If you think the uber-macho characters of bestselling author Wilbur Smith’s novels are a figment of his imagination, think again. He had one right at home – his father. “Apart from him, I have met a number of them!” guffaws the 81-year-old.
“In fact, I believe good adventure writing is picking a person or characters that are from life and then embroidering them a bit more to make them beyond life. I write about men who are more manly and beautiful women who are really more beautiful than any women you’d meet. That’s how you keep the reader’s interest through the book.”
But spicing up real-life people and incidents to create larger-than-life fictional characters is not the only formula that has made Wilbur Smith the iconic author that he is.
“I write because of a deep desire and compulsion to tell stories I think are important, and to link those subjects that are very close to my heart,” says the man who has sold more than 120 million copies of his books since 1964 when his first one, When the Lion Feeds, was published.
“People say that is my formula. I don’t like to use the word formula, but that is the way I work.
“And I write for myself, not others. I have to please myself.”
He describes his style as less of a technique, more a way of thinking. “It’s your state of mind, the way you perceive the world. Mine comes from my upbringing in Africa, and my fascination with certain aspects of African life. I just translate from my own experience, my own thoughts. I don’t like to think too deeply about what my style is. It’s my style and it’s natural to me like the way I eat and sleep.”
That’s the way he’s always written, right from When the Lion Feeds. However, not many know he wrote one novel earlier – The Gods First Make Mad – when he was working as an accountant in Namibia.
“The first 30 years of my life, I lived in Africa,” he says. “The continent is all I knew. The politics, the people and the culture of the place became my muse and I wanted to write this great African novel that captured it all.
“The problem with The Gods... was that it had far too many characters.
I basically made all the mistakes a first novelist makes. Luckily, the book was rejected by all the publishers I’d sent the book to. Thank god, they had the good sense to not publish it! If not, I would’ve had to live with the embarrassment of having that terrible book as my debut work for the rest of my life. But at that time, I thought that was it, I should pack up and find something else to do. The lady who was acting as my agent at that time contacted me after a year or so and said, ‘When is the new book coming?’ I said unfortunately there is not going to be another book. She said, ‘Don’t give up now, because your first book showed great promise’.
“So then I wrote a simple book about a subject that I knew well, of twin boys growing up in the world of ranches and mining and that was When the Lion Feeds. However, I have one copy of the manuscript of The Gods... it will go to the grave with me!”
His debut novel went on to be so successful that Smith decided to give up his accountant’s job and start writing full time.
Smith has written 35 books so far. “My goodness, it’s a lot of work!” he exclaims when the number crops up in our conversation. He’s now promoting his latest, Desert God.
“It is set in ancient Egypt and revolves around the character of Taita, the ancient sage and wise man who is not afraid to tell you how wise he really is!” he chortles. “He is the only character that I write about in the first person because it’s as though I hear him talking. I heard his voice whispering to me from the shadows of the Karnak temple on the banks of the Nile river.”
Taita, a kind of fixer-to-pharaohs, has appeared in several of his books, and could be the elusive Wilbur Smith formula his critics are rummaging for – writing about a set of characters who have already found success in a previous story. That may also be the reason Smith is able to churn out at least one novel every two years. “I start with the idea and if I am writing a series I’ve got four or five other books already written, and that forms the foundation,” agrees Smith.
“That’s why I write sagas about a family or a group because I know the characters already. And it’s easy to pick them up and run with them.”
For Smith every book involves eight to 10 months of writing. “After I finish a novel I give it a month or two to cool down in my head. Then I read it again from the beginning like I am reading it for the very first time. That’s when I decide if it’s flowing properly.”
Smith keeps regular hours while writing. “When I am into the book I work businessman’s hours – five days a week, 8am to three or four in the afternoon,” he says. “Then I shut down and do my own thing.”
And when he’s done, Smith takes a long break. “At the end of that I am not in a condition to start writing immediately,” he laughs.
“That’s why I let the [new] idea develop and then I go off and go fishing or travelling. The next book comes on when I am ready to put it on paper.”
Smith learnt early to write only about things he knows. “Africa’s my muse, because it is what I am,” he says. “I never left Africa until I was 30, so it is in my blood. It is the source of all my story material. I always go back to Africa in all my stories.
“Earlier, my stories were entirely African stories but now I am opening up to the wide world,” says the man who owns houses in London, Cape Town, Switzerland and Malta.
Despite this he continues to get the young generation hooked on his books. “As I’ve grown older and gained experience I think my style has changed or solidified,” he says.
“I hope I’m improving all the time. I am sure the time will come when I will lose it a little bit but I am not looking ahead to that point at all.”
That’s why he doesn’t plan on retiring. “You’ve got to have something to keep you fuelled up to keep you interested, to make you impassioned,” says Smith, a father of three from previous marriages.
“Some time back I said to my wife [Mokhiniso Rakhimova, who is 39 years younger than him] I was thinking of retiring, and she said, ‘What a good idea. What are you now?’ I said I am a writer.
“And she said, ‘If you stop writing what will you be?’ I thought about it and told her, ‘I see what you mean.’
I am not going to stop writing. End of the subject.”
A voracious reader, Smith prefers non-fiction for his own reading pleasure. “I have a very wide taste, I like history and autobiographies the most,” he says.
“I admire Conn Iggulden who writes about ancient Rome. I like to read a lot as the works of other writers stimulate you. I like stories about people in interesting circumstances doing interesting things.” He laughs again, like he does throughout the interview.
Smith has been writing for so long that now he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I would probably have been a little businessman or an accountant, which I was when I wrote my first book. But I would have been a very unhappy accountant.”
Every author’s nemesis, writer’s block, doesn’t ever trouble him. “I don’t understand the phrase writer’s block,” he says. “To me it doesn’t exist. It is a condition of the mind caused by the writer himself. If you are a real writer you never get blocked because there are so many things to write about. It’s an excuse for being lazy.”
As we end the interview, I ask him to describe his perfect day. “All my days are perfect but in different ways,” replies Smith. “Working days are when you get up and write and you go to bed knowing what you are going to write the next morning.
“When you have breakfast you’re excited by knowing what you are going to write. It sets you on fire.
“The day would end with my wife and with a glow of accomplishment going to bed at 10.30pm. When I am not writing it would have to be a fishing trip; when we wake up and the sun is shining and the signs are good that the fish are going to bite.”
That doesn’t sound very different from his regular days, I tell him. His laughter booms down the telephone line again.