He’s known for his dashing, daring heroes and Maureen Paton discovers that Wilbur Smith’s own 79 years have had more than their fair share of adventure, travel and romance
The statistics of Wilbur Smith’s success as an author are as breathtaking as his derring-do plots.
Since his debut novel, When the Lion Feeds, was first published in 1964, it’s been estimated that the 120m copies of his books sold worldwide could fill Wembley Stadium twice over. South Africa’s most popular literary export has been awarded more Golden Pan statuettes (for sales of 1m) by his publisher, Pan Macmillan, than any other writer, including Ian Fleming.
Five of the books have been filmed; and Stephen King and Boris Johnson number among his celebrity admirers, with the mayor of London an avid fan in his teenage years of the sex-and-adrenalin formula of Smith’s headlong historical adventures. Thanks to the South African government slapping a ban on his first four books for their characters’ “indecent, obscene and objectionable” interracial interaction, Smith was a celebrity from the start. “Every schoolboy wanted to find out why they were banned, so it gave me a great career boost,” the 79-year-old grins.
A cattle-rancher’s son from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Smith has lived the kind of gung-ho life that inspired many of his stories. Although he was a chartered accountant with a first wife and two children to support by the time he got published, he had hitchhiked 1,500 miles across the Namib desert and worked in goldmines and on trawler fleets and whalers – not to mention fighting off an Alaskan grizzly bear with a fishing rod.
This is all despite a permanent limp left by Smith’s childhood polio as well as a heart murmur from birth; three years ago he had a new valve put in after an arrhythmia scare. Nowadays, although he’s still a great traveller, he says he’s “over-cautious – I don’t look for trouble”.
Except in his books, of course. Following the publication of the paperback edition of his 33rd novel, Those in Peril, he’s working on the next one in the study of his Cape Town home at the foot of Table Mountain.
“I have an over-busy imagination, my brain can’t stop churning out the ideas,” he admits. He and his fourth wife Mokhiniso – a Tajikstan law graduate known as Niso who is 39 years younger than him – also have a house in London near Harrods (“my wife’s corner shop”) and a chalet in Switzerland. “We are swallows – we follow the sun,” he explains of their habit of spending half the year in Africa.
Life has been good to Smith, but he’s not about to get complacent. This surprisingly unassuming creator of superheroes thinks of himself as “experienced rather than wise”, refusing to play the guru and pull rank on account of his age. “It’s tremendous to be human at this time in history: the energy, ideas and opinions of young people today make me optimistic about the future,” he says.
I think I’m a great storyteller. And that’s the way I would like history to look upon me”
Forever fascinated by different cultures and peoples, he makes a point of meeting as many of his readers as possible and recently found himself mobbed by thousands of fans on a book tour of northern India. There he also managed to fit in an elephant ride to track down a tiger in the Corbett National Park by using the warning barks of the local chital deer to find this notoriously nocturnal creature. He describes himself as a strong conservationist “like all true hunters, because we don’t want to see the animals disappear for ever”.
Asked how he thinks literary history will judge his books, he replies: “I don’t write literature, I write stories. It bothers me slightly when people say, ‘Oh, he’s not a great writer’, but I think I’m a great storyteller. And that’s the way I would like history to look upon me.”
His books reflect his zest for life, and there’s plenty of drive left in him. “The secret of enjoying life is to take it on. I have pretty much fulfilled all my ambitions: to see the great wildernesses, deserts and jungles of the world. Now I just want to do more of the same – but more slowly at my age,” he says, laughing.
Yet all his success means nothing, he says, without a companion to share his life. Within months of the death from cancer of his beloved third wife Danielle, he had met Niso in a bookshop.
“Niso mended my broken heart. Danielle was my soul mate for 28 years and Niso has stepped into her shoes. What life has taught me is that love is all. There’s nothing that can compare with the bonding of a man and a woman – together, they have the strength of an army.
“But in retrospect I’m a stronger, more knowledgeable man for having gone through even the loss of someone dear to me. And although I’m not looking forward to the big red wall at the end of the road, I don’t worry about it. It will come when it comes.”
Meanwhile the fictional heroics show no signs of stopping, with Smith aiming to celebrate 50 years of writing in 2014. “Five or six years ago, I was walking down the beach at Muizenberg near here. A stranger in a bathing costume called out, ‘Hello, Wilbur.’ When I said ‘I don’t think I know you’, he said, ‘No, but I know you’.
“And then he told me that he had hacked my phone for BOSS [the feared South African security service in the apartheid era] for six months. ‘You are very boring,’ the guy added. ‘You didn’t have any girlfriends on the side, you weren’t running guns or subverting the country.’ To which I replied: ‘For God’s sake, don’t tell my readers!’”
Those in Peril is published in paperback by Pan, £7.99