(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 2 January, 2012)
Wilbur Smith has been writing bestsellers for 47 years. The celebrated author, who is just shy of his 78th birthday, is on the Landmark Wilbur Smith India Tour to promote his latest offering, Those in Peril. Among his favourite encounters with readers is one that happened in Australia, when a teenager who had lost a leg in a train accident spoke of how the lead character of Smith’s The Sunbird, and the manner in which he overcame disability, inspired him. Despite what is seen as adult content, his novels have wide readership among children, many as young as 9 years of age. In this exclusive chat with Nandini Krishnan, Wilbur Smith speaks about his young audience, his retelling of history, and how early he learnt about character development.
If your books were to be made into movies, you know they’d be A-rated for sex and violence, right? But you’ve had schoolchildren come up to you, and say they love your books. Don’t their parents object to their reading you?
(Laughs) Well, I think it doesn’t seem to worry anyone, because a lot of families come to me at signings – from grandfather to the little kid. And they’re quite proud of the fact that the children in their families are reading my books. On the other hand, I had a lady from one of the papers here in India come up to me and say, “Oh, I started reading your books when I was 12, and my mother caught me reading them, and took them away from me.” So, I asked her if that made her want to read them more, and she said, “Of course!” So, when her mother said she couldn’t, she only wanted to read them more. So, it works out quite well for me! (Laughs)
Since we live in such a politically correct era, have your publishers ever suggested that you publish one version for adults, and one for children?
No. That’s never happened. I think some of my first books were banned in South Africa, which was under apartheid rule, because the government then was very, very strict, Calvinistic Christian, and it was banned for every reason. If one of my characters said, ‘Oh, my God!’, that was sacrilege, and if a girl took her pants down, it was a terrible thing. But those days are past. From political correctness, of course, people have said I’m racist, because one of my characters used the ‘N’ word to refer to a dark-skinned person, but if I’m writing about a time when discrimination between races was current, and in many cases, was law, my characters are going to talk like that, because people did speak like that. Of course, now they don’t, in common social intercourse. But I write about real people, modern people, talking as people do under stress, or when they’re talking to a trusted friend, and I’m trying to make them real people, not models of political correctness. I wouldn’t adapt my work for anyone. I write it as I see it.
Do your editors ever suggest changes, though?
In fact, I’ve had new editors whom I’ve had to train to see my work in a certain way. I had conditioned my old editor, who was with me for 15-20 years, to check my work only for spellings and chronology and punctuation. In the beginning, she would say, “Oh, you can’t write that! That’s too sexual, too erotic!” and I would say, “I don’t want to hear that from you, let me be the judge of that!” And when she moved to another publishing firm, I had to train my new editors. The first book I sent to them, they sent back about 50 pages that they recommended I should change, so that they would be more politically correct. I said to them, “Oh, stop this nonsense! Just check for spellings!”
The saying that “History is the lies of the victor” is often used. But writers of novels with historical settings bring in a new perspective on history. Is this aspect of your role important to you?
Yes, I try to put myself into the role of a person living at the time, and think about what he would see. A Frenchman, for instance, sees Waterloo in a completely different way from an Englishman. (Laughs) My French publisher once said to me, “You know, the English are crazy! They name all their railway stations after French victories – Waterloo, Trafalgar.” They see those as French victories. So, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. So, I’m sure some people have looked upon my rendition of history, and maybe not agreed with it, and maybe some have thought “ah!” At one of my book events in India, I was speaking about the role of the Raj, the British administration of India, and there was a General from the Indian Army, who came up to me and said, “I enjoyed your speech, but I don’t agree with everything you say. But let’s agree to disagree.” That’s a very civilised attitude.
You’ve spoken of the role one of your schoolteachers played in teaching you to develop characters. How important do you think it is to teach techniques of writing in someone’s formative years?
It was certainly very important for me. This English master who spoke to me about character development was Vernon Forbes. The main thing I got from him was encouragement. Though he pointed out how I might have dealt better with the plotline, and the language of the story, and the time in which it was set, at the beginning, what every writer needs is encouragement – someone to say, “What you’re doing is worthwhile, continue doing it.” And this is not important only at the beginning, but at the end as well, because, like any endeavour, we need to have our backs stroked, to give us the incentive to make the next effort, to take on the next project.