GLAMOUR sat down with literary legend Wilbur Smith (this year he’s celebrating 50 years in publishing!) to discuss his latest book, Desert God.
GLAMOUR: Where is your favourite place to write?
Wilbur: In my head.
What’s your cure for writer’s block?
Not to get it!
Do you prefer typing or writing by hand?
I like to type.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received about your writing?
People who say they’ve read all my books and that they like them.
You’re celebrating 50 years of publishing, how have things changed in the industry since you published your first book?
Publishing’s a lot more complex now. There are e-books and TV is a much stronger force than it was when I started writing. It’s harder to break in now as the publishing industry has more competitors.
Have you found getting published more difficult?
No, luckily for me, I was established 30 years ago!
Tell us a bit more about the main character in the Egyptian series Taita.
Taita is a eunuch, which is unusual for a hero of a story. He doesn’t let this worry him though: he loves women, but he treats them differently from the way other men do. He gives them much more respect. And I think that many women like Taita for that reason. He’s also got a rather whimsical sense of humour and you never know whether or not he’s bluffing.
Taita has been the main character of the Egyptian series since the first book, River God. He’s lived through several generations and yet he seems as young and strong as ever. How old is Taita approximately?
I’ll say this much: he’s not going anywhere – don’t worry. I think I’ll probably go first!
Is he based on any historical figure?
No, he’s based on my imagination. He’s my character entirely.
You’ve written quite a bit of historical fiction, like the Egyptian series – how do you tap into the minds of people who lived thousands of years ago?
I like the freedom that writing about ancient times gives me. When people say things like “Oh, it wasn’t like that,” then I can respond with, “You were there, were you?”
Where is the line for you between history and fiction then?
There’s no line at all for me, it’s just my story.
You describe the landscapes and people of ancient Egypt so vividly – how did you go about doing research for the Egyptian series?
The first country I visited out of Southern Africa, I say that because I grew up in Zimbabwe and I’d been to SA, was Egypt. I’d just written When the Lion Feeds and on my way to England, I stopped in Egypt and I’ve been back several times. On one of my trips to Egypt, I visited the Nile and then I decided to hire myself four camels and four drivers and we went down to the Red Sea and I followed the footsteps of Taita. Of course, at the point, I didn’t know I was following his footsteps because I hadn’t yet written River God! What sparked my interest was Lawrence of Arabia, I went to all the places that he wrote about. It was the most fascinating experience. When I started writing the Egyptian series, I found I knew enough to invent the rest.
Every now and again in the Egyptian series, you’ve brought in a slightly supernatural influence, like a vision, tell us about that element in your writing.
Well, I’ve heard it said that the Gods existed in those times because people believed so completely in them. So I used those super-strong beliefs in my writing. The Egyptians believed so implicitly in Isis and Horus that they did exist, for them at least. So when Taita “hears” the voices of the Gods he believes it because those are the Gods. The legends of the Gods are fascinating, for us they are legends, but Taita lives with those legends and he “touches” them occasionally.
Did you do a lot of research on Egyptian mythology?
Oh I have always been interested in it, so yes! When you go to Egypt, it’s just with rich with those legends. It’s so incredible, the story of the Gods and the story of men is interwoven.
How difficult is it then to write in such detail about a time which we know little about?
It becomes easier the more you do it, so over the years I’ve got better at it. And now my characters talk to me and they dictate what things look like. And I go to all the places that I write about for inspiration. One of the places I went to was Crete, which is a volcanic island and it was transformed by a big volcanic eruption and the Cretan civilisation was almost completely destroyed by that eruption. So no one knows what Crete was like before the eruption – except Taita. So I have a lot of free reign or rather the expert opinion of Taita.
What genre do you classify the Egyptian series as?
It’s an imaginative of a period about which very little is known.
What is your writing process?
My imagination is like a pack of dogs and I let them run with a subject, a scent of the prey, and then I follow them and I record what they discover. There are some writers who get every chapter sorted and then they sit down and write the entire book. That’s much too stilted for me.
What are your tips for being a writer?
Well, first of all you have to be certain that writing is what you want to do. And you have to know that it’s not necessarily the way to riches or an easy life because there are lots of authors who struggle for a long time and lots of them give up because it’s tough. But if you do make it, if you do break through, it’s the best possible life. You call no man master for your entire life. It can be a very fulfilling career.
Are you inspired by any writers?
I read widely and I always have. There are writers who paved the way for me, like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. But nowadays I read the works of young writers and older writers and I read even if I don’t really like the style of writing. I read to be able to say that’s wrong or that’s good.
What is your opinion of writers these days?
There are bad writers and good writers. Older writers like Steinbeck and Hemingway had restraints put on them like censorship and moral obligations, but nowadays you can write anything you like. Even the most incredible filth can be written and people can buy it. So, I think, young writers need to create their own restraints.
Does the fact that it’s more difficult to get published affect writers and their restraints?
Every writer is a different person, so they respond to different situations differently: some writers will be more easily discouraged and some not. And while the world we’re living in now is considered a new world, when Shakespeare lived the world was new to him. So, ultimately your restraints really depend on you as a writer.
What do you have planned other than the Egyptian series?
All sorts of things – there’s the Courtney series and the Ballantyne series. All of the series I’ve written fascinate me and I will come to them in their turn – but I don’t know when that will be! Right now, I do have another manuscript printed out and ready on my desk.