Alexander McCall Smith had written more than 30 published books before The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency catapulted him onto the best-seller lists in dozens of countries around the world.
During his previous career as a professor of medical law, he wrote legal textbooks and stories for children among other things, and even now the most expensive book by McCall Smith on the AbeBooks.com inventory is a 1987 copy of Medico-Legal Encyclopedia.
He eventually directed his creativity to Botswana, where he had lived and lectured, and created the most unlikely detective hero – Mma (pronounced Ma) Ramotswe, a traditionally built lady who relies on intuition and frequent cups of bush tea.
"...I read Bertrand Russell's Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare. That's a very unusual book and it unsettled me greatly. I was very scared by Bertrand Russell."
But clearly his childhood memories of reading and then going on to write many children's books – many of which are now being reprinted – still mean a great deal to him despite the success of Mma Ramotswe, Isabel Dalhousie (star of his second detective series that began with The Sunday Philosophy Club), and his latest release, 44 Scotland Street, a colorful slice of Edinburgh life.
Alexander McCall Smith's Children's Books
"As a child, I read the Just William books, all the Enid Blyton books," said McCall Smith. "I thought Rudyard Kipling was wonderful, especially the Just So Stories and The Jungle Book. Arthur Mee's The Children's Encyclopedia is a huge rambling book that talks about poets and legends, and I read that again and again.
"At the age of nine, I started to pick up odd books. I read Bertrand Russell's Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare. That's a very unusual book and it unsettled me greatly. I was very scared by Bertrand Russell."
Every inch the polite British gentleman, McCall Smith becomes quite animated as he recalls further books from his childhood.
"I knew a book called Ginger's Adventures – all about a puppy – word for word off by heart," he said. "And then there was The Boy's Book of Merchant Shipping – weight, tonnage, it had everything. John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps was a book that I found very exciting.
"I doubt if Buchan is read by teenagers today. But there's clearly a demand for adventure stories – just look at Harry Potter. Kids love fantasy and Roald Dahl is perhaps the best example – children like to see gruesome events in stories and some characters come to really nasty ends in Dahl's books. I don't think children should be sheltered from these stories.
"Just look at traditional fairytales, there is always something nasty in the woods. I remember the Struwwelpeter stories. Struwwelpeter translates as shock-haired Peter and the tales were designed to stop children misbehaving. One of them, the Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, was all about a boy who sucked his thumb and gets his thumbs cut off by a tailor.
"I once visited some friends, who had an eight-year-old who sucked his thumb to the extent that he needed orthodontic work and I told that story to him – the boy froze, petrified, and never sucked his thumb again. These stories are far better for children than the highly sexualized literature we see today. Childhood should remain innocent in that respect."
McCall Smith is currently on a three-year unpaid sabbatical from Edinburgh University but thinks it is highly unlikely he will return to academia.
"I'd like to have some associations with the university in some way, but frankly it will be difficult considering how things have taken off for me," he said. "I'm astonished by how things have turned out.
"After this trip, I will be off to New Zealand, Australia and Singapore for a book tour, then on to India," he pauses for a moment. "Then I'm back to Scotland before coming back to the US for a two-and-a-half week book tour, and then there's a UK tour and then I think I'll get a couple of weeks in Scotland."
Earlier this year, staff from AbeBooks.com had listened to McCall Smith speak to a captivated audience at the LA Times Festival of Books and saw him attract one of the largest crowds at the two-day event.
"...I'd write about the Bolivian navy. Bolivia has no seas and just a big lake where its navy can practice. I like the idea of writing about a lost cause."
"I have a very broad readership," he said. "It's an interesting cross-section of people. I'm always encouraged when I come across younger readers – a 14-year-old girl has just come up to me and I recently got a letter from a 98-year-old."
Both Mma Rowatswe and Isabel Dalhousie have shown there is massive demand for detective books lacking grisly deaths, high-speed car chases and shoot-outs.
"People like novels about the small things in life - drinking tea, eating cake and other little incidents," he said. "Little details appeal across cultures. My books are being translated into 35 languages and that proves the stories work across different cultures. I met someone recently who said one of my books was top of the best-seller charts in Serbia. That's incredible.
"I've had a very generous reaction in Botswana to The No.1 Ladies, but they are naturally a very generous people. Writers outside Africa often concentrate on the bad things in Africa, like the disasters, but there are so many positive things to address. I'm told tourists get off the plane clutching my books. It's a special place, very unusual and I really wanted to say something good about its society and culture."
And does he find it easy writing from a female perspective?
"You have to be careful when you are writing about another culture and another gender," he explained. "Writing about traditionally built ladies comes quite naturally to me, authors need to show empathy with other people – it is part of the job. I should be able to put myself in someone else's shoes."
And would he ever consider turning this hand to non-fiction? Probably not.
"I admire biographers immensely because it is such a hard task to build up a picture of someone's life. If I had to write a non-fiction book today, I'd have to address the hopeless dreams that societies have. Perhaps I'd write about the Bolivian navy. Bolivia has no seas and just a big lake where its navy can practice. I like the idea of writing about a lost cause, and the yearnings behind a lost cause."
"Writers outside Africa often concentrate on the bad things in Africa, like the disasters, but there are so many positive things to address."
In The Sunday Philosophy Club, McCall Smith uses the familiar landscape of Edinburgh as the back-drop. "I decided to use Edinburgh because I wanted to write something about Scotland," he said. "It is a very interesting and intriguing city, and I take an interest in the Scottish literary scene, especially poetry."
The No.1 Ladies earned McCall Smith worldwide acclaim. However, considering he was already an extensively published author and established in his academic field, would he have been satisfied if his writing career had ended in 1998 before Mma Ramotswe became a hero to millions?
"It's the dream of every writer to have millions of people reading their books," he said. "I have that. We strive to cultivate acceptance. We all, not just writers, strive for the complete life, to always be better, to have straighter teeth even.
"Would I have been content with my lot at that point? I don't know. That's a very good question. I had been very fortunate and already had a wonderful life. I once read a book by an Australian called Bill Facey called A Fortunate Life. He lied about his age, went to war, fought at Gallipoli, came back to Australia, had a very hard working life and endured many hardships, and then wrote an autobiography which concluded that he had a fortunate life. That's a wonderful lesson for all us."