The Confession Book: Alexander McCall Smith

Interviews with Great Writers on Writing

/ by Noah Charney

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Zimbabwe.


Where and what did you study?

I studied law at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.


Where do you live and why?

I live in Edinburgh. I choose to live there because it is such a beautiful and interesting city. This is where most of my friends are.


Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?

A project of which I am very proud is the Great Tapestry of Scotland, of which I am co-chairman. This is a tapestry - the longest tapestry in the world – that tells the story of Scotland from earliest days to the present. It was stitched by over one thousand people throughout Scotland.


You’re author of the longest-running serial novel in history. How does your approach and planning differ for such a project, as opposed to series?

The Scotland Street series appears in a newspaper, The Scotsman, chapter by chapter, as I write it. It then comes out in book form. That requires a different approach from that used with a normal novel. In particular, it requires a series of short vignettes (there chapters) with a bit of suspense at the end.


Do you map out series many books at a time?

I often work on two or three books at a time. I usually map out the broad shape of the book – then, as I write it, the details emerge.


Describe your morning routine.

Up at 4 in the morning. Write until 6:30. Back to bed until 8:30. Breakfast. Then back to my desk. Correspondence with readers/publishers/others. A bit more writing. Lunch at 2.


What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I have a tendency to describe the sky and hills. I often refer to clouds.


What is your favorite item of clothing?

My tartan trousers and formal jacket with matching tartan panels.


Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

W.H. Auden: Collected Shorter Poems.

E.F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia

R.K. Narayan, Mr Sampath - The Printer of Malgudi


Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

I very much enjoy reading the essays of my friend, Edward Mendelson.


What is a place that inspires you?

The western highlands of Scotland. Also, the Australian bush.


Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
Little Red Riding Hood

In your bowels swallow my mutiny.

My sin abdicates to obey your cruelty

No one must see, hidden

through the modest redness of my hood

My desire of evil.

No one must understand

Your enchantment  upsetting my senses

Your wicked soul that will give me my womanhood

I yearn for punishment

I want to be a victim

I am your longing for evil.

I knew it all! About the woods… about the wolf…

And now I am meeting you:

You cannot disappoint me.

Be what you’re not

There is no hope for you

Seduce me slashing through my body with the frenzy of your claws

Scratch me by the sweetness of your lies

Swallow me…do not spew me!

Swallow me.

Swallow my misunderstood loneliness

Swallow my inept nonentity.

Hurt me, really hurt me badly

So badly as to be understood,

So badly as not to be hurt anymore.

So badly as to become someone

In the dark wood of hypocrisy

To be someone

At last.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

I make short notes. Then I start. I like to think of the first sentence: once one has that, the rest follows.


Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I often listen to music as I write. I write for several hours and then take a break.


Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

I have two working desks: one in Edinburgh and one at our house on the coast in Argyll, in the west of Scotland. In Edinburgh my desk is in my library. At the other house, it looks out onto a wild mountain down which a waterfall descends.


What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

Fortunately, that does not seem to happen.


Describe your ideal day.

A leisurely breakfast with a newspaper. Reading. Lunch with friends. Dinner with more friends.


Describe your evening routine.

I am often at my desk in the evening.


What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

The deflation of pomposity.


What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Any vivid demonstration of loyalty and love. Also a university graduation – when friends say goodbye.


Do you have any superstitions?

Always get out of the bath-tub before the last of the water drains out.


What is something you always carry with you?

A notebook.


If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

Mozart. To give him time to write more music.


What is your favorite snack?

A quail’s egg, boiled and served with black pepper.


What phrase do you over-use?

The sky was an attenuated blue. (But then, it often is!)


What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

Many rejections, then at last it happened. Persistence by my agent of the time.


Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

There was a distinct moment when I realized the books were going to be successful. It occurred in New York, when my books were taken on by Pantheon.


What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

A couple of thousand words.


Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

Once, on tour in the US, a man came up to me at the event and gave me his 600-page, privately printed book to read. I took it back to the hotel and started to read it. It was all about a man who had been kidnapped by a shipload of nuns.


What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?

I’d like to be a trader in tea. Or breed fine pigs.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Persist. And don’t spend too much time on that first manuscript – go on to the second and third – they will be better.


What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“Died happy.”


Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I like going to the gym. I have many electronic gadgets. I am a keen sailor. I like pigs.


Where should I eat out in Botswana?

The No 1 Ladies’ Coffee House.


What is your next project?

I am writing the next Isabel Dalhousie novel.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.