Interview with Wilbur Smith
Wilbur Smith has an amazing gift. He takes the world he and his readers know, and transforms it into something new and exciting. He has many bestsellers to his name and practically more honours than it’s possible to list here. Landmark did his many thousands of fans a huge favour by bringing him to India to launch his new book, “Those in Peril”. Despite his hectic schedule, we managed to meet and chat with him and his better half, the very lovely Mrs. Smith, who hope to catch some sights before they head back home.
Those in peril
Those in Peril: By Wilbur Smith
How do you create your characters and your worlds, especially for the Egyptian series?
Around the time I was born – perhaps even before that – one of the biggest discoveries in the world was made, one that captured the imagination of the whole world. That was the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. My mother, like everybody else, was fascinated by it. Some of her excitement rubbed off on me. It was a bit like watching the very beginning of civilisation. Ancient Egypt is the beginning of so many things – reading, writing, poetry, the arts, religion, even the government. I see it as a discovery that coincided with the beginning of my tenure in life, and I found Egypt mysterious and beautiful. I enjoy bringing the world as it is now into as it was then, too. In “The Quest”, I bring my own imagination’s version of stem cell research into ancient Egypt, and yes,
I do bring in the question of the morality of it.
My characters are a mixture of my imagination and real life. My protagonists, obviously, are a bit like me; they tend to have the same mindset and the same beliefs that I do. I’ve never taken a character from somebody else and tried to write them just like that. But even if I might take a few traits, perhaps the physical appearance of a character, from somebody in real life, as the story goes on, they come to life and find their own way; they become a whole person and become creatures entirely of my imagination.
You have several series to your name, most notably the Courtney and the Ballantyne series. How is writing the next in an established series different from writing a one-off book?
“When the Lion Feeds” was my first book, the first time Courtney came to life. It was meant to be a one-off story, really, but it just grew and grew. That first one was really meaty, a lot of detailing went into that –a young boy growing up in Africa,reacting to everything around him, the animals, the people. The next one was easier, and I could really go into the nitty-gritty details of it. I knew my characters very well, so writing about them came more easily. It’s easier to write that way for an author;you can really explore the characters.
But of course, there is the question of continuity. For some of my books that I wrote thirty or twenty years ago, I don’t remember every detail anymore; some of it has faded in my memory. I had to step back and reread them, and that was an interesting experience. I have evolved, my beliefs have changed over the years, and now when I read what I wrote then, sometimes I think, “Hmm….” I wrote them, I’m responsible for all of them, but I plead “not guilty”! Sometimes there are moments of “Where did that come from?”It’s a strange feeling.
I remember when my son and a bunch of his friends – bright boys and girls in the varsity–came home for their holidays. They’d just read my books a week or two earlier and were asking questions, and it’d been years since I’d read them. After a while, I started getting a bit desperate and they’d look at each other as if to ask, “He did write them, right? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” (laughs) I realised I was in big trouble and had to go back and reread them all.
Your books sometimes cross over genres; have you considered writing, perhaps, a straightforward fantasy?
I don’t really consider a book until it’s time to write it. I’m not making plans for three books ahead. I’m like a chef preparing a banquet; there are always four or five dishes simmering on the stove, I don’t know which one to serve first. I always have ideas for a number of books bubbling away in my mind. When I write, I set that idea free. Sometimes when I start a book, I’m not sure how it will end. I know the general direction it’s going to take. It’s like hunting with a pack of dogs; they chase down the story and pin it down for you. I’d have the basic plot and the idea, but I let it find its own life as I write it.
Your books always have a lot of research behind them. How do you get the background and the details right?
When I started out, I wrote about things that I knew. I wrote about life on fishing fleets; I’ve worked on a fishing fleet, I know about the sea, about the dangers and the pleasures involved. So much of my books come from my experiences. I love diving, hunting and shooting. For technical stuff, like when I wrote “Eagle in the Sky”, which is about a Jewish boy who goes back to Israel, I went to the Air Force bases in Israel and met the men who fly those aircraft. I have a pilot’s licence, but this was different. I was also allowed to fly the simulators. One time the instructor stopped the simulator and said, “You’re now 150 feet above the ground in a nosedive, Mach 2. Mr. Smith, what will you do?” (laughs) I said, “Take it away, Major!”
“Those in Peril” is set mostly in the Indian Ocean. The Gulf States, Somalia... it moves to the U.S. in the middle, and then comes back to the Indian Ocean. The book was suggested to me by modern day piracy. It’s about the plight of a woman who loses her teenage daughter to pirates and features an account of her endeavour to rescue her daughter; how she goes about it, the men around her whose assistance she enlists. It takes some twists and turns, of course – no spoilers now!
I enjoyed writing it. I have an island in the Seychelles in that area, where I spend a lot of time, so I knew the background intimately. I met and spoke to some people who are very close the issue of piracy, like the naval officers who keep peace in that area. I even met people who’d been captured by pirates, though I can’t mention names. There are a lot of descriptions of weapons in the books. For details on that, I spent time at the Barreto factory in Italy. Dr. Hugo Baretto is a friend of mine and gave me a free run of the factory!