On a warm Johannesburg afternoon, in stoops the millionaire African author who wears his eminence, as well as his shoes, lightly. The laces on his shoes are undone as he walks in with his fourth wife Mokhiniso Rakhimova, 39 years his junior, at his side.
This is Wilbur Smith, one of the world’s best known novelists, who writes about Africa’s elephants, poachers, soldiers, mercenaries and leaders. He says the most treasured advice he got from his publisher was “write only about those things that you know well” and since then he has been writing about Africa where he was born and bred.
Readers have devoured his 38 books in aeroplanes, hotel rooms and trains, from New York to London. He has sold more than 120 million copies; that is the equivalent of eight copies each for every man, woman and child in the country of his birth – Zambia. Half a century of prolific writing, but it could have been one of the shortest stories told.
In his first few months of life in Zambia, where he was born to his metalworker father, in Kabwe in Zambia’s copper belt, the doctor told his parents that the small child would be better off dead. Smith was diagnosed with cerebral malaria. The doctor warned that if the child survived he would be brain damaged.
Smith made a miraculous recovery to be a prolific novelist. He married four times and divorced twice. The third wife died from brain cancer in 1999.
His stepson from a previous marriage dragged him to court for his assets and they’ve been foes ever since. Even worse, three of his own children have abandoned him after quarrels.
His novels are divided into three series: The Courtney; The Ballantyne and The Ancient Egypt.
The 84-year-old Smith returned to his Ancient Egypt series with his new novel, Pharaoh, transporting you to a time of threat, blood and glory.
Smith’s breakthrough was 54 years ago, after the success of his first book, When the Lion Feeds, which saw him receive a film contract. But it was banned in apartheid South Africa on the grounds of ‘obscenity’ for mixed-race relationships and blasphemy.
Smith was schooled in Michaelhouse, in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, where he started the school’s newspaper.
In 1954, he graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from Rhodes University before working for his father’s cattle ranch as a chartered accountant. But his real love was reading and writing books.
He credits his mother for reading him bedtime stories every night.
“Before I could read she taught me to revere books and the written word. Through her influence I became a reader at a precociously young age. I started with ‘Biggles’ and ‘Just William’. Pretty soon I moved on to the novels of C.S. Forester, Rider Haggard and John Buchan. From then onwards I always had a well-thumbed book in my pocket,” he says in his biography.
His father, as well as the mosquitos, was against him being an author.
“He felt that my obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy. I was forced to become a secret reader. I spent so much time in the outhouse long-drop latrine, where I kept a cache of my favorite books, that my father ordered my mother to administer regular and copious doses of castor oil.”
Pharaoh is part of a six-book deal, worth £15 million ($18.6 million), signed in 2012. Unusually, they will all be written with the help of co-authors.