The charming quirks of Alexander McCall Smith

is only one way to describe the work of Alexander McCall Smith, CBE, one of the
world’s most prolific and popular authors: diverse. The astoundingly humble
writer even believes the words prolific and popular are much too charitable. 

don’t really feel prolific, although there are days when I realise that I have
written quite a lot,” says McCall Smith during a book-signing evening for his
latest work, The Charming Quirks of Others, at Books & Books.  

prefer not to think too much about myself and what I am doing. One doesn’t want
to get too involved in one’s own situation.”

It is a
refreshing, if surprising, attitude from such a beloved figure. Yet, author
does not seem an adequate portrayal of the life and times of McCall Smith. Born
in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), McCall Smith has received numerous awards for his
writing, including a CBE for service to literature in 2007.  

for years, he was a professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh,
and is known as an expert on medical law and bioethics. He is the former
chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, the former
vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom, and a
former member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO. He also
founded Botswana’s first centre for opera training, the Number 1 Ladies’ Opera
House, and wrote the only book on the African country’s legal system, The
Criminal Law of Botswana.  

But on
this evening in Cayman, he is simply Alexander McCall Smith the author,
charming an audience of enraptured fans.  

serial form,” McCall Smith says, “allows for the development of characters and
stories over a long period of time, and I really enjoy that. If I am about to
write a new book I don’t have to review the characters and can take up from
where we left off. I find, too, that readers very much enjoy meeting the same

the success of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the first in what would
become a wildly popular series with more than 20 million copies sold around the
world, McCall Smith became a full-time writer.  

numerous works have endeared him to countless readers and he approaches reading
appearances with great aplomb. That is to say, he’s not worried about fielding outlandish
questions from audience members or exposing the real life of a writer.  

I get some pretty strange questions,” admits McCall Smith, who in 2009 donated a short story to Oxfam’s Ox-Tales project.
“Sometimes when I talk to audiences of children for some of the children’s
books that I have written, I get hilarious questions. Sometimes people at book
events ask questions which seem to have very little to do with the books.
Sometimes I am asked whether, for example, I like cats. That may be because
there are dogs in the books. I don’t know!  

“Sometimes I have been asked to go
for dinner immediately after the book event or, on one occasion, to go for a
ride in a reader’s helicopter. The reader in question was a lady in her 70s who
piloted her own helicopter. I am afraid that I had to decline that invitation.” 

McCall Smith resides in Edinburgh with his wife and two daughters, he is a
regular visitor to the Cayman Islands. The author, who moonlights as an amateur
bassoonist, spends his mornings writing before enjoying a swim or sail in the

“I am a keen sailor,” he
says, adding that if anyone at an event were to invite him to go sailing, his
answer would “most certainly be yes”. Author, professor, humanitarian,
bassoonist, sailor; with McCall Smith, anything is possible.    

Alexander McCall

Stephen Clarke