Alexander McCall Smith, 60, is the author of The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, set in Botswana, which have sold more than 20m English-language copies worldwide.
For many years, he was a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh. After the publication of the first Detective Agency books, he concentrated on writing fiction.
He has written five 44 Scotland Street novels, first published as a serial in The Scotsman, the Isabel Dalhousie novels, and the Von Igelfeld series. In November 2008, he published La’s Orchestra Saves the World, written as a tribute to the men and women of the RAF.
McCall Smith, who grew up in Zimbabwe, received a CBE for services to literature in 2007. He holds honorary doctorates from nine universities.
Volume 10 of the Detective Agency series, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, is published in early March. McCall Smith lives in Edinburgh. He is married to a doctor and has two daughters.
Did you think you would get to where you are?
No, certainly not. Up to six or seven years ago, I had no idea that my books would be so popular. That was all a surprise.
I thought I would be writing in my spare time, with a reasonably small readership. I had already written academic works and 30 children’s books. They did moderately well but nothing spectacular. I could not have lived off them. I also wrote short stories, many of which I published myself in little booklets for the entertainment of family and friends.
What is the secret of your success?
I always wrote what I really believed in, and in the way I wanted to write. That, I thought, was going to make me unsuccessful. But, eventually, it had the opposite effect. I enjoyed writing the first Botswana novel immensely. I got completely caught up in it.
I would say to any potential author: persist, because it is an extremely difficult and often discouraging area in which to work. I think it is only persistence that pays off.
When your books started selling in millions and your future was secure, were you tempted to slow down?
No, the opposite actually. I found I wanted to work more and more. It was the sheer pleasure of writing and being involved in a long literary conversation with millions of readers worldwide. I am not necessarily a compulsive writer, but I certainly feel I have to do it. You have to be quite disciplined. I block out whole days in the diary in order to write. I often go away to have a few weeks’ uninterrupted writing.
Do you want to carry on till you drop?
Yes. All the evidence suggests that work keeps you going. Retirement is not for me, but then you can fit writing in with doing other things. At this stage, I wouldn’t like to be employed by somebody else, either.
Have you had time for personal financial planning?
I have an accountant who handles my tax matters, an assistant who does my VAT returns, and an investment adviser. My wife deals with household bills. It is all a luxury but I am largely free of financial affairs. I delegate, but I do attend meetings with the accountant. I also enjoy the exceptional services of a private bank in Edinburgh.
Have you made any pension provision?
I have an occupational pension from the university and I have a private pension. It seems to be OK at the moment, but I would not draw on it for a long time. My royalties are really my pension.
What was your most prudent investment?
The three or four months I put into writing The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I wrote it in 1996 and the book appeared in 1998. Sales soared in 2003 when I had written four of the series. The series is now published in 45 languages. I think the appeal is that the story is a gentle one, as Precious Ramotswe and her friends are agreeable people.
If someone gave you £1m to invest, where would you put it?
I would turn to the solid part of the art market, namely Old Masters. I think one should not touch contemporary art because that is a bubble waiting to burst. Established artists of the past have maintained their value, though I would always say one should seek expert advice. Good quality Dutch paintings of the 17th century seem to be reasonably safe. You can buy paintings in that category for as little as £15,000 to £20,000.
I take an interest in this market more from the artistic than the investment point of view. Besides art, I would consider putting money into Scottish farmland, which is probably a perfect.
Do you get involved in philanthropy?
I co-operate with the Redbush Tea Company, who promote their product alongside my books, and are able to raise money in this way. These joint promotions have resulted in fairly substantial donations to the Kalahari Peoples Fund, an organisation that helps people living in and around the Kalahari and southern Africa. From one of the promotions, they raised enough money to build a school.
I make small donations to SOS Children’s Villages and visit the ones in Botswana when I can. I am approached by a variety of good causes in Africa and elsewhere and I support a number of them.
I made over the royalties of one of my collections of African Folk Tales to the Friends of Murambinda Hospital in Zimbabwe. They are a wonderful organisation, with a hospital that needs all the help it can get.
Have you taken the steps to pass on your wealth?
I have made some transfers to my family, yes. I think that one should also remember charities in one’s will.
Do you allow yourself the odd indulgence?
Yes, I do. I like to buy nice shoes when in London. I have to travel a great deal and I therefore allow myself to fly in comfort rather than discomfort. Sometimes business class is almost a necessity.
What is the most you have ever paid for a bottle of fine wine or champagne?
I recently bought a case of Western Australian red wine from the Wine Society. It worked out at £18 a bottle. I haven’t opened it yet but look forward to finding the right occasion.
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