Alexander McCall Smith sets some of his books as far away as the Kalahari Desert, but Dani Shapiro finds him right at home in Edinburgh
Tara Darby McCall Smith, photographed on Dundas Street on June 23, 2007.
| Credit: Tara Darby

I've used Dundas Street as a setting in many of my novels. I often spend time in a café at the top of the street, where my character Isabel Dalhousie (of the Sunday Philosophy Club series) has her coffee. Dundas Street is part of the New Town in Edinburgh, created very early in the 19th century. Edinburgh was originally restricted to the old medieval city, which became increasingly unsanitary and crowded—it was full of tenements. Eight-story buildings were towering. The New Town has marvelous, broad streets and classical Georgian architecture. I find them very appealing aesthetically, the Palladian proportions.

Dundas Street also really captures one of Edinburgh's—indeed, all of Scotland's—strongest suits, which is its light. The Atlantic air comes in, there's a theater of clouds, dropping rain. From here you can see the hills of Fife, slightly to the northeast. The colors are marvelous: sometimes gray, sometimes blue (I don't know why the hills are blue when seen from far away, since they're never blue when you walk up to them), sometimes green, sometimes with patches of yellow from the oilseed crops. And the light plays with distance; at times, you feel as if you could reach out and touch those hills; at other times, they recede. There is something very romantic about this, these tricks of light."

Alexander McCall Smith's new novel, The Careful Use of Compliments, is in bookstores now.