“Africa – my goldmine.”
Wilbur Smith is in Rome, staying in a very elegant suite on the top floor of a hotel in Trinità dei Monti. Spring has just begun, but he is already dressed in a beige cotton suit. He walks into the hotel wearing a Panama hat. He is smiling, though this time he’s here alone because his wife has had an accident and has stayed back in South Africa.
How many books have you written?
Twenty-seven in thirty-five years. Now I work a year, and then I have fun for a year. I take my retirement in small doses.
You’ve had a lot of success in Italy.
Yes. It’s one of the most important markets in the world for me. My books have sold more than seven million copies in Italy.
How do you write your books?
Every two years I write for eight months like a businessman. I work eight hours a day. I finish the book in eight months.
And how do you write?
I wrote the first twenty-two books with a pen. I felt like I was closer to the paper. And then “five books ago,” I decided to enter into the Twentieth Century, and I bought a personal computer. At first I didn’t have a good relationship with the computer, but now I do.
What kinds of stories do you tell?
They are all set in Africa. Sometimes they are historical. Other times, they tell of the present. Mostly, I’ve written about family sagas. I would say they are stories of African adventures.
Who are your readers?
Recently I received a letter from a fourteen-year-old boy. He wrote that everyone in his family had read my book. The first was his eighty-year-old grandfather, then his father, his mother, his older brothers and, finally, him. So I believe my audience is between the ages of fourteen and eighty.
When you aren’t working, what are you doing?
I read. I travel. I sail on my yacht. I hunt and fish.
So you must be a very rich man?
Well, I’ve sold seventy million books in my lifetime. And then I was an accountant before and have a financial background so I’ve invested my money well.
In good stocks and in good real estate.
Being rich doesn’t make you lazier in your work?
No. It is an incentive to become even richer.
What things are you most interested in?
Africa, its wildlife, and English literature.
And when you come to Europe?
I have many friends here because my books are published throughout Europe. I have a house in London, and I go to the theatre there. I like to come here because life is different.
Do you have children?
Yes. Four. They are no longer children. They are women and men that live on their own.
What do you think about the war in the former Yugoslavia?
Every war is a tragedy. Even if I think it’s a justified war on NATO’s part, I think mistakes like those of Hitler, Stalin, or with what happened in Uganda, really shouldn’t happen today.
Would you like to go to those places?
No. I don’t know Eastern Europe. I don’t know enough about the history. I prefer to limit my focus to Africa.
What’s happening in Africa?
It has always been a beautiful, violent, and bloody land.
Is it a forgotten continent?
Many African leaders say so.
Is Africa becoming more modern?
It’s Africa. It will never be like Europe or America. Africans have aspirations that are different than those of the West.
What are these aspirations?
This is a very broad topic. Young intellectuals say that Africans are people of the sun and Europeans are people of the ice. They are more joyous and less consumerist than we are. They say that Europeans have too many material desires and ignore nature. Work is an ethic and a religion for us. In other words, they don’t work as much in Africa as we do, but they have much more fun.
But they die of hunger.
Certainly. The debate can go on forever. Trains in Africa will never be on time like they are in Switzerland. There will never be the wealth of the First World. There will always be epidemics. People will die of hunger, and Africa will always be Africa just as it has been for the last six thousand years.
What makes you want to live there?
I am African. I am part of Africa, and I love the people, the place, and the wildlife.
But is it a hard life?
No. I live in the country I love with the woman I love, and I have enough money in the bank to do what I want.
Do you still consider yourself to be an artist?
No. I am a storyteller.
Do you have a lot of fantasy?
I would say I have a lot of imagination.
Do you ever get tired of writing?
No because what I write is life, and I am a writer. And what does a writer do? He writes.
Are you a happy man?
I am a lucky man, and I am aware of that.
What are you still looking to do?
Perhaps what I’ve done for the last thirty-five years, but I would like to to do it even better.
What is it that makes your books sell so well?
You should ask my readers. I have a view of life and human relationships that people of all ages, sexes, and nationalities like.
What can you say about your next book?
It’s still in the embryo stage, and I never talk about anything that isn’t yet written on paper.
Why? Are you superstitious?
I recognize that there are certain coincidences, and this could be considered superstitious. I am very careful to not walk under a ladder. Or to not bring a hard-boiled egg with me when I go fishing or I won’t catch a fish.
What is your favourite city in Italy?
Rome. I love the buildings. I have my editor and many friends in Milan. I like the south as well because the people are warm and affectionate. I like all of Italy, and I find Italians to be particularly attractive people. I find the Italian lifestyle very nice and the elegance of the people fascinating. And, let’s be honest, Italians buy my books.
25th April 1999.