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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 viewpoints 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, and he developed three long chronicles of the South African experience which all became best-sellers. He still acknowledges his publisher Charles Pick'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. As of 2014 his 35 published novels had sold more than 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy.
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, comprising 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.
Smith 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 Smith 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 felt that he never "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 afield as The Wykeham Collegiate and St Anne's.
Smith initially worked on his father's cattle ranch and also served with the Rhodesian Police. "I would get called out and have to get bodies of children from pit lavatories after they had been killed with pangas [machetes]," he recalled.
Smith 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).
"My father was a colonialist and I followed what he said until I was in my 20s and learned to think for myself," he said. "I didn’t want to perpetuate injustices so I left Rhodesia in the time of Ian Smith."
Smith turned back to fiction, this time determined to write it, and to his delight found that he was able to sell his first story to Argozy magazine for 70 pounds, 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.
He wrote his first successful novel, When the Lion Feeds (1964), while he worked for Salisbury Inland Revenue. It tells the stories of two young men, twins Sean and Garrick Courtney. The characters' surname 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.
Sean and Garry grew up on an African cattle ranch. The story weaves in facts about Smith's own father and mother, and includes some early African history and the perspective of black people as well as whites. Smith 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 advised: "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 has published over 30 novels and states that Africa is his major inspiration. 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, the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities granted Smith the Inaugural Sport Shooting Ambassador Award.
Smith was working for his father on the latter's cattle ranch when he married his first wife, Jewell. "Everyone looked down on me, including her,” he told one interviewer. “We didn’t know anything about mutual respect or working together towards a goal – she thought I was useless.”
They had two children together, son Shaun and daughter Christian. The marriage ended badly, and the divorce led to alimony and child support payments that left him penniless at only 24 years of age.
He married again, to Anne, following the publication of his first novel (When the Lion Feeds, 1964) and had another child, a son, Lawrence, but this union, too, ended in divorce.
Smith then met a young divorcée named Danielle Thomas, who had been born in the same town and had read all of his books, and thought they were wonderful. They married in 1971. Smith dedicated his books to her until she died from brain cancer in 1999, following a six-year illness. Smith said:
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 single. 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 Lawrence.
“My relationship with their mothers broke down and because of what the law was they went with their mothers and were imbued with their mothers’ morality in life and they were not my people any more," he said. “They didn’t work. They didn’t behave in a way I like. I’m quite a selfish person. I’m worried about my life and the people who are really important to me.”
He became close to Danielle's son from a previous relationship, Dieter Schmidt, and adopted 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 is divided into three parts, each of which follows a particular era of the Courtney family.
In chronological order, the parts are Third Sequence, First Sequence, then Second Sequence. However this is a slight generalisation, so in fact the book sequence is as follows, with publication dates in parentheses:
- Birds of Prey 1660s (1997)
- Golden Lion 1670s (2015) ( with Giles Kristian )
- Monsoon 1690s (1999)
- Blue Horizon 1730s (2003)
- When the Lion Feeds 1860s–1890s (1964)
- Triumph of the Sun 1880s (2005)
- The Sound of Thunder 1899–1906 (1966)
- Assegai 1906–1918 (2009)
- The Burning Shore 1917–1920 (1985)
- A Sparrow Falls 1918–1925 (1977)
- Power of the Sword 1931–1948 (1986)
- Rage 1950s and 1960s (1987)
- Golden Fox 1969–1979 (1990)
- A Time To Die 1987 (1989)
The Ballantyne Series
The Ballantyne Novels chronicle the lives of the Ballantyne family, from the 1860s through the 1980s, against a background of the history of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The 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 (1980)
- Men of Men 1870s–1890s (1981)
- The Angels Weep 1st part 1890s, 2nd part 1977 (1982)
- The Leopard Hunts in Darkness 1980s (1984)
- The Triumph of the Sun 1884 (2005)
- Assegai 1906 (2009)
The Ancient Egypt series
The Ancient Egypt series is an historical fiction series based in a large part on Pharaoh Memnon's time, addressing both his story and that of his mother Lostris through the eyes of his mother's slave Taita, and mixing in elements of the Hyksos' domination and eventual overthrow.
- River God (1994)
- The Seventh Scroll (1995)*
- Warlock (2001)
- The Quest (2007)
- Desert God (2014)
- Pharaoh (2016)
- The Seventh Scroll is set in modern times but reflects the other books in the series via archaeological discoveries.
As a child, Smith enjoyed reading Biggles books and Just William (1922), as well as the works of John Buchan, C.S. Forester, and H. Rider Haggard. Other authors he admires include Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck.
"I always think I am from the 17th century," said Smith. "I have no interest in technology, or to rush, rush, rush through life. I like to take time to smell the roses and the buffalo dung."
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 (known as The Delta Decision in the 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|
|2014||Desert God||Ancient Egypt||Egyptian|
|2015||Golden Lion||1670s, East Africa||Courtney|
|2016||Predator||modern times||Hector Cross|
Several of Smith's novels have been turned into movies and TV shows.
- The Dark of the Sun (1965), filmed as The Mercenaries (1968) starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux
- Gold Mine (1970), filmed as Gold (1974) starring Roger Moore and Susannah York
- The Diamond Hunters (1971), filmed as The Kingfisher Caper (1975) film and as The Diamond Hunters (2001) TV series starring Roy Scheider and Alyssa Milano
- Shout at the Devil (1968), filmed as Shout at the Devil (1976) starring Roger Moore, Lee Marvin and Barbara Parkins
- Wild Justice (1979), filmed as Wild Justice but was 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), filmed as The Seventh Scroll (1999) TV miniseries starring Roy Scheider, Jeff Fahey, and Karina Lombard
In 1976 Smith said "At first I didn't have complete control over the screenplay when my novels were turned into films. Now I tell the producer and director that they either use my screenplay or else there is no movie. That saves a lot of time."
- Fox, Chloe (28 Apr 2007). "The world of Wilbur Smith, novelist". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- "Early Days". Wilbur Smith Books. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- "Home page". Michaelhouse.org. Retrieved 8 June 2014.
- "School Days, Wilbur Smith Biography". Wilbur Smith Books. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- "University Daya". Wilbur Smith Books. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- Hopper, Hedda (30 August 1965). "Africa is Poiter's Choice". The News and Courier. p. 3. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
- "Meet Wilbur Biography: Busy Days". wilbursmithbooks.
- "Wilbur Smith Moves to HarperCollins". HarperCollins Publishers.
- "Wilbur Smith". WFSA.
- "Worst Days". Wilbur Smith Books. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- Thomas, David (29 March 2005). "Wilbur the womanizer". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- Moss, Stephen Moss (April 2, 2005). "Stalking an old bull elephant". The Age. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- Anstead, Mark (19 Jun 2010). "Fame & Fortune: Wilbur Smith". Telegraph. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
- Smith, Wilbur (2014). Desert God. William Morrow (HarperCollins). ISBN 9780062276452.
- "THE SEVENTH SCROLL". Wilbur Smith Books.
- "Wilbur Smith, author of Those in Peril, answers Ten Terrifying Questions". Booktopia. 22 March 2011. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
- "Busy Days". Wilbur Smith Books. Retrieved 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.
- Martin Hall, "The Legend of the Lost City; Or, the Man with Golden Balls". Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jun., 1995), pp. 179-199.
- "People.". The Australian Women's Weekly (National Library of Australia). 8 December 1976. p. 14. Retrieved 25 January 2015.
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