Wilbur Smith: Prolific thriller writer who sold 140 million books

The bestselling author published his first novel in 1964 – after many rejections – and saw a number of his swashbuckling tales adapted for the screen

Marcus Williamson
Thursday 25 November 2021 00:01
<p>Smith grew up on a cattle ranch in Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia </p>

Smith grew up on a cattle ranch in Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia

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

Smith, who has died aged 88, had written 49 novels, selling some 140 million copies during his lifetime and had the fortune 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. Aged 18 months he contracted malaria, leading to ten days of delirium fever and doubts from doctors about whether he would live. “I survived and am now only mildly crazy,” he later observed, “Which is good because you have to be at least slightly crazy to write fiction for a living.”

He was educated at Michaelhouse and Rhodes University, Grahamstown. Initially keen to train as a journalist, he was persuaded by his father to take up accountancy. However, the writing bug had already bitten him and on being paid £70 – twice his monthly salary – for a story in Argosy magazine, he decided to try his hand at penning a full-length novel.

But the success he craved as a writer did not come immediately. His first manuscript, The Gods First Make Mad, was repeatedly turned down, its only impact being to generate what Smith described as an “impressive array of rejection letters from leading publishers around the world”.

In 1964 he struck lucky with his first published novel, When the Lion Feeds. The story about the sons of a ranch owner, Waite Courtney, is set in Natal, and was based on Smith’s own experiences of growing up in that world. His publisher, Heinemann, put their confidence in him, offering a £2,000 advance and an initial print run of 10,000 copies (later increased to 20,000). Charles Pick, deputy managing editor at Heinemann, would go on to become Smith’s friend and mentor.

Smith recalled the excitement of his new-found success: “In the following weeks the postman visited me regularly. He brought glad tidings of a sale of film rights in Hollywood, of a book society choice, of acceptance by Viking Press in New York for an eye-rolling sum of dollars, of new publishers in Germany and France, of a paperback sale to Pan Books in England.” Publicity for the book was helped by a ban in South Africa, whose Publication Control Board described it as “offensive and harmful to public morals”.

The author at a literary festival in Dubai in 2009

When the Lion Feeds established the formula upon which much of his subsequent output was based. Of his 49 novels, more than half were centred in his home continent of Africa and several of these continued the story of the Courtney family.

While his first book did not make it to the screen, a number of Smith’s other books were adapted for television and film. These included The Mercenaries (1968) – based on The Dark of the Sun, and Gold – adapted as Gold Mine (1974), starring Roger Moore and Suzannah York.

Interviewed in 2013 for the Wall Street Journal, Smith responded to criticism that he had created stories that did not fit with the modern world: “I’ve been accused of violence and cruelty to animals and people. I’ve been accused of racism, sacrilege. The views that I’m presenting 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 Sunbird (1972), with a plot centred around an archaeological dig. This became one of his favourite works, about he had once said “It was a complex book, it gave me a great deal of pleasure.”

He had returned to the theme of Egypt in his latest book, The New Kingdom, co-written with Mark Chadbourn, published in September and the seventh of 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 unexpectedly that afternoon at his home in Cape Town.

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

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

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