biography

I wrote a story about a young man, Sean Courtney by name, growing up on an African cattle ranch.

I wrote about my own father and my darling mother. I wove into the story chunks of early African history. I wrote about black people and white. I wrote about hunting and gold mining and carousing and women. I wrote about love and loving and hating. In short I wrote about all the things I knew well and loved better. I left out all the immature philosophies and radical politics and rebellious posturing that had been the backbone of the first novel. I even came up with a catching title, 'When the Lion Feeds'.

I sent the book off to my agent in London, Ursula Winant. Afterwards I heard that she phoned the Managing Director of the eminent publishing house, William Heinemann. His name was Charles Pick. She told him:

“Charles, I have a book which I will only let you read on three conditions. Firstly, you will give the writer an advance of a thousand pounds.” At the time this was an unheard-of sum for a first novel.

“Secondly, you will run a first printing of four thousand copies.” This was a respectable number for an established author.

Charles replied, “Send me the book, and we can talk about it later.”

He read the book over the next weekend and phoned my agent at her home on Sunday evening. He told her:

“Ursula, I cannot agree to a single one of your three conditions. Firstly, I am going to make the advance two thousand rather than one. Secondly I am going to order a first printing of ten thousand copies.”

Two days later the postman pedalled up the drive of the house which I shared in squalor with four other bachelors. I signed for the buff telegram form. I opened it, and my life changed forever.

A week later the postman pedalled up the drive with another telegram. Readers' Digest had taken my novel as one of their Condensed Books. I tipped the postman a pound.

In the following weeks the postman visited me regularly. He brought glad tidings of a sale of film rights in Hollywood, of a book society choice, of acceptance by Viking Press in New York for an eye-rolling sum, of new publishers in Germany and France, of a paperback sale to Pan Books in England. The postman and I became fast friends. He would holloa outside my door: “Another one, Bwana!” When I opened the door he had his hand out for the tip.

I had not taken leave from the tax department for three years. I had never been able to afford the luxury of a holiday. I cashed in all that leave, and I had enough to live on for the next five years. I gave up the practice of accountancy for good. I was so flush with cash and bonhomie that I even made another effort at marriage, with the same result: a baby followed shortly after by divorce.

This biography, with a bibliography, is available for download as a PDF

Wilbur Smith

Success: signing a contract for 'When the Lion Feeds'

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