The wild and the free

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 1995, 12:00am

WITH sales of 85 million copies of his 25 books, it wasn't as if the South African writer Wilbur Smith needed a boost in sales. But that's what he got when Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa and dismantled apartheid, legitimising the country in the eyes of the world.

Until then, Smith was persona non grata in the world's biggest book market, the United States. Since the historic election last year, sales of Smith's macho adventure epics have jumped, with his last book, River God, selling four times more in America than any of his others and his new book, The Seventh Scroll , going straight on to bestseller lists when it was published there a few weeks ago.

'There was a very very strong lobby there. The black American caucus said we didn't exist, especially if you were one of those with the unfashionable complexion [white],' says Smith in an interview in London.

'But I have always had a cult following in America, which of course means the book doesn't sell well but people like it a lot.

'There has been a resistance to me that has now gone. As we stand now, The Seventh Scroll is on most of the bestseller lists in America already, where before my books were never mentioned.' South Africa's new freedom has not only affected Smith's sales, but also what he writes about. His homeland's state of flux has prompted him to move away from South Africa, concentrating instead on Egypt, another area of interest in the African continent he's been travelling around since he was a boy going on hunting trips with his father.

River God is set 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt and its sequel The Seventh Scroll leaps between present-day Egypt and the time of the Pharoahs, telling of the hunt to discover lost treasure hidden in a gorge up the Blue Nile.

'I am not tired of writing about Southern Africa, I have just been attracted to something else. The book prior to River God, Elephant Song, was set in Zimbabwe and so I have been moving north gradually for the past four books,' says Smith.

'That area has always fascinated me, the Nile area, the great lakes, the river valley. It's the great cradle of Africa and the cradle of mankind.

'It's all happened there, you know, Biblical times, Islam, slave trade, even old Napoleon Bonaparte had to come and have a go at it. So it's a great treasure house of stories, and I've slowly been attracted to that area as a writer.

'I will probably go back to it, but to write about South Africa now would be very dangerous.

'Things are changing so swiftly there in present-day terms. What is good at dinner time doesn't necessarily hold true at breakfast the following morning. It is in a great turmoil of change, sweeping change. Everything has been washed away in the great flood of freedom that has come. So I'll stand back a little and let it sort itself out before I write about it again.' Life in South Africa is almost unrecognisable so totally comprehensive have the changes been, says Smith, who has a home in Cape Town and a 10,400-hectare game farm with 20 types of antelope on it a few hours out of the city.

'Before, it was a very controlled society, very oppressive, dominated by a calvinistic outlook on life. On Sundays, you went to church. You didn't hunt or gamble or drink or make love.

'But nowadays it's open licence on everything, a bit too much, perhaps, because the violence - criminal violence not associated with politics - is sweeping the country.

'There are something like 3,000 car-jackings a month in Johannesburg, at gun-point . . . and everybody is robbing banks.

'The violence in the black townships is beyond belief. I have an extended family of people who have been with me for a long time, some for 30 years. They are my servants and I look upon them and their children as my family. I am appalled at what they have to suffer living in the townships. They are hotbeds of vice and crime.' Smith is in the process of selling the homes he bought for staff (a bonus for those who stay 15 years) and buying them new ones in safer, formerly white-only areas.

The writer is unequivocal in his support for Nelson Mandela and his dismantling of apartheid. 'Oh, there's no question about it. [Apartheid] was an immoral system. It was a heinous system. Apart from the immorality of it, it was untenable. It just didn't work.

'I think Mandela is a marvellous man, the best possible man for the job. I think his nobility of spirit is staggering. Being treated the way he was and coming out in such a conciliatory and magnanimous mood is extraordinary. But the only thing that worries one is that he is not a young man anymore. He has said three more years and he's out of it. Who comes after him is the big question.' Which brings us to Winnie Mandela, a person for whom Smith has contempt in the same measure he has admiration for Nelson Mandela. He says if she became President of South Africa, he would leave the country.

'No question . . . it would be like living under Idi Amin. She is a very strong lady with a lot of support. She's a tough lady, don't write her off. She could come back very strongly. She has got a tough gang around her.' Smith says he has no intention of writing a political novel set in South Africa. Politics bores him, he says, and besides he's already made his contribution with Rage.

'I have written one; that's it. I got it out of my system. Politics change and then you are outdated and overtaken by history and circumstance so I prefer to write about the greater and more noble parts of human experience than the squabbling of petty politics.

'I plan to go on writing, but I'm not entirely certain what it will be. It will be about Africa because that is the thing I know about but where, I don't know.' Were Smith ever to leave his beloved South Africa, he says he would go to the Seychelles, where he has a home on 26 hectares. He also has a townhouse in Knightsbridge, London, just minutes from Harrods, and says he has always wanted to buy property in Australia but never got around to doing it.

As markets for his wild, he-man adventure thrillers and the family sagas of the Courtneys and Ballantynes go, Australia is one of the biggest based on sales per capita, although it was in Florida that a man was actually buried with his prized collection of Wibur Smith novels.

Smith is also hugely popular in Africa, with admirers saying that while he may not be literary, he does have a better sense of place and history about the country than most. The proof is in the queues: at a book-signing in Nairobi a few years ago, 4,000 Kenyans turned up.

Smith says he never gets blase about the massive turn-outs for book-signings, the bestseller lists and millions of sales, and admits to being glad he's not just starting out in the blockbuster book business. He says the competition might be too tough.

The competition comes from established writers who just get bigger, aspiring writers who get more numerous and multimedia - PCs, CDs, TV - which gets more of our attention, leaving less time and money for the humble book.

'Things have changed entirely in the 30-odd years since I first started writing. I'd hate to be a first-time novelist in this climate. It's really tough,' says the 62-year-old writer whose debut novel When the Lion Feeds was published in 1963.

'It's very much a case of established authors getting a greater share of the market and so my sales have, happily for me, increased with every book.' He disagrees that so-called multimedia signals the end of the novel. 'They were saying that 33 years ago when I was first published. They said 'oh bad luck this is a dying industry you're getting into now' and of course it hasn't happened that way.

'Obviously the total book reading market has decreased in relation to the general population, but there are always a lot of people who are not satisfied with the flat image on the television screen and like the experience of reading.

'For a lot of people reading is a very rewarding experience. It's not a passive thing where you slump on the sofa with a Foster's in your hand and watch it.

'You have to make an effort to read, you have to select a book, turn the pages, open you mind, employ your imagination.

'So no, I don't think the industry is going to disappear. There will always be a market for entertaining books,' says Smith, who reads everything from Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling to Cormac McCarthy and The Hot Zone. The latter was sent to him a few weeks ago by Stephen King.

In the meantime, Smith says he'll keep writing - 'my reason for existing' - until the very end.

'I'll stop writing one day. It will happen when they put me in the box and carry me down the path to the churchyard. Then the lid will open and out will comes this bony hand to write on the coffin 'The End.' '