Wilbur Smith makes pounds 4m per book; so far he has written 26. He says his life is perfect. But in getting there he has given up a great deal, including his two children
Click to follow
The South African novelist Wilbur Smith is very courteous, very gentlemanly, and very patient, but these qualities are dwarfed by the core of steel at the centre of his personality, which one only gradually discerns, like an iceberg looming in the distance.

It's not that he's a nasty person - far from it - but he has a rigidity, and a capacity for discarding bits of his life, which can have devastating results. He has not spoken to his 37-year-old daughter, Christian, for example, for 20 years. He has also severed links with his son, Shaun, and his two ex-wives simply no longer exist for him: he says he cannot remember their names.

This is rather a shame for his children, not least because he makes an estimated pounds 4m per book, and has published 25 of them; but I think they can bank on not being included in his will. Smith's ability to compartmentalise his life means he doesn't forgive, he moves on. "It's a closed book," he told me flatly when I asked about his daughter, a sentiment that was to recur throughout our conversation.

Even before we got on to the fascinating topic of Christian, it was apparent that Smith, 64, was keen on control. So it is lucky his talent for writing compulsively readable blockbusters (he has sold 100 million) means he can order his world to his almost total satisfaction - both fictional and factual. "I've got about the best life any man could possibly have," he told me without a trace of embarrassment, "and I wouldn't give it up for anything. I cannot imagine any way in which I could improve my existence."

This existence - which was built on the proceeds of When the Lion Feeds, his first and best book of 33 years ago, and its sequels The Sound of Thunder, A Sparrow Falls and The Burning Shore - consists of an island in the Seychelles ("as close to Paradise as you can get"), a mansion in Cape Town, a ranch in the Karoo in the Cape and a house in Knightsbridge. These homes are run by his third wife, Danielle, who also takes care of what Smith calls the "wah-Smithy" ("wah" meaning tribe), his staff of 50 servants. It's a hell of a lifestyle to keep up, which may explain why Smith observed ruefully at one point: "I have to keep working to support the houses."

Smith married Danielle, or Dee, 31 years ago, and she has been his muse and camp follower ever since. She does the research for his novels, and edits and censors what he writes every lunchtime (with particular reference to the sex scenes). In return he has dedicated his last 22 books to her and models his heroines on her, too. In a rather literal interpretation of their marriage vows, Smith says they have become effectively the same person; although lately she has struck out and started writing novels herself.

Smith is pretty indomitable, but if anyone has power over him it is Dee, who has made him give up smoking, dress expensively, adopt a new hairstyle and travel round the world. She divorced her first husband to marry him and they brought up Dieter, her son by that marriage, together, which must irk Smith's own children. ("I had to make a choice between Danielle or other intrusive elements and there was absolutely no choice. It was Danielle all the way," he once said.)

Whether Smith is actually henpecked is not clear, but I think he is, and he says he isn't. "She has made big changes," he conceded when we met at his publishers, Macmillan, "but everything she has done, which has been a major shock at the time, has obviously been for the good. Like giving up smoking. She was right in that I was smoking 60 cigarettes a day when I met her, and if I had continued to do that I'd probably be dead of lung cancer or coughing my heart out. For instance, my haircut" - it has just been done and he is obviously very pleased with it - "my hair had got wispy and thin and grey and I looked like a mad professor. She said it was no longer acceptable and cut it off short. I enjoy it, and most people say it makes me look younger."

Well, let's just say Dee keeps a firm eye on him and the wah-Smithy, too. The idea of this tribe of theirs, certainly within the context of an office in a Belgravia publishing house, is a little bizarre. "It's quite fun. At Christmas they all get presents and new clothes, and my wife enjoys the new babies and that sort of thing. A lot of the younger girls don't worry too much about marriage, so when they arrive with a new baby she says: 'You mustn't do this, you can't just go to bed with everyone you meet!' And when the children won't behave themselves they're sent to us for discipline." And what form does that take? "Oh, we say, 'You can't go on like this, making everyone very unhappy,' just give them a little lecture.

"And my wife makes sure they've got toothbrushes, little things like that, and at the ranch once a year, she goes to the local dentist and negotiates a group rate, and they're all put on the truck protesting," he chuckles at the thought, "to have their teeth checked and pulled. It gives her pleasure, and it gives me pleasure too, and I'm sure if I was in their position I'd love to have someone I could turn to in any sort of emergency."

This paternalism may seem anachronistic and patronising, but I can believe that his employees love it. To illustrate his point, Smith told me a sad little story about an "East Coast American liberal" who moved into his road in Cape Town and sacked the staff on the basis that it was demeaning to employ servants. "So they all came to me and said: 'Please talk to this lady, does she not like black people? Does she want us to starve?' So I went and talked to the woman and got a flea in my ear. She said be off ... They're unemployed as far as I know. So she put eight or nine people out of work for some strange ethical reason which doesn't fit into Africa at all."

But we mustn't get distracted from Dee, who is crucial to Smith, and to his success. The two are incredibly close - almost suffocatingly so. "I phoned her last night," he volunteered rather sweetly, "and she said: 'Where have you been?' I said: 'I've been out to dinner.' She said: 'You went to The Brasserie, didn't you?' I said: 'Yep.' She said: 'You started with half a dozen oysters.' I said: 'Yeahh.' " He's smiling now. "She said: 'You either had chicken or sirloin steak.' I said: 'The sirloin.' "

He did give way to her a lot, he said, but that was because "about 90 per cent of the time" she was right. He added ominously, however, that "she wins most of the battles but I win the big wars". (What were they, I wondered: not having children together?) But he wouldn't say. "Oh! No, that's too personal. But there are areas which she is in charge of, for instance running and decorating our homes, and you know she's got a much better eye for that than I have. And I am in charge of the finances, because I'm a chartered accountant - well, that was long ago, but I suppose I still am. And the children and grandchildren and that sort of thing, she organises all the comings and goings and festivities, so it leaves me very much free to devote myself to my own private world of the imagination."

Ironically, much of that imaginary world involves having sex with other women - in fantasy, of course. Smith said that was one of the things he liked about writing Birds of Prey, his new blockbuster about a dashing 17th- century pirate, published tomorrow. "What I enjoy is making the women each so different from each other and then, you see, I can have three love affairs in the course of the book. My wife always says I have love affairs with my leading ladies, which is actually very convenient - to be able to have lovers with the approval and connivance of your own wife."

This is a joke he has made before, and one that Dee might not, I thought, find as amusing as he did. But when I put it to her by telephone - she was at their house in Cape Town - she exclaimed surprisingly: "Oh Wilbur is such an old goat." Then she added: "A Capricorn, I mean. I actually think it's very funny, as long as they remain in his books; that's one of the things about writing books, you can make people do what you want them to do. It gives you tremendous power."

Dee, a former teacher, sounded likeable: thoughtful and touchy-feely - she conveys this even down the phone - although she admits to liking control as much as he does. It took years for her to pluck up the courage to start writing, she confided: she would have started earlier had she not married one of the most famous writers in the world. ("I always dreamed of walking into a bookshop and seeing the name Danielle Thomas in gold letters on a book.")

She was very flattered when I commented that her style - multiple adjectives, beautiful heroines, driven men - was not unlike her husband's. "Oh, do you think so?" she said. "Because I just have so much admiration for Wilbur's writing." She had been overcome, she continued, when Smith gave her rave endorsements to put on the covers of her second and third novels. "Because he never gives quotes to anybody, and I was just so grateful that he liked them."

DEE AND Wilbur met in South Africa soon after he became an overnight success with When the Lion Feeds. "We'd been playing golf and we'd had a little celebration and someone suggested we went to a party," Smith told me, "and I walked into the room in a glow of lager and there was this very nubile young lady with marvellous legs sitting on a sofa. So, very suavely, I sauntered across (she says I staggered slightly), sat at her feet and I've been there ever since."

This account is actually a bit disingenuous, because, in fact, the friend who took Smith to the party was Danielle's husband. When I asked him about this he looked slightly ashamed, and conceded: "Well, he wasn't my friend, no. I'd met him that afternoon, but having said that he's now become a friend and we are on civilised terms."

I wondered if people had ever suggested Dee married him for his money, and raised the question rather tentatively. "They can't say that," he replied triumphantly, "because she came to me long before the money, and she just gave up everything to pack and follow." Everything as in what? "Her marriage. And I said, 'Follow me. I'm the bye-bye bird.' And she did."

In fact he had already published his first blockbuster, When the Lion Feeds. But Smith explained: "When we got together my success was only just starting. We had no idea we would move on to become as happy and secure as we have done. So she took the chance. She stayed on board. And," he continued with a glint of steel in his eye, "a lot of people bailed out of the boat and they can't come back again now."

Dee herself marvelled at how lucky they were to find each other, and it was rather endearing that it didn't occur to her that nasty souls might think it was she who hit the jackpot. "Wilbur and I have a great belief that there is one person in the world made specially for you and the two of us couldn't have had it better," she told me. "We were born in the same dusty town in Northern Rhodesia, born in the same maternity home which had two beds in it, which means we have a 50/50 chance of being born in the same bed and ending up in the same bed!"

SMITH WAS brought up with his younger sister (who now works as his secretary) on a cattle ranch in what was then Northern Rhodesia with "all the things a small boy could possibly ask for: hunting and fishing and travelling and living close to the black people". His father, Herbert, made his money from the copper mines and this period, he says, "was the fountainhead of whatever talent I had; where my whole love of Africa comes from".

His idyllic home-life was interspersed by sessions of torture at Michaelhouse, South Africa's top public school. In those days it was characterised by sadistic masters, bullying and inedible food. That must have been terrible, I sympathised. "It didn't do me any harm really, though I wept a lot when I was a small boy."

Amid the rigours of school he developed the capacity to cut off from things he disliked - reality, in that case - by reading and writing obsessively. The art of submerging himself in his imagination is something he has used ever since. Dee told me: "When he's writing he says it's like watching a reel of film. The characters take over and he can see them, even smell them." Smith was hooked, and when he finished school and university he told his father he wanted to write full time. But Herbert said no, so he became an accountant instead.

He loathed it. Not only did he hate his job, but he had married, at 23, a woman he had nothing in common with. It lasted a year and it is one of Smith's few failures - and any failure rankles. He said he married her because "my view was that if you slept with a girl you got married. It was - in headlights - the decent thing to do." (He laughed at this.) "But we were just totally different. She didn't like books or reading. She was just a different person and she went on to do something else."

As did Smith: he married again, in an "action replay" of the first marriage. Once again, they did not get on, and once again he divorced. Smith was noticeably laconic on this subject, so I tested him by asking what his first wives' names were. He darted me a sharp look. "I forget." "You can't have forgotten," I said. "Well, I don't want to bring their names up. I was walking down the street the other day in Cape Town and a middle- aged lady said, 'Hello Wilbur.' I said: 'Excuse me, madam, do I know you?' She said: 'Yes, you should, I gave you two children.' "

It was a nice anecdote (and one he's told before) but obviously baloney. That's not true, I suggested, and he looked a bit abashed. "Well, it may be. But that's my attitude. That's the way I look upon it - as something that happened in another world, another time. It has no relevance to me sitting here now. We're talking about 35 years ago. It's a lifetime."

It goes to show just how disciplined, or driven, Smith was that he was able to turn his unhappiness in that period to use; it was, he has said, an ex-wife's derogatory remarks about his writing ability that propelled him as he wrote When the Lion Feeds while working as a tax inspector in the deceased estates department in Salisbury. ("I had two extremely capable girl assistants who didn't mind doing my work for me.") Undeterred by the fact that his first novel had been rejected by 17 publishers, this time he found an English agent and the book just sold and sold and sold. The tale of Sean Courtney and his crippled twin brother Garry somehow hit on a truth about the love- hatred of family relationships which seduced millions.

The books which followed in those early years were also excellent: with bold and vivid characterisation which lifted them above the run of airport novels. But after Hungry as the Sea, his 1978 tale of the superbly manly tug captain Nicholas Berg, the books got thinner: the characters became more two-dimensional and the plots lurched rather than zoomed. As Smith got richer he wrote a book only every other year and his increasing wealth and contentment may have contributed to their loss of edgy anger.

It was around that time that Smith and his children fell out. Christian gave her account in an interview to the Daily Mail four years ago. At that time she was living in England and (for reasons not made clear) insisted her married name was not published. Christian claimed her last meeting with Smith was when she was 16, when she hitchhiked 700 miles to Cape Town, where he lived with Dee, to ask for his help. "I stood at the door of his house at 11pm and he told me I was an embarassment to him. He said: 'Have a good life,' and closed the door. He didn't even ask if I had a place to stay."

Further revelations followed, that despite her father's wealth she "had to go into an orphanage all day while mum worked" as a secretary and that Smith "wanted receipts for everything and calculated every last penny. He wrote a furious letter when I asked for a coat to replace my pounds 2.50 anorak which was too small and later he insisted my brother Shaun's new pounds 11 waterproofs should allow for two years' growth."

It seems unlikely that Christian, who was then married to an art dealer and had a 13-year-old daughter, could remember such exact prices at some 20 years' distance, but it was clear there was a lot of hurt on both sides. It is hard to establish exactly why, however. Christian claimed in the interview that Smith accused her of being "a heroin addict and a prostitute" and she seems to have been expelled from school for some drugs scandal of which she says she was innocent. Either way, she did not have it easy, and lived with three sets of foster parents in her teens. The interview screamed between the lines of a hurt little girl who wanted her dad.

When I asked about it Smith sighed. "The new vogue, or the new thing, is to blame your parents for everything which goes wrong in your life," he said wearily. "Nothing you do contributes to your own failure or happiness, it's all your parents' fault and I don't accept that. You have to pull your own weight if you're going to get anywhere in life. If I look back on it, my father was very tough on me, and thank God he was. There was no mollycoddling or anything like that. I was expected to conform and work and do all the things he wanted me to do. I did them, and I was a better boy for it, and in the case of some of my children that was not the way they wanted it."

Would he consider patching things up? "Things have happened," came the short reply. "They're over. It's a closed book. She's had her say against me and that's fair enough." (He was very uncomfortable now; he clearly didn't think it was remotely fair.)

You felt, I began, that she so wanted - "To cut me down?" he suggested, and I said: "No, that she was saying those things because she so wanted you back." But he obviously had never considered that, or planned to. "I don't think that's the case," he said disbelievingly. "You see, a lot of people who have closed off relationships with me would now very much like to be acknowledged because of the old root of all evil. They think they could have a free ride.

"What happens, especially if people think you've got money, is that all they want to do is take it off you or get some of it for themselves," he continued. "I know all about the avariciousness of so-called friends and relatives. I'm in a position to defend myself from emotional and financial birds of prey."

But isn't it sad to lose your children? I persisted. Smith squirmed in his chair, but was too polite not to answer. "A biological freak," he said. "Your children is where love and affection and duty is and I have that very, very strongly from my son." (That is, Dieter, Dee's son.)

The point was, as far as I could see, that Smith tried to control them and they wouldn't be controlled. Did he like control? "Yes. Both my wife and I like to be in control. Sex, money and power. Power is control." And you couldn't control your children? "Yes, fair comment. If you cannot control them you must let them go."

Clearly Dieter, now a consultant dermatologist, was more malleable or, to be fair, better-behaved. "He is the star in my firmament," Smith said. "He's tremendous. When I first met him he was an infant. He's now got two little boys of three and eight months. That's our nuclear family."

And it's a happy one? "Well," he said seriously, "I'm trying to polish and groom my existence and make it as perfect as I can. I think every day how I can improve my life with Danielle, and I think every day how I can help my grandchildren to succeed and guide them into the right way, and give them whatever advice they stand in need of.

"I'd do anything for my grand- children. When I say to Cameron, 'Come, don't put your finger in your nose,' he says: 'Grandpa, there's something up there!' You know! And on my boat everything is perfect. It's laid out with just the equipment I want. Nothing gives me greater pleasure. Trying to fill everything in my day with something of wonder ... I will never succeed utterly, but then life would become boring if one did."

And so, I say, if your life had been different, and you had never had any books published, and you were still working as an accountant, would you find that depressing? Smith, who is slowly putting on his expensive blue overcoat, actually shudders at the thought. "Unutterably," he says.