Wilbur Smith: Prolific Thriller Writer Who Has Sold 140 Million Books

Wilbur Smith was a bestselling author whose swashbuckling thrillers set in Africa portrayed the continent as a place of heroes, adventure and romance.

Smith, who died aged 88, had written 49 novels, sold some 140 million copies during his lifetime and was fortunate enough to see a number of them adapted for film and television. .

Wilbur Smith was born in Kabwe, Zambia (then Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia) in 1933. His parents, Efreda and Herbert Smith, ran a 25,000 acre cattle ranch. The 18-month-old contracted malaria, which led to ten days of delirium fever and doctors doubting his survival. “I survived and am only slightly mad now,” he later observed, “which is good because you have to be at least a little mad to write fiction in order to make a living. ”

He was educated at Michaelhouse and Rhodes University, Grahamstown. First wanting to train as a journalist, he was convinced by his father to become an accountant. However, the handwriting bug had already bitten him and after receiving £ 70 – double his monthly salary – for a story in Argosy magazine, he decided to try his hand at writing a complete novel.

But the success he dreamed of as a writer did not come immediately. His first manuscript, The gods first make you mad, has been repeatedly refused, its only impact being to generate what Smith described as “an impressive array of rejection letters from major publishers around the world.”

In 1964 he got lucky with his first published novel, When the lion feeds. The story of the sons of a ranch owner, Waite Courtney, is set in Natal and was based on Smith’s own experiences growing up in this world. His publisher, Heinemann, trusted him by offering him an advance of £ 2,000 and a first printing of 10,000 copies (later increased to 20,000). Charles Pick, associate editor at Heinemann, would become Smith’s friend and mentor.

Smith recalled the excitement of his new success: “In the weeks that followed, the letter carrier visited me regularly. It brought the good news of a sale of film rights in Hollywood, a choice of book company, acceptance by Viking Press in New York for a staggering sum of dollars, new publishers in Germany and France. , from a paperback sale at Pan Des livres in England. Advertising for the book was aided by a ban in South Africa, which the Publications Control Board described it as “offensive and prejudicial to public morals”.

The author at a literary festival in Dubai in 2009

(AFP / Getty)

When the lion feeds established the formula upon which much of its subsequent production was based. Of his 49 novels, more than half centered on his home continent, Africa, and several of them continued the story of the Courtney family.

While his first book was not screened, a number of other Smith books have been adapted for television and film. These included The mercenaries (1968) – based on The darkness of the sun, and Gold – suitable as Gold mine (1974), with Roger Moore and Suzannah York.

Interviewed in 2013 for the the Wall Street newspaperSmith responded to criticism that he had created stories that did not fit the modern world: “I have been accused of violence and cruelty to animals and humans. I have been accused of racism, of sacrilege. The opinions I present are not my own. They are my characters.

Outside of his native Zambia, a series of novels set in Egypt had been inspired by his story The Souimanga (1972), with a plot centered around an archaeological excavation. It became one of his favorite books, about which he once said “It was a complex book, it made me very happy. ”

He returned to the theme of Egypt in his last book, The New Kingdom, co-written with Mark Chadbourn, published in September and seventh in a series set in the land of the pharaohs.

On the day of his death, he had spent a morning reading and writing with his wife Mokhiniso. He died suddenly that afternoon at his home in Cape Town.

He married four times, had two children with his first wife, Anne Rennie, a child with his second wife, Jewell Slabbart, and adopted a son with Danielle Thomas. His fourth wife was Mokhiniso Rakhimova, whom he met in London in 2000.

Wilbur Smith, novelist, born January 9, 1933, died November 13, 2021

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