One Giant Leap ...with Wilbur Smith

| February 12, 2019

The word ‘prolific’ might have been invented for Zambian-born, best-selling novelist Wilbur Smith, who has written a novel virtually every year since his first in 1964. Many turned into popular films, Wilbur Smith’s novels are historical fiction which explore southern Africa over the last four centuries. But it was a trip to London in the 1960s which opened his eyes to the world.

Wilbur Smith, novelist

My first novel, When the Lion Feeds, was published in 1964. As soon as contracts were signed and I received my advance, I flew to England, the first time I had visited the country I would one day call home. I stayed with my publisher Charles Pick’s family in Lindfield, under the South Downs near Brighton.

Born in the year the Great War ended, Charles was 15 years my senior – and a man who had seen as much of the world as I one day hoped to. His own war had been spent in Burma, India, and on Mountbatten’s far-eastern war crimes commission, a period of his life that intensified his interest in other cultures and less familiar parts of the world. He was one of that rare breed of publishers who seemed to operate by pure instinct. At a time when editors’ tastes were the life-blood of a publishing house, he was given licence to pursue literary excellence wherever he could find it.

It was London in the swinging 60s, an uninhibited time, and girls were just as happy as men to make the first move. It was exhilarating, liberating, there was so much optimism in the air, and women had opinions, they could take you or leave you. You’d go on to a dance floor and start dancing and a girl would just sidle up and whisper in your ear. There was an innocence about it all, as if young people had been reborn and were going to change the world. I had such an amazing time in London during my first trip.

I decided to visit as many high street bookshops as I could, and I started terrorising the booksellers stocking my books. I’m not sure what I really expected to find. I thought there might have been twenty or thirty journalists and as many photographers hanging on my every witty word. I thought that I would see every bookshop in London jammed with my books and posters screaming, ‘A great new literary genius hits the shelves’. I thought, perhaps, even the Queen might invite me to Buckingham Palace for tea.

None of these happened. In fact, I found myself wandering from one bookshop to another looking for my book, and often I found it at the back with the children’s books or still boxed-up in the store room. Sometimes I would speak to the owners of the bookshop and pester them to display it in the front window. At other times I would take the book from the shelf, hide it under my coat and put it in the window myself. I was caught doing this by one bookshop owner and he phoned my publishers and said, “keep that young author of yours out of my shop!” Others had phoned to complain as well; ‘pain in the neck’ was one of the politer epithets.

Finally, somewhat disillusioned, I headed back to Africa. I was in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport, sitting waiting for my plane when, looking across the lounge, I saw a woman reading my book.

The thrill was so intense that the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I came out in a cold sweat as I watched her. She was turning the pages and I was desperately hoping she’d burst into tears, or laughter – show some emotion! But she didn’t. I pretended to go to the bathroom and passed behind her chair, sneaked a glance at what page she was on, came back and finally I couldn’t resist it anymore. I went and stood in front of her and said, “Excuse me, madam.” She looked up and said, “Yes?” And I said, “That’s my book you’re reading.” And she said, “I’m terribly sorry, I just found it lying here,” and she thrust it into my hand.


Wilbur Smith's latest novel Courtney's War is out now, the latest in the 'Courtney' series of novels and sequel to the global bestseller War Cry.

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