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Sat 28 Feb 2009 04:00 AM

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African adventures

Bestselling author Wilbur Smith's enthusiasm is unabating even after writing 32 blockbusters in 45 years.

Wilbur Smith is one of the world's biggest authors, having penned a staggering 32 blockbusters in 45 years. His African tales have been translated into 29 languages, and yet his enthusiasm shows no signs of abating.

If he has crippling insecurities, a raging ego or any of the other usual writerly frailties, Wilbur Smith keeps them well hidden. He is charismatic, eloquent; a publishing powerhouse who could pass for a genial grandfather.

Without missing a beat he has produced 32 blockbusters in 45 years; a staggering output. His bestselling fictional dynasties, all full-throttle thrillers, have been translated into 29 languages and all are still in print. There is no definitive figure on his global sales - estimates range from 50 million to three times that - but Smith is still prepared to hazard a guess.

I like to be number one. I like to achieve whatever I set out to do, and I’m disappointed if it all falls apart in the process.

"You can say; ‘Wilbur Smith has destroyed a major forest with the trees they had to cut down to print him'," he cackles. "It's a lot of books," he adds, seriously.

Smith, like his sales figures, is something of an enigma. Like his protagonists, he has demonstrated an astonishing capacity for literary survival, but he has ruffled critics' feathers with his rosy nostalgia for colonial Africa.

Press clippings devote equal time to his personal life - his wealth, four marriages, estranged children and his 2000 marriage to a wife 39 years his junior - as to his authorial prowess, and there is the impression that he has been sidelined, by virtue of his popularity, as a ‘serious' writer.

Not that Smith cares. "If I write a book then I want people to read it," he says evenly. "When I go to Italy or Prague and my publisher tells me of the success of the sales there, I love it.

"With the Booker shortlist, half the books on it I think, ‘why did the guy bother to write this?' But to each his own," he adds, lightly.

Smith has made a career from being politically incorrect. His novels, primarily a celebration of the white man's Africa, feature big game, big men and even bigger guns.

He specialises in high-octane adventure, his characters racing through seduction, slaughter and safaris without seemingly drawing breath. His novels' complexities and length - some of his tomes are nearly 1,000 pages long - are perhaps two reasons why they've failed to translate to the big screen.

His two biggest fictional series trace the fortunes of the Courtney and Ballantyne clans from the 17th to the late 20th century, while a third is set in ancient Egypt. Modern Africa doesn't get a look-in; a tactic Smith explains away by arguing you should write about what you know.

Reading between the lines, it's also a savvy commercial technique.Postcolonial Africa is a thorny topic, and one unlikely to generate the top-line sales his publisher is used to notching up. And after 32 successes, Smith would take failure hard.

"I like to be number one if possible," he says, showing a flash of steeliness beneath his charm. "I like to achieve what I set out to do, and I'm disappointed if it all falls apart in the process."

It's partly for that reason that he avoids the company of other writers, ironically on the advice of an author called Stuart Clote. He doesn't like to be bested.

"He told me to always avoid the company of other authors," Smith chuckles. "If they are more successful than you are, you will be jealous. If they are less successful, you will look down on them."

The more successful Stephen King, however, is a declared fan, and has provided lavish book jacket endorsements of Smith's "swashbuckling novels... [in which] the bodices rip and the blood flows".

Still, compared to many authors, success has come easy for Smith. He was singularly unsurprised by the triumph of his first book, ‘When the Lion Feeds', published in his early twenties in the wake of a failed career and failed marriage. "To the contrary; being an Alpha male, I rather expected it," he admits.

He has no truck with writer's block - "When I open the floodgates, the waters flow" - and wields the kind of rigid self-discipline that has produced a book almost every year for two decades. He is, he says, a writer first, and a business second, but he's still able to drop his sales figures and web hits into the conversation with practised ease.

"If I said I don't enjoy being well-rewarded for what I do, I would be lying," he says matter-of-factly. "It's nice to be able to dress in nice clothes and drive a nice motor car, but that's just the periphery things about writing. The real reward is to sit down with a book in your hands, turn the pages and say; ‘Smith, you wrote that.'"

Now in his mid-seventies, Smith has slowed down slightly - he writes a book every other year instead. "I'm pacing myself," he says, grinning. The process is still the same, though: an early start, followed by press-ups, breakfast and then "just sitting down at the PC in my study and then getting on with it".He subscribes to Hemingway's theory that the downfall of most aspiring authors ist that they talk more then they write. "He said; ‘I was writing my books while others were sitting on the sidewalks and cafés of Paris talking them away,'" Smith recalls. He writes till 3pm, he says, after which he packs up and doesn't think about work again until the next morning.

"When the book forms in my mind I know pretty well where I want to go, who the characters are, and then it's just that magical moment when they actually come to life, and become living, breathing creatures for me," he says. "People say, ‘what about the research?' But the research has been my entire life, lived in Africa."

It gives the illusion of being rich, but much of it is uninhabitable. I always think with Africa that every grain of sand is soaked in blood, the blood of animals and the blood of men.

But Smith's Africa no longer exists, and he is variously criticised for his celebration of its Empire days, his "armchair bloodlust", and the wanton hunting and violence that span his books. His almost exclusively white protagonists struggle for survival against the land, the arid climate, and often the indigenous population, and Smith is not opposed to bending history to fit his storyline. But he is unapologetic.

"Africa is a tough country," he says. He knows this first-hand, having nearly died of cerebral malaria aged 18 months.

"It gives the illusion of being rich, but much of it is uninhabitable. I always think with Africa that every grain of sand is soaked in blood, the blood of animals and the blood of men."

He has made his peace with Africa's turbulent history. Now, Zimbabwe's collapse and Kenya's violence are all, for Smith, the latest chapters in the continent's unrest. "For me it is very much a case of loving and suffering with the people of Africa. I know Africa; there is a feeling that African people want to go back to the land."

His verdict on Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe: "African leaders want to dominate, but Africa has always been governed in a certain way, by which I mean a very heavy hand."

To say Smith has led an interesting life is an understatement. He's speaking to me from Davos, Switzerland, where he has a house. Last week he was in Malta, and this week he flies into Dubai for the emirate's International Festival of Literature, where he is appearing as a headlining author.

Born in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in 1933, Smith has led a life not dissimilar to one of his heroes. Reared on hunting - he shot his first lion at 13 - with a lifelong love of firearms, his life has been a whistle-stop ride of travelling and book tours. At university, his holidays were spent working on the gold mines, trawler fleets and whalers of South Africa, which became the source of much of his writing material.

His British father, a hard-edged rancher who presided over 25,000 acres of African plains, was astounded when his son revealed - after five gloomy years as an accountant - that he had plans to be a writer. "He said; ‘Don't be a bloody fool,'" Smith snorts, remembering. "The only thing my father ever read was the newspaper and the Farmer's Weekly.

"He never read it [my first book], but he carried a copy round with him to show his mates. He sort of came round slowly to the idea that he had an effete son who wrote books."

Now Smith and his Tajikistani wife, Mokhiniso - or ‘Niso', as he calls her - split their time between a string of houses; a byproduct of a vow he made years ago never to stay in one place too long. "My wife will say; ‘Where are we going next?' And I'll say; ‘Give me a coin and let me toss it.

He met his wife, then a law student, in a London bookstore when she was contemplating buying a book by a rival author. He managed a sale and a conquest, persuading her both to lunch and to buy his book. "And we've been lunching ever since," he says, with great satisfaction.

For Smith, however, Africa will always be his first love. He acknowledges that "the white man's time in Africa has passed," but his books are dedicated to recapturing it, in fiction at least.

Regardless of his four homes he remains, he says, African through and through. "I love Europe, and I'm always travelling, but I'm always looking back over my shoulder to Africa."

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