Wilbur Smith: The bestselling author on the joy of reading his own books, boarding school and what keeps him awake at night


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The Independent Culture

Why do you write?

I write for the freedom it gives me. For 50 years, I have not called any man boss or master. And the monetary rewards are great. I could never have earned as much as I have writing books by working for a boss. I have 37 novels and they're all mine and each one I'm proud of.

You've described your father as a Victorian man who ran a tight ship. How was your relationship with him?

He was a fantastic father. He tutored me and he financed me. Then later in life when the bad times came and he made a few unwise financial decisions I looked after him. I bought him a home, I bought him cars and I saw that my mother and my father didn't lack for anything at all. He did run a tight ship but that was good because I tended to be a wild little blighter.

You've said you didn't fit in at school. Did you find that being an outsider helped you to write fiction?

I don't think so, no. You write fiction for other reasons. I didn't have a happy time at school. There were still floggings and anyone who showed any independence at all was considered to be a troublemaker. I fell into those categories entirely. I was not a popular boy because I was different – and at boarding schools at that time, different was bad.

What do you make of the literary establishment? Do you ever wish, for example, you'd been nominated for a Booker Prize?

A Booker Prize? I'm certain that some writers are delighted to get it. But, you know, what is it? It's a piece of paper and £50,000. If I was paid £50,000 for all of my books, I wouldn't be in the financial position I am today. What's that? £5,000 a month. Starting out in life, that's what you'd expect to get. You're supposed to starve in a garage before you can get a Booker Prize.

Do you read while you write?

I read a tremendous amount. Right now I'm reading my favourite author – Wilbur Smith. Many of the books I have written were 30 or 40 years ago and I have forgotten the plot. The conversation, particularly that teenagers who have just started reading my books want to engage me in, is always about the characters and the way they act. And I've forgotten how in those novels.

You've had quite a complex personal life which must inform your work. Where do you draw the line on what to include and what not to?

In my books, I think I portray myself but don't admit that it's me. But the young people in the books behave exactly as I did when I was that age. I think the only thing that restrains you is good taste. When it comes to sexual activity you draw the line at what is acceptable and what is pornography. But human beings are bloodthirsty creatures. Look at the last hundred years, there's been two World Wars and look at the Middle East now! This black hooded monster chopping people's heads off on television. There are saints and monsters in this world.

What keeps you awake at night?

I sleep like a baby. I have a clear conscience and I live every day to the full. I don't sleep during the day and when 10 o'clock comes, that's my bed time. I kiss my wife and I switch out the lights and roll over and I'm gone! Well the Hadeda Ibis that nests in the tree above my bedroom does, sometimes, keep me awake.


Wilbur Smith, 81, is a South African novelist who writes historical fiction set in the country. He has sold more than 120 million copies of his 35 (not 37) novels worldwide. His latest book, Desert God (Harper Collins, £20), is out now