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Wilbur Smith, signing The Quest
9 January 1933 |
Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia
Wilbur Addison Smith (born 9 January 1933) is a South African novelist specialising in historical fiction about the international involvement in Southern Africa across three centuries, seen from the viewpoint of both black and white families.
An accountant by training, he gained a film-contract with his first published novel When the Lion Feeds. This encouraged him to become a full-time writer, developing three long chronicles of the South African experience which all became best-sellers. He still acknowledges his publisher’s advice to ‘write about what you know best’, and his work takes in much authentic detail of the local hunting and mining way of life, along with the romance and conflict that goes with it. His novels have sold more than 120 million copies, with 22 million sold in Italy alone.
Early life and education
Smith was born in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia, now Kabwe, Zambia. His father was a metal worker who opened a sheet metal factory and then bought a cattle ranch. "My father was a tough man," said Smith. "He was used to working with his hands and had massively developed arms from cutting metal. He was a boxer, a hunter, very much a man's man. I don't think he ever read a book in his life, including mine."
As a baby, Smith was sick with cerebral malaria for ten days, but made a full recovery. He spent the first years of his life on his father's cattle ranch which consisted of 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of forest, hills and savannah. On the ranch his companions were the sons of the ranch workers, small black boys with the same interests and preoccupations as Smith. With his companions he ranged through the bush, hiking, hunting, and trapping birds and small mammals. His mother read to him every night and later gave him novels of escape and excitement, which piqued his interest in fiction; however, his father dissuaded him from pursuing writing.
He went to boarding school at Cordwalles Preparatory School in Natal (now Kwa-Zulu Natal). While in Natal he continued to be an avid reader and had the good fortune to have an English master who made Smith his protégé, and would discuss the books Smith had read that week. Unlike Smith's father and many others, the English master made it clear to Smith that being a bookworm was praiseworthy, rather than something to be ashamed of and let him know that his writings showed great promise. He tutored Smith on how to achieve dramatic effects, to develop characters and to keep a story moving forward.
For high school Smith attended Michaelhouse, a boarding school situated in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. He never felt like he "fitted in" with the people, goals, and interests of the other students at Michaelhouse. On a positive note, he did start a school newspaper at Michaelhouse for which he wrote the entire content, except for the sports pages. His weekly satirical column became mildly famous, and was circulated as far as afield as Wykeham Collegiate and St Anne's.
He wanted to become a journalist, writing about social conditions in South Africa, but his father's advice to "get a real job" prompted him to become a tax accountant (chartered accountant). He attended Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1954. He subsequently found work with the Inland Revenue Service.
Smith turned back to fiction and this time he determined to write it, and to his delight found that he was able to sell his first story to 'Argosy' magazine for seventy pounds, which was twice his monthly salary. His first attempt at a novel, The Gods First Make Mad, was rejected so for a time he returned to work as an accountant, until the urge to write once again overwhelmed him.
His first successful novel, When the Lion Feeds, was published in 1964, written while he worked for Salisbury Inland Revenue. It tells the story of a young man, Sean Courtney and his twin brother Garry. The character's name was a tribute to Smith's grandfather, Courtney James Smith, who had commanded a Maxim gun team during the Zulu Wars. Courtney James Smith had a magnificent mustache and could tell wonderful stories that had helped inspire Smith. When the Lion Feeds, tells the story of Sean and Garry growing up on an African cattle ranch. The story weaves in facts about Smith's own father and mother. He added in some early African history and included the perspective of black people and white. He wrote about hunting, gold mining, carousing, women, love, sex, and hate. This time he left out the philosophies and radical politics that had been the backbone of his first novel. The book gained a film deal and its success encouraged him to become a full-time writer. His publisher and later agent, Charles Pick, gave him advice he never forgot: "Write for yourself, and write about what you know best." Pick also told him "Don't talk about your books with anybody, even me, until they are written." Smith has said that "Until it is written a book is merely smoke on the wind. It can be blown away by a careless word."
He states that Africa is his major inspiration, and currently he has over 30 novels published. Smith now lives in London, but avows an abiding concern for the peoples and wildlife of his native continent.
In December 2012 it was announced that Smith was leaving his English-language publisher of 45 years, Pan Macmillan, to move to HarperCollins. As part of his new deal, Smith will be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: 'For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently.'
In 2002, Smith was granted the Inaugural Sport Shooting Ambassador Award by the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities.
After qualifying as an accountant, he married and had two children. The marriage ended badly and the divorce led to alimony and child support payments that left him penniless at only twenty four years of age.
He married again following the publication of his first novel, and had another child, but this too ended in divorce. He then met a young divorcee named Danielle Thomas who had been born in the same town and had read all of his books, and thought that they were wonderful. In 1971 they married. Smith dedicated his books to her until her death from brain cancer in 1999 after a six-year illness. Smith:
The first part of our marriage was great. The last part was hell. Suddenly I was living with a different person. They chopped out half Danielle's brain and her personality changed. She became very difficult. I found it very, very hard to spend a lot of time with her because her moods would flick back and forth. She'd say, 'Why am I dying and you are well? It's unfair.' I'd say, 'Look, life isn't fair.' But when she passed away, I was sitting next to her, holding her hand as she took her last breath.
Smith spent the next few years womanising. In a bookstore in London he met a Tadjik girl, Mokhiniso Rakhimova, 39 years younger than he is. Mokhiniso had received her law degree from Moscow University. He fell in love once again and they married in May 2000.
When Smith married Danielle Thomas, he cut off contact with his son Shaun and daughter, Christian. He was also estranged from his son Kawrence but became close to Danielle's son from a previous relationship, Dieter Schmidt, adopting him. Smith and Shaun subsequently reconciled. In 2002 he and Schmidt wound up in court in a dispute over assets and they became estranged. Smith:
What I do, and I know it's a mistake but I just can't help myself, is I get into a relationship and I just want to give that person everything... I'm overgenerous. Then if they turn on me, I cut them off, it's finished. I'm not the easiest guy in the world, I can tell you, but if you are onside with me you can have everything, I'll lay down my life for you, you can go and help yourself to the bank account virtually. But if you let me down, then bye-bye-blackbird.
The Courtney Series
The Courtney series can be split into three parts, each part following a particular era of the Courtney family.
In chronological order it goes the Third Sequence, First Sequence, then the Second Sequence. However this is a slight generalisation, so in fact the book sequence is:
- Birds of Prey 1660s
- Monsoon 1690s
- Blue Horizon 1730s
- When the Lion Feeds 1860s–1890s
- Triumph of the Sun 1880s
- The Sound of Thunder 1899–1906
- Assegai 1906–1918
- The Burning Shore 1917–1920
- A Sparrow Falls 1918–1925
- Power of the Sword 1931–1948
- Rage 1950s and 1960s
- Golden Fox 1969–1979
- A Time To Die 1987
The Ballantyne Series
A fifth novel seeks to combine the Ballantyne narrative with that of Smith's other family saga, The Courtney Novels.
The books are set in the following time periods:
- A Falcon Flies 1860
- Men of Men 1870s–1890s
- The Angels Weep 1st part 1890s, 2nd part 1977
- The Leopard Hunts in Darkness 1980s
- The Triumph of the Sun 1884
The Egyptian Series
A historical fiction series based in a large part on Pharaoh Memnon's time along with his story and that of his mother Lostris through the eyes of his mother's slave Taita mixing in elements of the Hyksos' domination and eventual overthrow.
The Seventh Scroll is set in modern times, but reflects the other three through archaeological discoveries.
As a child, Smith enjoyed reading Biggles and Just William as well as the works of C.S. Forester, H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan. Other authors he admires include Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.
He says he has tried to live by the advice of Charles Pick, his first publisher and mentor who became his literary agent:
He said, "Write only about those things you know well." Since then I have written only about Africa... He said, "Do not write for your publishers or for your imagined readers. Write only for yourself." This was something that I had learned for myself. Charles merely confirmed it for me. Now, when I sit down to write the first page of a novel, I never give a thought to who will eventually read it. He said, "Don't talk about your books with anybody, even me, until they are written." Until it is written a book is merely smoke on the wind. It can be blown away by a careless word. I write my books while other aspiring authors are talking theirs away. He said, "Dedicate yourself to your calling, but read widely and look at the world around you, travel and live your life to the full, so that you will always have something fresh to write about." It was advice I have taken very much to heart. I have made it part of my personal philosophy. When it is time to play, I play very hard. I travel and hunt and scuba dive and climb mountains and try to follow the advice of Rudyard Kipling; "Fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run." When it is time to write, I write with all my heart and all my mind.
Bibliography (by series)
|1964||When the Lion Feeds||1860s–1890s – Anglo-Zulu War||Courtney|
|1965||The Dark of the Sun||1960s – Congo Crisis||–|
|1966||The Sound of Thunder||1899–1906 – Second Boer War||Courtney|
|1968||Shout at the Devil||1913–15 – World War I|
|1971||The Diamond Hunters||late 1960s||–|
|1972||The Sunbird||modern times/Ancient times||–|
|1974||Eagle in the Sky||modern times||–|
|1975||The Eye of the Tiger||modern times||–|
|1976||Cry Wolf||1935 – Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Second Italo-Abyssinian War||–|
|1977||A Sparrow Falls||1918–1925 – World War I, Rand Rebellion||Courtney|
|1978||Hungry as the Sea||modern times||–|
|1979||Wild Justice (UK); The Delta Decision (US)||modern times|
|1980||A Falcon Flies||1860s – white settlement of Rhodesia||Ballantyne|
|1981||Men of Men||1870s–1890s – First Matabele War||Ballantyne|
|1982||The Angels Weep||1st part 1890s – Second Matabele War
2nd part 1977 – Rhodesian Bush War
|1984||The Leopard Hunts in Darkness||1980s – newly independent Zimbabwe||Ballantyne|
|1985||The Burning Shore||1917–1920 – World War I||Courtney|
|1986||Power of the Sword||1931–1948 – World War II||Courtney|
|1987||Rage||1950s and 1960s – Sharpeville massacre||Courtney|
|1989||A Time to Die||1987 – Mozambican Civil War||Courtney|
|1990||Golden Fox||1969–1979 – South African Border War, Cuban intervention in Angola||Courtney|
|1991||Elephant Song||modern times||–|
|1993||River God||Ancient Egypt||Egyptian|
|1995||The Seventh Scroll||modern times||Egyptian|
|1997||Birds of Prey||1660s||Courtney|
|2005||The Triumph of the Sun||1880s – Siege of Khartoum||Courtney & Ballantyne|
|2007||The Quest||Ancient Egypt||Egyptian|
|2011||Those in Peril||modern times||Hector Cross|
|2013||Vicious Circle||modern times||Hector Cross|
Several of Smith's novels have been turned into movies.
- The Dark of the Sun 1965, filmed as "The Mercenaries" (1968) starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux
- Shout at the Devil 1968, filmed as "Shout at the Devil" (1976) starring Roger Moore, Lee Marvin & Barbara Parkins
- Gold Mine 1970, filmed as "Gold" (1974) starring Roger Moore and Susannah York.
- The Diamond Hunters 1971, filmed as "The Kingfisher Caper" (1975), and as "The Diamond Hunters" (2001) starring Roy Scheider, Alyssa Milano
- Wild Justice 1979, filmed as "Wild Justice" but released to video titled "Covert Assassin" (1993) starring Roy Scheider
- The Burning Shore 1985, filmed as "Burning Shore" (1991) starring Isabelle Gelinas, Derek de Lint and Jason Connery
- River God 1993 and The Seventh Scroll 1995, a miniseries filmed as "The Seventh Scroll" (1999) starring Roy Scheider, Jeff Fahey and Karina Lombard
- Chloe Fox, "The world of Wilbur Smith, novelist", Daily Telegraph, 28 Apr 2007 accessed 14 March 2013
- "Early Days", Wilbur Smith Books accessed 14 March 2013
- "Michaelhouse" Accessed 8 June 2014
- "School Days", Wilbur Smith Biography, Wilbur Smith Books accessed 14 March 2013
- "University Daya", Wilbur Smith Books accessed 14 March 2013
- "Worst Days", Wilbur Smith Books accessed 14 March 2013
- David Thomas, "Wilbur the womanizer", Daily Telegraph, 29 March 2005 accessde 14 March 2013
- Stephen Moss, "Stalking an old bull elephant", The Age, April 2, 2005 accessed 14 March 2013
- "Fame & Fortune: Wilbur Smith" By Mark Anstead Telegraph, 19 Jun 2010 accessed 22 March 2013
- "Wilbur Smith, author of Those in Peril, answers Ten Terrifying Questions", Booktopia, 22 March 2011 accessed 22 March 2013
- "Busy Days", Wilbur Smith Books accessed 14 March 2013
- "The 1960s: writing in opposition". SouthAfrica.info. 19 April 2001. Retrieved 6 April 2010.
- "Beware Wilbur Smith's Gaboon Adder" (PDF). Retrieved 6 April 2010.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wilbur Smith.|
- Official website
- Wilbur Smith discusses When the Lion Feeds on the BBC World Book Club
- Video interview with Wilbur Smith about the last novel
- Wilbur Smith at IMDb
- Official Facebook page