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Wake up, write, go to sleep

Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith is a non-stop book-producing machine

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It's 9 a.m. when Alexander McCall Smith cheerfully answers the telephone, content that he's already completed a full day's work that would be the envy of most writers of the world.


"I was up at four o'clock this morning and I've written 2,500 words," says the Scottish author most widely known as the creator of the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

While the rest of us are just contemplating the workday, the word machine that is McCall Smith has been on maximum speed, polishing off a Christmas story for a magazine in one sitting.

"I do write quickly," he says in a bit of understatement over the phone from Vancouver. "I write 3,000 or 4,000 words a day. There have been days I've been able to write 5,000 to 6,000 words. (Gustav) Flaubert wrote five words a day."

McCall Smith made his first visit to Winnipeg in 2006 and estimates that since then he has penned 25 books, a whole career for many authors. The 64-year-old Rhodesian-born literary phenomenon and renowned bioethicist returns here Wednesday at 7 p.m. for a free speaking and signing session at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Sandy, as he is known, will talk about his latest Isabel Dalhousie book, The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, or this year's instalment in the 44 Scotland Street series Sunshine on Scotland Street, or The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, featuring his beloved heroine Precious Ramotswe. Perhaps he will answer questions about his pompous Professor Dr. von Igelfeld series or his Corduroy Mansions books.

The Ladies Detective Agency books are by far the most popular. They read like postcards from Botswana, a county where he taught law in the '80s and to which he returns annually. There are none of the corpses or twisty mysteries that conventional crime novels feed on; their appeal is the characters and their problems.

"I know I'm breaking all the publishing rules that you write one book a year and not every year," he says. "Years ago, my London agent shook his finger at me and said, 'Remember, one book a year.' Now he is publishing four or five books of mine a year."

McCall Smith has called himself one of the biggest literary enterprises in the world and with 400 million books sold, he is one of the biggest bestselling authors ever to visit Winnipeg. Those sales put him in the neighbourhood of top-drawer authors J.K. Rowling and Ian Rankin, who live around the corner in the Merchiston area of Edinburgh.

To maintain such a prodigious output, McCall Smith must be able to write anywhere, and he does. He is partial to a nice view from a window, but he is also very productive on the airplanes that take him to readings and appearances all over the world. He draws the line with soulless hotel rooms where "the karma or vibe is wrong."

Everywhere else is potential writing time, including the loo -- although, he hastens to add, not the public kind.

"But I promise you I'm not writing while we talk," he says, with another of his many chuckles. "I think that would be a little bit rude."

The author, who penned about 30 children's books before he wrote his first about Mma Ramotswe in 1998, is the focus of an international industry that involves 50 publishers around the globe. He employs two personal assistants, one of whom has an office in his home and prints out a daily program that outlines the various deadlines for all his writing projects.

"It's a very complicated timetable," says the father of two daughters who never goes on tour without tea leaves and his personal teapot. "I know I have to deliver the next book in a particular series at a particular time."

His next Scotland Street book will be serialized in The Scotsman newspaper, so he wants to have 20 chapters in hand before they start being printed in January. He's also got to have a self-standing book done by the end of December and get started on a Ladies Detective Agency book, among the other Christmas stories he is contracted to write for newspapers and magazines.

"The publishers also design the covers and sometimes write the blurbs before I've written the book," says McCall Smith, who is adamant that he's not a workaholic. "It gets quite scary.

"Really, it's like working on a tightrope. You can't look down; you have to look ahead."

Sometimes there are wobbles in the system, as with the 2010 Ladies Detective Agency book, The Double Comfort Safari Club, which had a description on the back that did not correspond with the story inside.

It sounds as if McCall Smith is trapped on an endless conveyor belt, but he says the machine works because his publishers are waiting for books and he wants to write them.

It helps that he is the rare writer who doesn't need to spend time on rewrites, unlike Flaubert.

"Sometimes I will go back and polish things and put in some more semicolons," he says. "It comes out pretty much fully formed. I rarely change anything in the Ladies Detective Agency books."

Terrible, and they know it

Writing he's good at, but the bassoon? Not so much.

Alexander McCall Smith calls himself the worst bassoonist in Scotland and that makes him a perfect fit to play in the Really Terrible Orchestra.

The musical group is well known in Scotland, where it recently played to 600 in Glasgow and annually performs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

So how terrible is terrible?

"Seriously bad," says McCall Smith, who collects old instruments and bought his bassoon at a garage sale in Vancouver for $60. "We sound awful. We are really bad amateurs.

"It's the funniest thing you wish to see. We're trying, we're not fooling around. We try and play as good as we can."

A couple of years ago the RTO went on tour to New York City, which showed great chutzpah. McCall Smith says that the 1,200 who showed up expected the orchestra to sound awful, and it did.

"The New Yorkers got the joke and we got a standing ovation," he says.

The RTO has spawned an international movement, with offshoots in Toronto and five American cities. He has trademarked the name so he can allow terrible orchestras around the world to start their own without getting permission.

"It's a growing movement of terrible orchestras, which is very therapeutic. It helps people and is great fun."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2012 C1

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