More Interviews

John A Stotesbury

 

POPULARIZING LATE-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA

            An Interview with Wilbur Smith

 

 

Since the appearance of his first novel When the Lion Feeds (1959), Wilbur Smith's name has increased in international repute as that of a writer of masculine adventure stories, most of them implicated, arguably, in a discursive resistance to the developing structures of a postcolonial African terrain.  The majority of his (thus far) 25 novels remain in print in English and in numerous foreign-language translations.

This interview was conducted in Helsinki on 19 August 1989, when the author visited Finland at the invitation of his local publishers, Werner Söderström.  While the interview may be dated precisely by the seven years since its recording, in retrospect its proximity to the liberation of the South African democratic process in February 1990 can be seen to be reflected in the contrast between the combative tone of parts of this interview and the major shift in the chronological and geopolitical settings of Smith's most recent bestsellers, River God (1993) and The Seventh Scroll (1995).

Smith's wife, DANIELLE ("Dee") SMITH (DS), his principal secretary and since 1992 herself a popular novelist under the nom de plume of Danielle Thomas, was present throughout the interview.

 

 

WILBUR SMITH (WS): Our [i.e. his wife Danielle and himself] connections are unusual.  We're almost from the same nest, both from British parents, both born in Broken Hill in what was then Northern Rhodesia, and there was only one little hospital there at the time and only one room for the maternity ward, only two beds in the maternity ward, so the chances are fifty-fifty that we were born in the same bed, and we've ended up in the same bed a few years later.  But Dee Dee's got Welsh and Irish in her blood [DANIELLE SMITH (DS): Wonderful mixture!  And English!] and I'm just straight English: Brighton and Surrey family.  And then we were both educated in South Africa and lived in South Africa for many years, and then we've moved out and become citizens of the world.  We have a place in the Seychelles and a place in London, and we follow the sun [DS: We spend a lot of time in Africa from north to south, doing research.  We have to—it's changing so quickly] on a day by day basis.  What was good for last month is not necessarily the truth this month.

 

JOHN STOTESBURY (JS): One sees that just in the political situation in South Africa itself.

 


WS: Oh my goodness, the whole of Africa!  And it's a knock-on effect.  For instance, Gorbachev in Russia has dropped and abandoned all the old Brezhnev policies and principles in Africa.  This settlement in Namibia was almost totally Russian,  The South Africans and the Cubans met in Egypt, in Cairo, and within forty-five minutes they were at each other's throats, shouting and screaming and shaking fingers in each other's faces.  Pik Botha[1] was shambling around like a bear, yelling in Afrikaans.  The Cubans were screaming and carrying on.  All parted for lunch and the conference was virtually over, and the Russian ambassador to Egypt sidled up to the Cubans, said three sharp words, they came back to the table, and within half an hour everyone was smoking cigars and slapping each other on the back.

So they saved the whole conference, and they have repudiated the terror organizations.  They've dropped their support for the military wing of the ANC [African National Congress] and they are now saying to the ANC: get in there and negotiate! and it's a hold that's taken everybody slightly by surprise.  Just six weeks ago Nelson Mandela suddenly said: I'm for peaceful change in South Africa, which took the whole of the ANC totally by surprise, because they all had their guns loaded and the landmines in their hands, and suddenly they all had to back-pedal and turn in confusion. 

And now this ousting of P. W. Botha[2] last week is a straw in the wind.  So it all changes day by day, the economic change and the whole thing, and anybody who says he knows exactly what's happening in Africa is either a liar or an idiot.

 

JS: You need access to an enormous amount of information all the time.

 

WS: It's like a chess game: one move, and all the pieces are in different positions.

 

JS: Could I ask you a few questions about your writing, how you started writing?  You've written an enormous number of novels already.   [WS: Twenty-one—twenty-two with the one that wasn't published.]  You are the most successful popular writer from South Africa, I imagine.

 

WS: Well, I don't know, comparisons are always odious, but I do have a lot of people who read my books.

 

JS: Yes, and obviously the sales figures say the same thing.  Why do you think you started writing?

 

WS: I think it was just something that was in there that I had to do.  When I was seven or eight years of age I was very interested in books.  My mother was a great reader, and she transferred her love of books to me, and I was an avid reader by the age of eight or nine, a writer by the age of ten, and the only thing that I ever excelled at school was essay, English essay.  I don't know, I must have been gifted or blighted with a fertile imagination.

 


JS: So do you think that the inspiration has come especially from reading rather than personal experience?

 

WS: Oh yes, definitely.  To me, reading was the most important thing.  I find it would be very difficult in my view to be a successful writer without being an avid reader, a voracious reader.

 

JS: But a few months ago I was talking to a colleague here in Finland who was at university at roughly the same time as you, and he remembered that you had a fairly adventure-full experience.  There was an incident with a sinking boat, I believe, which was rather tragic as well, and he tried to suggest that maybe that had contributed.

 

WS: Always I love the outdoors.  My love of the outdoors was given to me by my father, and so that huntin', shootin', fishin', dogs and fish and birds have always been my great love.  As you say, I've been out many times in boats, and, when I was at university, during the holidays I used to work on the trawlers.  Some of that comes through.  For instance, when you're talking about the boats, I was working in Namibia on the pilchard fleets there, and one chap got caught in a winch and ripped up and lost an arm.  So it has been an interesting life, put it that way.  And, of course, when you're a writer you have a great deal of leisure, free time.  You can move around.  You're not in a job which holds you in one place day after day, week after week.  So I can visit lots of places, and as your reputation grows you are invited into more interesting and unusual situations, which the average person wouldn't get access to.

 

JS: You published your first novel in your early thirties.

 

WS: Yes, I wrote it when I was twenty-nine and it was published when I was thirty.

 

JS: Was it a career you had imagined for yourself, say five or ten years previously?

 

WS: Ah yes, it was a dream, it was a dream.  I first of all started off with the idea of being a journalist.  All through university my idea was to be a journalist.  In fact, I wanted, before going to university, to go straight into journalism, and my papa said to me, no, forget it, get some sort of academic qualification first.  So then I went to university and I did a B.Com.,[3] for which I am very grateful that he made me do that.  And then instead of going into journalism I drifted into the business world, and wasn't particularly happy in it, but I always wrote in my spare time.  But the idea of letters and writing for a living had always attracted me.

 


JS: Do you think some of the great names in adventure fiction from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century influenced you?  The critical works always say the grandfather of it all was Rider Haggard.  Do you, or did you, have that consciously in your mind when you started out?

 

WS: It's the accumulation of reading and experience,  Of course, Rider Haggard,[4] I read all his books right from the very beginning, King Solomon's Mines, and Fitzpatrick's Jock of the Bushveld [1907],[5] and all of those.  Absolutely.  Again, the more I read about Africa the more it fascinates me.  And now, I would say, nearly fifty per cent of my reading is on the old explorers and hunters and missionaries and the slave trade.  There's so much of it.  It's a whole universe on its own, and so much has been written about it.  I love Richard Burton's Travels[6] and Alan Moorehead and the Nile,[7] and explorations.  And, of course, the English literature on Africa is only a small part of the literature, because there's a huge French and German literature on Africa.  And when you think about Karen Blixen[8]—Karen Blixen himself, he [sic] wrote some very good stuff on early days and hunting in Africa, that sort of thing.  It's endless, and a lot of it bears re-reading, so you could read on Africa an entire lifetime.  But yes, my book The Sunbird [1972] I think does have a very strong Rider Haggard touch to it, fantasy cities and treasure and lost tribes—definitely a Haggard touch to it.

 

JS: You've written quite a number of Courtney novels, and the Ballantyne trilogy,[9] and then you've written a slightly larger number of individual stories.  Which do you prefer?

 


WS: It's given me a great deal of pleasure, the Courtneys, and they've become more real to me than a lot of people in the world around me.  I do enjoy writing the Courtney stories, and the Ballantyne stories, the Courtneys possibly more so, because I started off with them.  But I think it's also a good thing to every now and again do a novel out of sequence, to change pace, and to give myself a change of pace as well.

 

JS: Would you say that, for instance, your latest novel, A Time to Die [1989], is in a way not quite a Courtney novel?

 

WS: It isn't: it's just got a Courtney name in it.  It's not in the mainstream of the series.

 

JS: Did the name simply occur to you, the name Courtney?

 

WS: No.  My grandfather was Frederick Courteney Smith.[10]

 

JS: Is that the reason why in the first two novels the name is spelt with an "e"?

 

WS: Yes.  Well, what actually happened was an editorial slip-up.

 

JS: With the third [Courtney] novel, A Sparrow Falls, wasn't it?

 

WS: Yes.

 

JS: That's the one that they've just published in Finnish, isn't it?

 

WS: Yes.  That was a bit of lax editorial which I didn't pick up, because I'm not good at editing my own books, because I just tend to read the story rather than looking for little things.  And, after we'd published the book, then it was pointed out that we had now had a discrepancy in the spelling, and we now had to standardize on one or the other.  So we decided on Courtney without an "e." 


But you must remember that it wasn't planned as a series.  In fact, the first book, When the Lion Feeds [1964], started off as a short story: the two brothers hunting and the one shooting the other's leg.  And just like little Topsy it grew and grew.  And a lot of the books weren't written in sequence, so there are, if you go through very carefully, discrepancies in time and there are some little things that don't quite fit, one book to the other.  But then the books aren't meant to be read one after another in sequence.  If you do that then that sort of thing like spellings will come up.  One would wish desperately to go back and start at the beginning and smooth through all the things, because there's an unexplained pregnancy at the end of The Sound of Thunder [1966].  I've had many letters asking, What happened to Ruth's baby?  There are little things like that, but I hope and I believe that they don't really interrupt the flow of the stories.

 

JS: Yesterday[11] I was interested to hear you saying that you're not a historian, you're a story-teller.  But especially with those six Courtney novels aren't you, in a way, re-telling the history of South Africa?

 

WS: I'm riding on the wave of history, yes, against its background.  But on the other hand War and Peace wasn't really a history, but it was set against historical circumstances which dictated the flow of the action.

 

JS: I noticed that in Rage [1987] you point out that you've re-arranged the historical order to a certain extent.[12]

 

WS: Yes.  History's an untidy old bag and you have to sort it out in fiction.

 

JS: Yes.  But I suppose some people do relate constantly your interpretation of southern Africa to reality.

 

WS: Well, as I suppose that little girl [a young woman present at the bookstore interview] tried to make that point there yesterday when she said, do you feel you have a responsibility to people, and all you can say is that the novelist's view is a totally subjective one, and really he's seeing it through the eyes of a writer, even though he's translating mainly his own view of life into his characters.  I think that the one thing I'm trying to say, particularly in the later novels, is that nothing is as it appears to be.  When you stand back from the situation here in Finland or London or New York, and you see it on television and NBC, it's not that simple.  Nothing in life is that simple, and there are so many undercurrents and crossroads and peaks and watersheds that happen all the time, and a lot of the most important things happen almost unnoticed, and it's only a year later that you realise the significance of those events.

 

JS: The same as an African view of what's going on in Europe is...

 

WS: ...totally wrong!  What's happening in Russia from South Africa looks totally different.  We are trained to deal in stereotypes because there's just so much information to assimilate in the modern world that you cannot take in the complexities of every situation in South America and Australia and that sort of thing, so you just say, Russia is the Evil Empire, and, Australians are Heavy Drinkers.


JS: Yes, the clichés.

 

WS: Yes, the clichés.

 

JS: That's an interesting point which has come up in some critical writing.  It is the individual writer who is presenting only his or her view of what is happening, and it's up to the critic to dispute or debate.

 

WS: That's right.

 

JS: Do you find that there is much academic interest in your writing, in different areas?

 

WS: Well, there is more and more, particularly in Italy.  For some reason, Italy is my biggest market by far, per capita.  It's quite stunning how much interest.  The last time we were in Italy we got off the plane and got into the taxi.  We were driving along, and my suitcase was lying on the seat next to the driver, and suddenly he read the name and he just threw his hands up, the car shot through the traffic, and he was shaking my hands—I felt like Mick Jagger!  It was quite extraordinary.  I get all sorts of literary prizes there in the sort of academic—we tried to work out what would be the reasons for it. 

The first reason is obviously that there's a very strong African-Italian connection, from Abyssinia.  And also, the Italians fought the South Africans all through the Second World War and then vast numbers, fifty or sixty thousand Italian prisoners of war, were taken to South Africa, kept in South Africa during the whole war, and most of them—or a large percentage—stayed on after the war and now form one of the most successful and prosperous sections of South African society.  So there is that strong Italian connection.  And also, the third and probably the most poignant reason is that I must have a fantastic Italian translator.

 

JS: But it must also be, for a lot of younger Italians, simply the adventure, the way in which you formulate characters and situations.

 

WS: I would like to think so, yes.

 

JS: It must be, since the Second World War was forty or fifty years ago.

 

WS: Yes, their fathers and grandfathers, it would be that sort of influence.

 

JS: That connects with a simple question: why do you think people buy your novels?  In one of the recent reviews—I think it was of A Time to Die [1989]—one of the British reviewers suggested that it was simply a readerly urge to know the unknown, to find out about things which are distant.

 


WS: Well, I don't know.  I think that in that case you would read newspapers.  I think that over the years my readership has found that they're going to get a story that moves forward at a good clip—a good story, in fact—and that in the process they might find out quite a lot of interesting facts about obscure subjects like from deep sea diving to goldmining.  But I think really the thing is the old thing of the ability to tell a story, like the old wandering minstrels, or the Bushman sitting at the fire reciting the history of the tribe, and everybody, I think, from eight to eighty, enjoys a good story.  I'm an entertainer more than anything else.

 

JS: This is exactly the way in which Geoffrey Jenkins[13] has put it in a letter to me when I wrote asking him something similar several years ago.  He feels that his rôle in life is simply to tell a good story.  He can't pay too much attention to all the other more academic questions—which is understandable, of course.

 

WS: But I think that you would find if you were interviewing even William Shakespeare he would be quite surprised to know of the lasting place, the central position, that he's taken in English Literature.  His audiences at the Globe were just the working people and the whole of London coming there for the laugh, the ribald humour of Falstaff and the excitement of that, rather than for the beauty and imagery of the language.  They were there for the story!  Not to be literary pundits or anything like that.

 

JS: And they're still there for the story, and the performance of the story...

 

WS: ...fantasies and fun.  When you take away all the semi-mystical trappings that have gathered round the idea of Shakespeare, it leaves a good story-teller, and he tells it with a lot of humour and with a lot of human credibility.  One of the recent things with A Time to Die—obviously the liberal intelligentsia hate it!  The trouble with the thing is, it's all lies about Africa!  She's[14] never been to Africa, the woman writing, obviously, but she knows that it's lies, because it just can't be like that!  But the trouble is, he makes it so credible!  The people believe all these lies he's telling!  So that's been the nicest compliment I could get.

 

JS: That will always be the critical dilemma in academic writing.

 

WS: Yes, you see, the trouble is, if you get the quite literary-type writer he feels that to write a story or to tell a story is demeaning to the basic purity of his language and everything!  He's totally wrong!  Because, if we go back again, all the great writers, Chaucer and Shakespeare, all of them, were story-tellers!

 

JS: Dickens!


WS: Dickens, yes, particularly Dickens!  This idea of elevating themselves above the masses and writing only for a small select group of their peers, their writing themselves into a dead-end alley.  But then they hate those that are telling stories and making a living out of it.

 

JS: Do you, when you're planning a novel, or writing in general, do you have any picture of the kind of reader?

 

WS: No, I think that would be deadly.  I think that would be a trap.

 

JS: Because this again is one of the theoretical hypotheses...

 

WS: ...yes, what is the Average Reader!  The man on the Clapham bus, forty years of age, one-and-a-half children, two dogs—or two-and-a-quarter dogs!  No, I write entirely for myself and as I feel at that particular time, because obviously I'm changing the whole time, my moods change, my view of life changes, and so I write, I sit down, and virtually tell myself a story—I write it for myself.

 

JS: That's an interesting point.  Just now you were saying how especially in the more recent Courtney novels your view of, say, Africa has become more developed, has changed from what it was twenty-five years ago.

 

WS: Oh yes, and so's my view of woman, and so's my view of man and manliness.  I've just finished the Stephen Hawking book, A Brief History of Time [1988], and he gives the idea that in the law of physics disorder increases at any one time, and I think that applies very much to a man's view of the world.  When you are young you have an ordered idea of the universe around you.  But as your experience develops, so chaos comes in, and your fixed ideas break up into lots of ideas, into fragments as it were, and your ideas become more all-embracing, and so you look at woman not just as something to take to bed, which you do when you're fourteen, or fifteen or twenty years of age.  So really it's a mellowing process, I suppose. 

But then again, the point that the little girl made yesterday [in the bookstore interview], and which I've been asked many times in Scandinavia, is, why there's so much violence in your books?  My reply is, because violence is the one thing that still shocks and repels me, and yet fascinates me, and because Africa—I write mostly about Africa—Africa is a savage and violent country.  Some of the really great crimes against humanity have been committed in Africa.  The slave trade, for instance, was one of the most appalling episodes in human history, when you think of five million people out of probably one hundred million people in the entire world at that stage.

You deal with something, or you have one attitude, and then you move on from that.  An analogy would be a painter like Picasso [who] painted over a long period of time, and you can see a progression in the work from one period to another; something interests him for a while and then he deals with that exhaustively and he moves on to something else.

 


JS: Yes, I was just looking at the dates of your Ballantyne novels, which are set in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe.  Do you think that the urgency of the crisis in the 1970s in Rhodesia stimulated your interest and caused you to research and work it out?

 

WS: Oh, definitely, to get there and find out about it.

 

JS: And that was really the origin of the series of the three novels?

 

WS: Yes.

 

JS: And did you plan those as a trilogy?

 

WS: No, not really.  I planned it all as one book, but then when I realised it wasn't going to fit into one... .  This is one of the other things, that some other writers, friends of mine, have always said: the trouble with you is you're just so prolific in your use of plots.  You burn them up.  So that in one book I have the plots for probably five or six novels, just used as sub-plots really, in many cases.

 

JS: Do you then take up some of these sub-plots later and develop them in other contexts?

 

WS: Well, it's a train of thought in motion, as it were.  The thing that I learnt in the beginning, I used to have good sub-characters that I used to kill off without any compunction at all.  And then I'd say to myself, why did I kill him!  He was marvellous!  I could have used him again, or used her again, in this book!  But having done it...

 

JS: ...you can't do what they did in Dallas...

 

WS: ...one mighty bound!  It was all a dream!

 

JS: One thing which is often of interest to me because I've never quite got the details is that one or two of your earlier novels were actually banned in South Africa.

 

WS: Yes.

 

JS: For what reason?  Was it the violence or the sex or the politics?

 

WS: It was the sex mostly...

 

JS: ...I thought it must have been...

 


WS: ... which was very mild by today's standards.  There was a period in South African censorship where they were banning everything!  I mean, they were banning packets of pantyhose because it showed a girl's legs on it.  And then they got themselves into all sorts of ridiculous positions.  They banned Black Beauty on a title like that, which just had to be bad!  And then they banned white girls' bosoms, pictorial display, but black girls' bosoms were OK!  They tried to explain them, because that's traditional and the other one isn't, you know!  But, to me, mammaries are traditional whichever way you look at them, in any size, shape or colour!

 

JS: Do you remember which novels were banned?

 

WS: Oh, yes, they banned When the Lion Feeds and they banned The Sound of Thunder [1966], I think, and The Dark of the Sun [1965]...

 

JS: In other words, the very early ones.

 

WS: Yes, I can't remember the exact details now.

 

JS: Presumably these novels are now available in South Africa?

 

WS: Yes, they have been unbanned—the ban has been lifted!

 

JS: Do you in some way feel any interconnection either with some writers from Southern Africa, or from Africa, or do you feel that your connection is with the rest of the more popular variety of writing?

 

WS: I think I like to look upon myself as the cat who walks alone, but if we go back to the earlier question about Rider Haggard and Stuart Cloete,[15] and that sort of thing; all I can say is that when I was a young man they used to say, this is the new Stuart Cloete.  And now with other young writers coming from Africa they say, is this the new Wilbur Smith?!

 

JS: Yes, one sees the label on the books.  So you think it's a generational thing?

 

WS: I think, yes.

 

JS: Are you aware of what other writers in the genre are doing?

 


WS: No, not really.  There are some writers whose work I follow, who I like personally—some who I dislike personally, but whose work I enjoy.  But I don't seek out the company of other writers.  In fact, on the contrary, I like to avoid them.  You know the old cliché being if they're more successful than you are, you're jealous of them, and if you're more successful than them they're jealous of you.  But I don't feel myself in a company of a certain profession, like belonging to an association of accountants or the side-bar or something like that.  I think that I read other fiction writers for pleasure, and Danielle is my great screener.  She reads books like other people eat popcorn.  She'll take ten books, gobble them, discard eight of them, and say, Right, if you've got nothing better to do, read this one.  So, by this happy circumstance, most of the books I take up are books that are going to interest me.

 

JS: I think this shows in your novels in that if one compares the amount of detail in a single novel by you, it's obviously very much denser, as you were saying with the plotting, in information than in a novel by some other writer on a similar theme.

 

WS: Well, I would like to think so.  I was reading a book recently where the total of one chapter was virtually childbirth.  I'll write a childbirth like in... [DS: The Burning Shore (1985)] ... The Burning Shore, yes—thank goodness that I have someone to tell me which books I've written!—you know, the girl giving birth with the help of the little Bushman lady was three pages.  But a similar scene written by another author was virtually forty pages, which I think was stretching it, wringing the last drop from it!  One of the things that I have is, say what you've got to say, and don't push on beyond that point, because then you're going to lose people's interest.

 

JS: I asked you about the readership.  But one of the interesting things Alan Gordon Walker[16] was saying in London was that your books are extremely popular in the Commonwealth countries, including Britain, but not so much in the United States yet, though it's increasing all the time.

 

WS: What I've got in the United States is that cult following, which means I don't sell well!

 

JS: Would it be the problem of the actual publishing?

 


WS: Exposure?  I don't know what it is.  Those Americans who do read my books are great, avid followers.  For instance, those who have an African connection.  I'm always being invited by, say, the American ambassador to South Africa: I'm on his standard list there to every cocktail party, and half his staff—or perhaps three-quarters of his staff—are fans.  For instance, the very attractive lady of about thirty-five who's now the number two at the Embassy in Cape Town is an avid fan, as is her husband.  And half the members of the National Rifle Association who've ever hunted in Africa, or are interested in African wildlife.  I'm always getting invitations to go and address hunting conferences and all that sort of thing.      For instance, I went to Botswana the other day, three or four months ago, and in the little airport in Maun a party of fifteen American hunters had arrived with their wives.  I wrote out my form, and one of them looked at me and said [WS imitating American accent:] You're not the Wilbur Smith, are you?, and the next thing I was virtually chaired from the airport.  So it is a cult following.  But I'm assured by all of them that they are doing a very good job for public relations for me and fighting the cause for me.

But it's in the strangest places: we went fishing in Alaska, as we always do, last year, and as I got there I presented my passport at Immigration; the uniformed immigration officer there sort of leapt over the counter and seized my hand and shook it!  But no, I haven't got a mass breakthrough in America.

 

JS: The other thing which you've talked about a lot, and you did yesterday as well, is environmentalism.  Do you actually see the environmental problems of Africa as part of the overall political and social and national problems?

 

WS: Oh, I think they're very closely related.  As one of my characters, I think it was Sean Courtney, said in A Sparrow Falls, Africa without its wildlife wouldn't be Africa to me; I might as well go home and live in Brighton!

 

JS: It's as simple as that, is it!

 

WS: To me it really is, because the landscape is fabulous, it's varied, there are deserts and snowy mountains and great rivers.  But what is Africa to me is the people, from the tribes of the Bushmen of the desert to the Watutsi, to the Samburu, and the Zulus, and the wildlife!  And I feel at home in Africa as I don't feel in any other part of the world, because in Africa I look and I know what that bird is as it flies past!  Is that a blackbird or a thrush!  Dee, my son, we are all very much bound up in the people and the animals.  It's the living things that give—obviously it's a truism—the life and breath of the continent.


I love the African people, too.  I like the smell of them, they've got a special smell when you're in a crowd of them.  I love their voices, the sound and the music of the voices, the singing.  We had a terrible tragedy three weeks ago, just before we left.  Our maid, who's become more than a maid to us over the twenty-two years that she's been with us—she's virtually been a friend and a companion to Dee, during the day they were together, their family has become part of our family.  She was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and this one [i.e. Danielle Smith] wept for a week, solid.  And then when we went to the funeral, it was one of the most moving experiences that you could possibly, as an African, be in there with them.  They are such an emotional, outgoing people, and to have three or four hundred of them at this, singing, and it was a hot day, and the dust, and the sun beating down, and the smell of Africa, and the feeling of Africa, the motion, the voice of Africa, I had the tears running down my cheeks, too.  I just love all that.  Even in those tragic circumstances it was something that could only have taken place in Africa.

This is why I get so angry, so furious, when the well-intentioned busybodies do something heinous like imposing sanctions on South Africa and trying to starve these people who I love so dearly!  The whites have been hardly affected by sanctions, but some of the Africans have been severely hit by sanctions.  We've had to take on at least four or five.  There's old Charles, a man of seventy-five or so, suffering from asthma: he's lost his job because of sanctions, so I've had to take him on as a gardener.  But in fact he's actually a support for a rake!  We pay him a living wage to stand in the garden and wheeze!  But he's lost his job, and this guy, if it hadn't been for someone with his family connections with my extended family, he would be starving!  It's the interference of well-intentioned but totally misguided people, led on by political opportunists.

Let's put it that way...  For instance, going away from politics again, this ban on ivory that's been slapped on by America and Europe.  Ban all the ivory!  You'll protect the elephant!  What they've done is signed the elephant's death warrant!  What they've now done is made ivory so valuable to the places where it's not banned, like Japan and Taiwan and Hong Kong, that it will be worth five times the incentive to poach the elephants and smuggle it out again!  All the ivory is going out in diplomatic bags.  90 per cent of the illegal ivory is going out in the diplomatic bags of the Taiwanese and the Singhalese [sic] and the Sri Lankans, and going out...[17]



     [1]Pik Botha (1932-); National Party politician; South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1977-94; Minister of Information, 1978-94); Minister of Minerals and Energy Affairs, 1994-96.

     [2]P. W. Botha (1916-); National Party politician; South African Prime Minister, 1978-84; State President, 1984-89.

     [3]Smith gained a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa in the mid-1950s.

     [4]Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925); British South African administrator and prolific popular colonial novelist: see, e.g., King Solomon's Mines (1885).

     [5]Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick (1862-1931); though best remembered, especially in South Africa, for his boys-own adventure tale, Jock of the Bushveld (1907), as a British administrator he played an influential role in the negotations leading to the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

     [6]Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90); British explorer, travel writer and translator, especially the first unexpurgated English version of The Thousand and One Nights (1885-88).

     [7]Alan Moorehead (1910-); Australian explorer and travel writer; The White Nile (1960).

     [8]Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen (1885-1962); Danish settler in Kenya, 1914-31; noted for her Seven Gothic Tales (1934), which she wrote in English, and her autobiographical Out of Africa (1937).  In this interview, Smith may have been confused by the conventional gender of her nom de plume.

     [9]For titles and a description, see, e.g., my entry on "Wilbur (Addison) Smith" in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, vol. 2 (1994); see also the Wilbur Smith Home-Page (http://recall.hb.indiana.edu/~corwin/authors/wsmith/).

     [10]Smith's grandfather's first names coincide fortuitously with those of Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917), hunter and explorer, who as an employee of the British South Africa Company in the 1890s played a major role in the colonial appropriation of the Rhodesian territories.

     [11] On the day prior to this interview, Smith had participated in a promotional interview at one of the major Helsinki bookstores, Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, where he also fielded several questions from the public.

     [12]For a detailed discussion, see David Maughan Brown, "Raising Goose-Pimples: Wilbur Smith and the Politics of Rage," in Rendering Things Visible, ed. Martin Trump (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1990) 134-60.

     [13]Geoffrey Jenkins (1920-); South African popular adventure novelist with more than a dozen internationally successful titles since his A Twist of Sand (1959).

     [14]Smith is presumably referring elliptically to an unnamed woman reviewer of his writing.

     [15]Stuart Cloete (1897-1976); prolific South African popular adventure novelist and short story writer; Cloete's first novel, Turning Wheels (1937), was banned in South Africa until 1974, largely for its irreverent treatment of Boer mythology.

     [16]In 1989, Managing Director of Pan Books, London, Smith's primary paperback publisher.  In interview (London, 14 July 1989), Gordon Walker suggested that Smith "would believe that he was a middle-of-the-road, Helen Suzman type of ... [JS: Well...] ... Well, not quite that, but certainly the characters he portrays—I think he would certainly believe he was a liberal compared with the whites of South Africa, which is probably true, I don't know.  I think he informs about South Africa and to a marginal extent helps understanding of a country where people are prepared—from a white South African's point of view—to sound off at the drop of a hat without knowledge of what's going on."

     [17]Smith's preoccupation with the politics of elephant conservation and the international ivory trade emerged fictionally two years later in Elephant Song (1991).

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