My father was a man of action and my mother was an artist, a very gentle person who loved books and painting. My father taught me the outdoor life of hunting and shooting and fishing; my mother gave me an appreciation of the arts with music and books. Before I could read myself, she’d read to me every night. That hour or so was the greatest pleasure I can remember, because she instilled in me such a love of stories. I used to look at the book in her hand and think: she’s not making that up; it’s all coming out of that book. And from then on, books always played a central part in my life.
The novelist H Rider Haggard has always been one of my greatest influences because he set his books mainly in Africa. King Solomon’s Mines showed me that Africa was a treasure house of stories. CS Forester was another influence with the Hornblower series.
I’m an old-fashioned writer. I believe in a structured novel: a beginning, a middle and an end. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the book before I sit down and start writing it. The research I do is a mixture of personal knowledge, my own reading, talking to other people and meeting experts in whatever field that I’m engaged in. In the novel Those in Peril, for instance, there’s a great deal about oil exploration and oil exploitation. One of my very dear friends, a doctor of geology, lives just across the road from me. I asked him to read the novel through and check everything I’d written on the subject. It’s amazing how once you become a well-known author people are eager to share their knowledge and experiences. When I wrote a book about jet fighter pilots, at least four men with a great deal of experience contacted me and we had very interesting conversations — I’ve used some of the things they described to me in subsequent books. People can be very generous with their time and insight and I’m very grateful to them for sharing their lives with me.
Each of my characters is built differently. Some are an amalgam of people that I’ve known, but there’s always a liberal pinch of imagination thrown into the mix: none of them are exactly drawn from life. But, as they say, the character fits the job and when there’s a job to do there’s always someone who’ll do it. And these are my characters.
I’ve been on local hippopotamus hunts on the great lakes of Africa — on Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi — where all the villagers around the lake get together and hunt exactly as I describe the Ancient Egyptians doing on the Nile in River God.
The hippopotamus is such a successful creature when given enough water that there must have been tens of thousands of them in the Nile. And so I’m sure the Ancient Egyptians would have hunted them. Why not? They were great hunters: they hunted all the birds of the Nile. They were also great fishermen, fishing all the river’s waters, too. There’s no reason why they would not also have hunted the hippopotamus.
I don’t like writing political stories, but at times politics can make for great historical fiction. Cry Wolf is set against the 1935 Italian invasion of North Africa and Ethiopia. During a previous invasion in 1896, the Ethiopians had roundly defeated the Italians, so when Mussolini came to power, he wanted to show his credentials as a conquering hero. He launched a successful invasion of Ethiopia with massive power, and aircraft and tanks against men on horses with swords. The novel is based around two friends, Jake Barton, a tough Texan, and Gareth Swales, an Old Etonian gunrunner, who are trying to sell second-hand shoddy armoured cars to the Italians, who needed any form of armament that they could get. They’re different in background but similar in their charm and persuasiveness — I find charming rogues very interesting!
There’s also a very beautiful woman involved. I imbued Vicky with as much courage and determination as either male character because I like strong women as a foil to tough men. And she gives as good as she gets throughout the whole story…
Wilbur Smith is a novelist whose works have sold more than 120 million copies. His memoir, On Leopard Rock, is published by Zaffre. RRP: £20.
Published in the July/August 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)