Legendary novelist Wilbur Smith passes away at the age of 88

15 November 2021 - 12:43 By Jonathan Ball Publishers
Wilbur Smith’s novels have gripped readers for more than half a century.
Wilbur Smith’s novels have gripped readers for more than half a century.
Image: Supplied

Global best-selling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly on November 13 2021 at his Cape Town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side.

The undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Smith’s novels have gripped readers for more than half a century, selling more than 140 million copies worldwide and in more than 30 languages. His best-selling Courtney Series, the longest running in publishing history, follows the Courtney family’s adventures across the world, spanning generations and three centuries through critical periods, from the dawn of colonial Africa to the American Civil War and to the apartheid era in SA.

In the 49 novels Smith published to date, he transported his readers to gold mines in SA, piracy on the Indian Ocean, buried treasure on tropical islands, conflict in Arabia and Khartoum, ancient Egypt, World War 2 Germany and Paris, India, the Americas and the Antarctic, encountering ruthless diamond and slave traders and big game hunters in the jungles and bush of the African wilderness. However, it was with Taita, the hero of his acclaimed Egyptian Series, that Smith most strongly identified, and River God remains one of his best-loved novels to this day.

Smith’s first novel, When the Lion Feeds, published in 1964, was an instant best-seller and each of his subsequent novels has featured in the best-seller charts, often at number one, earning the author the opportunity to travel far and wide in search of inspiration and adventure.

He was a believer in deep research, meticulously corroborating every fact and adhering to the advice of his first publisher, Charles Pick at William Heinemann, to “write about the things you know well”.

Smith, accomplished as a bushman, survivalist and big game hunter, gained a pilot’s licence, was an expert scuba diver, a conservator, managed his own game reserve and owned a tropical island in the Seychelles. He also used his vast experiences outside Africa in places like Switzerland and rural Russia to assist with creating his fictional worlds. His own life, detailed in his autobiography On Leopard Rock, was as stirring and incident packed as any of his novels.

Named after one of the pioneer brothers of air flight Wilbur Wright, Smith was born on January 9  1933, in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. His father, Herbert Smith, was a sheet-metal worker and a strict disciplinarian and it was his more artistically inclined mother, Elfreda, who encouraged the young Smith to read CS Forester, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.

At the age of 18 months, Smith became seriously ill with cerebral malaria, and there was a possibility he would be brain damaged if he survived.

I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing
Author Wilbur Smith 

As he reflected: “It probably helped me because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing.”

His father thought his son’s obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy and Smith became a secret reader, spending hours in the outhouse long-drop latrine where he kept his favourite novels.

At eight, Smith enrolled at Cordwalles boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, a preparatory school with the motto “courage builds character”, but the experience was brutal. He read voraciously as consolation, and was considered a poor pupil, but excelled in English composition. At prep school he discovered Ernest Hemingway, who would have a profound influence on his writing.

Senior school was the prestigious Michaelhouse in what is now KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Smith was no happier: “Michaelhouse was a debilitating experience. There was no respect for the pupils. The teachers were brutal, the prefects beat us, and the senior boys bullied us. It was a cycle of violence that kept perpetuating itself.”

Reading and creative writing became his refuge.

At 16 Smith contracted polio, which left him with a weak right leg but caused him few problems until later in life. The experience prompted his depiction of the flawed hero in his novels, in particular Garrick Courtney in the Courtney series of adventures.

Inspired by his own experience running wild on his father’s ranch, Smith wrote When the Lion Feeds, the story of brothers Sean and Garrick Courtney, and the tough life of cattle farming in the shadow of the Zulu wars and the gold rush. It was infused with the world he knew intimately. His agent sent it to Pick, then MD of William Heinemann, who immediately responded to the raw authenticity of the storytelling.

A Hollywood deal followed and foreign rights sales racked up. The novel was a best-seller and Smith quit his job at the tax office to write full time. His instinctive grasp of narrative, the rich material of his upbringing and the boundless story opportunities of his African homeland produced a string of novels that thrilled an ever-growing readership. His obsessive dedication to the craft of authorship enabled him to write almost a novel a year, allowing his publishers to build a best-selling brand name.

As well as standalone novels, from piracy and poaching to diamond smuggling and the pursuit of buried treasure, fuelled by high-octane derring-do and featuring rugged wish-fulfilment characters, Smith expanded his popular Courtney series of conflict and ambition within a sprawling family, moving back and forward through the centuries.

In the 1980s he began the Ballantyne Series, chronicling the family’s struggles during Rhodesia’s brief history, and a decade later he would begin a series of novels set in ancient Egypt, the latest of which, The New Kingdom, was published this year.

Smith’s personal life was as eventful as his novels. Another marriage producing a son failed, and then he met young divorcee Danielle Thomas, whom he married in 1971 until she died from brain cancer in 1999 after a six-year illness.

It wasn’t until he met his fourth wife, Mokhiniso Rakhimova from Tajikistan, in a bookshop near Sloane Square in London, that Smith found true happiness and peace of mind. They married in May 2000.

Niso has been instrumental in managing Smith’s legacy project. A deeply loyal man, he had remained with his original publishers for 45 years, but in December 2012 he moved to HarperCollins in a publishing deal that also included co-authored novels, the first of which, Golden Lion, was published in 2015. A further move followed in 2017 when Smith joined Bonnier Books UK.

A passionate advocate of adventure fiction, Smith endeavoured to share his love for the genre through the global charitable foundation he and Niso established in 2015. Dedicated to growing the readership for adventure fiction and the promotion of reading and writing for younger generations across the world, the joyous and productive work of The Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation will continue, led by Niso. As the final piece of the legacy puzzle, Smith and Niso recently started a vertically integrated media company, Leopard Rock Studios Ltd, to produce film/TV and other projects by reimagining Smith’s classic IP for a new generation of fans.

I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions
Wilbur Smith 

As Smith said at the conclusion of his memoir On Leopard Rock published in 2018: “I’ve had tough times, bad marriages, people I loved dearly dying in my arms, burnt the midnight oil getting nowhere, but it has, all in the end, added up to a phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life. I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions.”

He remained as committed to his readers as they were to him and their dedication and engagement was one of his greatest joys. On his behalf, we thank them all.

Kevin Conroy Scott, literary agent for Smith for the past 11 years, said: “Wilbur Smith was an icon, larger than life, beloved by his fans who collected his books in hardbacks and passed his work down through generations, fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. His knowledge of Africa and his imagination knew no limitations. His work ethic and his powerful, elegant writing style made him known to millions. I cherish the role of working side by side with Niso and the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation to keep the flame of his fictional universe alive for many years to come.”

Kate Parkin, MD of Adult Trade Publishing for Bonnier Books UK, commented: “It is with deep sadness that we mourn the death of our beloved author Wilbur Smith, whose seemingly inexhaustible creative energy and passion for storytelling will long live on in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. Wilbur never lost his appetite for writing and remained working every day of his life. He leaves behind him a treasure trove of novels, as well as completed and yet to be published co-authored books and outlines for future stories. It has been a privilege and an honour to work closely with him on this remarkable publishing legacy and we look forward to sharing them with his millions of fans worldwide in years to come.”

  • Article provided by Jonathan Ball Publishers, on behalf of Bonnier Books

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