Borders festival star turn Alexander McCall Smith anything but a man of few words

Alexander McCall Smith.
Alexander McCall Smith.

The word prolific could have been invented to describe international best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, one of the star turns on the bill for this year’s Borders Book Festival.

With more than 100 titles to his name and sales upwards of 40 million, the Edinburgh-based 69-year-old is a publisher’s dream.

His Botswana-based The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of novels, up to instalment number 19 and counting, have sold 20 million copies on their own.

There appears no end to his prodigious output, with the Zimbabwe-born author regularly turning out 5,000 words a day.

This weekend, readers will be able to learn the secrets of his success when he appears in conversation with Alistair Moffat at the literary festival in Melrose.

McCall Smith is a regular attendee at, and supporter of, the annual event, first held in 2004.

During a chat with the Southern Reporter, he also revealed that the Borders is set to play a major role in his latest collaboration.

He explained: “I’ve just written a libretto for an operetta called The Tumbling Lassie, and that in one sense is a Borders tale, in that the woman who rescues this appalling girl in the late 17th century, who was being kept as a slave in a sense, was from the Borders, and she took her down to the Borders, so it is a Borders tale, and we hope to give a Borders performance of the operetta. We’ve been talking to people about that.”

His appearance at the festival from 2pm on Sunday, June 17, will mark in part the 20th anniversary of the publication of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series’ first novel.

At the time of its publication, McCall Smith was an emeritus professor of medical law at Edinburgh University.

He had spent time previously teaching law at Botswana University, a period that provided the inspiration for his most famous creation.

However, the author revealed he had no inclination that the series would develop into the worldwide phenomenon it has become, going on, as it did, to spawn a hit TV series in 2009 starring Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose.

He said: “ It doesn’t feel like 20 years. I started that as a short story right at the beginning. I wanted to write about a woman in Botswana who started a little business.

“ I thought it would be just a short story, but it grew into a novel and now I’m writing volume 19. It just shows you can be wrong about things.

“I’m just delighted that it has worked and that so many people have read it and got to know the lead character, Mma Precious Ramotswe, all over the world.

“One of things that really pleases me is that many people have been introduced to Botswana who might not have been aware of it and found out what a wonderful country it is. It has been an interesting ride.”

Happily for his readers, he doesn’t sense an end for the series just yet.

“As long as I’m spared, I’ll continue.

“In a sense, the characters live their lives independent of me and I feel that I am a chronicler of their lives and so, no, I don’t see an end to it just yet.”

His other books include 2003’s The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, 2005’s 44 Scotland Street, 2009’s Corduroy Mansions, 2010’s The Charming Quirks of Others and 2016’s My Italian Bulldozer.

McCall Smith enthusiastically endorses the decision to house the Great Tapestry of Scotland in the Borders.

The artwork, completed in 2013, was the brainchild of McCall Smith, historian Alistair Moffat and artist Andrew Crummy.

When the time came to find a permanent home for the work, McCall Smith said he fully supported moves to bring it to the Borders, and a £6.7m visitor centre to house it is due to open in Galashiels in 2020. McCall Smith, co-chairman of the tapestry’s trustees, said the exact location was a decision that always needed to be taken in the Borders, but he was fully supportive of the region’s bid ahead of potential rival locations, including Edinburgh and Glasgow.

He added: “I was very pleased for it to go to the Borders because of the association with textiles and it also being an area with a very rich history.

“I think we felt Edinburgh and Glasgow had so much anyway that we needed to find a good home for it which wouldn’t be in the two very big cities, and when Scottish Borders Council expressed an interest in housing this remarkable thing, I was very pleased.

“I would not express a preference for any particular location. It’s not something that I have a strong opinion on, as long as it’s a location which people can easily reach.

“I am very pleased with the design of the visitor centre, which, I think, is really going to show this extraordinary tapestry to great advantage.”

Tickets to see McCall Smith talking to festival director Alistair Moffat on Sunday, June 17, are £15, £13 for concessions.

The Baillie Gifford-sponsored Borders Book Festival takes place in Harmony Garden, Melrose, from Thursday, June 14, to Sunday, June 17.

Go to www.bordersbookfestival.org for details.

Tickets are also available by calling 0131 473 2000.