Pathways Visits Alexander McCall Smith at Home: A Preview of His Special October Appearance at Pathways Fundraiser

Robin Chapman conducts Skype interview with renowned author Alexander McCall Smith.

Robin Chapman conducts a Skype interview with renowned author Alexander McCall Smith.

By Robin Chapman

Best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith was so warm and kind in our recent video chat—using Skype to connect our Pathways computer in California with his device in Scotland—that he not only showed us around his Edinburgh study, he was about to introduce us to his nine-month-old grandson and would have, except the wee lad was sleeping. “Sorry, bedtime,” said McCall Smith with laughter after he dashed off to check. “And you would so like him. He’s a very smiley baby.”

McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and the 44 Scotland Street series of fictional tales—among many other books that are presently zooming from his literary pen—made his guests feel as if they were sitting right there with him in his lovingly-restored Edinburgh home, amidst his library of books, his gorgeous antique oil paintings, and his small bronze of the poet Robert Burns.

When we told him his books had made us yearn to visit Botswana, he smiled. “Oh yes. You should treat yourself,” he said.

His books have sold 40 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 46 different languages. There are Alexander McCall Smith book clubs and fan clubs all over the world. His No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency tale have been seen and heard on HBO in America, the BBC in Britain and the Australian Broadcasting Company in the antipodes. He now travels extensively—from Istanbul to India—meeting his readers.

He is presently turning out five or six books a year in his various series, from the one set in Botswana to at least two others set in Scotland. In order to do this, he rises at 3:00 or 4:00 on an average morning to write, undisturbed, in what he calls “those small hours of the day.”

“So by breakfast time,” he says, “I’ve already done quite a bit of the writing that I’m going to do every day. I’m very fortunate in that I do write rather quickly.”

His travels will bring him to the San Francisco peninsula, October 13, 2016, for our “One from the Heart Awards Breakfast” at the Crowne Plaza Cabana Hotel in Palo Alto. His talk will draw fans from all over the Bay Area.

A lawyer by education and a college don by profession, McCall Smith had already published more than thirty academic and children’s books when literary success came to him. His first book in the Number 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency series, published in 1999 by Polygon in Scotland, had a print run of just 1500 copies. “I remember putting it across the desk and that moment remains in my mind,” he says. “But, it wasn’t my first book so the air wasn’t filled with the popping of champagne corks.”

Perhaps it should have been. “The publishers came back to me later,” he recalls. “They said, well, we’ve sold out these 1500 copies, and I think we may publish another, oh, 500 copies and I thought, oh gosh, this is living dangerously!” At the urging of Polygon, he then wrote a sequel. The Edinburgh publisher had an arrangement with Columbia University Press, and once the books reached America, their popularity grew—not by marketing, but by word-of-mouth. “They really took off first in a substantial way in the United States, so I’m eternally grateful to my American readers.”

It took several more years before McCall Smith realized the impact his stories about a “traditionally built” woman detective in Botswana would have on his quiet life.

When he made his first visit to his new American publisher in 2003, he was stunned to find they had “hired out” an entire Manhattan restaurant for the occasion. As he later walked out onto Fifth Avenue, he says, “I looked up at the skyscrapers around me, and it was at that moment I realized my life was going to change. I had been writing in my spare time. Now I was engaged in this conversation with so many people all over the world.”

“Sir Sandy” can count Judith Gregg, the Los Altos Community Librarian, among his many fans. As she told us recently: “The library has all of McCall Smith’s books. We actually have two full shelves, and another two of his audio books. So, if you are looking for books that lovingly combine philosophical thought and ethical values with a contagious sense of humor, rest assured you will find them in abundance on these four shelves. In his books McCall Smith writes with such affection about the cold hard streets of Scotland, and the hot dusty African landscape, that he has the ability to make a rainy afternoon in Edinburgh and a remote village in Botswana, places you long to experience.”

His upcoming talk is a fundraiser for Pathways Home Health & Hospice, which has been providing in-home and end-of-life care in the Greater Bay Area since 1977. McCall Smith, who has served on a number of international boards of medical law and bioethics, is a strong proponent of hospice. “It allows people to spend what might be the final part of their lives in conditions of dignity,” he says. His famous detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe, is also famously kind, and, he says, “I think she is someone who would cherish and respect life in just this way.”

To Register for the Pathways Twenty-sixth Annual One from the Heart Awards Breakfast
PHONE: 408-730-1200 or 408-773-4109
QUESTIONS? E-mail or call 408-773-4109 (Holly)

DATE: Thursday, October 13, 2016
TIME: 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.
PLACE: Crowne Plaza Palo Alto (Please arrive by 7:00 a.m. for complimentary valet)


Los Altos native Robin Chapman, an international television correspondent, is the author of California Apricots: the Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley, Winter Park in Vintage Postcards, and The Absolutely Essential Guide to Winter’s Park. She also writes a blog, Robin Chapman News.