Worldwide bestselling author Wilbur Smith has died at the age of 88, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa. He had spent the morning reading and writing, with his wife by his side.
A message on his Facebook page says: “We are sorry to announce that the beloved, global bestselling author Wilbur Smith passed away unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape Town home, with his wife Niso by his side. We are so grateful to his millions of fans across the world who cherished his incredible writing and joined us all on his amazing adventures.”
Wilbur Smith Books described him as was the undisputed master of adventure writing, whose books had gripped readers for over half a century. He sold over 140 million copies worldwide in more than 30 languages.
“His bestselling 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 South Africa. In the 49 novels Smith has published to date, he has transported his readers to gold mines in South Africa, piracy on the Indian Ocean, buried treasure on tropical islands, conflict in Arabia and Khartoum, ancient Egypt, World War Two 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 apparently with Taita, the hero of his acclaimed Egyptian Series, that Wilbur 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 when he was in his early 30s) was an instant bestseller and every single one of his subsequent novels has featured in the bestseller charts, often at number one, “earning the author the opportunity to travel far and wide in search of inspiration and adventure”.
Smith believed in deep research and meticulously checked every face, inspired by the advice of his first publisher who told him to “write about things you know well”. ‘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 – was infused with the world he knew so well, inspired by Smith’s own experience of running wild on his father’s ranch.
“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 of 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,” says Wilbur Smith Books.
Smith was named after one of the famous aviator Wright brothers, Wilbur Wright. He was born on 9 January, 1933, in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). “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 Wilbur to read the likes of CS Forester, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.
“At the age of eighteen months Wilbur became seriously ill with cerebral malaria, and there was a possibility he would be brain damaged if he survived. 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 Wilbur became a secret reader, spending hours in the outhouse long-drop latrine where he kept his cache of favourite novels.”
At eight, Wilbur was enrolled at Cordwalles boarding school in Pietermaritzburg in what is now KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The motto was ‘courage builds character’ and the experience was “brutal”. He read voraciously and excelled in English composition but was considered a poor pupil in everything else. It was there that he discovered American author Ernest Hemingway who would have a profound influence on his writing.
Smith attended Michaelhouse (also KZN) for high school, but was no happier. He said: “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.” He turned to reading and creative writing as his refuge.
At 16, Wilbur contracted polio which left him with a weak right leg, “but it caused him little problem 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.”
Soon after When the Lion Feeds was published, a Hollywood deal followed, and as the book became a bestseller worldwide, Smith was able to quit his job at the tax office to write full time. He was able to write almost one novel per year.
As well as standalone novels, 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 recently.
Wilbur Smith’s personal life
Smith’s personal life was as eventful as his novels, says Wilbur Smith Books. “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, following 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 Wilbur found true happiness and peace of mind. They married in May 2000.
Wilbur Smith’s Legacy
“Niso has been instrumental in managing Wilbur’s legacy project. A deeply loyal man, he had remained with his original publishers for forty-five 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 Wilbur Smith joined Bonnier Books UK.”
In 2015 the couple established the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation, to promote reading and writing for younger generations across the world. They also recently started Leopard Rock Studios Ltd to produce film and TV projects.
As Wilbur 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.”
Wilbur Smith Books says: “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 Wilbur Smith for the past 11 years, says:
“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 his wife Niso and the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation to keep the flame of his fictional universe alive for many years to come.”
Kate Parkin, Managing Director of Adult Trade Publishing for Bonnier Books UK added that “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.”
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