BIG women love Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith because he's sensitive about their size.
He doesn't call them fat, no. Instead, the term he uses for Mma Ramotswe, his plus-sized protagonist in his famous The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, is "traditional built".
"Inventing the term 'traditionally built' is one of the things I am proudest of," says the amiable novelist.
"When I go to America, big ladies come up to me and say, 'Thank you for that term'," he adds, obviously glad to have helped make someone's life just that little bit happier.
The 58-year-old best-selling author is initially an easy subject to interview.
Speaking to LifeStyle at the Raffles Hotel when he was in town earlier this month to give a talk at The Arts House, he is warm, unpretentious and chatty.
This was his seventh trip here.
In fact, you could say the retired law professor embodies the spirit of his Ladies' Detective Agency books, in which the charismatic private investigator Mma Ramotswe brings happiness to people by solving small mysteries in African nation Botswana's capital city of Gaborone.
But ask him about his childhood in 1950s and 1960s Zimbabwe, then a British colony called Rhodesia where his father was a public prosecutor, and the previously voluble writer becomes unexpectedly evasive.
"It was interesting, it was unusual circumstances and the world was very different then," he says before trying to change the topic.
He lived there until the age of 18 before leaving to study law at the University of Edinburgh in 1967.
When pressed on Rhodesia, he finally offers that the white minority rule resulted in "a strange society, in some respects an unhappy society".
Although it came under majority rule upon independence in 1980, the country now suffers from poverty, political strife, human rights violations and the Aids epidemic.
"It's sad to see the country suffering, the people suffering very greatly," he says quietly.
This reluctance to talk about unpleasant things is perhaps unsurprising, coming from a writer whose books, filled with decent people and their acts of kindness, have frequently been described as utopian.
But McCall Smith, who has two daughters aged 22 and 20, stresses that he does not have rose-tinted glasses on.
"I know what the world is like. All I am saying is that one's response may not be a bleak one."
Instead, he prefers to write about hopeful things.
"I am often asked, for example, why I don't write about the Aids crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. It's a serious issue, and I take the view that obviously someone must write about that and people must deal with the unpleasantness," he says.
"But that is not the territory of my books. I am telling a positive story, saying that there's more to Africa than disasters."
It is no wonder, then, that he sets his Detective Agency series in Botswana, Zimbabwe's peaceful and thriving neighbour.
He describes the nation of about 1.6 million people as "a well-run country, a real gem". He first visited it in 1981, on secondment from the University of Edinburgh, to help set up the law faculty at the University of Botswana.
His name and the country's became inextricably linked when the writer, who started writing children's books in the 1980s, penned The No 1. Ladies' Detective Agency, published in 1998 to rave reviews.
"That was the book that changed my life. I had no idea it would do that, but it did, completely," he says, laughing.
He has since met success after success. Besides the Detective Agency series, his The Sunday Philosophy Club series and 44 Scotland Street series, both of which involve romance and mystery, are also popular.
A prolific writer, he has written more than 60 books, publishing five last year. His books have been translated into 40 languages.
The demands of his writing career mean that he has had to retire from academia.
He is now a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh "which is very nice because I don't have to do anything". He devotes his time to writing and visiting the various countries, from Australia to Argentina, where his books are popular. He spends "too much time" - about 60 per cent of the year - away from Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife Elizabeth, a doctor.
And he's still churning out books. He is currently working on two books, the fourth volumes of both the Philosophy Club series and the Scotland Street series, noting that he wrote a chapter of the latter in the morning before the interview.
"I write when I'm away, and my writing often reflects where I am. So I've just written a new chapter where, lo and behold, the characters start talking about Singapore," he says, laughing. As for the series that started it all, the next instalment of the Ladies' Detective Agency series, called The Good Husband Of Zebra Drive, will be published next month.
Also in the works is a film adaptation of the series, to be directed by Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella of The English Patient fame. It is now in pre-production, and should start shooting in April or May.
Although American actress Queen Latifah is reportedly interested in playing Mma Ramotswe, he says that a huge casting call was held in Botswana earlier this month for women of, yes, you guessed it, "traditional build".
Most of Alexander McCall Smith's books, including Blue Shoes And Happiness, the seventh book in The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, are available at major bookstores here. It is available at $18.90 from Books Kinokuniya. Price includes GST.
"Men don't talk about relationships very much. If Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi were two men instead of women, it wouldn?t sound right for them to talk about all those funny romances"
- On why he has many female protagonists
"Detective fiction is a very useful means of giving a sense of place and portraying society, of investigating social and psychological detail"- On why he likes writing mysteries
"I didn't set out with an agenda to write positive stories. I just wrote what I wanted to write, and discovered that that was the note that predominated"- On being called a utopian writer