Legendary novelist Wilbur Smith dies aged 88

Wilbur Smith chronicled dramatic adventures on the African continent, creating internationally-acclaimed fiction

By Agencies

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Wilbur Smith. — AFP file
Wilbur Smith. — AFP file

Published: Sun 14 Nov 2021, 3:37 AM

Internationally acclaimed author Wilbur Smith has died in South Africa aged 88, his publisher announced on Saturday.

“Global bestselling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape Town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side,” said a statement released on the Wilbur Smith Books website.

With 49 titles under his belt since his first novel ‘When the Lion Feeds’ was published in 1964, Smith became a household name in literature.

“The undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Wilbur Smith’s novels have gripped readers for over half a century, selling over 140 million copies worldwide in more than thirty languages,” said the statement.

Zambia-born Wilbur Smith chronicled dramatic adventures on the African continent, creating internationally-acclaimed fiction that drew on own his action-packed life.

He gained recognition in 1964 with his debut novel “When the Lion Feeds”, the tale of a young man growing up on a South African cattle ranch which led to 15 sequels, tracing the ambitious family’s fortunes for more than 200 years.

“I wove into the story chunks of early African history. I wrote about black people and white. I wrote about hunting and gold mining and carousing and women,” he said in a biography on his official website.

He also leant on meticulous historical research and his own extensive travels, establishing a method he would use over a career spanning five decades in which he wrote nearly 50 novels and sold about 130 million books.

Another golden rule came from his publisher, Charles Pick. “He said: ‘Write only about those things you know well.’ Since then I have written only about Africa,” Smith said.

Born on January 9, 1933, to a British family in what was then Northern Rhodesia, Smith encountered from an early age the forest, hills and savannah of Africa on his parents’ large ranch.

He credits his mother with teaching him to love nature and reading, while his father gave him a rifle at the age of eight, the start of what he acknowledged was a lifelong love affair with firearms and hunting.

“There are more big-game hunters in Smith’s oeuvre than spies in the works of John le Carre, and yet it is possible that he has slaughtered even more animals in real life than on the page,” Britain’s Daily Telegraph wrote in 2014.

Also a scuba diver and mountain climber in his time, Smith was not afraid to throw himself into his research, saying that for his 1970 novel “Gold Mine” he took a job in a South African gold mine for a few weeks.

“I was a sort of privileged member of the team, I could ask questions and not be told to shut up,” he told the Daily Telegraph of his experience.

Smith studied at South Africa’s Rhodes University, intending to become a journalist until his father said, as he recounts on his website, “Don’t be a bloody fool ... Go and find yourself a real job.”

There followed a “soul-destroying” stint as a chartered accountant, during which he turned to fiction.

The success with “When the Lion Feeds” encouraged him to become a full-time writer and lead to the Courtney series, which runs up to “The Tiger’s Prey” published in 2017, more than 50 years after the first book.

The four-part Ballantyne series is themed on colonial wealth and the racial struggle in the former Rhodesia, today’s Zimbabwe. There is also a series on Egypt, while standalone novels include “The Sunbird” (1972) and “Those in Peril” (2011).

His books have been translated into around 30 languages and some made into films, including “Shout at the Devil” with Lee Marvin and Roger Moore in 1976.

Describing Smith as the “ultimate action-man author”, Britain’s Daily Mail in 2017 remarked that it was perhaps surprising his books still appeal considering their “politically incorrect whirl of sex, violence, casual misogyny, big-game hunters, mining, full-breasted women and slaughtered beasts”.

Answering a question on his site about the secret of his success, he says it is about “embroidering” a bit on real life.

“I write about men who are more manly and beautiful women who are really more beautiful than any women you’d meet,” he says, confirming he sometimes worked with co-writers.

Published in 2018, his autobiography “On Leopard Rock” chronicles his own adventures — the raw material for his fiction — including being attacked by lions, getting lost in the African bush and crawling through the precarious tunnels of gold mines.

Smith spent most of his time in South Africa and had homes in Cape Town, London, Switzerland and Malta.

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