A conversation with Alexander McCall Smith inevitably covers not only the contents of his books but also how many there are.

McCall Smith, 71, is one of the world’s best-loved authors, and one of the most prolific. He has written upwards of 100 books, mostly novels, and has sold more than 30 million copies.

He averages 1,000 words an hour. Many authors would consider that a good total for a day.

Does he ever wonder where his huge variety of characters and situations come from? He tries not to.

“I think one shouldn’t be too analytical about how one writes,” he tells The Cumberland News, on the phone from his Edinburgh home.

“If I did do that I could become self-conscious, and that would show. You have to go with the flow, as it were.

“That’s not to say you sit and wait for the muse to land on your shoulder. You have to sit down and work. Just let one’s subconscious mind do the work. Fiction, to a great extent, comes from the subconscious mind.”

McCall Smith - or his subconscious - has a talent for comic writing. He confirms that on occasion he finds himself laughing as he types.

“The humour is often not planned. It’s not something I see coming - the characters take over.”

The best-known is Precious Ramotswe, owner of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

This is the series that brought him to prominence. The books are set in Botswana. McCall Smith grew up in neighbouring Zimbabwe and later taught law at the University of Botswana.

Precious is hugely popular, and has traits common to many of McCall Smith’s creations.

“I think people like her kindness and resolve,” he says. “She’s gentle and wise. People are fed up with conflict.”

He is frequently praised for his depiction of female characters.

“The conversation of women is interesting. Men and women do talk about different things. I enjoy female conversations. Generally women are more open to discussion of feelings than men.”

The first No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel was published in 1998. To The Land of Long Lost Friends, the 20th in the series, came out two weeks ago.

“I never thought I would get to 20. I do enjoy writing series. Going back to the same characters that you’ve developed is always very interesting. It’s like sitting down and having a chat with old friends.”

He has two other long-running series, both set in Edinburgh. The 44 Scotland Street novels feature a diverse range of residents of the city’s New Town area.

The most popular with readers is Bertie Pollock, a seven-year-old prodigy with an overbearing mother.

The Isabel Dalhousie series stars a philosopher who, like Precious Ramotswe, finds herself drawn into helping people and solving mysteries.

Even those McCall Smith novels with a detective element tend to be more about characters than plot puzzles.

One reason for his books’ popularity is their warmth. They glow with a message of kindness and compassion.

Readers become engrossed in his worlds. Many send him gifts and confide in him.

“There will be very moving encounters when I’m on tour. I sometimes meet people who are very closely emotionally linked to a character. They might say my books have helped them.

“People say things like ‘I read the Precious Ramotswe books with my dying spouse.’ Or ‘This was the last book I read to my mother.’”

Does he feel a sense of responsibility, knowing how important his books are to their readers?

“I do. I take that seriously. I realised I couldn’t do anything with the characters which was out of character. That would distress the readers.

“In a sense, ownership of the characters has passed from me to the readers. I’ve lost control to this community. The characters are owned by the readers, in a moral sense.”

His latest creation is Ulf Varg; a detective in Malmo’s fictional Department of Sensitive Crimes. Varg’s cases include the disappearance of a man who may not exist, and the question of whether another character is a werewolf. Varg also has a deaf dog, which he has taught to lip read.

This is McCall Smith’s take on the ‘Scandi noir’ genre of crime fiction. He refers to his version as Scandi blanc.

“I like the idea of a dog that lip reads,” he says, chuckling. “Ridiculous, but great fun.”

Many readers describe his writing as escapism. Is that also the case for him?

“I think so. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as one doesn’t bury one’s head in the sand. You can go to a world that’s a bit different from the world in which we live.”

His work suggests a liberal-leaning author. But McCall Smith steers clear of political issues. Don’t expect any of his characters to start discussing Brexit.

“I think those things are not what my writing is about,” he says. “I write novels. It’s not for me to pontificate.”

He does agree that this is a testing time for society, while advising a longer view.

“We’ve been relatively lucky the last few decades with the peace dividend. We are now at a time of political uncertainty.

“Life and human societies have always had their difficulties, in whatever historical epoch. There has always been suffering. We mustn’t beat our breasts too much and think we’re hard done by. We have to be aware of these things but we don’t need to become obsessed by our difficulties.”

Is he optimistic? “One has to try to be optimistic... or positive. Optimism suggests reaching a valuation that may not be grounded in reality.”

McCall Smith’s manner is as gentle as his writing suggests. He is aware that readers may expect him to be as calm and wise as many of his characters, and admits to not always meeting such lofty standards.

“I sometimes find I’m tempted to think uncharitable thoughts. Then I remember Precious Ramotswe. She educates me.”

Does he feel the need to be on his best behaviour in public, for fear of disillusioning readers?

“To an extent. I suppose I have to be a bit careful in my particular situation.”

Would he kick a supermarket trolley if it had a wonky wheel?

He laughs. “I tend not to kick supermarket trolleys.”

Another test: would he be seen in public reading the work of fellow Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh, writer of such gritty tomes as Trainspotting?

“I wouldn’t hesitate to do that,” he declares. “I’m quite happy to read it. I think people should read all sorts of things.”

As for McCall Smith’s own writing, his routine entails getting up at 4am and working for two hours before going back to sleep and returning to his desk later in the day.

“It’s quite a good time to work, particularly in the summer,” he says of his early start.

Of his ability to produce thousands of words a day, he adds: “I’m very conscious of how fortunate I am.”

He never goes longer than a few days without writing and tries to work every day.

“If I haven’t written, I do feel there’s something slightly wrong.”

Millions of readers around the world are glad about that. Does he pay much attention to his impressive sales figures?

“I’m very happy for the publishers if the books do well. That’s not the reason why I do what I do. I write these books because this is what I feel I must do. I feel an urge to do that. I find I’m very happy when I’m writing.”

* Alexander McCall Smith will be speaking at the Crown and Mitre Hotel, Carlisle, on Tuesday October 8 at 7.30pm. Tickets £10.

His appearance is part of Borderlines Book Festival. This takes place at various venues in Carlisle from September 26 until October 8.

Other writers taking part include Chocolat author Joanne Harris, bestselling novelist Adele Parks and Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron talks about his autobiography. BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin details her story of returning to competitive sport after 30 years and representing Great Britain at the World Triathlon Championships.

Artist and author Razwan Ul-Haq talks about his new book Phobiastan, described as “his creative response to Islamophobia and belonging in the north of England”.

Crime fiction author Ann Cleeves discusses her career spanning 30 critically acclaimed novels, featuring characters portrayed in the TV series Vera and Shetland.

Forensic scientist Angela Gallop shares her experience of high-profile criminal cases including those of Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor.

Illustrator Jackie Morris talks about the beautiful ink illustrations she created for a new edition of the lost children’s book The House Without Windows, as well her modern classic The Lost Words.

Borderlines’ honorary president Hunter Davies will entertain with anecdotes from his new memoir, Happy Old Me.

Cumbrian writer Katie Hale and fellow poet-turned-novelist Helen Mort discuss their debut novels.

Liz Grand performs a one-woman show about the real-life 11-day disappearance of Agatha Christie.

There are workshops on writing fiction and poetry with authors including Adele Parks and David Mark. Other workshops cover songwriting and Arabic calligraphy.

For the first time this year there are some free events, including an Any Questions-style panel discussion with journalist Lauren Sharkey who has interviewed 52 young women about their aspirations.

n For the full schedule and to buy tickets, see www.borderlinescarlisle.co.uk or visit Bookends bookshop on Castle Street, Carlisle.