SCOTTISH author Alexander McCall Smith reckons he writes five novels a year – but readily admits he does have a tendency to lose count of them.

During lockdown, this most hardworking of writers has been as busy as ever with no fewer than six new books coming out this year - definitely.

Since coming to prominence with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series set in Botswana, he’s written more than 60 books – he’s again not sure of the exact number – and sold more than 40 million, translated into 46 languages, making him one of the world’s most prolific and popular authors.

“I probably write five novels every year, but I lose track,” said Mr McCall Smith. “I do take great pleasure in writing and feel anxious in a day when I’ve written nothing. I get up at 3am or 4am to write for a few hours before going back to bed. My target is around 3,000 words day, but I’ve recently slowed down from 4,000.

“I break all the rules – I don’t have elaborate plans written on Post-it Notes on the wall, only notebooks, and my books emerge fully ready. I don’t really do much rewriting.”

His bestselling books include the 44 Scotland Street novels, the Isabel Dalhousie novels, The Detective Varg novels and the Von Igelfeld series, along with standalone novels, children’s books, and a poetry collection.

But he still recalls the surprise success of his first full-length novel, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, published in 1998 and featuring the redoubtable Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s leading, and only, female private detective and inspired by the country he first visited in 1981 to co-found the law school at the University of Botswana. The President of Botswana honoured him for services to the country through literature, and he was made a CBE and has received numerous literary awards and 12 honorary doctorates.

“The first No. 1 novel, published by Polygon, then a small publisher owned by Edinburgh University, had a print run of 1,500. I thought that would be it, but it received generous reviews and I was asked to write a sequel. Four were published by Polygon and by Columbia University press in the US,” said Mr McCall Smith, 72, who was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, in present-day Zimbabwe.

“Suddenly the books started to take off through word-of-mouth and then the New York Times published a full-page article on the first four and the series was picked up by Random House in the US and Little, Brown in London. I was obviously pleased, but I was pretty overwhelmed.”

This literary success led to early retirement from his post as Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, where he is now Emeritus Professor, and embark on a full-time writing career. He completed the 22nd in the No. 1 series during this last 12 months of lockdowns, which saw him spending even more time in his book-lined study in the home he shares with his wife Elizabeth in Merchiston, Edinburgh, where they raised their two daughters, both now doctors.

“I’ve had more time to write and think. When the first lockdown happened, I was reading a couple of books on monasticism and how it gives you time to reflect, which we have all had this year.

“I usually travel a great deal to literary events all over the world, from India to the US and Australia, so it was a relief not to be forever in airports and hotel rooms. I have enjoyed staying in one place.

“But what I miss is being able to have a cup of coffee with friends in a coffee shop. We can go out and walk but it’s not the same as mixing with friends. It’s important for an author to be sociable and observe humanity. I love eavesdropping but it’s frustrating when I’m out on a bike ride with my wife and can only catch part of a conversation. The last one I heard was between two men walking: ‘…and do you know, she walked straight out.’ ‘Oh, yeah?’ ‘She left three weeks ago. I apologised but…’”

Like the rest of us, Mr McCall Smith – known affectionately as Sandy to his friends – has been more isolated than usual of late, but he’s far from lonely as he inhabits an imaginary world populated by a cast of eccentric characters.

“I’m a serial novelist mostly as I like the familiarity of the characters and there’s a certain pleasure in revisiting them. I like most of my characters and don’t go in for unpleasant ones. One of my favourites is Wee Bernie from the 44 Scotland Street series, a seven-year-old boy with a major mother problem – she’s a pushy mother. We have one of the highest proportions of pushy mothers in Edinburgh compared to anywhere else in Europe.

“Bernie’s main ambition is to get away from his mother to the Promised Land of Glasgow. In, A Promise of Ankles, he and his little friend Ranald Braveheart Macpherson manage to run away to Glasgow and visit a pie factory, which is heaven for them.’ His titles, from Your Inner Hedgehog to The Man with the Silver Saab, are always charming and whimsical.

“I enjoy titles – they are absolutely crucial to the success or failure of a book, along with the covers. You can kill a book stone dead with the wrong title and cover. I’m very hands-on with the cover design, much more so than is usual with authors, and work closely with the illustrator Iain McIntosh.”

During these difficult times of a global pandemic, McCall Smith’s novels with their underlying belief in the essential goodness of human nature, offer some much-needed light relief.

In contrast with most Scottish crime writers whose novels are a gritty Black Mirror reflection of the underbelly of our society and its ills populated by hard-nosed detectives and cynical cops, McCall Smith’s fictional worlds are pleasant, filled with warm-hearted and well-intentioned sleuths solving minor mysteries rather than stomach-churning murders.

“I tend not to deal with political issues, although many writers do that really well. I’m interested in human relations, psychology and how we live in the world on a personal level. There’s a role for socially engaged, gritty fiction that reveals the harshness of our times and deals with the dysfunctional, but it’s not the only role. There is room to write about people leading ordinary and rather good lives.

“There is this extraordinary assumption that writers must deal with social ills and psychopaths and that if you are not writing about violence and social dysfunction or dystopia, you’re not a serious author.

“But you can make important points about moral decisions using a light brush, which can be a powerful way to deal with charity, forgiveness and all our moral concerns. One doesn’t want to be escapist or skirt over the difficult side of life but being human is more than that – it involves the contemplation of beauty, of the virtues of kindness and goodness, and of sheer delight. These are also appropriate subjects for literature.”

Even McCall Smith’s detective series set in Sweden, which he calls Scandi Blanc, is a brighter version of the unrelenting bleakness and violence of the Scandi Noir genre.

“Detective Ulf Varg – two words for wolf in Danish and Swedish – works in the Department of Serious Crimes in Malmo but his crimes are minor, gentle things,” said McCall Smith, a jovial man fond of a joke and quick to laugh.

And, unlike the harsh, wintry landscape inhabited by the likes of The Killing’s grim-faced Sarah Lund and The Bridge’s troubled Saga Horén and Martin Rohde, McCall Detective ‘Wolf Wolf’ is ‘a rather nice man with a hearing-impaired, lip-reading dog’ who unravels cosy mysteries in the cheerful setting of bright and sunny Swedish summers.

“I, like most people, want to be uplifted and presented with a vision of the world that has some hope in it. I believe in being positive – what’s the point of being negative? It doesn’t improve life. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna claiming everything is wonderful, but we should leave room in life for the positive and uplifting.”

Alexander McCall Smith has written six new books that all come out this year published by Little,Brown: 29 April 2021 – Your Inner Hedgehog (A Professor Dr Von Igelfeld Entertainment – the first book in this series for ten years.¬ 6 May 2021 – The Man with the Silver Saab (Detective Varg series – the third book in the Scandi Blanc series).

1 July 2021 – Young Precious: The Collected Adventures (children’s book) 5 August 2021 – The Pavilion in the Clouds (standalone novel set in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka) 3 September 2021 – The Joy and Light Bus Company (No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the 22nd book in the international best-selling series of which 20 million copies have been sold, and which have been translated into 46 languages).

November 2021 – 15th instalment in the 44 Scotland Street series – (title to be confirmed).