South African best selling author, Wilbur Smith shares his memories of battling with lions, struggling to survive as an accountant and the unusual circumstances in which he met his wife.

I Remember

…We talked about Britain as home...

even though I was born in 1933 in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and had never been to Britain. It was the Great Depression and all the copper mines closed down. We used to go down to the railway station every Saturday to see which British subjects were being sent “home”. They were given the fare and left to fend for themselves. 

 

…Thinking my father was like a god

I’d follow him around, lapping up every word. He was powerful, both physically and mentally, and had huge forearms; he’d been an amateur boxer. Yet he was gentle in spirit for such a rough man and has been the model for many of the characters in my books. 

 

…My mother reading to me

Wilbur Smith and his mother

Unlike my dad, who I never saw touch a book, she read all the time and was a foil to him. She was beautiful. Listening to her read every night was special and ignited my passion for storytelling.

 

…Moving to a huge cattle ranch

It was about 30,000 acres and, for a boy aged 12, it was heaven. On the neighbouring ranch I had a friend, Alwyn, who was the same age as me and we’d get up to all sorts of mischief. My younger sister would tag along, but we thought she was a pain and were always trying to give her the slip. 

 

…Stealing dynamite 

Alwyn and I hatched a plan to get rich. We’d steal a stick of my father’s dynamite (used to destroy anthills), take it to the river and blow up a lot of fish. Then we’d sell it and make our fortunes. So I stole the dynamite and Alwyn and I borrowed a boat from the village chief and paid two men to row us to the middle of the lagoon. When I produced the dynamite the two rowers tried to mutiny, but I lit the fuse and threw it overboard, shouting, “Row very quickly!”

One of the rowers dropped his paddle, so we went round and round in circles as the dynamite exploded. The canoe blew apart and we were flung 15 foot into the air. The crocodiles and hippos fled the water, and hundreds of fish were dying and flapping around us. But we didn’t pause to collect them; we swam out of there quicker than the crocodiles! The African chief was very angry, and by the time we got home news had spread to my father. He took off his belt and gave it to me around the back of my legs. 

 

…Fending off lions

Wilbur Smith and two dead lions

My parents would leave me in charge of the ranch and the 20 or so workers when they went on holiday. One night, one of the workers shouted, “Come quickly! The lions have got in with the cattle.”

I grabbed my father’s rifle. When we got to the pasture, I could see three dead cows—and the distinctive ears of a lioness. She charged at me, so I shot her. Then another lioness came out and I shot her as well. Then a big male who’d been lurking nearby ran at me, so I shot him. I was 14. When my father came back he was amazed. He gave me a hiding for being so stupid as to go after lions, then gave me the rifle as a reward for being so brave. 

 

…A 600-mile train journey

That’s how far it was to my boarding school in Natal, South Africa. I thought it seemed like a grand adventure, but it suddenly wasn’t quite so exciting when my parents left me there. I found myself bullied by both prefects and masters, being bent over a chair and getting a whipping at least once a week, and also having to eat the most appalling food.

After ten days I wrote to my parents and said I’d changed my mind and wanted to come home. But of course they paid no attention to me, and I was left to suffer there and in my secondary school afterwards. I found solace in books.

 

…Liking women

After two single-sex schools, it was a marvellous thing to find women studying alongside me at Rhodes University in South Africa. I put my success with them down to the fact that I always made it obvious I liked them. Although I did get a degree in commerce, it was entertaining women and reading that most interested me at university. 

 

…Telling my dad I wanted to be a journalist 

He said, “Don’t be a bloody fool, you’ll starve to death. Get a real job.” So I became an accountant. And was miserable. My mother suggested I write a novel during my spare time. It took me two years and was appalling, full of every single mistake it’s possible to make in a first novel. It was rejected by agents and publishers alike.
 

Wilbur Smith Young

…Being divorced and penniless with two children to support

I was 24 and turned to writing again simply for the pleasure of using my imagination. When this second novel was finished, I sent it to an agent in London and waited for another rejection letter. But an incredible thing happened two weeks later when a telegram arrived. When the Lion Feeds had been accepted by William Heinemann in the UK for the advance sum of £200. It was more money I ever dreamed would come into my hands.

 

…Reader’s Digest taking When the Lion Feeds as a condensed book

It was a good sign that I was on my way to becoming a successful writer! I’ve always had a good relationship with Reader’s Digest—they have taken many of my novels into their canon.

 

…The best advice I ever received

It came from Charles Pick, the general manager of William Heinemann who later became my agent. I flew to the UK just before the book was published in 1964 and walked with him near his home. He said, “Write what you want to write about and what you know about. Don’t be sidetracked by other people; write what comes naturally to you.”

He was my mentor, my friend, my guru and a great businessman. When he became my agent and did the first deal, I said to him, “You’ve got ten times the amount of money than I ever got from the publishers when you were there.” He was a legend.

 

…Getting in a clinch with Susannah York

She and Roger Moore were starring in the film Gold, adapted from one of my books. I went to see them filming in South Africa, and one evening we were all carousing. Susannah and I had a dance and I thought, This is it! just as Roger came across and said, “Come on, Susannah, off we go, time for bed,” and left me standing there. It was the only time I hated him; he’s a tremendous gentleman.

 

…Being married for 28 years to Danielle

It was so good and then, at the end, so very sad. The cancer got into her brain and she was no longer the woman I’d loved all those years. I sat beside her when she died and thought, My darling, you’re at peace now. She died in 1999, the same year as Charles Pick, and I felt so alone.

 

…Following a young woman into a bookshop in London

I lurked among the bookshelves and she was as exotic and lovely as I’d first thought. I sidled up to her and said, “Why are you looking at Dan Brown’s books?” She told me she was studying English and her teacher had told her to read some colloquial writing. I said, “Let me suggest another writer,” and got down one of my own books.

WIlbur Smith and Wife Niso

When she realised I was the author she felt very sorry for me—in Russia, where she was from, writers are badly paid. And my clothes seemed horribly old to her. But she agreed to have lunch with me so, trying to impress, I took her to a caviar restaurant. Then she thought I must be really poor because in Russia caviar is the cheapest thing on the menu. Being a student and hungry, she ate four pots of the stuff, and when the bill came in at over £1,000 she couldn’t believe it!

Niso and I have been married 15 years. She’s made me a happy man and, except when I look in the mirror, I feel about 40 and know there are still many good memories to come.

Read more articles by Caroline Hutton here

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