Greatest Historical Novelist of Our Time?
We meet in the Macmillan offices in London, the publishers with whom Wilbur enjoys “an almost family relationship.” He is dashing, in a long black coat, still slim and fit at seventy-two, with a fineness to his face that isn’t apparent in photographs. There is also a wicked smile. “All booted, spurred and ready for action, I see,” he twinkles, when we meet his publicist. Abashed and flattered, she tugs at her skirt.
This is public Wilbur: the Big Man; the jewel in his publishers’ crown. Cordial, professional, measured.
As always with writers, though, I’m more interested in private Wilbur. Or should I say, writing Wilbur.
How has he stayed at the top of his game for so long? This year it is forty-one years since his first novel, the bestselling When the Lion Feeds. The Triumph of the Sun is his thirtieth straight success.
What hunger drives him? Wilbur Smith has been a very rich man for decades, so it isn’t money hunger. He has also topped the lists for a very long time, so it is hard to argue that he still needs to be competitive. For most authors, a good goal would be to sell a million books. Wilbur is already past the seventy million mark. Sales are global – not just the English-speaking world, but places as varied as Russia and Japan. In Italy, sales of each new book approach 400,000 in hardback alone.
And what demons does he fight to write each novel? He has the usual writerly demons: “I hate the loneliness, the doubt. Usually halfway through a book I have a serious depression.” But there are other issues involved. He is variously criticized for colonial attitudes, for hunting, and for the “armchair bloodlust” of his prose. The press obsess about his wealth (houses, holidays, cars) and his love life (the prostitute who was trying to blackmail him; his marriage in 2003 to a twenty-eight-year-old Asian beauty). Every time he publishes a novel the pack of publicity hounds surrounds him and tries to bring him down.
“I glory in being politically incorrect,” he says at one point, smiling, as if inviting confrontation.
Wilbur acts as if none of these things could possibly concern him. Many times in our conversation he gives voice to his robust self-belief.
“I glory in being politically incorrect,” he says at one point, smiling, as if inviting confrontation. Or again, “I play the ball the way I see it lying.” Other writers may write their books, he is saying, and they should let me write mine. “I know what I like writing and I know that I can do it because I’ve done it so often, and I’m quite content with that.”
Perhaps this is an answer to the ‘how’ of what Wilbur has achieved, or as near an answer as it is possible to get. Wilbur does not write like anyone else. He is not a part of a literary movement or coterie, and avoids fellow writers.
“You know Stuart Cloete? He was writing in the ‘30s and ‘40s and I knew him when I was a young man. He was getting on in years and I looked upon him as my guru. He said that in general you should avoid the company of other writers, because some of them will be more successful than you and you will envy them, and some of them will be less successful, and you will despise them. He said you should find your friends somewhere else. And Ernest Hemingway said something like, ‘I wrote my books while the others were sitting in their pavement cafes in Paris talking theirs away’. So you know I don’t frequent literary circles.”
He describes his style as less a technique, more a way of thinking. “I suppose it’s your state of mind, the way you perceive the world. Mine comes from my upbringing in Africa, and my fascination with certain aspects of African life. I just translate from my own experience, my own thoughts. I don’t like to think too deeply about what my style is. It’s my style and it’s natural to me like the way I eat and the way I sleep.”
It is interesting to note that it was natural more or less from the start. The very first book that he completed was a failure. “I was trying to write the great African novel, full of political cant, and far too many characters – more characters than War and Peace, and no continuity.” It never got published, and still languishes somewhere in a desk. “And then I wrote When the Lion Feeds, which was a story about people, and it’s been my observation that people like stories about people.”
I smile at this. The people that Wilbur Smith writes about are very extraordinary people. You could spend a lifetime and not meet anyone like them.
“Most of my main characters are alpha males, and so they are driven by something.”
We talk for a while about When the Lion Feeds, a truly exceptional first novel for maturity, vitality and storytelling. I suggest that the book is not really about a man, but about an alpha male.
“What you say is true, most of my main characters are alpha males, and so they are driven by something. You can’t imagine any of them ever having ten acres and a car and living there happily all their life and having dozens of broods of children. They want to do things, and this makes them interesting for me, and gives the excitement to the book. What’s he going to do next? And in the process of it – well, put it this way – in the hunt for glory or fortune or fame or whatever it may be, people get hurt. There’s no question about it. Highly successful men leave a trail of hurt and envy and disaster and bitterness and unfulfilled duties. This is the way life is.”
One of my brothers, I say, stopped reading three books into the Courtney saga because of just this bitterness. Wilbur shrugs.
“It happens, it’s what the characters do. I don’t set out to make them fit into a mold, but as they develop, the bitterness comes. Competition over a woman, for the affection of their father, or whatever they might be competing for….
“And this is partly what makes a book compelling. If you have a sympathetic character and you inflict hardship upon them, it gets the attention of the reader. You know the readers don’t really want it to happen, but they want to see how she, or he, is going to solve it.”
Wilbur’s latest book, The Triumph of the Sun, has all these hallmark Wilbur elements. There is competition between heroes, between siblings, and an unmistakable bitterness that falls upon more than one character. There is plenty of action and excitement, plenty of detail. We have already witnessed two infant deaths by page 36, the second of whom falls off a steamboat in the arms of its young mother, and both are sucked back into the boat’s propeller. This is like the flute note in what soon becomes a full orchestral overture of violence and “mulberry-colored” water. It is justifiable, historical violence, as a boat tries to break through the blockade during the Siege of Khartoum, but few authors would approach it with quite Wilbur’s zest.
The subject matter of the book probably gives the clearest answer to why Wilbur still writes. “I’m a writer, and if I stopped writing, I’d be nothing,” he says, and that is one answer, but he is also a writer of Africa, and Africa is, he finds, an endlessly stimulating subject. “There’s a multitude of wildlife, very exciting peoples, the whole sweep of geographical terrain from snow-topped mountains to vast deserts and jungle. With Africa’s turbulent history of colonialism, its extraordinary demographics, and the pathos and the savagery of the slave trade, it’s the perfect setting for the adventure novel.”
It is a vast canvas, and Wilbur Smith has plundered it for the richest adventure: pharaohs and pyramids, lost antique cities, pirates, explorers, missionaries, imperialists, gold-rushes, diamond-pipes, civil wars. His heroes have traded, fought and loved their way to the remotest corners of the continent – buttoning on their starched dress uniforms, or filling their pith hats with unprecedented wealth, while struggling against climate, landscape, indigenous peoples and murderous rivals.
The Triumph of the Sun is evidence of this variety. Despite twenty-nine books about Africa, the Sudan and Abyssinia are countries Wilbur has not written about before. But it is not a book about a side issue or footnote in history. The Siege of Khartoum is a pivotal moment, which helped form the British attitude to Africa for the next fifty years.
“For me it was perfect. That incident had all the elements of a great story setting because you have the captive characters who are having to interact with each other because there is no escape – siege conditions. Also the river. I’m fascinated by the great rivers of Africa. Played against that was a sort of island setting in the desert. Then it had such powerful influences at work – the British Empire against the revolting Mahdists, the conflict of religions, Gordon and the Mahdi, both of them totally fanatical, believing that they spoke directly to God, and unbendable and unbending.”
“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing during all that time, the running in of supplies to the embattled garrison, trading backwards and forwards. Spies from the Mahdi getting into Khartoum and reporting back, so they knew exactly what was going on. And like any siege conditions there were the black marketeers trying to profiteer from the food supply. So all human vices and virtues were there in siege conditions. People forced to their utmost resources in an enclosed scenario.”
We talk about research and resources.
“I used the diaries of a lot of the people who were there. One of the most valuable to me was that of Rudolph Slatin, an Austrian; he was captured by the Mahdi and was a prisoner for thirteen years. He wrote a book called Fire and Sword in the Sudan. He gives eyewitness descriptions of all the main characters of the Mahdi, of Abdullahi, of Gordon, and he describes exactly the conditions, the equipment the Mahdists had, their uniform and ceremonies, religious observances, so that was terribly important. Then there was another gentleman, a fantastic Victorian called Samuel White Baker. He was the Governor General of the Sudan just before the siege. He is tremendous at detail and descriptions of everything from the Arabs to the way they dressed, to the way the women made up their hair, to the way they hunted with swords for elephant – all good stuff. Another good source was The River War by Winston Churchill, who was with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman. He’s excellent on the historical and political detail. And after that I fill in with my own imagination.”
All his sources are published, if rare, works, and I express surprise at this. Apparently Wilbur has never consulted manuscript letters or journals for his books, but the details that he extracts from the published works give more than enough feeling of accuracy and individuality.
The history is ultimately less important to Wilbur than the story.
“I go to a great deal of care and trouble to get the historical background correct, but having done that I am not averse to altering it slightly to fit my story line. What I’m trying to say is that it’s historically researched, but then history is bent to accommodate the stories that I want to tell.”
As an example, I ask about the Benbrooks, central characters in the book. David Benbrook, apparently, is British ambassador in Khartoum, and one imagines that if there were such a man, he would be well documented. One also imagines that his daughters would not have behaved as Wilbur Smith’s book has them behave – Wilbur’s gift for graphic and exciting description does not end at the bedroom door.
“There were ambassadors, and it was a British consulate in Khartoum because although Egypt was running the country, Egypt was a puppet of the British Empire. It was only later on that it became the Veiled Protectorate, as Baring used to call it. So they did have a consul. But obviously they didn’t have Benbrook and his three lovely daughters – they are my invention.”
The three lovely daughters are at the centre of the book’s storyline – as are Ryder Courtney and Penrod Ballantyne, the latest representatives of Wilbur Smith’s two great fictional dynasties, the Courtneys (of South Africa) and the Ballantynes (of Central Africa), meeting here for the first time on neutral ground.
I ask how Wilbur defines the differences between these dynasties.
“Right from Birds of Prey (chronologically the earliest Courtney book) the Courtneys were pirates, merchants, looking to seize the main chance. They were very much driven by monetary considerations. But with the Ballantynes it was much more empire, patriotism, glory – the soldierly virtues. I’ve kept them intact.”
And so it is. I will resist the urge to give spoilers or suggest which (if either) hero gets the girl, but suffice it to say that the 500 pages of the novel have Wilbur frequently at the top of his form, and bring the siege graphically to life.
I ask which bits of the book he is most pleased with.
“There are some passages of description – but mostly I just look at the book as a whole. Does it work? Is the continuity there? Is the pace sustained? Is the timing right? Not too much description, not too much detail. Are the characters believable, and are they reacting in a human fashion with each other? And generally speaking, I give myself about an 8 out of 10 for it.”
This leads us to talking about the way that he writes. He writes quickly, about 4,000 words a day – “That’s a good day, but yes, I’m not a bleeder, I’m a gusher!”
He does not self-edit as he goes along.
“I like to get it all down, then go back and re-write and polish. If you go back on a daily basis it becomes episodical, you know, your timing is off. If you write it as it occurs to you and then go back and start again from the beginning and read through it – that’s the way I do it. I don’t rewrite a great deal. I keep about ninety percent of what I originally put down. The rest is just changing a word here and there or rewriting a sentence, or you know, the sense of this passage is not quite clear – I rewrite it. But that goes quickly, and that for me is one of the most enjoyable parts. Because at that stage I have written the beginning of the book six months previously, and it’s gone a bit cold, and I reread it again with a fresh eye and pick up where it’s good and where it needs adjustment.”
He also writes in all kinds of different places (he owns houses in many countries).
“I don’t have to write in one specific place because the story’s in my head, it’s not in the surroundings. People say you must like to write with the view of mountains, or looking out on the Zambezi river. No – I like a blank wall in front of me!”
An interview is a strange business: an hour spent in very artificial circumstances, a tape-recorder running to undermine any contact or trust two people might be forming, an undercurrent of preconceptions on both sides, of both questions and answers pre-prepared. At the same time, though, you do develop a very strong impression of each other – something beyond or between the words.
My overriding impression of Wilbur Smith is of a steeliness that is rare in anyone, and particularly rare in writers. Writers must possess the gifts of empathy and imagination – Wilbur has them in abundance – but the exercise of them will usually lead to self-doubt, self-criticism, even to a questioning of identity. If Wilbur has fought such enemies, he has undoubtedly won. In fact he seems to possess the hardiness and focus of the heroes in his books. Certainly he shares their unceasing pursuit of success on their own terms.
In his mid twenties Wilbur worked as an accountant for five years without leave: “I was accumulating my leave to have cash in lieu of leave. At the end of that I worked out that I had enough to live on for two years, in a frugal way, and that’s when I gave up formal employment.” In other words, he gambled seven years of his life away to have a chance at his writing – with no surety but a failed earlier novel.
I question this steeliness a few times. Has he ever considered writing a different kind of book – a thriller, or murder mystery? No. Or a different kind of adventure – one set, say, in World War II? No. Or a first person narrative? No. Or has he ever thought of writing a different book of Africa – something more contemporary? Again, no.
“My books are a celebration of the European, particularly British influence in Africa, and the colonial days – Empire. After that, it’s different. It’s gone back to the original owners, the indigenous people, and if any books are to be written about the present time, they should be written by blacks. So I’ll leave that to them. I’ll keep the Empire, they can have the rest of it.”
He smiles at this. He is aware that it is contentious, or at least a potential rod for his back. This isn’t to say that he does not have heroic non-European characters. In his latest book there are heroic Sudanese of both sexes, but there is no sense that they are equal to the whites, or that they feel they could or should be. They are heroic but not heroes, and I ask if he feels any temptation to write a black character as hero.
“No, because I’m not black, and because that would not fit comfortably into the mode of African life.”
(And probably, I think, because his books have never yet failed commercially.)
Historical fiction inevitably reflects the time of its writing as well as the time it depicts, but historical novelists can be broadly divided into two camps. There are those who are looking to revisit the past to throw a contemporary light upon it, to right perceived wrongs, to point up the ironies that hindsight has revealed. Literary novels frequently do this, but also the kind of popular novels where the heroes get to stand up against the “injustices” of past times, where the victim gets to win. The other camp of historical novelist is the one to which Wilbur Smith belongs. He is not trying to reform colonial Africa for our eyes. None of his characters sees any irony or sense of fragility about colonial supremacy. The world is as it was – at least, as it was to the confident, successful, outdoor types of those days. Wilbur Smith’s kind of historical fiction is the sort that believes that the past was brighter, more exciting, more brilliant than the present, and that its heroes, like Greek and Roman heroes, belonged to a Golden Age.
Does this make Wilbur Smith a nostalgic author? Perhaps, but it is not cosy nostalgia. A complacent author? Not at all. Both his Courtney and his Ballantyne series take the reader to the point where colonialismcollapses. Nor does it make him an unintelligent or unambitious writer, unless one wishes to level those same complaints against the Augustans themselves.
It does call into question the phenomenal popularity of his books. Through the forty years of his writing life the world would seem to have been travelling in the opposite direction. “I wish I’d been born fifty years earlier and experienced the old Africa, which my father was a part of,” Wilbur has said. His father was an artisan émigré from Brighton, England, who managed to earn enough to buy a farm in what is now Zambia. Any time away from the hard physical work was spent hunting. He used to fly off in his Tiger Moth to see where the game was lying, rather like Robert Redford in Out of Africa, and Wilbur learned the skills of the hunt with him.
It is the spirit of this world that Wilbur Smith captures in his novels. They are pioneer fiction. They depict a simple, physical, elemental, self-reliant, dangerous, romantic, and uncivilized world.
They represent a life that his readers have never experienced, and would never wish to. But there is a part of most of us that is glad it existed.
First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.1 (May 2005): 13-16.
Posted by Richard Lee