Thursday, August 09, 2007

Interview With Wilbur Smith


By Sidney Allinson.

“Victoria’s delightful,” says best-selling author Wilbur Smith, sitting at a window in the Empress Hotel, admiring the Inner Harbour of Victoria, British Columbia. “You have everything here, perfect scenery, beautiful mountains, and salt water, which I love.” Appreciative praise indeed from the much-travelled Smith, who was visiting here for the first time, during a cross-Canada promotional tour. The effort seems almost superfluous, considering his books now top 100 million copies in total sales.

Smith is tall, tanned, and fit-looking for his 73 years, a friendly raconteur with a hearty laugh. Considering he is one of the highest-paid authors in the world, he is open, cordial, and not in the least full of himself.

The death of his third wife of many years devastated him for a sad period, until he married again in 2003. He introduces his gracious, gorgeous young wife, Mokhiniso Rahkimova, who is 38 years younger than him. A Muslim from the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, Niso was a law student when Smith first met her, appropriately in a London bookshop. Proudly uxorious, he says, “Thanks to her, this is the best period of my life.”

They are in town to plug his latest opus, “The Quest,” fourth in the wildly popular River God series about Taita, Egyptian master of the supernatural. Not to give away the plot, but this time the River Nile dries up, a catastrophe caused by mysterious happenings far away. In desperation for a solution, the Pharaoh sends for the long-lived Warlock, Taita (pronounced “Ty-ee-tah”.)

He sets off on an epic journey, during which his strange powers equip him to win through to the source of the Nile and combat the cause of the disasters. To triumph, Taita must overcome dangerous challenges that are as much psychic as physical, and is awarded an astonishing regeneration that foreshadows modern stem-cell growth.

Smith’s stories set in ancient Egypt are a sharp turn away from his previous action-packed novels about battle, murder, and sudden death -- portraying muscular white hunters, fearless explorers, and lusty female characters in bygone eras. His historically accurate portrayal of how they actually behaved at the time, without inserting any fashionable authorial disapproval, has drawn some flak from liberal-minded critics.

Smith laughs uproariously, “So what? I revel in being politically incorrect! Hah, they’ve even called me sexist, too. I love women! Gutsy women, fiery women. I believe that women are superior in many ways, their resilience and courage. Furthermore, most of my readers are female.”

Whatever his unfashionable views, they reflect his own origins. Smith was born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1933, the son of English settlers. His earliest childhood memories are of his artist mother reading adventure stories to him. He grew up to be a voracious reader, between rifle-toting forays into the bush, where at age thirteen he shot his first lion. His father, an implacable big-game hunter who claimed to have never read a book in his life, sternly discouraged young Wilbur’s ambition to become a journalist. “You’d starve doing that -- get a real job!”

So he reluctantly became a government tax accountant, married twice, both ending in divorce, and then turned to writing novels. In 1963, he scored enormous first success with “When The Lion Feeds,” and never stopped from then on, having since written 31 international best-sellers.

He explains matter-of-factly how he produces them in such volume. “After a lot of research, I just go to my writing place every second February and start writing. I keep doing that seven hours a day, five days a week, and at the end of eight months or so I have another manuscript ready.”

This workmanlike routine has earned him great wealth and the freedom to live life to the fullest -- posh homes in Cape Town, London, and Davos, leisure for skiing, hunting safaris, deep-sea fishing, and luxurious travel, with time out to write another novel every second year.

Asked why his last four books have veered away from his previous usual theme of two-fisted outdoor adventure into supernatural fantasy, he says, “I wanted to create an entirely different focus, and I was always fascinated by ancient Egyptian lore, whence the River God series. Now, with “The Quest” I like to think I have come up with something even newer again, both in story and narrative style. Writing it gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure, and favourable public response has been huge already, especially among young women, I might add.”

He says the story in his latest book owes a debt to many other authors, particularly Rider Haggard, whose Victorian novel ‘She’ was the first adult book Smith ever read. Fans of Smith's series set in early Egypt will be interested to know “The Quest” takes another leap forward from an historical basis to a mystical one, in which the continuing character Taita encounters a evil superhuman entity.

Summing up, the contented multi-millionaire author says, “My books are each offered as a finished piece, to enjoy or not. They have all been enormous fun. From my early thirties, I have called no man master. I have been able to choose exactly what I want to write about, free to shoot my mouth off on any subject. Quite a lot of people like me for it, and I have given pleasure to many and offence to few. So it’s been a good life.” Wilbur Smith beams happily towards Niso, “And it’s not over yet.”

-- Sidney Allinson is author of
"KRUGER'S GOLD: A novel of the Anglo-Boer War."

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