South African novelist, Wilbur Smith, is a household name and one of the finest storytellers of our time. With over 130 million copies of his novels sold, he has captured the imaginations of readers around the world and taken them on epic journeys through the ages.
With over 50 years writing experience, Wilbur Smith is nothing short of a literary legend. Specialising in historical fiction, his work has been translated into 26 languages and document incredible sagas all meticulously researched on his own expeditions around the globe. Described by Stephen King as the “best historical novelist”, this 83 year old best-selling writer continues to share his passion for storytelling and the written word through his incredibly gripping tales and intricate characters. His latest worldwide best-seller, Pharaoh, was described by San Francisco Chronicle as “a rich, compelling look back in time [to] when history and myth intermingled”. Released onto shelves in September, Pharaoh sees Smith returning to Ancient Egypt, a place very dear to his heart, in a spectacular saga that is filled with battles for power, passion and of course, danger. I had the incredible opportunity to meet Wilbur Smith in his beautiful South African home in Cape Town to find out more about the man behind the pen and his intriguing life.
1993 in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia), was a time of political and economic struggle. It was also the year that Wilbur Smith was born. Despite the crippling depression where the prices of raw materials, including those from colonial dependencies, were forced down, Smith lived a rather privileged life. “I was born in the depression and all the mines had closed down. It was a very sad time. But my father had a chain of stores selling goods to the local people and so we made quite a nice living there,” he says. Fortunate enough to have the privilege of attending school in South Africa, Smith went to preparatory school at Cordwalles in Kwa-Zulu Natal and did his secondary schooling at Michaelhouse during which time he started the school newspaper which was widely circulated.
His love for the written word was inspired by his mother who encouraged Smith to read from a young age. “My mother was the one that got me interested in reading, and writing is always preceded by reading. My father was the tradesman and very much a man’s man and my mother was a more gentle person who taught me the art of reading and loving books,” he recalls. “My father felt that my obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy. I was forced to become a secret reader. I spent so much time in the long-drop (outhouse latrine), where I kept a cache of my favourite books, that my father ordered my mother to administer regular and copious doses of castor oil.”
After high school, Smith attended Rhodes University and wanted to pursue his love for words further. His father, however, had other plans for him. “My father said to me, “Ok, now you have an education. What are you going to do with it?” And I said, “I think I am going to be a journalist.” And he said, “Don’t be a bloody fool, you’ll starve to death! Get a real job!” So I did a degree in accounting.”
On completing his degree in accounting, Smith took up the pen again and embarked on his first effort to write a novel. “It was a disaster. But it was good, because I got rid of all the mistakes as first novelists usually do,” he says. “I learnt the basics of storytelling and novel writing.” His second attempt, When The Lion Feeds, introduced the Courtney family to the world, whose adventures would continue in many subsequent novels. Published in 1964, When The Lion Feeds, was a major success for Smith and cemented his career as a full-time writer. “They paid me very well, about £1200, which was serious money in those days,” he recalls. “And so I just gave up working after that.”
Since, Smith has published over 30 years and considers writing to be “life” for him. With an almost religious awe for the written word, his entire life became about sharing his stories with the world. Taking readers on epic journeys through the African continent, through wars, invasions, massacres and ancient and modern times, he says that Africa is the major source of his inspiration. I ask if he has spent time in the places that he writes about and the answer is, unsurprisingly, yes. “I even went to work on the trawlers in South West Africa and that’s where I got to know the Skeleton Coast and that whole area so I wrote quite a bit about that,” he says. “I’ve travelled all over Africa and am very interested in wildlife and it all adds crystal to the mill.” For him, “Africa is the only place, really.”
At 83 years old, there is no stopping Wilbur Smith. I wonder if he ever experiences writer’s block so I ask him and he looks me dead in the eye and quite simply answers: “I don’t know what that is.” Plans for the next novel are already underway and the characters, all of which are part of a big family in Smith’s mind, are yet to amaze and inspire awe in readers for some time to come. While he is not writing, Smith and his wife continue to feed their passion for travel. “We travel a lot,” he says. Once an avid skier, Smith still hits the slopes from time to time, sans skis. “I used to ski until one day Jackie Stewart said to me, “Wilbur if you’re still skiing after 60, and you’re over 60, you’re asking for a broken leg. You’re bones just get more and more brittle.” So Jackie and I don’t ski anymore, but I sit on the terrace and watch my wife ski. And I pray that she doesn’t break her neck,” he laughs. “She’s a mad woman on the slopes.” The couple also love to fish and go to Norway each year for the salmon run.
Eyeing out his office, full of pictures of him enjoying life to the maximum, fishing, skiing, and travelling to distant lands, it is no wonder, with such a rich life, he is able to share such incredible tales through his novels. This is a man who has lived, and continues to live – selflessly sharing his passion for the world around him with all who read his books. I find myself inspired and in awe of the man in front of me and literally on the edge of my seat anticipating what exciting literary adventure is in store next
TEXT © Julie Graham
IMAGES: Ryan Abbott