‘I’ve started wars, I’ve burned down cities and I’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people – but only in my imagination!’
Wilbur Smith, the South African writing phenomenon who has sold more than 130 million of his novels over fifty-five years, has lived an incredible life of adventure, and now the 85-year-old has put pen to paper to bring us the extraordinary true stories that have inspired his fiction.
On Leopard Rock is the first ever memoir from the prolific author who was born in what was then Northern Rhodesia in 1933 and became a full-time writer in 1964 following the success of When the Lion Feeds.
Smith has since published forty-one global bestsellers, including the Courtney Series, the Ballantyne Series, the Egyptian Series, the Hector Cross Series and many successful standalone novels, all meticulously researched on his numerous expeditions worldwide.
The establishment of the Wilbur & Niso Smith Foundation in 2015 cemented Smith’s passion for empowering writers, promoting literacy and advancing adventure writing as a genre. The foundation’s flagship programme is the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.
In this powerful memoir, he tells us that he was ‘lucky enough to miss the big wars and not get shot, but lucky enough to grow up among the heroes who had served in them and learn from their example. I have done things which have seemed appalling at the time, disastrous even, but out of them has come another story or a deeper knowledge of human character and the ability to express myself better on paper and write books which people enjoy reading.’
And the long list of swashbuckling, high-adrenaline, action novels, which are the hallmark of Smith’s work, reflect his childhood of wildlife adventures on his father’s cattle farm where hunting was done not for joy but as ‘a way of life.’
His father, Herbert Smith, was a tough, down-to-earth big game hunter who would take his family on annual safaris where they hunted wild animals and often diced with death, but the young Wilbur had inherited his mother’s love of books and although his father unceremoniously told his son to ‘get a real job,’ the boy still longed to write his own books.
Writing in the direct, lean style of his fiction, Smith revisits the significant milestones of his career, during which he penned nearly 40 novels that sold more than 130 million copies worldwide. The Zambian author begins with his coming of age, spent with his father, an engineer and big game hunter, in 1940s Northern Rhodesia. Through his father, he acquired the sportsman’s code that hunting was not ‘done for joy. Hunting was a way of life.’
After graduating from Rhodes University in 1954, Smith worked as an accountant but the success of his 1964 his first novel, When the Lion Feeds, which was made into a Hollywood movie, saw him carve out a career for himself as the successful author he had always dreamed of.
His early publisher Charles Pick told the fledgling author to ‘write only about those things you know well’ and it was advice Smith took on board, revealing in this intimate and yet powerful autobiography that ‘it is because of him that I have written only about Africa.’
And it is his love and pride in the vast continent of Africa and its new place in the world since the end of apartheid that shines through every page as we travel with Smith through brutal school days to redemption through writing and falling in love.
His tumultuous life has included everything from being attacked by lions and close encounters with deadly reef sharks to getting lost in the African bush without water and crawling the precarious tunnels of gold mines. There are vivid tales of hunting and flying, marlin fishing with Lee Marvin and a near death experience when crash-landing a Cessna aeroplane.
Smith’s real life stories became the raw material for his fiction, and this brutally honest, entertaining and compelling autobiography reflects an extraordinary man and his extraordinary talent.
(Zaffre, paperback, £8.99)