This is being written from Argyll, from our house that is right on the sea – on a sea loch, as fjords are called in Scotland. At high tide, the sea is about twenty yards – if that – from the front door. Deer move past our windows; eagles soar overhead. Yesterday I watched a golden eagle circling high above the house before it slipped away on air currents, moving further down the loch towards the open sea.
But I do not spend my time here gazing at the sea and sky – tempting though that may be. This place is meant to be for writing (well, in part at least) and I am usually up early working on the latest novel. Which is what I am doing at the moment, although taking a break to write to you. Outside, there is a band of mist hanging over the water and the land, intersecting the rise of the mountains. That will burn off as the sun comes up, which will be in a few minutes. Our long summer days, alas, are coming to an end. In late June here it is perfectly light at three in the morning, and of course at night it never really gets dark. Now it is dark by nine.
The summer has shot past, as summers do. I have been out and about at various literary festivals, including the festival at Hay. That is a big event in the British literary calendar, and it is always a pleasure to go to that small market town in Wales (just over the border) and soak up some of the festival atmosphere. I am not sure exactly how one soaks up atmosphere – I suppose one simply stands and does nothing. Of course in Hay there is always the option of going to some of the bookshops that fill the town. These are wonderful places and there are scores of them.
Other literary festivals I have been at recently include the Oxford Literary Festival and the Althorp Festival. Oxford involved an event in the Sheldonian Theatre, where I met quite a number of readers. It was also an opportunity to visit our daughter who is working as a doctor there, and who was married in Argyll in May. Althorp was a very enjoyable festival too – that took place at Althorp House, which belongs to Charles Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana. He hosts the festival, which is a very popular annual event, and gets visitors from all over that part of England and from further afield too. While I was there I met Wilbur Smith, who was also speaking at the festival. He writes very entertaining adventure novels set in Africa. Antonia Fraser, biographer of Mary Queen of Scots, was speaking there too, as was the biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Artemis Cooper. I have recently read that biography – which I enjoyed greatly. Leigh Fermor is one of my favourite writers and this new biography tells his extraordinary story in a very readable way.
One festival that I spoke at this year was particularly enjoyable – the Franschoek Literary Festival in South Africa. This involved going to Cape Town, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and a place that I am always – perhaps understandably – keen to visit. I have a friend there, Nicholas Ellenbogen, who is a theatrical director and actor. Nicholas runs a theatre company, Theatre for Africa (www.theatreforafrica.co.za) that does very good work, taking theatre to people who might otherwise not have the chance to see it. He has directed the opera for which I wrote the libretto, The Okavango Macbeth, in a number of productions, most recently on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
When I visited Nicholas recently I found him working hard on the doing-up of a tiny theatre on the edge of Cape Town. Nicholas can do anything with his hands, and on this occasion he was building the seats for the theatre. It emerged that the theatre was for sale and since it was not expensive we have been able to acquire it for his use. The result is that he now has a base from which to do his marvellous work. It is called the Rosebank Theatre and I think it will bring great pleasure to very many people. It has the grand total of 45 seats. A very exciting programme is planned for it.
We shall set up an organisation called The Friends of Rosebank Theatre and will be very happy for people to join that and support what it will be doing. I shall keep you informed of what is happening in that regard.
After a few days in Cape Town it was on to Franschoek for the literary festival there. This is one of the most enjoyable literary festivals in the world. It takes place in a small town – it takes over the town, in fact – not far from the better-known wine-town of Stellenbosch. It is surrounded by mountains that are blue in the soft, attenuated light of the Cape. The events are quite small, and therefore very intimate. There is a remarkable feel to the place during this festival.
And of course there was the Edinburgh International Book Festival, still going on as I wrote this, at which I did four events last week. That is my home festival, of course, and so I have a special interest in it. Like all these book festivals, it gives authors a chance to meet readers – something that I particularly enjoy.
I shall be touring in October and November. In October I shall be in London and in Yorkshire, and in November I shall be in the United States and Canada – as well as in Botswana. December will involve a number of events in Scotland; January will be the United Sates again, and then March will be Australia. I shall be in New Zealand in May, and in the United Sates in June.
When I am in New York in November I shall do an event at the YMCA to launch my new book What W.H. Auden Can Do For You. This is being published by Princeton University Press and is a personal account of what Auden’s poetry has meant to me. On that tour I shall also be speaking about the new Mma Ramotswe book, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, which will be published round about then in the UK, the US, and Canada – and will be available, of course, in other countries.
This new Mma Ramotswe book involves quite a few important developments for Mma Ramotswe. It also involves a very significant event for Mma Makutsi and her husband, Phuti Radiphuti – the birth of their first child. This is an occasion for great joy, but it is not without its problems – mainly in the shape of Phuti’s unpleasant aunt, who has very traditional views about the care of babies. More of that in the book. We also see the hand of Violet Sephotho in various developments, but of course she is usually dealt with quite firmly by Mma Ramotswe. Firmly but gently, of course.
I shall be in Botswana in November, when I shall be leading a safari in the Okavango Delta. This is being organised by Orient Express, a company that has safari lodges in that beguiling part of the country. They are inviting people to take up places on this safari on which we shall spend a week together at two of their camps. (I am not being paid for this, by the way, although I shall be the guest of Orient Express. The reason why I am doing it is that I am supportive of Orinet Express’s very responsible approach to tourism in Botswana and support, too, what they do for the economy of remote parts of Botswana. They make a big difference to the lives of quite a number of people in those remote communities.) We shall be visiting the safari camp at which I set the Mma Ramotswe novel, The Double Comfort Safari Club. That is also the setting of my new Mma Ramotswe book for children, recently published in the UK, Precious and the Mystery of the Missing Lion. This is the third Precious Ramotswe book I have written for children.
If you are thinking of treating yourself to a really special trip, take a look at the Orient Express site – http://www.eagleislandcamp.com. Better still, get somebody to treat you … Anyway, I shall be there and am very much looking forward to seeing once again the settings of those books. (If you are interested in joining our safari, the way to do it is to contact Orient Express through their site, or get a travel agent to do so.)
Trains and Lovers was published in the US during the summer and will be coming out as a paperback in the UK later this year. I am working at the moment on a new novel, which will not be part of any series. This will be published in February. The Forever Girl is set in a number of different places. It starts in the Caribbean, moves to Scotland, then London, then Australia and finally Singapore. I have almost finished writing it. It is a bit of a love story (well, also a bit of an obsession story).
The Scotland Street series has continued with the publication of the new hardback, Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers. The paperback version of the book before that, Sunshine on Scotland Street has just been published in the UK and US. Bertie continues to have problems with his mother, and with his friends. We also see once more the narcissistic Bruce who reappears in this new book – and has a very unpleasant experience in a waxing salon.
These newsletters can get rather long. Sorry. I shall post more on the Facebook Page in due course. Please keep in touch that way, as well as through these newsletters. And of course I do hope that if we ever coincide at a book festival we shall meet that way.
In the meantime, though, my very warmest wishes,
Alexander McCall Smith