WILBUR SMITH is one of the world’s most successful authors – a global No 1 bestseller who has now sold 120 million books worldwide. On the phone from his home in London (he lives between the UK and Cape Town), HEATHER WALKER found out about his 33rd and latest novel, Indian Ocean pirate thriller Those in Peril, and his accomplished writing career.
Your first book was never actually published – what lessons did you learn from that experience?
I learnt a lot about writing, it certainly put me on the right track; I wasn’t writing books for other people, I was writing them for myself. After the success of my first published novel in 1964 I was wondering, what on earth am I going to write now? My publisher at the time, Charles Pick said, ‘No one should ever tell you what you are going to write, you should tell us what you’re going to write’.
What motivates you to keep writing?
Yesterday a taxi driver said “I know you, you’re Wilbur Smith. Are you still writing?”
I replied, “I’m still breathing aren’t I?” It’s what I do, I write books, it’s my life.
There was a time when I wrote a book every year, now I’m slowing down a bit, in future I may write a book every third year. It’s no longer some kind of mission I’m on, just what keeps me going, keeps me interested in life.
Do you have a favourite book you have written?
My books are like my children. Some are uglier than others, but like a father I love them all equally.
Most of your stories are set in old colonial Africa. What do you think it is about this time and place that your readers like so much?
Well, it was the time I lived through and one of the finest times of my life, not a care in the world. It was a significant time for Africa and I believe the British experience in Africa was a benevolent one; I think when they pulled out of Africa they left it in a finer place than they found it. I am nostalgic about the past and about the Africa I knew, that has changed or gone completely.
Your books must have made many readers want to visit Africa…
At an event yesterday, afterwards someone came up to me and said “I haven’t actually been to Africa but I have because you took me there”.
You must have seen a lot of technological change through your career; presumably you started with a typewriter…
When I started writing we corresponded through letter or telegram, to receive a telegram was a big occasion. Nowadays email is almost too glib, people don’t use good grammar anymore, but I know it has to happen, it is the nature of man to move and to change, we always try to improve things.
Kindles for example, they’re alien to my way of thinking. Books to me were always mystical and sacred things. You can’t put a Kindle on your bookshelf.
How did you come up with the characters in Those in Peril?
I always have a great chorus of characters waiting in the wings.
Those in Peril has some very sexual and violent scenes. Is it your intention to shock people?
Look, people are interested in sex, I’m interested in sex. Someone once told me that all of my sex scenes were old fashioned and I said, well sex is an old fashioned activity! Adam and Eve were at it like rabbits! It’s a part of life and I think every story should have relationships in them.
Some people have criticised your books for being racist or sexist, what would you say to them?
I would say, that is the way the world works. If you see that in my books then you see something that is not there.
I guess people will read what they want to read?
Everyone seems to claim some connection with Wilbur Smith?
It’s amazing how many friends I’ve got that I’ve never met! It’s quite flattering; it’s nice that people like me.
People obviously want to know you…
I was flying from America to UK with a proofed copy of my book to read on the plane, and the chap across the aisle from me said, “Excuse me, I see you’re reading Wilbur Smith?” And I said, “Yes, I read all his books… I love Wilbur Smith.” He replied, “I’m glad to hear that as he’s one of my closest friends, I’ll tell you what, if you give me a card, next time I see Wilbur I’ll get him to sign a book for you.”
It’s well know that you are an avid hunter and fisherman, but you are clearly also passionate about wildlife. How do you balance these two?
Hunters have always been amongst the greatest conservationists. They understand that wild animals have to live in a world dominated by humans. Lions and elephants used to proliferate in Africa but have had to give way to agriculture. There’s a limit to how much wildlife can fit in. In many cases, hunting camps and concessions are a way of providing a safe haven for wildlife.
Those in Peril by Wilbur Smith is now published in trade paperback by Macmillan