AS A regular visitor to France throughout his life, Wilbur Smith loves the hospitality he finds in the countryside. But he also loves Paris, and has even considered buying a home there.
However, despite considering himself British, he has spent most of his life in Africa, where most of his books are set.
He was born on January 6, 1933 in Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia, to he says a very Victorian father and a mother who was “an angel from heaven”. Having made an amazing recovery from cerebral malaria at a young age, he feels that left him just “slightly crazy” and a perfect personality for his style of novels.
He had two “catastrophic” marriages and vowed not to marry again. Then he met Danielle, to whom he was married for 28 years and nursed during her battle with brain cancer.
She died in 1999, but further happiness was around the corner in the shape of a lovely Tadjik girl called Mokhiniso Rakhinova (Niso for short), who is 39 years his junior.
Do you often have the opportunity to visit France? If so, what is your perception of the French people?
Niso and I regularly travel to Paris where we stay at the Hôtel Scribe. We often thought about buying an apartment in the city but the hotel staff always make us so welcome that we decided against it. We have a chalet just across the border in Switzerland so we pop in to eastern France to buy wines and stock up on excellent local produce.
I have always found the French people, outside of the obvious cosmopolitan cities, to be extremely warm and friendly.
We used to cycle a lot on the quiet roads in France and often, when just stopping for a breather, Madame would come out of her home and offer water or just pass the time of day. They chat very easily and are so polite. Having said that, Niso and I love the culture in Paris and often visit the Musée d'Orsay.
So what would your favourite French meal be?
At home I am a steak (springbok) and chips man, given half the chance. In Paris we eat regularly at La Coupole, where Hemingway used to eat, as they serve excellent duck dishes. I also enjoy seafood, and the mussel dishes and bouillabaisse at La Méditerranée, on the Left Bank, are superb – all rounded off with excellent French wine and Cognac, of course.
Who are your favourite authors and what are you reading?
I’m reading Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. I know that has been out for quite a few years, but I love to re-read books. I enjoy John Steinbeck, Robert Graves, Bernard Cornwell and Colm Iggulden.
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row are my all-time favourites and when Niso and I were last in San Francisco, we drove to the Steinbeck Museum. The museum was excellent and we wandered around Steinbeck country at the end of which Niso was as big a fan of him as I am.
At one stage you said that if Winnie Mandela ever became President of South Africa you would move. Where would you have gone?
An interesting question. I consider myself to be of solid British stock, although a colonial boy, and I am sure I would have moved to London or just outside in the country, where I could still go shooting. I did not visit England until I was 30 years old but, on arrival, I felt at home. However, I did not have to make that decision and, although Niso and I have moved recently, I have still retained several hectares of land and a small cottage where I can go hunting. I am so lucky, I am besotted with my wife and am in an extremely happy place in my life – I feel very blessed.
You appear to have been with Macmillan publishers throughout your writing life. Most authors change at least once or twice, but you have not?
I started out with Heinemann and, shortly after, they were bought by a woman’s magazine so I moved to Macmillan. The former chairman of Heinemann said to me “Where is your loyalty, Wilbur?” My response was “My loyalty follows the money and where was your loyalty to me!” I am satisfied with the way Macmillan looks after me and have no reason to move.
Your 33rd and latest novel Those In Peril, about Somali piracy, was number 2 on the bestseller list before it was even published. Why do you continue writing when you have admitted you are wealthy and enjoying life to the full. Doesn’t being 79 with a beautiful wife entitle you to retire?
I am at a good stage of my life and I do what I want to do. I feel as if I am retired, but a year is a long time to do nothing. Fictional characters pop into my mind and pursue me so I do have to write. I do not know how many books I have left in me, but I have a notion for a new one, which is at the fledgling stage. That will take about 18 months to complete.
Boris Johnson once interviewed you, many years ago about Birds of Prey and said your books “were venerated among schoolboys for your dog-eared sex scenes”.
I imagine he will enjoy Those In Peril, which is no exception, but you stress you only write what you know about …Wilbur laughs out loud!
Within your books you usually explore the relationship between father and son. In Those In Peril you chose to look at the way mother (Hazel Bannock) and daughter (Cayla) interacted. When investigator Hector Cross comes on to the scene, he becomes almost a father-figure for Cayla. You obviously feel strongly about parental relationships?
I was so fortunate to have two extraordinary parents, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them. About every 10 days I dream about my father, who was slightly “stiff upperlip” in relationships. I was about 50 when I kissed him on top of his bald pate for the first time. I know he loved me, but he found it difficult to show me. I adored my mother but parental/child relationships can be complex. Do you plan to write your autobiography I have several people nudging me to write about my life. The problem is that my 20s are a bit fuzzy, and I would want to get that correct.
Finally, is there anything you would like to say to the readers of Connexion who may also be your fans?
I consider my readers to be my extended family. When I go to a book signing and see a queue of 200 people I just find that wonderful and a bit overwhelming. I love my readers and appreciate them and I’ll leave you with “hold your horses, kids, I’m coming back!”