make sure your facts are correct. I find that when I am writing I almost enter into a trance."

The other obvious difficulty is keeping the various plot lines of the various series going. "I have little problem in keeping them in context, although once I found myself putting the words of one character from one novel into the mouth of another character from another novel. Fortunately that was picked up by my editor.

"The most difficult thing is keeping track of the sheer number of characters and remembering how each has developed. For example, it is easy to forget that someone got married in a previous novel."

He does feel "quite involved" with the various characters. Although he can put them out of his mind between novels, he does feel they are "very real", a feeling shared by many of his readers. "I would actually quite like to meet some of my characters," he laughs.

Choosing a favourite character, he says, is like asking him to choose a favourite child - he has two daughters, Lucy and Emily. If forced, he plumps for Mma Ramotswe, heroine of the No Ladies Detective Agency series and Bertie, the precocious child from 44 Scotland Street.

So which career does he prefer, his previous academic life or his writing? " Both have their attractions, but I particularly enjoy what I am doing at the moment. I don't want to say that I am pleased to be finished with academic life, but writing is a great pleasure and I regard it as full-time work."

Although he has returned several times to Northern Ireland in recent years - "it is wonderful to see how things have normalised" - Africa remains his great love. He visits Botswana every year for two or three weeks. "I count myself very fortunate to have had the experience of growing up in Zimbabwe. I remember it in much happier times, although there were difficulties even in those days. Botswana is a very beguiling part of the world.

Another great love is his membership of The Really Terrible Orchestra which he founded with his wife Elizabeth, a doctor.

He is amazed that the Orchestra has sold out 800 tickets for its first London performance at Cadogan Hall.

There are some 60 members of the Orchestra, although not all play together all the time.

He is a contra-bassoonist and "I play it appallingly badly".

He adds: "We are really bad. I am not joking. Often the conductor has to stop us in the middle of a piece and ask us to start again. I believe it is the most famous amateur orchestra in the world, mainly because of our poor standard of playing. Our recordings have been played on radio stations around the world and our fans just wait for things to go wrong. We never disappoint them".

Given the legion of fans of his books, his writing never disappoints either.

Alexander McCall Smith will be appearing at the Belfast Festival at Queen's at the Elmwood Hall tomorrow at 6.30pm; The World According to Bertie, Polygon, £14.99

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