Literary lion’s roaring 70s
Interview by Kevin Ritchie
Wilbur Smith is content.
“I don’t want to sound smug, but damn it, I am, my life’s been great.” The 78-year-old author is on an unprecedented global publicity tour for Those in Peril, his 33rd book, which launches internationally on Tuesday.
He’s sold 120 million copies in 26 languages since When the Lion Feedswas first published in 1964 – and then promptly banned by the National Party government – but there’s no stopping him.
“I feel great, I’ve got the inclination and I’ve got the energy,” he says.
His appearance certainly belies his age.
Sitting behind the antique partner’s desk in the suite of rooms that is his study, an annex to the sprawling bungalow in Bishopscourt, in the lee of Table Mountain, Smith could easily pass for 65.
There’s not an ounce of spare fat on him and what’s left of his hair is shaved close to the skull. His handshake is firm; all that suggests otherwise is a stiffness and a pronounced limp when he walks.
When his wife Mokhiniso walks into his study, the years fall away. Smith’s positively skittish around her. There’s a gulf of 39 years in their ages; she’s young enough to be his daughter at least, but when they’re together, the age difference actually seems to shrink to 10 or 15.
Smith married her within months of his third wife Danielle finally losing her six-year battle with brain cancer.
Mokhiniso, or Niso as everyone refers to her, seems to play the same critical role in Smith’s life that Danielle did for the 30 years she was married to the writer.
She’s charming and elegant, in a core of steel, with a prodigious memory for detail.
Smith is delighted to hear that Boris Johnson, today the Lord Mayor of London, actually interviewed him almost 20 years ago, but can’t remember the article.
Mokhiniso does: “Yes, darling, it was Birds of Prey (one of Smith’s blockbusters) and he was on the Daily Telegraph.” It was in that interview that Johnson put his finger on one of Smith’s enduring traits – the often breathtaking violence in his tales and the lust, “venerated among schoolboys for his dog-eared sex scenes”.
There are plenty of those in Smith’s latest adventure, set in present-day Africa among the Somali pirates. It’s a rollicking yarn that starts with a bang and never lets up until the final – even for Smith fans – terrible denouement, after the indulged daughter of a Cape Town-born oil tycoon is captured in her super yacht and then brutally sexually enslaved by the man who was once her lover before turning out to be the ringleader.
There’s lashings of derring-do, bodice ripping and stomach-swooping danger as her mother, helped by a former SAS major, plots her safe return. The difference this time is that the setting of the book is totally up to date.
It’s a contemporaneity that Smith has shied fromsince his other “stand alone” books, choosing instead in recent years to range between Egypt of the pharaohs 4 000 years ago to African colonial sagas, battling the elements, shooting elephants and siring feuding dynasties that run from the 1600s to the 1980s, but never beyond.
His critics call him one-dimensional and formulaic. His fans – who are legion – liken him to a modern Charles Dickens for his ability to explain Africa.
One of them, Andrew Kenny, once memorably wrote to newspapers to demand that Smith should have got the Nobel Prize for literature instead of Nadine Gordimer. Another fan was buried with all Smith’s novels in his coffin.
None of Smith’s books has ever gone out of print. He’s Pan Macmillan’s most successful author of all time, collecting 22 of the publishing house’s coveted Golden Pan statues, awarded to authors whose books exceed one million sales.
His nearest rival could only manage seven – and that was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
It’s a long way for the little boy who grew up on the Zambian Copperbelt before being sent to high school at Michaelhouse in KwaZulu-Natal, long before John van de Ruit immortalised it in Spud.
Smith isn’t particularly enamoured of his time at the little Eton on the Veld: “I wasn’t good with ball and bat, I read books, I spoke out, I was a bit of a rebel.” As for Spud, “Yes, I’ve read it. It’s enjoyable, it reminds me of Richmal Crompton’s 'Just William' books. It’s amusing.”
Rhodes University would prove a happier time. Smith qualified as a chartered accountant and only began writing after the collapse of his first marriage. He cashed in his leave, resigned from the Receiver of Revenue in the then- Rhodesia and took himself off to the hills of Inyanga to write what would become When the Lion Feeds.
The rest is history.
Now, at a time when most people have already retired and many are contemplating life in frail care, Smith’s about to use the launch of his new book to woo a brand new market of younger readers between the ages of 25 and 35 into the fold.
It’s a novel approach from the man one reviewer described as being like Coca-Cola and Baywatch “because his fame is so widespread he needs no introduction”.
Smith dismisses this: “That’s no reason for complacency.” He adds: “We’re trying to convince younger readers that their fathers were right. If that’s their only reason for not reading these books, then we’re saying, ‘give your dad a chance, find out what you’ve been missing’.” It’s unclear if this extends to Smith’s own children.
He has three from his first two abortive marriages; Shaun and a daughter Christian, and their half-brother Lawrence. He adopted Dieter, Danielle’s son from her first marriage, and ultimately made him his sole heir.
Today he is reportedly reconciled with Shaun, who went on to serve in the Rhodesian SAS before becoming a successful businessman in Plettenberg Bay. Of Christian, who launched a public attack in 1993 on her father, accusing him of abandoning her and her brother, there is no word, as there is none of Lawrence.
Shaun’s son, a self-confessed tik addict at a halfway house in Cape Town, whom Shaun has in turn disowned, does want to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps though and write a book of the underbelly of the Mother City.
Smith explains it thus: “They lead their lives, and I lead mine. I’m not the clingy type.” Of Dieter, the specialist doctor who unsuccessfully sued Smith, airing the family’s dirty linen in the process after his mother’s death and his stepfather’s remarriage, Smith is unequivocal: “He’s gone. Forever. To America. It’s not far enough.” Then he asks: “Have you heard the story about the old man dying? The old man is lying on his deathbed in his farm house, when his four sons arrive. They enter his deathbed and ask him where he’s put his money.
“The old man wheezes and gurgles, his withered hand comes out from beneath the sheets like a claw. Two fingers point downwards.
“Unceremoniously, his sons dump him off the bed and turn the mattress over, but there’s no money. They ask him again as he lies on the floor. His two fingers point down again. They race out of the room and into the cellar, but there’s no money.
“A year later, the old man’s fully recovered, he’s sitting on his stoep with his gorgeous 26-year-old bride about to enjoy a glass of red wine, when a bakkie screeches to a halt outside the house and his four boys pile out.
“ ‘Dad,’ they say, ‘we’re so glad to see you fully recovered, but we just wanted to find out about our inheritance, you know, because even though you’ve recovered, it’ll happen again, so where were you pointing to?’ “ ‘Of course it’ll happen again,’ says the old man. ‘The only problem was that the last time I didn’t have the strength to turn my wrist and lift up my two fingers to all of you.’ “ Smith chortles. As far as he is concerned, he’s in the prime of his life.
“I’m 78, I reckon 88’s a good time to go, before you start drooling into your food or peeing yourself, so that’s 10 years.” He’s looking forward to meeting his fans on the road. “It’s a privilege to meet anyone who pays money for a book I’ve written,” he says, but he warns that the PR tour will be relentless; afterwards, though, will be time for fun.
“It’s off to Argentina, the place I love most in the world after Africa, for steak and bird shooting and then Russia for Niso and I to catch salmon.” Their next stop will be New York where he intends renting a house for seven months.
After that it’s back to Cape Town, where the couple spend five months of every year – a far cry from when Smith was publicly threatening to leave the country if Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ever became president. For her former husband though, Smith has nothing but the greatest respect.
“The attention with his recent health scare was a bit ghoulish, but I think that’s what happens with a great man. It’s sad, terribly sad when you see an old bull going back. He’s so revered everywhere; his absence will be sorely missed, even in his advanced old age.” As for himself, though, he might not be able to walk for five days after elephants, three of whose tusks sit in copper boots atop carved tables in his study, but Smith believes he’s in fine shape despite a recent scare with arrhythmia.
“This morning I looked at myself in the mirror, a misty mirror as I came out of the shower, and said ‘You’re looking OK, you’ve had a great innings.’ “I’ve lived a life that few can emulate; things that didn’t end well at the time have turned out to be blessings in disguise.
“My life’s been great. Now I’m going to start living even faster and doing even more than I’ve ever done before.”
- This interview, by Kevin Ritchie, appeared in the Weekend Argus and Saturday Star on 12 March 2011 and the Sunday Tribune on 13 March 2011