BBC Questions Wilbur (2004)

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BBC Questions Wilbur (2004)

Postby John R » Wed Nov 23, 2005 4:58 pm ... 5/24/smith

24 May 2004

Wilbur Smith has sold 70m books and three of his novels have been made into films.

Blue Horizon is his latest and sees the next generation of the Courtney family exploring undiscovered Africa.

Sylvester Stallone has bought some movie rights of Smith's books

At 71 and with 30 books under his belt, Smith is the venerable old man of adventure writing, standing alongside contemporary greats like Clive Cussler.

His father pushed him into accountancy, which only drove him on to write novels, although he has led a varied life as a scholar, philanthropist and part-time explorer.

So what's so special about him?

Before the interview, I checked out my library and they had nine of his books with at least half out on loan.

Picture this for every library in the UK, and then further afield

Fans say the novels are impossible to put down.

I thumbed through the first chapter of Diamond Hunter, forgot the time, and nearly arrived late for my interview.

Books that have been made into films include Dark of the Sun, Shout at the Devil and Gold Mine: Sylvester Stallone has bought the film rights to three more.

But Smith has shared his wealth: for each worker on his Zambian estate who stays with him for 25 years, he buys a house and a plot of land.

And he has funded about 20 of his workers' children through higher education and once helped an Egyptologist decipher tomb hieroglyphics, which inspired him to write River God.

A very tall man with a pleasant face, he enters the room, shakes hands and asks my name quietly in a strong South African accent.

JJ: You have written 30 novels, how do come up with new ideas?

WS: You don't want to inquire too deeply where the ideas come from. Just be thankful that they are there.

JJ: Many of your books span the history of fictional families, the Courtneys and the Ballantynes. What are the advantages of grounding a series like this?

WS: It makes in much easier if I already know the subject. In one book the characters are children or newly-born and in the next they are grown up, and I've based it loosely on my own family.

JJ: Your novels are based on Africa, how does it inspire your work?

WS: All of my novels are set there, well because I'm African.

I drank Zambezi water with my mother's milk: once an African always an African.

I know the country well, and have travelled widely. It makes it so much easier for me to tell a story.

JJ: Your readers say when they pick up one of your books they can't put it down and have to finish it in a couple of days. How do you engage the reader?

WS: If they say that, it's the greatest complement for a writer.

My books tend to be action stories moving rapidly along and I don't waste much time along the road smelling the violets.

I put a lot into my books and characters: my own philosophy, my understanding of Africa. That's the type of book I write and I hope I'll always write.

JJ: Do you sit down and plan your novels or do they flow naturally?

WS: I don't structure my novels. I know there are some writers who almost use a blackboard to show all the characters and the interrelation of this and that.

I find that would be too stifling and stilted. I get the characters and let them run, then I just virtually follow the action.

JJ: At 71, will you ever retire from writing?

WS: Well I think I will retire, but that will be when they put me in a box and take me down to the cemetery.

Then my arm will come out from under the coffin lid and write 'The End' on the side of the box.

JJ: Sylvester Stallone has bought some movie rights. When are the films are coming out?

WS: I have no idea what his plans are. There is a 50-50 chance of it happening, but I'm not sure when.

JJ: You have a huge international fan base. Do you enjoy a dialogue with your fans or keep them at arm's length?

WS: A lot of people write to me and I always write back at least once, but I don't want to get into a dialogue with them, otherwise my whole life would be spent writing letters.

I am tremendously grateful that I have people who enjoy my work.

Like today, I come down and it's a great pleasure to meet as many of them as I can.

But the trouble with writing books is its highly time-consuming.

It takes me eight months to write a book and then the other four months of the year I rather like to have to myself to travel and spend time with my wife.

JJ: Didn't you discover a lost city in Africa?

WS: Well I don't think I was the first one to discover it - Bains and Livingstone got there first.

And I wouldn't say a city, more a slaving station or a town.

I read from their accounts of the ruins, went to look for it and I found it in the middle of Botswana.

When I got there, I met a huge venomous Mambo snake and looked upon him as the guardian of the ruins.

That was 20 years ago and I haven't been back since, but now it's a tourist spot.

JJ: When you get time to read what's your favourite genre?

WS: I'm very omnivorous. I like science fiction, Frank Herbert's Dune, African thrillers; Hugh Forsyth; historical fiction like CS Forrester's Hornblower; the Sharpe series and David Cornwall's Warlock.

I enjoy reading widely and it's always a pleasure to read a new book.

JJ: What are you reading at the moment?

WS: I'm reading around a subject I'm writing about - eyewitness accounts from 19th Century Africa.

I would prefer not to say what the novel is about, even my publishers don't know yet and I'm not sure my wife does either.

I will talk about it when it's a book and not just bits of paper.

JJ: Do you get off days, or weeks, when you don't want to write?

WS: That doesn't just apply to writing, but any job - sometimes you get a bit tired.

Having written for such a long time I hope, touch wood, I will never lose interest in the job.

JJ: What advice would you give unpublished authors?

WS: Ah that's a good question. Anyone who wants to be an author should first read as only by reading do you understand books.

Once you are looking for a publisher the only thing I can say is, pray a lot.

There are tens of thousands of first time novelists all looking for publishers - you have to be lucky.

And remember, just because you're not published doesn't mean you are not any good.

There are a lot of very good writers who are unpublished. My first novel was never published.
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John R
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