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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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(Published in on 20 December, 2011, retrieved from

When Wilbur Smith walks up to the podium at a book launch, one expects him to indulge in some nostalgia. His first book, When the Lion Feeds, was published in 1964, and he’s been a full-time writer since. But what follows is almost a stand-up act. 

He speaks of how he did a promotional tour of London in 1964, and arrived at Heathrow, hoping for an audience with the Queen. He ended up sneaking out copies of his books from the backs of bookshelves to the window display, and had irate bookshop proprietors call up his publishers. 

He has the audience in splits recounting how he saw a woman reading his first book, and said to her, “Madam, that book is mine”, only to have her say, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I just found it lying here!” before returning it to him. 

He grins about how he went to a book signing, and found no one there, and then decided to sign all his books, so that the bookstore couldn’t return them to his publishers, and he would get a royalty. Then, he spotted Frederick Forsyth’s books, and decided to do his friend Freddy a good turn by signing those as well. 

On the Landmark Wilbur Smith India Tour to promote his latest offering, Those in Peril, the bestselling author speaks about his masala style, allegations of racism and sexism, terror, death, Islam, women and his ‘competition’ with Margaret Thatcher in an exclusive chat.

A writer of your calibre makes a conscious choice – literary or popular fiction. Was spicing up your books always your preference, or did you ever think you might lean towards high literature?

High, thank you! When I came first to India, one of the journalists said to me, “You write masala!” So my name is Wilbur Masala Smith.

But within this masala, you engage with such serious issues – racial discrimination, religious friction. When did these ideas begin to preoccupy you?

Well, you know, I write about people in extreme situations, people in peril, like the title of this book says. So I know all about these things. I was brought up in Africa, and I know all about racial discrimination. My ancestors practised it avidly. The slave trade came out of Africa. And all these things – cruelty to man, cruelty to animals – were such a part of mankind’s existence, of mankind’s experience. And so, I’m involved in all of that – the cruelty and kindness of all mankind, the glory and the infamy of all mankind, that’s my stock-in-trade.

All your male characters either overcome problems and complexes, or are flawed in some manner – maybe they’re not good-looking, or they make rash decisions. But your women are so flawless – beautiful, and brave, and strong.

(Laughs) When I wrote my first book, I was very young. I was a youth of 30 years of age. So I didn’t understand women very well. I loved them, I thought, ‘Whoa, these are gorgeous things!’ but, you know, I didn’t know much about them, and I tended not to write about them. My early books were all about men. But then, later on, as I...umm, as I became more experienced, let me put it that I knew more women, as I loved more women, as I had various associations with women, I developed not only a love of them, but a great respect for women. I think women are quite extraordinary, especially their strength of character. You know, the mother of a family often holds the whole family together. And the same goes for the nations, women as leaders – from Queen Boadicea of ancient Britain, to Indira Gandhi, to Margaret Thatcher, to Angela Merkel – these ladies are really, in all respects, the equal of man, except in brute strength, and these are the kind of women I write about.

But don’t you think women who’re in power tend to become dictatorial?

(Laughs) What about men? How dictatorial do they get? As the Americans say, well, women leaders, they can kick ass. But that’s not a female trait. That’s a human trait. You know, the Iron Lady Maggie Thatcher, I think she was a great woman, a great strong woman, and she almost pulled Britain back onto its feet again, after the excesses of the men who ruled before. But one of the funny things about her was how she wanted to be top dog. You know, once I’d gone to one of those stock signings, where they get you to sign a whole lot of books, which will later be sent out to the bookstore. And I went down, and I signed 3000 books. Now, that is a lot of books, and you go on signing, signing, signing. And ten days later, Maggie Thatcher came down to the same warehouse, to sign her book. And they said to her, “Oh, Wilbur Smith was here last week”, and she asked, “Oh, how many books did he sign?” and they said, “He signed three thousand, which is a lot!” So, Maggie being Maggie, you know what she said? “Give me four thousand.” And that’s the kind of spirit I find fascinating with strong women.

And does your wife ever get jealous of these women characters you write about so fondly?

(With a smile at his petite wife) Oh, no, because she knows she’s more beautiful and flawless and strong than all of them put together!

When you write with settings of a few centuries ago, it’s far easier to write about women, because no one’s going to say, “Look, that’s not how women thought or behaved then!” But in modern times, it’s a lot more problematic, isn’t it, especially when so many feminists have their daggers drawn at you?

(Laughs) Well, there’s always someone who’s going to say “Wilbur Smith is a racist” or “Wilbur Smith is a sexist” or “Wilbur Smith is a pervert”, you know! There are people who look for the dirt in every little thing. Criticism is part of the job, and you have to be inured to it. So, I look at these things and I laugh, and my wife says, “But look what they’re writing about you!” and I say, “Oh, baby, don’t read it.” One other writer said to me long ago, “Don’t read this stuff. Just weigh it.”

But has anything a critic said made you think, “Maybe he’s right” and perhaps accommodate a certain element into your writing?

Thank goodness, the great majority of people who have reviewed my books have taken them as what they have been offered as. They are not offered as, as you were saying, ‘high literature’. They’re not offered as a solution to the world. They’re offered, first and foremost, as entertainment – a cracking yarn, as the saying is – set against believable circumstances, and as long as the story fits into it, against true history. And so, you know, I’m very happy with the way I’ve been treated by the press and my readers and those who have followed me, and I’m feeling on top of the world.

You’ve been writing full-time for nearly 50 years now. Your first book was published in 1964. Do you ever revisit your early writing, and revisit the person you were when you wrote those books?

Yes, I have done that. You know, those early books, written 50 years ago, I don’t remember all the details of those. And so, during conversations with young people who have just read those last week or last month and ask me about these little details, I really find I’ve forgotten most of those. And after a little bit of that, they look at me as if to say, “This guy knows nothing! It’s not him! He couldn’t have written the books, because he doesn’t know anything about them.” So, several years ago, I went back to those books, and read them again, in chronological order, from the first right to the last. And it was the most edifying and entertaining experience to listen to myself, a young Wilbur Smith of 35 years of age. And maybe I should do that again. My wife, you know, she reads those books over and over again, and I think she’s read The River God three times! And she quotes to me from the book, and I say, “Hold on, my girl, I wrote that stuff!” and it’s quite amusing when I don’t recall writing those things I wrote!

In Those in Peril, you marry two current issues – piracy and jihad. When did the story occur to you?

It occurred to me when I first encountered the pirates about 20 years ago, when a crew was meeting them on my island, or off-shore from my island. The idea came that it would be something very interesting to follow up on and research and write a bout.

There are times in Those in Peril where it seems Islam is being stereotyped. Of course, you have people explaining that religion is a peaceful institution, and there are people who pervert any religion, whether it’s Islam or any branch of Christianity. But Bad Islam comes through far more vividly, because it’s portrayed through actions, whereas Good Islam is discussed in words.

I think that is correct. What I’m saying in the book is that no religion is bad, God is good, it’s men who are bad. Men are the ones who take the word of God, and bastardise it, turn it to their own advantage, and as the characters in the book point out, Christianity has gone through periods of being a really brutal and a cruel religion. That is not the word of Jesus Christ. He didn’t go out and say, “Attack anybody who is not a Christian!” And again, there is a very small percentage of Muslims who adopt that attitude. But the great majority live in peace with Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and Shintoists, side by side, and there is never any of that hatred or cruelty in it. It’s only those people who preach that cruelty to other people that I detest.

You’ve seen a lot of India. You’ve visited here even before this book tour. If you were to set a novel here, which landscape would you choose and why?

First of all, I would never write about anything that I don’t know intimately. And the flip answer to that would be, “I’ll write about India when I’ve lived in India for fifty years.” I think I’m running out of time! (Laughs) I write only about the land and the continent and the people that I know, because I was born there, and I’ve spent all my life there. So, I write about Africa. And if you ask me, what would I write about India, I don’t know, because I don’t know India. My knowledge of India is very superficial. I enjoy it, I like the people, I like the diversity of the continent. I like the multitudes of everything. Everything is so prolific here. Even the food is so exotic and different to my taste. I love it! And strangely enough, the food – you take a mango here, or a papaya, it tastes different from those in Africa, or in the UK. Everything is so different that I’d have to spend a lot of time here, to learn a great deal about it, in order to write about it.

There is a lot of death in your books. Are those hard to write, especially when they happen to important characters?

Well, death is another fascinating thing. And the older you get, the more fascinating it gets, because you know that somewhere down the road, it’s waiting for you. I think death is such a final thing. You know, I’ve buried my parents, and that is an extraordinary experience, the finality of it. You realise that you are the end of a long, long line of people who have gone past ahead of you. Death is the end of the story, and for my main characters, I hold off the idea of death, just as I do for myself. It’s not going to happen to me, you see! But the death in Those in Peril that you speak of, well, it knocked me back too! I didn’t realise it was going to happen until it happened. But it seemed to me logical in the context of the plot. And it seemed to me that the book, as some reviewers have pointed out, is in three sections – there’s the first section, which is brutal, hard, fighting to get the girl back; and then there is the middle section, which is a happiness in which the terror of the kidnapping is forgotten; and then one death, and the final part where they decide this has not ended, and they have to go back and end it. I’m old fashioned in my construction of a story – I like the beginning, the middle and the end. It’s classical structuring of a novel.

So there will be a sequel?

(Laugh) I never thought about it! You know, I never thought about it until everyone started asking me, “So what’s the sequel going to be, and when’s it coming out?” I said, “Excuse me?! I don’t know about any sequels!” But a lot of people have suggested it to me. And the lead characters, Hector and Hazel, are good characters, and from my selfish point of view, it would be a pity to waste them. I wouldn’t want them to just fall away. But having said that, it doesn’t mean I’m going to write a book about them tomorrow. (Laughs)

You have some rather gruesome torture scenes in your books. Writers being as imaginative and sensitive as they are, I’m curious about whether you distance yourself from reality, and try not to think this sort of thing is actually happening to a real person somewhere, when you write about these things.

No. Look, I write the love scenes and the brutal scenes and the cruelty scenes with total dedication to that period. I know it’s hard, but then again, what I’m trying to do is to put myself in the role of the people involved. When a mother finds the decapitated head of her child, for instance, she’ll break down, fall totally apart. And I try to put myself in her place. Why do I write about it? Well, the only thing that really shocks and horrifies me these days is cruelty. All the other things, sexual perversion and that sort of thing, are all part of being human. But cruelty of man to woman, or people to children, or people to animals, shocks me. I don’t think when I finish writing a book like that, I feel changed. I feel that that is something that happens, which I recorded.

Those in Peril is so frustrating, because it promises to deceive so often, and the adventure meets so many pitfalls. Did any of your early readers – your agent, your publishers, your wife – ask you to hurry it up, and to please not tease your audience this much?

(Laughs) Well, yes, but that early part was preparing for the final section. And the skill of a writer is to build up your excitement and drop it, and then build up your expectations again and change it. If you can be unexpected, and keep your reader off balance, so they have to know what happens next, then you’re exercising your profession to the full.

I’m sure your publishers and researchers tell you every now and then who your readers are. Have their findings ever surprised you?

Oh, yes, absolutely. There’s one group of readers, which all my readers fall into – they’re between the ages 9 and 92, and they’re either men or women.

So, now, it’s just the transgender population you need to pull in, somehow?

(Laughs) Well, I know I have readers in all categories, so I’m not sure about that. In fact, I’ve found out that more women buy my books than men do. But, of course, on Father’s Day or Christmas, all my women readers are buying my books for their husbands or fathers. And 95 percent of those whom they gift my books to end up reading them, so that’s a happy state of affairs for me!


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