Best-selling author Wilbur Smith on new book Those in Peril and more

Wilbur Smith has sold over 120 million copies of his books worldwide - and his latest book THOSE IN PERIL is out now.

A busy and successful writer, he is also amazingly warm and very funny to talk too. Born in Central Africa and educated at prestigious South African school Michaelhouse and later Rhodes University, he has never lost his love of the African continent and his fascination with its people. He had just finished talking to the Farmer’s Weekly when we had a chat about Those In Peril and his career.

 The book is set in the Indian Ocean where the daugther of a major global oil producer is taken hostage by pirates. It will soon be payback time. (Review below)

Those In Peril is your 33rd novel?
Yes, it’s a lot of work and it took me a long time over a number of years...

How much research do you still put in? Those In Peril is very topical...
The research on this was a piece of cake because I know the area well and you just have to read the headlines. For things like oil exploration and oil drilling – my next door neighbour is a doctor of geology and he has worked in the field so I could get it all from him. For the technicalities of the firearms Hugo Beretta is a friend of mine and invited me to his factory in Lombardy and I got to shoot all the machine guns and all the nice toys there ... so it’s all hands-on stuff.

Did you base it on an amalgamation of other people’s stories?
No, it’s all creation, I haven’t interviewed people who have been kidnapped, I just used my own imagination and characters.

Do you come up with the story and then create the characters?
I come up with the characters first and then place them in the story, I’ve got a huge fund of characters to draw upon and if necessary like with this book, new characters present themselves.

Your huge fund of characters, are those from your life?
From my books as well, from the series ... my favourites that I go back to very often like Sean Courtney but really it’s no problem for me to create characters, it’s what I do well.

So the story works around characters and how they react?
I often say it is like hunting with a pack of dogs, the characters are the dogs and I let them loose and they run off and lead me through the action.

Hector Cross in the book is initially described as a racist by Hazel Bannock, then she changes her mind. In one passage he defends moderate Islam...did that come naturally or did you feel that one had to put that in?

A lot of what Hector Cross thinks and says is a lot of what Wilbur Smith thinks and says. So he’s a man of action and a hard man but he’s fair. Like I think I am (laughs)...when they were discussing religion after watching a horrific execution of some hapless people she is appalled but he says Christianity was like that at one stage and there are still some sects of Christianity which are pretty raw. This is what I feel about things – I hate any religion or political belief that victimises and punishes innocent people and I feel that some aspects of Islam, of extreme Sharia law are outdated. We’re talking 6th Century stuff not 21st!

The revolutions happening all over the Middle East, do you follow the news and then think of an idea?
I don’t know enough about it, I haven’t spent any time at all in Libya except to see the Roman ruins – like I haven’t dealt at all  with post-apartheid South Africa because it’s running itself now and it doesn’t excite my interest. I can’t imagine writing a book about the Middle East...or the upheavals in Islamic countries.

What would you like people to take from Those In Peril?

That sometimes it is necessary to stand against evil and ignorance and combat it. Just as our parents did during WWII.

There is often a comeuppance in your books – the villains are not only beaten but are made to suffer…
If you make the villains sadistic and evil, then they must be thwarted at the end, that is what the reader expects and wants. I am an old-fashioned kind of writer with a beginning, midle and an end - and at the end my readers must be satisfied.

I was shocked by some of the scenes in the book
Aah, well then I got you and my job was done!

With your knowledge of Africa – what do you feel are the main problems that it faces now?

Poverty, ignorance – lots of people don’t have access to proper schooling, high expectations have been aroused amongst the populations and those will be impossible to realise because there just isn’t enough to go around for everybody and everybody wants Ferrari motorcars and Brioni suits, you know. So that’s not going to happen and that’s a big problem. Degradation of the natural habitat, cutting down of the forests, strip mining, the encouragement of extreme radical political thought – anti-white or anti-black, all these are things that have to be sorted out.

You have a number of homes?
I have homes in Cape Town, London and Switzerland and Malta.

What’s it like?
It’s great...(laughs)

Do you still think of yourself as citizen of a specific country?

I don’t really ... I think of myself as Wilbur Smith, having fun and moving around. I will always have a strong attachment to Africa, particularly southern Africa because that’s were I spent most of my life – I never left Africa until I was 30 years of age and I had published my first book so I’m an African, but I also an international.

What inspires a book?
An original idea appeals, something ... for this book it was that I know that part of the world, the northern Indian Ocean very well. I had a house on an island near the Seychelles so the background was there and the daily headlines about the piracy in that part of the world excited my imagination. I imagined what it must be like to lose someone very dear to you and have them taken into captivity into some place where you cannot reach them.It seemed to me to be very appealing as the basis for a thriller type story...

Your sex scenes are famous – and graphic. Did you always write them?
Well, as soon as I was allowed to. My first book got hit on the head by the Publications Control Board (under the apartheid government National Party) ...You can imagine a group of old Calvinist Afrikaners sitting around saying: Dis nie goed!

What is your advice for aspiring writers
It’s not easy and you have to apply yourself but if you can do it then do so because it will be the best life in the world. I tell them to write – just do it, don’t talk about it...You can’t allow phrases like writer’s block to enter your head...

Do women read your books? Who comes to your signings?
It’s interesting, the latest survey shows that percentage wise my readership is made up of slightly more women then men. I get about 50/50 at book signings but from the time of The Burning Shore with its very strong woman character, my readership among women has grown. They like the strong women characters, like in Those In Peril there is not only Hazel Bannock but also the Russian Nastiya Voronova and South African Nella Vosloo, women they can admire. At signings I often ask women if they are getting the book for their husbands etc and they say:’ No, it’s not for him, it’s for me’

Do you get regulars at the signings?
Well, I usually get between 400 to 500 people per signing so it sometimes becomes a blur of faces – but people will remind me that we’ve me before. What people usually say to me is: ‘When are you starting your new book and also do you remember my father/grandfather who was at school with you...I will have to wrack my brains...’
Sometimes people are there with books that you sign for them and then next thing they are on eBay being sold on. The funniest is when you sign a book to someone with a really personal message – thanking them for their help or inspiration or whatever and then that book ends up on eBay, making you wonder how much that person valued your message!
To be fair, pristine copies of When the Lion Feeds (Wilbur’s first best-seller) signed by me can go for about $6,000 to $7,000 on eBay so you can see that those would be worthwhile to sell on.

Are you planning your next book as you do the tours and signings?
No, right now I am enjoying this period of talking about the book, and being interviewed and going to signings. Some time later on, there will come a feeling that a new book needs to be written and I will start working on it.

Big adventure, big decisions and big characters abound in Wilbur Smith’s latest best-selling novel. The hero is Major Hector Cross, an ex-SAS operative who runs Cross Bow Security, providing security to the oil fields of Bannock Oil Corporation. The heroine is Hazel Bannock, owner of Bannock Oil. Both are tough characters who clash on their first meeting. Then fate – in the shape of particularly nasty pirates calling themselves the Flowers of Islam intervenes. The pirates take Hazel Bannock’s ship Amorous Dolphin and her daughter Cayla hostage in the western Indian Ocean.

Major Cross and Hazel Bannock unite – and discover an attraction while trying to retrieve her daughter. Suffice to say things don’t end there and some of the scenes will stay with me for a very long time. Cruel and nasty scenes – but one thing I will say is that Wilbur Smith is right about punishing villians. They might get away with disgusting behaviour initially but their punishments are epic. I wanted to stop reading at one stage but did find some catharsis towards the end of the book – and realised why women readers find much to admire in many of his women characters. This is action with an ! Susan Miller




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