‘I'm tough!'

Author Wilbur Smith.   | Photo Credit: Chris Stanford Photography Inc.

“Writing stories is like hunting with a pack of dogs. I give the dogs the scent and let them go. They run off barking and I run with them, follow what they're doing. “

Wilbur Smith's referring to his “free-style approach” to writing, of letting his characters find their own directions. But then you realise, there is more to the analogy. Because his stories are just this — a hunting ground — of hidden treasure and ancient secrets, of vast African expanses, of swashbuckling alpha-males, feminine wiles, and an adrenaline rush that makes you turn the page even if, like a critic once said, you don't really care what happens next.

Since his first book When the Lion Feeds (1964), the 120 million copies that his 32 novels have sold worldwide can, his website declares, “fill Wembley stadium twice over.” The 78-year old African writer was in the city last week to launch his 33rd, Those in Peril, as part of the Landmark Wilbur Smith Tour. The action novel is described as “a fast-paced, contemporary thriller set in the Indian Ocean where a group of pirates kidnap the 19-year-old daughter of a multi-millionaire oil mogul and post a $ 20 billion ransom for her release.”

Excerpts from an interview with the bestselling author.

How did this story come to you?

The original idea sprang from the fact that my island (Cap Colibri in the Seychelles) was reputedly the base of La Buse, the famous French 16th century pirate, who was the role model for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. The legend is that he buried his treasure on my island. When I bought the island it was just holes everywhere, from people digging for treasure! So piracy has been at the back of my mind for quite a long time. And when I met the Somalians, some of them, in the Seychelles, the idea started to crystallise in my head.

You've said before that one of your early influences was Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines . Did the daredevilry in your stories take root there?

Rider Haggard was one of the earlier authors that I read. What attracted me was that he wrote about Africa. Of course, his Africa in She and King Solomon's Mines was a Victorian view of Africa that had little content on reality. But I have an affection for him.

You're often criticised of being racist, and sexist, in your writing.

Yes, I know. I've also been accused of being sadistic, of downgrading women. Of upholding the fact that Britain captured southern Africa and India; all these things are just absolute nonsense. People who read things in books (know) they are not the views of the authors. If I satisfy 100 or 200 million readers, there will be always those who are going to take up the cudgel against me. It makes me laugh. Me, a sexist! I love women, and I admire women. I have the greatest respect and admiration for powerful women, and beautiful women.

And racist, not at all. I like a lot of people, and I dislike some. But it doesn't matter if they're Eskimos or Zulus. I've spent most of my life close to people of colour. I was raised with boys and girls of my own age on a ranch. We didn't see any difference, except that I was the son of the boss (and that) I had a white face, or a paler face than they did.

But has the criticism made you careful in modelling your characters? Do you give it a second thought?

No, I don't. I write the book exactly as I see it. My characters script the story. So I really am not influenced in any way at all by what people say about my old books. It's so patently rubbish that I don't grace it with my attention.

What do you think of contemporary black African writers?

I think that they are some good ones, some bad ones, some who get it right and some who don't get it right. The fact that they're black doesn't influence me at all. I've read a lot of African writers — those who write factual accounts of their travels like David Livingstone and Frederick Selous. Some of them you can tell they know what they're writing about because the authenticity of their stories shines through. It's the same with coloured writers, Afrikaans writers, French writers, Zulu writers — each of them has their specific view of Africa and African history.

What books are you reading now?

I'm reading Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell. I've also been given a book by a young Indian writer called The Immortals of Meluha (Amish Tripathi).

Many of NXg's readers are aspiring writers. What would you say to them?

First of all, before you start, be pretty certain in your own minds that you have a talent in that direction, because it's not an easy job to do. There are things around you that you have to surmount, and one of those is the loneliness of the job. There are people who could probably be good writers but they just can't take working alone. If you have it in you and if you say you can write something that other people like, it's the best possible job in the world.

Are you afraid of ever running out of ideas?

When I meet the man-eating lion, I'll be afraid. Till then, I'm not going to be afraid of the fact that there are man-eating lions!

What's the zaniest compliment you've received from a fan?

“You're a great writer!” (Laughs) I'm not a great writer, I'm a popular writer. Extravagant praise like “The God of fiction” — that's crazy! (Laughs again.) But I don't mind it. I can take it. I'm tough!

Tanya is a student of Asian College of Journalism.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 4:35:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/nxg/%E2%80%98Im-tough/article13426404.ece

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