Sunday, 11 December 2011



I was expecting some tough, rugged man. But unlike Major Hector Cross, the hero of his latest bestselling thriller, Those in Peril, Africa-born author Wilbur Smith appears suave and gentle as he chats about his books, his life and the world in general. And one gets a sense of a well-informed “god-fearing” person who enjoys writing thrillers, the massive worldwide fan following and “trappings of a good life.” Smith was in Pune recently as part of the Landmark Wilbur Smith Tour when I caught up with him.

I mention how decades ago Smith gave up his job to become a writer. From those years of frugal living to his debut When the Lion Feeds, to the current book, Smith has been successful as a writer. Fame and fortune have been plenty. What drives him now, I ask. “I am a writer and I love to write. That keeps me going. And then when my agent gives me a figure of 120 million books that have been sold worldwide, I am delighted. It indeed has been a rewarding journey,” Smith says with a smile. “I enjoy the process of writing... creating fiction. All of that keeps me closer to people.”

Interestingly, this urge to stay closer to the people, keeps Smith away from the literary circle. “I don't want be despised by writers who are more successful than me. And I don't wish to look down upon writers who are not as successful as I am,” he says candidly. “My friends are doctors, lawyers, accountants and common people,” he informs. “I don't wish to get contaminated by other writers.” And he doesn't want to “talk away” what he's writing to other writers at some cafĂ©.

Unlike his earlier history-influenced books, Those in Peril is more contemporary. The yacht of rich oil company boss Hazel Bannock gets hijacked by the Somalian pirates. Hazel's daughter Cayla is on board. Major Hector Cross, the owner of the Cross Bow Security that is entrusted with the security of the oil companies interests, is then tasked to deal with the pirates. Thrill, planning and ghastly actions are unleashed across the pages in typical Wilbur Smith style where sex and brutality is quite graphic. “These are stories of people in extreme situations. On the one side you have civilised people. On the other side you have lawless people with no civilised behaviour. I want the readers to know the realities. To understand the characters in peril. And that's why I have to make the violence so graphic,” Smith explains.

Those in Peril sees evil people like Sheikh Adam Tippoo Tip and his uncle Kamal orchestrating the piracy in the region. At the same time, they use religion with impunity to further their evil designs. I ask Smith about his views on religion. “I am fascinated by religion. Be it religion with one god or multiple gods. Our belief in god, among other things, is what makes us different from the wild animals. And the more I know, I realise that no religion is bad. It is some people who pervert the religions,” he says. “That is corruption. That is crime. Just as it is crime when the Americans bomb innocent people from war planes. This crime and corruption has been going on for a long time. No god would have ever approved of that.”

Does he ever feel the compulsion of writing 'politically correct' things so as not to offend people of certain religious affiliation? Smith laughs. “I enjoy writing 'politically incorrect' things. I love to examine people and situations and mock at them. I think it is wrong to call an 'old man' as a 'senior citizen.' I think such terms are nothing but hypocrisy.”

Like his other stories, the main male character, Hector Cross, in Those in Peril is strong, intelligent and trying to do something. He seem to be a 'super hero' brought back from the long-lost past. “Yes my male characters have that 'super hero' streak indeed. And you're correct in saying that the age of such heroes is gone. There are no longer people like the Moghuls or the other great warriors. But I like such characters... people who are physically powerful... who are strong-willed. Who can control mind, like the sages,” Smith elaborates. “These characters are in my mind. And I have seen such people.”

But in Smith's thrillers, such strong, successful characters mostly leave a trail of unpleasantness. I ask him why must the way to success be unpleasant. Smith smiles and leans forward a bit. “Self-made people who have been successful, must have done some wrong in their lives. Also, whenever a person is successful, there will be people to drag him or her down and find faults,” he says with a tinge of sigh. “No life can be sweet. My own life hasn't been perfect, for example.”

In Smith's thrillers, there is an aura the unknown and the wild Africa... the aura of colonial times. History and fiction get together to tell us the stories. How does he connect history with fiction? “History, as I often say, is like an untidy woman. I tend to tidy her up with my words. Some people come up and say that they don't like history. And I tell them, in that case you have no interest in yourself. We all are creations of history. And Africa is where humanity was born. So, Africa remains at the centre of my writings,” Smith helps me to join the dots.

In this thriller, besides referring to real-life characters like the British Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, and television talk show host Larry King, the author has banked on descriptions of places, yacht, oil rigs, ocean, and subjects like anatomy. “I get to know about these things from people I know. Be it about shipping or ammunition. Also, I know the the area in an around Seychelles island quite well. Moreover, I do research about what I write. That's the part of the excitement,” Smith informs.

The excitement keeps changing from one thriller to the other “depending on the subject.” The writing also changes. “Our minds change, way of looking at things change. So, over the decades my writing too has changed too,” Smith admits. “But my aim has always been to stay closer to reality,” he assures before we part.