Wilbur Smith dishes on getting shot, finding love and writing for 50 years
Bestselling author Wilbur Smith started his adventures at a young age: He was just 13 years old when he shot three lions in self-defense. “It was me or them,” Smith told Metro. The young Smith was home alone on his father’s ranch in Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia, when he heard lions attacking his father’s cattle outside.
“I knew if I let them get away with it, my father wouldn’t let me get away with it,” he said. When he stepped out with his father’s rifle to shoo them off, the lions charged at him, one after another, and he was forced to shoot.
Smith, visiting New York from his home in London, recalled the memory over tea at a Midtown cafe. He was in town to promote his latest novel, “Vicious Circle.”His wife, Mokhiniso “Niso” Smith, interjected, “I have a photo of you with the lions.” Her husband frowned for a moment and then said, “Oh, no, that was another time. I was only 6 then.” Niso threw up her hands and shrugged: “I can’t keep track.”
Smith continued, “We were camping and the lions attacked a man sleeping outside our tents. My father jumped out in only his pajama top, no trousers, gun in hand – that’s an image I’ll never forget.”
But Smith has conquered much more than lions: Today, he is one of the top 20 best-selling authors with 122 million book sales under his belt. Smith’s books top the charts at No. 1 in the U.K., Italy, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand; his last three books were on the New York Times Best Seller list.
At age 80, he’s still not exactly a household name in the U.S., but he plans to change that soon: Smith signed a $23 million, six-book deal with HarperCollins in 2012 and said he won’t be retiring anytime soon. “Writing is just what I do, and I suppose if I gave up writing, I’d give up life,” he said. “It keeps me going and it keeps me young.” Though Smith’s contract states that he can use co-authors, he said he wants to continue writing his books himself for as long as possible He also said he plans to live to 100 years old, and after four marriages and 50 years of writing books, he has more than enough material to inspire his writing.
Out of Africa
Smith’s new book “Vicious Circle,” which hit U.S. stores on Oct. 8, chronicles protagonist Hector Cross’s fight to avenge his wife’s murder. Cross, like Smith, also grew up on a ranch in Africa: Smith lived on his father’s ranch in Northern Rhodesia until he left for boarding school in South Africa. Until then, Smith grew up with the village boys and learned how to speak their language and hunt. He would bike down to the village after breakfast and do “awful things” with the other boys: They stole birds’ eggs from nests, caught fish in the river and grabbed wild honey from the trees. “We would get stung to pieces,” he said.
At boarding school, he found himself bound by rules and rigid schedules, but discovered his love for writing. “The only thing I excelled at in school was English language and essay writing,” said Smith. “I told my father I wanted to be a journalist and he said, ‘You’ll starve to death; get a real job.’” Smith worked as an accountant but still wrote on the side; he wrote his first book at the age of 28 and unsuccessfully tried to publish it. But at 30, he published “When the Lion Feeds,” which was met with huge commercial success, and he hasn’t looked back since that moment.
“Writing has brought me a great life,” he smiled. Smith owns three homes, in Cape Town, London and Switzerland. He spoke wistfully of the island off the Seychelles he used to own. “It turned out Niso had a coral allergy, so we had to sell the coral island!” he laughed. “Well, darling, it took you seven years,” his wife hit back.
A life of adventure
Readers love Smith’s books for their high-octane pace and detailed descriptions of exotic locations and people. “My books take readers to many, many places, and I always say I’ve started wars, I’ve burned down cities, and I’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people — but only in my imagination and in my books.” Smith may have never shot anyone, but he has been shot at before: He has had many close calls while hunting and also working part-time as a police officer in his youth, and he still has a tiny scar on the tip of his nose from a stray bullet during a hunting accident.
Smith does extensive research to transport his readers to his world. He has visited nearly all of the places he describes in his books, except for Mecca after a failed attempt. Smith and his wife just returned from exploring ruins in Crete for a future book. “Like Stephen King says, ‘You can get lost in Wilbur Smith’s world,’” said Smith. “I get lost in Wilbur Smith’s world, too.”
As for the adrenaline-pumping action, Smith said he also draws that from his own life. “I’ve been in harm’s way on a number of occasions,” he said. “At one stage of my life, I got really excited about being in danger, when I was in my 40s: airplanes, fast cars, faster women and all of the dangerous things.”
Until recently, Smith was an avid fan of scuba diving. “They always say never dive alone, but I’d been on my island for so long that I started diving alone, but when the shark starts circling you and you’re on your own and you make eye-to-eye contact as you rise up — well, I realized if I continued, I’d kill myself,” said Smith. He said he couldn’t imagine returning to diving with someone else, so he decided to quit altogether. Smith now spends much of his spare time fishing.
His books wax poetic on women and their bodies and delve into graphic descriptions of sex. In fact, “Vicious Circle” opens with an erotic scene, just one of many. It’s hard to believe the scenes come from the staid gentleman. When asked if he drew these scenes from his personal experience as well, he smiled. “I wish!” he laughed. “I have been married four times, so I have a bit of experience. I’m not an expert, but I have been there.”
The fourth time’s a charm
These days, Smith has only one woman in his life: Mokhiniso. They met in 1999, when Smith spotted her across the street in London. They were walking in opposite directions, but Smith made a U-turn and followed Niso into a bookstore — appropriately called W.H. Smith. Niso, who hails from Tajikistan, was looking for a book to practice her English. When he found her flipping through books in the fiction section — including one by John Grisham — he led her to the “S” section and pulled out his own book. “I made sure she saw the photo on the back cover,” he said.
He invited her to lunch, and the young woman ordered caviar, which is inexpensive in Russia, where she spent much of her life. The tiny portion wasn’t enough to satisfy her appetite, and she ordered five portions without knowing the price: £900. “I was mortified,” she said. “I thought I wiped out all of his pension.”
Now, Niso is his right-hand woman. “She’s the one who slaps me in the morning and says, ‘Wake up!’” he laughed. She can recite all of his accomplishments by heart and helps him with his career: She helps keep his books current with mentions of iPhones and manages his social media. She even protects him from ugly Facebook comments and only prints out the ones she believes are worth reading and hands them to him so he can respond to fans. Smith said connecting with his fans is very important to him: “They’re my extended family.”
Fifty years of fans
Smith said part of what keeps him going is his fandom. “I now have readers whose fathers and grandfathers read my books,” he said. “I have three generations of readers, now.” He makes an effort to get back in touch with his most avid fans and recalled one story in particular of a fan with whom he’d exchanged letters for decades. Over the years, Smith had sent him signed copies of his books, and one day the man’s wife wrote him a letter saying he had passed away. “She told me his last wish was that all of the books I signed for him would go into the coffin with him,” said Smith. The woman sent Smith a photo of the man at his funeral. “He was 86 or 90 and there he was in a coffin full of my books! And I thought, attaboy! Good on you.”
With 34 books behind him and big plans to keep writing, it looks like Smith may gain a fourth generation of fans.