A FEW weeks ago Alexander McCall Smith found himself in the infectious diseases unit in the Western General. “I won’t bore you with the details,” the author says as we sit in his sumptuous office in the Merchiston home he has shared with his wife Elizabeth for the last 36 years, surrounded by oil paintings and books, “but it is quite interesting.”
I don’t think there is much chance of me being bored to be honest, I say. I’d quite like to hear details.
“I was in Canada, north-eastern Ontario,” he begins, “and I was bitten by a tick, which I didn’t know about. And about five days after I was back I suddenly had these fevers, really extreme fevers.”
Hence the trip to the infectious diseases unit.
“My daughter Lucy – both my daughters are doctors – said over the phone, ‘Those infectious diseases doctors are the cleverest there are.’ Because they are detectives, you see. They asked what I was doing and had I touched any mammals, obviously to try and exclude rabies, because I was in a really bad way.”

READ MORE: Edinburgh Festival: Gail Porter set for no holds barred show
He pauses, reconsiders. “That’s an exaggeration. I am sure they knew I didn’t have that. It’s a very obscure tick-borne disease so if one is going to have an infectious disease, to have something that is truly obscure is better than getting any common or garden one …
“Long story short, it absolutely hammered me. And only in the last couple of days have I recovered my strength. I’m getting to the end of the treatment.”
To be fair, he looks well today, not so very different from his normal, ebullient 74-just-about-to-turn-75-year-old self. 
When he first mentioned infectious diseases, I say, I immediately assumed this was something he’d picked up on a trip to Africa, given his long association with that continent as an academic and author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books.
That was what the doctors had been thinking too, he admits.
“It behaved a bit like malaria. It’s something called anaplasmosis, which doesn’t occur in this country, so these guys are very, very good. They go through all the possibilities and there’s a lab up in Inverness and they will find exotic stuff and if you’ve got something quite interesting …”
There’s that word again. I’ve never heard of anaplasmosis, I tell him. “It’s like lyme, but not lyme. Lyme disease is a serious problem,” he says, digressing for a moment. “It used to be just in the Highlands, but it’s everywhere now. Global warming changed conditions. You can get lyme in Glasgow, you can get lyme in London.”

The Herald: Alexander McCall SmithAlexander McCall Smith (Image: free)
Well, that’s cheered me up, Sandy. So how sick were you?
“I was very feverish, but I never said to myself, ‘Where am I?’ I don’t think I’ve ever had to say that to myself. That occurs in books.”
Well, if anyone should know. McCall Smith, author of more than 100 books (he’s stopped counting, he says), including the aforementioned The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswan, and, closer to home, the Isabel Dalhousie books and his Scotland Street series, would, I suppose.
And how is he now? “I am absolutely fine. I’ve recovered my strength and I’m back at my desk and I’ve just finished the next volume of Scotland Street two days ago.”
There are a couple of things worth noting in all of this, I think. Things that seem to me very McCall-Smithian for want of a better description. Firstly, there’s the downplaying of the distress of his own experience. I’m not sure I’d be calling any extreme fevers I might experience “interesting”. 
And secondly, despite being wiped out for three weeks, he says the first thing he does when he’s well again is start writing.
To spend any time in Alexander McCall Smith’s company is to be confronted with this Stakhanovite dedication to writing. And they are still coming. Before I go to see him I’m sent three books that are either just out or just about to come out; I Think of You, a book of poetry, The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf, the latest in his Detective Varg series, both already in the shops, and From A Far And Lovely Country, the 24th No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel, which is published early next month.

READ MORE: A disappearing Venice shimmers back to life
It’s also worth remembering that some of his 100-plus books were written during the years in which he was a high-flying academic before he turned to full-time writing after The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series took off in the early years of this century. 
In fact, the first appearance of Mma Precious Ramotswe, was in 1998, 25 years ago. Another anniversary in the calendar this year. McCall Smith has already been at his desk before I arrive this July morning. You might think that two days after finishing a book he deserves a break. He doesn’t have to write every day, surely?
“I took a few compulsory days off with this,” he says, referring to his stay in the infectious diseases unit, “but, no, I get a bit uneasy if I don’t. And I usually have deadlines. I’m writing five or six books a year so I’m breaking every known rule in publishing, but it also means that there are deadlines. 

The Herald: BaywatchBaywatch (Image: free)
“So what I was doing just before you arrived was a new series called The Perfect Passion Company. I had a message from my editors in New York yesterday saying, ‘We want to put this into production in August for publication in February in the States.’ And I haven’t finished it yet. So that takes care of the next 10 days. And then I’ll have the next Isabel Dalhousie to start. Deadlines are always there. You are never without them.”
He says that, but we are talking here about an author who has sold 20 million books in English alone. Surely if he wanted a day or two off he is in a position to take it. 
“This is all self-imposed,” he accepts, “but I like doing it. I’ve asked for it.”
I wonder. Earlier this year the author Jenny Colgan told me about going to Iceland with McCall Smith and he was on his laptop typing whilst climbing the steps to the plane. That sounds like obsessive behaviour.
“Probably,” he says. “I don’t really think too much about it. It’s what I do, it’s what I have to do every day really. And not a day goes past that I am not thinking about it and working on it. Now that I’m back at my desk I will be doing 2,000 words a day. I used to do 4,000 words a day.”

Edinburgh Fringe: Smack The Pony star Fiona Allen
He thinks about that word obsession for a moment. Actually, he says, that might be a bit strong. 
“I might use the term compulsion. It’s an urge. Urge is a good old-fashioned word. I wake up in the morning with ideas. Sometimes I even dream ideas, semi-wake up and make a note.”

McCall Smith the writer and McCall Smith the interviewee share much in common. Like his books, he is gentle, amusing, curious, a lover of a good story. 
Although he is, one might safely imagine, at the far end of the spectrum to that other great contemporary chronicler of the capital city, Irvine Welsh, there are a few things they share in common in literary terms. Both, you could argue, are interested in similar themes but from opposite ends of the telescope: friendship, moral questions and a sense of place. And both, it would seem, share this compulsion to write.
McCall Smith can be distracted, though. Sometimes, he says, he’ll do the crossword or watch television. “My wife and I enjoy a good series. We’ve just finished a terribly good Belgian one called Rough Diamonds. It’s terrific.
“I like boating,” he adds. “I like boats.”
What kind of boats? 
“I used to have a sailboat which I decided to get rid of. We were going up the Sound of Mull, my wife and I, and it occurred to me that if I fell overboard she would have difficulty turning this thing around. And you don’t fall overboard in Scottish waters. Generally, you’ve got about 20 minutes before your muscles stop responding. So you don’t go overboard. So I have moved to a boat with an engine.” 
Summer is McCall Smith’s (relatively) quiet time. The time of year you will actually find him at home. “I start touring again in the autumn,” he says.  He’ll be off to Sri Lanka , possibly India too. He did America last year.
Why? Because he wants to help the publishers who have helped him, he says, and he likes meeting his readers.
“People invest a lot in the characters, Mma Ramotswe in particular. People are very, very fond of her. And so there is a bit of a responsibility for me in that.”
There’s a question I have to ask, I tell him. Given all these words, all these books, has he never suffered from writer’s block? 
He is dubious of the very concept. “People talk about it and it is something that seems to seize the imagination of the public. It’s a very frequent question people raise with me, which is fine. I find it interesting because I think when people say, ‘I’ve had writer’s block for six months’, I think it’s probably depression they’re talking about.
“Another possibility is that they’ve run out of things to say, which happens. This is something one shouldn’t be surprised by. So I’m very fortunate that I haven’t had a period where I haven’t been able to write something. There are days where you feel less inclined than others, but I think writer’s block is suggestive of something fairly serious.”
So just to be clear, Sandy, I ask. Are you telling me here you haven’t ever had depression?
“Looking back, I can think of one episode of it, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. At that stage, was I writing very much?” he asks himself. 
“No, I was probably in my other existence as a professor. I had gone to Italy as a visiting professor for about six weeks, a couple of months actually in Trento in the north. And I didn’t have my wife and my family with me, so I was living by myself in this flat in this tiny city and I just found myself feeling very gloomy.
“I thought, ‘I’m homesick’. Of course, homesickness falls into that category. And so I do remember that I just felt disinclined to do anything and my sleep was disturbed, which, of course, is a tell-tale sign. But I didn’t at the time realise this is what I was.
“I used to go back to the flat in the evening after work and I would have the same meal every evening which was Mozzarella cheese with tomatoes and olive oil and then I would watch Baywatch in Italian. A really sad picture. And this lasted for a couple of months.
“There was an Italian station which showed Baywatch every evening. It did help my Italian a bit. Things like, ‘Quick, fetch the rescue boat.’ I would get quite fluent at that.
“And then, of course, the moment I got on the plane it stopped.”
While you acclimatise yourself to the notion of Alexander McCall Smith watching Baywatch perhaps this is a good time to sum up the back story that led us here. McCall Smith was born in Southern Rhodesia (as it was known then) where his father was a public prosecutor. It was in the last days of colonial rule and they were all aware of the fact. “We had a sense that this was the end,” McCall Smith suggests. “I was always thinking my life would be different.”
Soon, the world he was born into would be swept away as modern-day Zimbabwe went through its traumatic birth pains. But by then the family had returned to Scotland where McCall Smith as a teenager ended up at Edinburgh University. 
What was the capital city he found at the tail end of the 1960s?
“At that stage Edinburgh was much more the Edinburgh of Jean Brodie than it is now. Edinburgh was quite reserved. Nobody went out for a meal in Edinburgh. There were hardly any restaurants. I mean now it’s all restaurants and bars. It wasn’t in those days. It was very different. There was Rose Street and there were pubs here and there. Bennets next to the Kings Theatre, but restaurants, no.
“There were still ballrooms. There was a ballroom in Morningside Road.”
Did he go?
“No, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to go to a ballroom.”
You’re not a dancer? “I’m not a great dancer. My wife tries to get me to dance. I know about four standard Scottish country dances.”
He spent a year working at Queen’s University in Belfast in 1973 at the height of the Troubles (one of his colleagues was David Trimble) before he returned to work at Edinburgh University, where he eventually became Professor of Medical Law.  In the late 1970s he had won a book prize for children’s literature and then started writing books for kids all the while working in academia. 
In fact, academia did have a big impact on what he would write. In 1980 he went on a sabbatical to Swaziland (Eswatini now) and visited Botswana, which led to an invitation to help set up a law school in Gaborone. That experience would eventually lead to the writing of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the book that would in time change his life.
It was originally published by Polygon in 1998. The initial print run was only 1,500 copies. He had written four books in the series before it really took off. Polygon started getting repeat orders from the United States. And then a New York Times feature prompted the Random House group to decide they wanted to publish the series.
McCall Smith tells me the story of going out to New York to meet his new editor. “I was still working for the university. I went into the office for coffee at 11am, thinking I’d be out by 11.30, but no. I was introduced to everybody and then they said, ‘We’re having lunch now’. 
“They’d hired a whole restaurant and there were all these people looking at me. Then we went for further meetings.
“And I came out of that office at about four in the afternoon onto the street in New York and I remember thinking – the rest of my life is going to be different from now on.”
And so it has. He became a full-time writer in 2005. Yes, he has been lucky, he says. Like every other writer he had more than his fair share of rejection letters over the years, but that clearly no longer applies. His is by any stretch a fulfilled life. He has had two successful careers, in academia and in publishing. He has a family. These days he gets to walk two of his grandchildren to school on a regular basis. All this is a cause for celebration. 
And on August 24 he turns 75. How is he going to mark the occasion, I ask before I leave him?
“I don’t want to make a big thing of that. My ideal is just a small group; five, six people.” 
And will he be writing on his birthday?
“I think I will. I imagine I will. I probably will just be writing, I should think.”
Alexander McCall Smith is a writer. And neither infectious diseases nor significant anniversaries are going to stop him.

I Think of You & Other Poems, Polygon, £12.99, The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf, Abacus,  £18.99, and From A Far And Lovely Country, Abacus, £18.99, out September 7. Alexander McCall Smith is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 18