Alexander McCall Smith, bestselling author who created the hugely popular No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, talks to Martin Chilton about life under lockdown, his pride at the role his doctor daughters are carrying out and making it big at the tender age of 50.
Alexander McCall Smith's family are, as he puts it, "in the frontline" of the battle against the coronavirus. The 71-year-old writer's doctor daughters Emily and Lucy, along with a son-in-law who is a doctor at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, are three of the dedicated NHS professionals to whom we all owe such a debt.
"One of my daughters lives nearby and she and her husband are doing our shopping," says the bestselling author of The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, speaking over the phone from the Edinburgh home he shares with his wife Elizabeth, a retired physician. "So we have found ourselves fortunate in that we can actually isolate properly. For many people living by themselves, it must be pretty awful. We are counting our blessings."
McCall Smith was particularly pleased to see the nationwide doorstep clapping last week, a public show of support for our overburdened NHS. "That was very important. In fact, I think we are seeing all sorts of little instances of that spirit," he says. "My daily regime is doing an hour on my exercise bike and going for a walk round the block. We don't get close to anybody, but I see people doing the same thing, greeting strangers from across the other side of the street. Neighbours are worried about neighbours. These things are really terrific and we are seeing them. Of course, it's disappointing that some behave very badly, but in the main, we can see an affirmation of a spirit of concern for others."
At the last count, McCall Smith had written 111 books - novels, short stories and children's fiction - earning himself millions of loyal readers who love the shrewd wit that underpins his character-led narratives.
In much-adored works such as The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, 44 Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions, he has displayed a supreme talent for sketching truly likeable characters. His novels are full of human quirks and the bizarre minutiae of everyday life.
The writer, who was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1948 and moved to Scotland in his 30s, has summed up his feelings about the current crisis in an inspiring poem called In a Time of Distance (which is reprinted right), an appeal for us all to "commit ourselves afresh" to togetherness in this time of seclusion. This personal, warm-hearted poem will resonate with anyone looking for the positive in this difficult time of isolation.
In his spare time, he has also been reading a book by Dutch psychologist Douwe Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past, which has provided a different perspective on the current crisis. "It is an actual real thing, the speeding up of time," he explains. "A couple of months in middle age or later is nothing, but when you are 18, or even younger, it is an eternity. That's one reason I have felt so sad about this situation. I have a sympathy for young people whose lives are being put on hold. They were just about to start something, like going off to college or having a gap year, and now it's all closed down."
It's no surprise that the author can empathise so well with the impact of a new way of life on youngsters. His finest creation, the Botswanan private detective Mma Precious Ramotswe from The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, is such a nuanced character that many people were initially surprised when the first novel came out in 1998 that this vivid African woman sprang from the mind of a middle-aged white man. The 20-book series has been a stunning success, selling 20 million copies and being translated into 46 languages.
McCall Smith is also Professor Emeritus of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh and a former chair of the ethics committee of the BMJ. He believes that the "important thing in these circumstances" is for all of us to listen carefully to the advice of the medical authorities, particularly the epidemiologists and virologists, and act accordingly. He is also certain that there are vital lessons to be learned from this global pandemic.
"Although we will probably go back to our bad old ways," he says, "if we are going to take something from this, and I hope we do, it's to realise how fragile the world is, the ways we have abused it, and why we really need to change our ways. In practical terms, that is going to mean people changing their ideas about the ease of international travel. Can the Earth sustain having populations moving around in the air at great speed, with people going off for two weeks' holiday to the other end of the world at the drop of the hat? Is that actually sustainable? Well, I don't think it is.
"We've created exactly the right conditions for the spread of microbial disease. The epidemiologists and microbiologists have been warning about this for years - along with the effects of environmental degradation, excessive populations in big cities and abuse of antibiotics. All of these things add up."
McCall Smith is one of the most prolific authors in the world. We chat at 10 in the morning, and he has already done a full shift of work during the wee hours - a regular habit for him. "I was up from half past one until 5am today," he says with a chuckle. "I do then go back to bed and have a second sleep, which is quite restorative. With a siesta in the afternoon, I get a total of seven hours, but I like writing in the dead of night. This sounds boastful but it's not meant to be. I do actually write rather quickly - about a thousand words an hour. I think it's coming from the subconscious, mostly. I don't have to sit there and plan what's going to happen. I just let it come. Every day, I will write between two and three thousand words. Sometimes I will write five thousand words a day. I have to do that because I am writing about six books a year. And that is breaking all known rules of the publishing industry."
As he writes his novels, the amateur bassoon player, who helped to found Botswana's first centre for opera training, listens to music. He says he has particular pieces and types of music - including Mozart's 'Soave sia il vento', Icelandic music, choral music and English church tunes - for particular series, such as the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries.
"Music really sets me up," McCall Smith explains. "I always put on something which puts me in the mood. I think music gets the brain to the right place to allow the subconscious, which is involved in creating fiction, to do its work."
At the moment, he is writing volume 21 of The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and says that Mma Ramotswe will remain personally upbeat, even though the novel is set in these troubled times. "I am very conscious that Mma is very positive anyway, but she is going to be particularly so in this book, which is going to be written in the face of that adversity."
His latest published novel, the highly enjoyable The Talented Mr Varg, is the second in his series about a detective who works for the Department of Sensitive Crimes in Sweden. "There are lots of cliched ideas of Scandinavians having a tendency towards melancholic introspection - look at the Ingmar Bergman films - and my book is meant to be a bit jokey," he says. "Detective Ulf Varg is being treated for depression and so is his dog, but this is a humorous novel and Varg is a humorous character. Varg reflects on serious issues but the whole thing is intended to be entertainment. 'Scandinavian Noir' is full of death, but my 'Scandinavian Varg' is turning that on its head. Programmes like The Killing are full of bodies but there are no bodies or anything like that with Varg. The most violence is someone being stabbed in the back of the knee - and even then it's only a tiny stab."
One of the off-beat scenes in this sequel to The Department of Sensitive Crimes is set in a bar that sells garlic beer. Is that something he's sampled? "I haven't actually tried any, but I read about a bar in Stockholm where the beer is garlic-flavoured," he says. "I think this is super. I very much like garlic and I grow my own."
Online book sales across the world suggest that people are finding solace from reading during this crisis. McCall Smith receives lots of mail from readers and is delighted that so many fans tell him they get comfort from his books. "My books do provide a bit of an escape," he says.
"Generally, I think that people are going to read more in their seclusion, which is fine because normal life is very hurried and very stressful. One interesting thing in looking for a silver lining to this rather negative situation is that a lot of people are being given the opportunity to sit back and think about things a bit more. Although it's no consolation for losses in other respects, nonetheless I think people are becoming more aware of the need to cultivate that inner space."
Fame, acclaim and fortune came late for an author who was 50 when The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency made its global breakthrough at the end of the 1990s. McCall Smith says he can remember the exact moment when he knew his life had changed irrevocably - the time he was feted by his New York publishers. They hired a whole restaurant to entertain him, when he'd only been expecting coffee with his editor. "I was taken to meet the vice president of this and vice president of that," he recalls. "American companies are full of vice presidents. I think you start in a company as vice president."
He was pleased that success as a writer came when he was equipped to handle it. "I hope I was able to deal with it a bit better than I might have when I was younger, when I didn't really know all that much about the world," he says. "One can cope with changes in life better when you have a few more years of experience. Obviously you lose a certain amount of privacy, but in exchange you get a readership. The biggest thrill is when someone comes up and says they are reading one of my books. That's great. It's as if we share mutual friends."
McCall Smith says his approach to life has always been "reasonably robust and optimistic" and insists it will stay that way, even during these anxious times. "It's very easy to be cynical, to take a negative view because, my goodness, the world can be a veil of tears," he says.
"But what is the point of adopting that approach? I like to remain positive because what's the point of being negative? You don't achieve anything that way. We have to do the best with what we've got."
The Talented Mr Varg by Alexander McCall Smith is published by Little Brown, £18.99
IN A TIME OF DISTANCE
The unexpected always happens in the way
The unexpected has always occurred:
While we are doing something else,
While we are thinking of altogether
Different things - matters that events
Then show to be every bit as unimportant
As our human concerns so often are;
And then, with the unexpected upon us,
We look at one another with a sort of surprise;
How could things possibly turn out this way
When we are so competent, so pleased
With the elaborate systems we've created -
Networks and satellites, intelligent machines,
Pills for every eventuality - except this one?
And so we turn again to face one another
And discover those things
We had almost forgotten,
But that, mercifully, are still there:
Love and friendship, not just for those
To whom we are closest, but also for those
Whom we do not know and of whom
Perhaps we have in the past been frightened;
The words brother and sister, powerful still,
Are brought out, dusted down,
Found to be still capable of expressing
What we feel for others, that precise concern;
Joined together in adversity
We discover things we had put aside:
Old board games with obscure rules,
Books we had been meaning to read,
Letters we had intended to write,
Things we had thought we might say
But for which we never found the time;
And from these discoveries of self, of time,
There comes a new realisation
That we have been in too much of hurry,
That we have misused our fragile world,
That we have forgotten the claims of others
Who have been left behind;
We find that out in our seclusion,
In our silence; we commit ourselves afresh,
We look for a few bars of song
That we used to sing together,
A long time ago; we give what we can,
We wait, knowing that when this is over
A lot of us - not all perhaps - but most,
Will be slightly different people,
And our world, though diminished,
Will be much bigger, its beauty revealed afresh.