HomeStandard StyleBuilding narratives: Wilbur Smith: The Man who wrote his own epitaph

Building narratives: Wilbur Smith: The Man who wrote his own epitaph

By Fungayi Sox

Wilbur Smith, the internationally acclaimed novelist who transported millions of readers to many places through his adventurous stories recently died at the age of 88.

“Global best-selling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side”, reads part of the statement from his Wilbur Smith Books website which was posted on November 13, the day he passed on.

From this statement I took note of the phrasing, “died unexpectedly after a morning of reading and writing.”

This statement alone capturesa well lived legacy of a “larger than life character” whom in my view“breathed and lived ink” up until his last breath.

During his life, Smith credited his mother whom he says loved books, read to him every night and later gave him novels of escape and excitement, which triggered his interest in fiction. This is probably the eureka moment his mother began to “metaphorically breastfeed him with ink”.

The internationally-acclaimed Zambia-born South African author has a historic 49 published books under his belt and has sold close to 150 million copies with a wide span of titles including the Courteney Series, Ballantyne Series, Hector Cross Series and many stand-alone novels.

When he was just 18 months old, he contracted cerebral malaria for 10 days,a deadly ailment which could either damage his brain if he lived or totally extinguish him from existence but he fought it with bravery and recovered.

As he later on reflected on in life, Smith humorously credited cerebral malaria for damaging his brain and making him one of the most renowned and prolific adventure storytellers when he stated that: “It probably helped me because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing.”

While Smith’s humorous remarks in light of his success as a writer were encouraging, they stroke double pronged awakening reality in me, that being although it is along held universal perception that writing doesn’t really reward much monetarily, it is determination, persistence and hardwork that eventually pays off and selling 150 million in a career spanning 55 years as that of Smith is no joke.

Having grown up as a big game hunter and having grown up experiencing the forest hills and savannah of Africa on his parent’s ranch, are some of the accelerating factors, which positioned Smith to conquer the world of literature as an adventurous storyteller and crowning him as an undisputable king of adventure writing. His novels have up to today impacted readers for over half a century with over 30 language translations world-wide whilst several have been made into films.

It is against this background that Smith followed the advice of his first publisher Charles Pick who said: “Write only about those things you know well” and “Since then I have written only about Africa.”

His 1964 debut novel When the Lions Feeds, the tale of a young man growing up on a South African ranch became an instant best seller leading to 15 sequels, tracing an ambitious family fortune of over 200 years.

What I personally love about Smith’s adventurous stories is that they cut across racial boundaries and his historical adventurous fictious tales featuring international involvement in Southern Africa across four centuries can be seen from the viewpoints of both black and white families and this makes him a favourite of many readers.

It is through the Ballantyne novels that Smith chronicles the lives of the Ballantyne family from the 1860s through to the 1980s against a background of the history of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. His novels captures Zimbabwe at the height of the liberation struggle.

Undoubtedly, it is evident that Smith left solid footprints on the Zimbabwean literature landscape.

The Ballantyne Series include, Falcon Flies 1860   (1980), Men of Men 1870-1890 (1981), The Angels Weep 1890s and 1977 (1982) and  The Leopard Hunts in Darkness 1990 (1984).

What I even loved more about Smith and his writing was his authentic voice which is clearly articulated in his memoir titled On Leopard Rock (2018) where he bares his soul and recounts having had tough times, bad marriages, burning midnight oil getting nowhere, but most importantly that this had ended up in what he termed a “phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life”.

Smith’s On Leopard Rock memoir seemed to be his official epitaph when he wrote: “I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions”

His UK publisher Bonnier Books stated that “Smith leaves behind him a treasure trove of novels” and this in my view is a consolidation of his historic legacy as an adventure storyteller.

Even in death, Smith seems to have been prepared to continue publishing his adventurous tales from his grave, fulfilling the epitaph of a man determined to continue pleasing millions long after his demise.

  • The Writer Fungayi Sox is the Managing Consultant at Tisu Mazwi — a communications consultancy firm specialising in writing, publishing, digital media, personal development and education. For feedback contact him on 0776  030 949, follow him on Twitter @AntonySox or connect with him on LinkedIn on Fungayi Antony Sox.

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