In the first of what I hope will be an occasional series of "Cornflower in conversation", I am delighted and honoured to welcome Alexander McCall Smith as my very special guest. Formerly Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, now best-selling, much-loved author whose books have been translated into forty-two languages, Sandy lives in Edinburgh, a city about which he writes with a great deal of affection. He kindly took the time from a full and demanding schedule to talk to me about his work.
Your latest book, La's Orchestra Saves the World, has recently been published. It is set largely in Suffolk during the war, and I wondered why you chose that time and place - a departure from your series of novels - set in Edinburgh and Botswana, for example - with which we are all so familiar ?
I decided to write about Suffolk for two reasons. One of these was that the subject of the book is the Second World War, and the involvement of one person in that event. There were a number of air bases in Suffolk during that time and so it was a suitable setting from that point of view. The second reason is that it is a county that I rather like and I was keen to write about its landscape.
La's Orchestra is about a young woman who starts an amateur orchestra to help boost morale and bring people together at a terrible time. Music is clearly very important to you, it features in your books, and you founded and play in The Really Terrible Orchestra (who have a concert date in New York coming up soon!). Is music a source of relaxation or excitement (or even frustration!) and apart from Mozart, which composers or styles of music affect you most?
Quite a number of my books do indeed deal incidentally with musical issues. I often write to a musical accompaniment - I find that listening to music assists the process of writing. The music has to be appropriate in mood, of course, to the book in question. I find that I can write quite easily with Mozart playing in the background, but I enjoy many other composers. In particular, I like listening to Arvo Part. There is a radio programme that I like listening to, called Late Junction, on Radio 3. I often find, through this programme, that I am introduced to the work of composers of whom I have not heard.
When I mentioned recently that a new McCall Smith book had just come out, a reader asked "when does he ever eat or sleep?"! You are extraordinarily prolific, and given the many other demands on your time, how do you do it? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you and how much writing, roughly speaking, would you be able to accomplish? Further to that, would we be right to assume that you rarely have to do much re-writing and that you have the gift of producing finished work without the need for many drafts?
I suppose I do write rather a lot. These days I bring out four novels a year, which means that I have to be quite careful about my time. The main claims on my time at present are writing and touring for the books. The latter can be quite demanding and time consuming. I spend many months of the year attending literary events and giving talks throughout the world, which can be quite exhausting. I find that there are only five or six months of the year during which I can write. If I am at home in that period I would probably spend about three or four hours a day writing. On a very productive day I would write over 5,000 words - a more average day would be about 3,000-4,000 words. I work in the mornings and evenings. I usually don't write in the earlier part of the afternoon. I realise that I am very fortunate in the way in which I write without redrafting - and I am very grateful for this good fortune. I find that I do not have to think a great deal in advance about what I am going to write; I sit down and it just seems to come. It is a little bit like being in a trance.
You have recently undertaken another daily novel, writing Corduroy Mansions for The Daily Telegraph website. Is a London setting proving more difficult than your familiar Edinburgh territory (and people), which was featured so successfully in the 44, Scotland Street series?
Writing Corduroy Mansions, which is set in London, has been a most enjoyable experience for me. I know London a bit, but there obviously isn't as much local detail in this series as there is in the 44 Scotland Street series, where I was writing about a city I know intimately. Yet Corduroy Mansions has not proved to be more difficult to write. I found that the characters came to me very easily, and the whole process has been most enjoyable.
As with Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions has a canine resident, and the Pimlico Terrier Freddie de la Hay, like gold-toothed, beer-drinking Cyril, is an excellent addition to the cast. Which of the human characters in the new daily novel are proving most appealing to you as a writer, or most difficult to work with?
Freddie de la Hay is proving to be quite a favourite of the readers! I have very much enjoyed the company of Terence Moongrove, and that of Caroline and James. As in the Scotland Street series, however, I find that I have rather enjoyed all the characters of Corduroy Mansions. I have not found that any of them have been difficult to write about, although I have very little sympathy for Oedipus Snark.
I think it would be fair to say that Alexander McCall Smith books are characterised by estimable qualities such as benevolence, gentleness, good nature and general decency. Writing in that vein, did you set out to prove that the reading public does respond enormously positively to those qualities, given that so many popular, successful books nowadays show a much less pleasant, darker view of humanity, or has that just been a happy by-product of your immense success?
I write in a positive key, I suppose, because that is the general view that I have of the world. I write that way, not because I think that is what people really want to read - indeed I was rather surprised to discover that people had such a large appetite for books of a positive nature.
I know that like many Cornflower readers, you are a fan of E.F. Benson's, and W.H. Auden features often in your work. What do you love about them, and which other writers do you turn to most frequently?
I admire the work of W H Auden immensely. I think that in Auden we hear a voice which is profoundly understanding. I like the Mapp & Lucia books, and I am very fond of Barbara Pym and R K Narayan.
Can you enlighten us on the question of titles? The latest Isabel Dalhousie book has been published here in Britain as The Comfort of Saturdays, while in the US it is called "The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday" - why the change? Are any other alterations required for the non-British markets?
The titles of my books are usually agreed upon in discussion with my editors in Edinburgh, London and New York. There is sometimes a lot of debate about them before agreement is reached. I come up with the initial suggestion and this may be modified by my editors until we reach something that everyone is happy with. Usually we have the same title in the UK and the USA; the different titles for the latest Isabel Dalhousie book was unusual. My New York editor felt that we needed an adjective. The titles of the books in the translated versions in other countries can vary widely. Many of the books have titles which bear no relation to the original titles!
On the subject of The Sunday Philosophy Club, many people have said that the Dalhousie novels are their favourites of your books. It must surely be very gratifying that these "slightly exciting" stories with their emphasis on moral dilemmas and the life of a woman of conscience should be so popular?
I have been very pleased with the reception of the Isabel Dalhousie novels. They are obviously rather different to the Botswana novels. I like writing these particular books because they give me a chance to reflect on a very wide range of issues, and they are also, in my mind, rather romantic. I think of them as one long love story.
Are you at liberty to tell us what you are currently working on?
I am currently writing a new Von Igelfeld book in the Portugese Irregular Verbs series. I am also starting very soon on the next Isabel Dalhousie book, finishing off Corduroy Mansions, and writing a screenplay for a film.