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Wilbur Addison Smith (born 9 January 1933) is a South African novelist specialising in historical fiction about the international involvement in Southern Africa across four centuries, seen from the viewpoints of both black and white families.
An accountant by training, he gained a film contract with his first published novel When the Lion Feeds. This encouraged him to become a full-time writer, and he developed three long chronicles of the South African experience which all became best-sellers. He still acknowledges his publisher Charles Pick's advice to "write about what you know best", and his work takes in much authentic detail of the local hunting and mining way of life, along with the romance and conflict that goes with it. As of 2014 his 35 published novels had sold more than 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy.
Smith was born in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). His father was a metal worker who opened a sheet metal factory and then bought a cattle ranch. "My father was a tough man", said Smith. "He was used to working with his hands and had massively developed arms from cutting metal. He was a boxer, a hunter, very much a man's man. I don't think he ever read a book in his life, including mine".
As a baby, Smith was sick with cerebral malaria for ten days but made a full recovery. He spent the first years of his life on his father's cattle ranch, comprising 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of forest, hills, and savannah. On the ranch his companions were the sons of the ranch workers, small black boys with the same interests and preoccupations as Smith. With his companions he ranged through the bush, hiking, hunting, and trapping birds and small mammals. His mother read to him every night and later gave him novels of escape and excitement, which piqued his interest in fiction; however, his father dissuaded him from pursuing writing.
Smith went to boarding school at Cordwalles Preparatory School in Natal (now Kwa-Zulu Natal). While in Natal he continued to be an avid reader and had the good fortune to have an English master who made him his protégé and would discuss the books Smith had read that week. Unlike Smith's father and many others, the English master made it clear to Smith that being a bookworm was praiseworthy, rather than something to be ashamed of, and let Smith know that his writings showed great promise. He tutored Smith on how to achieve dramatic effects, to develop characters, and to keep a story moving forward.
For high school Smith attended Michaelhouse, a boarding school situated in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. He felt that he never "fitted in" with the people, goals, and interests of the other students at Michaelhouse. On a positive note, he did start a school newspaper at Michaelhouse for which he wrote the entire content, except for the sports pages. His weekly satirical column became mildly famous and was circulated as far afield as The Wykeham Collegiate and St Anne's.
Smith initially worked on his father's cattle ranch and also served with the Rhodesian Police. "I would get called out and have to get bodies of children from pit lavatories after they had been killed with pangas [machetes]," he recalled.
Smith wanted to become a journalist, writing about social conditions in South Africa, but his father's advice to "get a real job" prompted him to become a tax accountant (chartered accountant).
"My father was a colonialist and I followed what he said until I was in my 20s and learned to think for myself," he said. "I didn’t want to perpetuate injustices so I left Rhodesia in the time of Ian Smith."
He attended Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1954. He subsequently found work with the Inland Revenue Service.
Smith turned back to fiction, this time determined to write it, and found that he was able to sell his first story to Argozy magazine for 70 pounds, twice his monthly salary. His first attempt at a novel, The Gods First Make Mad, was rejected, so for a time he returned to work as an accountant, until the urge to write once again overwhelmed him. He tried another novel:
When the Lion Feeds tells the stories of two young men, twins Sean and Garrick Courtney. The characters' surname was a tribute to Smith's grandfather, Courtney James Smith, who had commanded a Maxim gun team during the Zulu Wars. Courtney James Smith had a magnificent mustache and could tell wonderful stories that had helped inspire Wilbur.
Smith's agent in London, Ursula Winant, managed to sell the book to William Heinemann for an advance of 2000 pounds and an initial print run of 10,000 copies. The book went on to be successful, selling around the world (except in South Africa, where it was banned) and enabling Smith to leave his job and work full-time. Charles Pick, who bought the book for Heinemann, later became Smith's mentor and agent. Smith says Pick gave him advice he never forgot: "Write for yourself, and write about what you know best." Pick also advised: "Don't talk about your books with anybody, even me, until they are written." Smith has said that, "Until it is written a book is merely smoke on the wind. It can be blown away by a careless word."
In 2012, Smith said When the Lion Feeds remained his favourite because it was his first to be published. Film rights were bought by Stanley Baker but no movie resulted. However the money enabled Smith to quit his job in the South African taxation office, calculating he had enough to not have to work for two years.
"I hired a caravan, parked it in the mountains, and wrote the second book," he said. "I knew it was sort of a watershed. I was 30 years of age, single again, and I could take the chance."
Smith's second published novel was Dark of the Sun (1965), a tale about mercenaries during the Congo Crisis. Film rights were sold to George Englund and MGM and it was filmed in 1968 starring Rod Taylor.
Smith did not originally envision the Courtney family from When the Lion Feeds would become a series, but he returned to them for The Sound of Thunder (1966), taking the lead characters up to after the Second Boer War.
Shout at the Devil (1968) was a World War One adventure tale which would be filmed in 1976. It was followed by Gold Mine (1970), an adventure tale about the gold mining industry set in contemporary South Africa, based on a real-life flooding of a gold mine near Johannesburg in 1968.
The Diamond Hunters (1971) was set in contemporary West Africa, later filmed as The Kingfisher Caper (1975). Around this time, Smith also wrote an original screenplay, The Last Lion (1971) which was filmed in South Africa with Jack Hawkins; it was not a success.
Smith admits to being tempted by movie money at this stage of his career but deliberately wrote something that was a complete change of pace, The Sunbird (1972).
Eagle in the Sky (1974) was more typical fare, as was The Eye of the Tiger (1975). Film rights for both were bought by Michael Klinger who was unable to turn them into movies; however Klinger did produce films of Gold (1974) and Shout at the Devil (1976).
Cry Wolf (1976) was a return to historical novels, set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. He then returned to the Courtney family of his first novel with A Sparrow Falls (1977), set during and after World War One. Hungry as the Sea (1978) and Wild Justice (1979) were contemporary stories - the latter was his first best seller in the USA.
He embarked on a new series of historical novels, centering around the fictitious Ballantyne family, who helped colonise Rhodesia: A Falcon Flies (1980), Men of Men (1981), The Angels Weep (1982) and The Leopard Hunts in Darkness (1984).
The Burning Shore (1985) saw him return to the Courtney family, from World War One onwards. He called this a "breakthrough" book for him "because the female lead kicked the arse of all the males in the book." He stayed with the family for Power of the Sword (1986) (up to World War Two), Rage (1987) (the post-war period up until the Sharpeville Massacre), A Time to Die (1989) (the war in Mozambique), and Golden Fox (1990) (the Angola War).
Elephant Song (1991) was a more contemporary tale, but then he kicked off a new cycle of novels set in Ancient Egypt: River God (1993) and The Seventh Scroll (1995). He returned to the Courtneys for Birds of Prey (1997) and Monsoon (1999), then published another Ancient Egyptian story, Warlock (2001).
Blue Horizon (2003) was a historical Courtney tale and The Triumph of the Sun (2005) had the Courtneys meet the Ballantynes. The Quest (2007) was in Ancient Egypt then Assegai (2009) had the Courtneys. Those in Peril (2011) was contemporary, as was Vicious Circle (2013). Desert God (2014) brought Smith back to Ancient Egypt.
Later career: Move to HarperCollins and using co-writers
In December 2012, it was announced that Smith was leaving his English-language publisher of 45 years, Pan Macmillan, to move to HarperCollins. As part of his new deal, Smith will be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: "For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently."
The first of the co-written novels was Golden Lion (2015), a Courtney novel. Predator (2016) was contemporary. Pharaoh (2016) brought him back to Ancient Egypt.
In 2002, the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities granted Smith the Inaugural Sport Shooting Ambassador Award.
Smith was working for his father on the latter's cattle ranch when he married his first wife, Jewell in 1964. "Everyone looked down on me, including her,” he told one interviewer. “We didn’t know anything about mutual respect or working together towards a goal – she thought I was useless.”
They had two children together, son Shaun and daughter Christian. The marriage ended badly, and the divorce led to child support payments that left him penniless at only 24 years of age.
He married again following the publication of his first novel (When the Lion Feeds, 1964) this time to Anne, with who he had another child, a son, Lawrence. This marriage also ended in divorce.
Smith then met a young divorcée named Danielle Thomas, who had been born in the same town and had read all of his books, and thought they were wonderful. They married in 1971. Smith dedicated his books to her until she died from brain cancer in 1999, following a six-year illness. Smith said:
He met his fourth wife, a Tadjik woman named Mokhiniso Rakhimova, in a WH Smith bookstore in London. 39 years his younger and law student studying at Moscow University, the two fell in love and married in May 2000.
On their relationship, Smith said:
"It really was love at first sight – and now she's got the best English teacher in the world. Of course people ask about the age gap, but I just say, 'What's 39 years?' Sure, she's young enough to be my daughter, so what?"
When Smith married Danielle Thomas, he cut off contact with his son Shaun and daughter Christian. He was also estranged from his son Lawrence. “My relationship with their mothers broke down and because of what the law was they went with their mothers and were imbued with their mothers’ morality in life and they were not my people any more," he said. “They didn’t work. They didn’t behave in a way I like. I’m quite a selfish person. I’m worried about my life and the people who are really important to me.” He became close to Danielle's son from a previous relationship, Dieter Schmidt, and adopted him. Smith and Shaun subsequently reconciled. In 2002 he and Schmidt wound up in court in a dispute over assets and they became estranged. Smith:
He has homes in London, Cape Town, Switzerland, and Malta. For a number of years he had a home in the Seychelles.
The Courtney series
The Courtney series is divided into three parts, each of which follows a particular era of the Courtney family.
In chronological order, the parts are Third Sequence, First Sequence, then Second Sequence. However this is a slight generalisation, so in fact the book sequence is as follows, with publication dates in parentheses:
The Ballantyne series
The Ballantyne Novels chronicle the lives of the Ballantyne family, from the 1860s through the 1980s, against a background of the history of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The fifth novel seeks to combine the Ballantyne narrative with that of Smith's other family saga, The Courtney Novels.
The books are set in the following time periods:
The Ancient Egypt series
The Ancient Egypt series is an historical fiction series based in large part on Pharaoh Memnon's time, addressing both his story and that of his mother Lostris through the eyes of his mother's slave Taita, and mixing in elements of the Hyksos' domination and eventual overthrow.
* The Seventh Scroll is set in modern times but reflects the other books in the series via archaeological discoveries.
As a child, Smith enjoyed reading Biggles books and Just William (1922), as well as the works of John Buchan, C.S. Forester, and H. Rider Haggard. Other authors he admires include Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck.
"I always think I am from the 17th century," said Smith. "I have no interest in technology, or to rush, rush, rush through life. I like to take time to smell the roses and the buffalo dung."
He says he has tried to live by the advice of Charles Pick, his first publisher and mentor who became his literary agent:
Some critics of Smith argue that his novels often contain obviously misogynistic, homophobic and racist assumptions and that they have a political agenda.
Bibliography (by series)
Several of Smith's novels have been turned into movies and TV shows.
In 1976 Smith said "At first I didn't have complete control over the screenplay when my novels were turned into films. Now I tell the producer and director that they either use my screenplay or else there is no movie. That saves a lot of time."