He battled cerebral malaria as an 18-month-old and beat the medical prognosis of certain brain damage — then Zambian-born adventure novelist Wilbur Smith went on to produce one bestseller after another.
"Despite the primitive medical facilities available in Africa in those days (1934), their prognosis proved correct; I survived and am now only mildly crazy. Which is good because you have to be at least slightly crazy to write fiction for a living," he says.
Smith’s latest addition to his Egyptian series, Pharaoh , launched in SA this month and claimed the number one bestselling fiction title in the country within 12 days of its release. With worldwide sales of more than 40 novels in 26 languages exceeding 120m copies (a quantity that can "fill Wembley Stadium twice over") , Smith’s readership base is mostly in the UK, SA, New Zealand and Australia.
"The Italians love me — I’ve sold a lot of books in Italy — and the US is getting very big now," he says.
Generations of readers have grown up on his Courtney and Ballantyne novels, remembered as much for their gripping tales of adventure as the sexual exploits of their characters. So what drives the success of the Egyptian series?
"The main character, Taita, was introduced in the first Egyptian novel. He somehow touched a chord for the readers and so they follow him. And I follow him," says Smith. "He is a very warm person. And he is also very self-opinionated, which is good. I mean, he knows the world is flat. And he knows you’d better not stray beyond the gates of Hercules because you’ll fall off the end of the earth!"
What are the most valued memories of Smith’s writing career? "The first book, When the Lion Feeds, is still my favourite because it got me going. I remember so clearly when I sent the book in to my agent ... 10 days later she sent me a telegram to say she’d received it, five days later it was accepted for publication, then it was condensed books, then film rights. Whew! I’ve been unemployed ever since."
Smith’s novels were in vogue at a certain time for film ( Shout at the Devil and The Train from Katanga ), but since then he’s written without any similar ambition. "I found myself, when I sold the film rights for those books, starting to write screenplays instead of novels. The Dark of the Sun was my declaration of independence."
Smith’s father, Courtney, who gave his name to the hero of that first novel, felt his son’s "obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy". It was Smith’s mother who fostered his love for reading when he was very young. It was also her fascination with the stories around the discovery of Tutankham en’s tomb that led Smith to stop over in Egypt on his way back from the UK launch of When the Lion Feeds in 1964.
"I was fascinated by Egypt and its ancient history. You know, everything is there from a point of view of storytelling ... I went back time and time again. Oh, it’s an incredible place," he says. "It seemed to be perfect for a novelist, because if you wrote about the very early Egyptians you didn’t have to be accurate about your facts. And so I made up my own history of Egypt. Since then I’ve written a number of books on Egypt."
Not one to suffer from writer’s block, Smith says he can write anywhere as long as the noise levels are acceptable. "It just falls into place, episode by episode. I usually do one episode in a day, and that triggers an inspiration for the following one."
He credits the writing of five of his best novels to his "helpmate, playmate, soul mate, wife and best friend", Niso. She is the founder of the Wilbur & Niso Smith Foundation, which aims to "introduce true talent from across the globe to the reading world".
Its inaugural 2016 Wilbur Smith Adventure Award for adventure writing went to Corban Addison for The Tears of Dark Water.
"The next stage will be to reach out to writers and readers across the world, bringing the spirit of adventure into their lives and inspiring them to undertake their own journeys of discovery. More than anything we want the Wilbur & Niso Smith Foundation to be an organisation that uplifts, inspires and educates," says Niso Smith.
The Smiths are constantly creating their own adventures. They enjoy travelling to Europe, especially Norway, and they visit the US and Canada occasionally to fish. "We don’t live the normal suburban life when we are in Cape Town," says Niso Smith. They do a lot together, from camping and fishing to visiting special haunts at Chapman’s Peak or Silvermine in the very early morning with their binoculars and a thermos of hot drink. "It’s the most beautiful time of day, when it’s crisp morning. There’s also Lovers’ Nest in Kommetjie — that’s our name, but you know we make our nest everywhere ourselves. He’s an amazingly romantic man."
This brings us back to a story I’d heard about Smith’s publisher asking him to introduce some steamy content to his early books.
On the contrary, he says: "They asked me to tone it down!" So how much was personal experience and how much vivid imagination? "A combination of the two, I think."
* Pharaoh is available in SA at leading bookstores. The Pharaoh premium edition is available to buy exclusively from HarperCollins UK. It is limited to 1,000 copies, bound in luxurious cloth with golden foil details and individually signed by Smith. For details and to order, visit: www.harpercollins.co.uk.