In 1961 a young accountant called Wilbur Smith had a dream. He wanted to be a best-selling novelist. With his first novel rejected and his marriage in tatters, the 28 year old felt as if he was going no where. He didn’t give up though, and by 1964 his first novel, ‘When the Lion Feeds’ was not only published, but was also an international best-seller. In the last 51 years he has written 33 best-selling novels and sold more than 80 million copies world-wide. Here Wilbur Smith shares his story and his writing tips with us.
Wilbur Smith was born in Northern Rhodesia in 1933. His mother taught him to revere books and the written word. Young Wilbur acquired a taste, in particular, for adventure novels. From those early days, Wilbur Smith dreamed of being a writer. At first he decided to become a journalist to chronicle the rapidly changing scene in the African continent, but his father said to him, “Don’t be a bloody fool. You’ll starve to death. Get a real job.” So, Wilbur followed his Dad’s advice and became an accountant. By the time he was 24, he was married, working as an accountant, in the tax department, in South Africa. In what he describes as the lowest point in his life, Wilbur Smith turned to his first love, writing.
Wilbur admits, “The first book I wrote, I sent it to a literary agent in the UK and she tried to sell it, and it didn’t work. I realised that I wasn’t going to be a writer, not going to live with the Gods on Olympus like John Steinbeck and all the rest.” He was reassured though, when the literary agent, Ursula Winant, contacted him again. She said, “I hope that you are writing your next book, because the first one had great potential.” So Wilbur wrote ‘When the Lion Feeds’ in 1963. “I wrote the second one for myself,” He says, “and it was in a way autobiographical. Small boy bought up on a farm in South Africa. Then I had two brothers – one the weak one, one the strong one. So, in a way, that was me in both of them – what I’d like to be and what I’m afraid of being”
Ursula Winant read the novel, and immediately gave it to Charles Pick of William Heineman. She told him, “Charles, I’m going to give you this book to read, but you have to promise me three things. First of all, that you’ll publish it. Second, that you’ll give him at least £150, and thirdly, that you publish it before Christmas.” He read the book over the weekend. When he phoned her back, he said, “I can only fulfil one of your conditions. I will publish the book. I’m not going to give him £150, I’m going to give him £500, but I can’t publish it before Christmas, I want to give this the full treatment.” For 28 year old Wilbur Smith “That was the best feeling in the whole world.”
So, what advice would Wilbur Smith give to any aspiring novelist who’s stuck in accounts (or any other unfulfilling job)? “Well, if you’re going to write, first of all you should read, because that’s how you learn. So read with an inquisitive mind, think, now why am I enjoying this, or why is this not catching my attention and then try to avoid those pitfalls. The other thing, is having read, you must write. That may sound trite, but lots of people say they are going to write a book, but then they don’t write – they’re either too busy, or too frightened.”
But how do you know what to write about? Wilbur Smith’s advice is simple. Write about the things that you know and the things that interest you. With his first novel, ‘When the Lion Feeds’ he says, “I wove into it all of the things that interested me and my knowledge of South African history. In short, I wrote about all the things I knew well and loved better.”
Wilbur Smith admits that part of the appeal of his stories is their setting; that they are set in Africa. “Africa has always been an attractive setting for stories. Books about Africa always sell. Africa has an appeal for everybody from Egypt and the deserts of the Sahara, the Nile, the Rift Valley, right down to Cape Town. It’s just got the making of a good setting.”
However in 1993, after 23 best-sellers and 29 years of writing about Africa, Wilbur Smith published a novel called, ‘River God’, which was set in Egypt.Wilbur says, “I was fascinated by the Nile. I used to go there whenever I flew from Cape Town to the UK, or to Europe. I went up to Aswan, Abu Simbel, the Monuments. I spent a lot of time cruising on the Nile. I often say, I was sitting in the Temple of Karak as the sun was setting over the Sahara, and I heard a little voice from the shadows of the hyperstyle hall. ‘My name is Taita, write my story.’
Once you have chosen your story and your setting, Wilbur insists, “You have to grab the reader by the throat in the first few pages!” He goes on, “Then you set a task for your characters and put obstacles in their way to try to prevent them from reaching their goal too soon.” “What readers want in fiction,” says Wilbur, “is to read about people. The girl has to be someone that all of your female readers can say ‘ooh I understand what her problem is.’ With the men, the same again. They must identify with them.”
So, what is it then that makes a good storyteller? “First of all,” shares Wilbur, “you have to believe in your own story, and then to have the enthusiasm for it, if you believe in it, then you have the enthusiasm, but if you’re faking it, it comes through very quickly.” But how does the reader know if you’re faking it? “There isn’t the depth of detail. What is in the book should be relevant and correct – authentic. Then it gives the story weight.”
Depth of detail is very important in Wilbur Smith’s novels and he is meticulous about getting it right. “First of all,” he says, “I’ve lived in Africa all of my life. I’ve been to every place I write about, that’s one of my rules. I’ve lived a lot of the experiences that my characters have been through. And if I haven’t, I’ve studied them and then just extrapolate on what I know already. If you think you are going to write about a homosexual. You think about loving someone, for me it would be a woman, and then you just give her testicles.”
There’s no doubt that after 51 years at the top of his game, we as aspiring novelists can gain much from taking his advice and from following in his footsteps.