John Connolly John Connolly
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Author Interviews


W I L B U R    S M I T H
Interviewed by John Connolly

In the early 1980s, when I was a hormonal teenager, there were certain popular novelists who could be relied upon to spice up their narratives with a dose of fairly explicit sexual activity. The interested reader could pick up one of their books in a bookshop, hold it gently by the spine, and wait for it to fall open at the places where other individuals with similarly dirty minds had already done the groundwork and sniffed out the more "challenging" sections of the narrative.

Among this elite band of writers was Wilbur Smith, author of African-set adventures in which men behaved like men, Johnny Foreigner took a beating and women were pretty damn obliging, all things considered. Smith is now a sprightly 66 but Monsoon, his 27th novel, confirms that he still possesses a fertile imagination when it comes to below-waist activity. In the spirit of public service, and to ensure that readers do not damage either the book or themselves by trying to dangle all 700 pages and 2.4 lbs of Monsoon by its spine, pages nine, 71, 90-91, 97-98,106,143, 214 and 489-90 are all pretty much business as usual. For those with more esoteric tastes, there's the whipping of a servant girl by Black Billy - who is, unsurprisingly, black - and an odd bit of sexual torture involving chilli peppers about two-thirds of the way through. According to Smith, his wife edits the worst stuff out, leaving the reader to wonder what the chilli pepper incident was like before she took a red pen to it.

"I relish sex," says Smith, who looks a bit like a science teacher on his holidays. "Just as I am horrified by cruelty and the fear of being maimed, nothing gives me more pleasure in reality or vicariously than a good roll in the hay. At my age, I can look at the pretty girls and be avuncular - pinch their bottoms in an avuncular way."

Hmm. Bottom pinching, whether avuncular or not, tends to be frowned upon in these politically correct times. "I glory in being politically incorrect," enthuses Smith, with all the assurance of a man whose servants call him "Master." As politically incorrect goes, that takes some beating.

Smith is an interesting, sometimes contradictory man. His novels are boys' own adventure stories, packed with gun battles, ferocious action and lots of jolly-rogering, yet he is read by more women than men. Monsoon centres on a number of idealised father-son relationships, yet Smith admits that he lived in dread of his own father when he was young and his own family life has not been without difficulties. He is a committed conservationist, yet also an avid hunter. He divides his time between Knightsbridge in London, a retreat in the Seychelles, and his ranch in South Africa guarded by dogs, razor wire and guns. He is scrupulously polite and dryly witty, yet some of his views on child-rearing in particular seem to hark back, like his novels, to another era.

"There is a nostalgia for an Africa that's disappeared," he says of his books, describing himself as a troubadour who combines storytelling with an element of instruction, itself a peculiarly old-fashioned conceit. "I think that, looking back at it, my books have evolved into a celebration of the European experience in Africa."

Monsoon is set in the 18th century and concerns the adventures of Tom, Guy and Dorian Courtney, who accompany their father Sir Hal to Africa on a mission to apprehend Jangiri, a Muslim pirate who is preying on merchant shipping off the Cape of Good Hope. Naturally, this is a lot easier in theory than in practice and paves the way for a great deal of fighting, maiming, hanging, amputation, shooting, and poisoning. Brains hit faces "like a mugful of warm custard". An eyeball is skewered "like a sheep's kidney on a kebab". Meanwhile, women with "small, firm buttocks" do interesting tricks with Tom's "wondrous man-thing" and everybody has a whale of a time until their lives are ended by cutlasses, cannonballs, poison, or sharks.

"In my books there are elements of the things that horrify me," says Smith. "I have a fear of being maimed (he has a slight limp, a legacy of childhood polio), particularly of being blinded, I think, because so much of what I do depends on my eyesight. It's very much a case of my fears and horrors entering my books, but also my delights in life."

He acknowledges that his disregard for the niceties of political correctness has sometimes rubbed people up the wrong way. ("Only the silly ones. Only the dillies.") The dillies include Lambeth Council, which in 1992 banned his novel Golden Fox on the grounds of racism. To be fair, he does tend to paint some of his characters in rather broad strokes. The Africans are portrayed as noble but childlike while Monsoon's Arabs are, by and large, a pretty nasty bunch, prone to cruelty and the random lopping-off of their victims' limbs. Meanwhile, the French have curly moustaches and shout insults such as: "I stamp on your fathers' testicles," a bit like the French taunters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But Smith believes that the characters must be true to the attitudes of their time, however unpalatable they may seem to modern tastes. "The British Empire wasn't built up by being kind to the black peoples of the world," he points out. "They went and whacked them on the heads and said, 'Okay, chaps, we're now in control'. So, although those attitudes and those philosophies aren't fashionable today, they were taken for granted, even in my childhood. I was brought up in colonial Africa and there were district officers and commissioners coming up from London to govern the natives. You have to be true to the times."

Smith was born in Central Africa in 1933, and raised on his father's farm. "My father was very central to my whole existence until he actually passed away 12 years ago. He was a Victorian father and a man with very strong views on how his son should act. I loved him dearly, but I lived in dread of his wrath. He instilled in me the work ethic, that your word is your bond, and all the good things that came out of the Victorian era."

In the relationship between Hal Courtney and his son Tom in Monsoon, as in the relationship between Hal and his own father, Sir Francis, in the earlier Birds of Prey, it's possible to see Smith examining the nature of this inheritance. The father-son bond is both hugely intimate and awkwardly distant in the books. As Smith told an interviewer in 1997: "I only kissed my father when I was a small boy, and again after I turned 45. There was a period of 40 years in which there was no sort of embrace or show of affection."

It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that the relationship between Smith and one of his children, his daughter Christian, should have deteriorated to the point of non-communication, given his novels' strong emphasis on the importance of family bonds. The roots of the estrangement go back to Christian's expulsion from school at the age of 13. Some years later, she hitch-hiked 700 miles to confront her father. According to her account, he told her to have a nice life, then closed the door in her face.

"First of all, I am not a caretaker of problem children," Smith tells me in measured, level tones. "I'm not trained for it. I have no inclination for it. I have no time for it. I am selfish enough that I know what I want to do with my life, and I will devote the major part of my energies to getting on with my career and looking after those people who do it my way. When someone tries to baulk you at every turn and step you make and actually goes out vindictively and smears your name, you just say, 'Well, look, you must do what you want to do but I've done enough and you've done nothing'."

This is a difficult business to bring up, for Smith seems like a nice man - he has a good relationship with his stepson - and my knowledge of his family dynamics is limited to newspaper cuttings. Still, "training" and "inclination" seem like odd terms to apply, under the circumstances, and I notice that Smith never refers to his errant daughter by name as we talk.

"That was 30 years ago," he concludes, referring back, oddly, to the original childhood disagreement. "I've moved on and I don't look back over my shoulder very often with vain regrets. That didn't work. I did the best I could, and now I spend my time more profitably."

He remains happily married; he and his wife, the novelist Danielle Thomas (the object of enthusiastic dedications in most of his books), have been together for 30 years. (Since the publication of this interview in 1999, Danielle has, sadly, died.) His 60,000 acre farm outside Cape Town, which he refers to, with remarkable understatement, as "a bit of a game ranch", provides food for his family and servants and an outlet for both his conservation and hunting instincts. Animals and humans are now in direct conflict for living space, he explains, and, if they are to survive, animals must have some commercial value for the native population, usually linked to their trophy value for the hunter. "In enlightened conservation now, the motto is that 'the game can pay, the game can stay'. Otherwise, it will be wiped out like the American bison, because it's a nuisance."

More and more, both in his attitudes and his books, he evinces a nostalgia for an world that has largely ceased to exist. He refuses to engage with modern day South Africa in his writings, yet that country's current difficulties cause him genuine distress, particularly when it comes to his workers. His attitude to them is almost feudal; just as he has a duty to the land, so too he has a duty to those who live on it and work it for him.

"It really is harrowing to see ordinary people, all my servants and the people who have worked for me for decades, caught up in this cycle of violence and crime which nobody seems to have any intention of doing anything about. Some of my people have been with me for 25, 30 years. I've seen their children grow up, helped to put their children through technical college and school. Some of those who were working there when I took over were living in very poor circumstances, almost cattle stalls. Now they've all got running hot and cold water, colour television, medical check-ups every year, and pensions. Although it gives me a lot of pleasure to be the laird, I think they are grateful for what my wife and I have done for them."

But what do they call you, I ask, as our conversation draws to a close?

"They call me Master", he says simply. "Bwana."