Alexander McCall Smith: The books that shaped my life

Alexander McCall Smith is the bestselling author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, which has sold over 20 million copies worldwide. His new book, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine is now available across the country, and the author will embark on a four-city Canadian tour to celebrate this November.

Here, McCall Smith breaks down some of the most important books in his life - including the title that helped him launch his hit series.


Rikki-Tikki-Tavi_cover.jpgThe book he knew by heart as a kid
I was a keen reader as a boy. I read my way through a great deal of the usual children's literature. I loved school stories and adventure books, and yearned for adventures myself. One story, though, that I knew more or less by heart at a very early age was Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. I think that is what helped me to understand the power of storytelling.

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The book that taught him the fundamentals
When I was a young teenager I read John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, which taught me about plot and pace and the possibilities of the first person narrative.
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The book that changed the way he writes about the world
In my mid-twenties I took my first job, at the Queen's University of Belfast. It was a rather dramatic time to be in Northern Ireland: the Troubles were at their height and bombs and occasional gunfire were the order of the day. I remember the precise moment I took W. H. Auden's collection from the library shelf - I had been browsing and came across it by accident. I had no idea that this would lead to a literary enthusiasm that has lasted my lifetime. Auden influenced the way I look at the world, and therefore the way I write about it. Because he concerns himself with our personal response to the world, there is an intimacy about his work that I think has affected my novels. Auden was one of the great humane voices of 20th century literature and I never tire of reading his work: what he said in the thirties about his own time of crisis is as relevant today as it was then.
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The book he read as a fledgling writer
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer was another book that stood out for me during my time in Belfast. I read that book several times and I think I learned a great deal from it about the structure of fiction. It is very beautifully written. There is a grave sparseness to the prose, but at the same time it conveys atmosphere beautifully. I read it at a time that I was beginning to write, and I think it influenced me a great deal. It is an exquisitely written novel with a marvellous sense of place.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg swami-and-friends.jpgThe writer he owes big time
R.K. Narayan was the first Indian novelist writing in English to reach a wide audience abroad. Graham Greene admired his work and helped him to get his first novel published. He wrote a whole series of novels set in an Indian town called Malgudi.  I have read them all, but one that stands out for me is Swami and Friends. This, and the other novels in the series, were important for me because without having read them I am sure that I could not have written The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Narayan showed me how to describe the daily life of a small town and how to make small things big. I owe him an immense debt of gratitude.

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The Jane Austen of our times
I greatly admire Barbara Pym, whose understated, intensely funny novels provide a poignant glimpse into the lives of modest, unassuming women on the periphery of more exciting circles. They are very poignant novels and I never come away from a Pym novel without feeling moved. She has been described as the Jane Austen of our times, and I would concur with this view.

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