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Gareth Crocker Interviews Wilbur Smith: “I Hope to Keep Writing for as Long as I’m Healthy”

Open Book 2014: Wilbur Smith

Desert GodWilbur Smith, one of South Africa’s greatest living writers, recently returned to his home country for the launch of his latest Egyptian epic, Desert God.

Gareth Crocker, author of Never Let Go and King, met up with Smith to discuss his latest novel and some ethical differences that concerned him before their meeting.

By the end of their conversation, however, Crocker confesses to being swayed by the charm of the best-selling author. He writes: “And in that moment the last wisps of my pettiness fell away and I saw Wilbur Smith for the man he truly is. Strong. Bold. Courageous. Single-minded. Unafraid of controversy and wholly unapologetic at times.”

Read Crocker’s touching interview:

* * * * * * * *

‘I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’ve really enjoyed being Wilbur Smith …’

By Gareth Crocker

So a few weeks ago, I was asked if I would interview Wilbur Smith as part of the global jamboree to both commemorate his 50th year as a published author and to celebrate the launch of his latest novel, the highly-anticipated Desert God.

I thought the request rather odd, given that I’ve written several novels that very strongly advocate animal rights. Considering that Sir Wilbur Huntsalot has mowed down everything from fish to lions, I was wondering if this was a case of an immovable mango being thrust into the ring with an unstoppable banana. Were they hoping, I wondered, for things to get a little shouty in the interview?

Of course, as an author match-up, it really wasn’t much of a fair contest. Wilbur Smith has sold over 120 million novels. I’ve shifted barely one percent of that. One of Wilbur’s fans is rumoured to have been buried in a coffin stuffed with his novels. The closest anyone has ever come to crossing over to the next world ensconced in Gareth Crocker hardbacks is the time a box of my novels fell off a table at an Exclusive Books warehouse sale and nearly crushed a passing toddler. Wilbur once owned an island in the topaz waters of the Seychelles and has several beautiful homes dotted all over the world. I have one home with a pool that has been green for 11 years. None of Wilbur Smith’s novels have ever gone out of print and he remains Pan MacMillan’s most successful author of all time. I am barely the most successful author in my suburb.

And so, given all this, you would imagine that I would be desperately jealous of Wilbur Smith. Which, of course, I am. If I could somehow extract his magical author elixir I would club it from him with all the lip-smacking sugarlust of a fat kid attacking a piñata with a meat cleaver.

So as I sat across from him this past week, a small and petty part of me wanted to dislike him. I’d also heard that some of his original manuscripts are bound in elephant skin. I happen to like my elephants with their skin on, thank you very much, so I wanted to wag my finger at him for that as well.

But things didn’t go quite as planned. For a start, he seemed entirely locked on to me. As if my words were a grand orbiting space station and his ears a humble lunar module looking to make contact. In short, the man made me feel like Cinderella; like the only interviewer on the dance floor. I could practically feel the glass slippers on my feet.

The bastard.

‘So, uh …’ I began, looking down at my clothes and feeling relieved that I had worn one of my good T-shirts. We were at the swanky Saxon Hotel after all. ‘What’s it like being Wilbur Smith?’

He seemed to like that question. ‘I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve found it really quite enjoyable. It has enabled me to live a life on my own terms. To not have my days dictated to me.’ This stung a bit given that I’ve spent roughly seven eighths of my working life trapped in the sort of life-sucking meetings that have made me want to stab myself in the neck.

‘Has the writing got any tougher over the years?’

‘I don’t find it any more difficult necessarily, I’m just slower now. But I still love the craft and I hope to keep writing for as long as I am healthy.’

At 81, Wilbur Smith is in tremendous shape. He’s firm of hand, concave of belly and stands tall and proud. At less than half his age, I stand as though an invisible piano is strapped to my back and it’s clear to anyone with eyes that I’m constructed predominantly of pudding.

For a while our conversation meandered over all the safe territory that he’s no doubt covered in a thousand previous interviews – his approach to writing, his love of Africa, people’s dwindling attention spans, the dismal state of the book world, the gratitude and respect he has for his readers and so on. Until I sucked in some courage and asked the one question that I feared might unsettle him.

‘Wilbur, I’ve heard that you’re thinking of employing writers to work with you. Is this true?’

He shifted slightly in his chair. ‘A decade ago I would never have considered it, but yes … that’s true. I have two writers in mind who will hopefully co-author with me on some of the sagas.’

Not a fan of this co-author approach, my lip trembled a little. But before I could get all high and mighty with him, he explained why he was doing it.

‘The thing is, I know I’m running out of time. I feel I owe it to my readers to complete some of the journeys we embarked upon together so many years ago.’

Wilbur 3. Crocker 0.

‘Does it bother you that some people in the book world look down on the sort of genre fiction you write in favour of high-brow literary fiction?’

It was at this point that Wilbur’s eyes turned all Clint Eastwood on me.

Uh. Oh. The icon was not best pleased.

‘Gareth, do you know what the prize is for the Man Booker?’

Given that I’m yet to win the Man Booker, I didn’t know the answer.

‘It’s 50 000 quid. Now considering that many of these winning literary novels seldom sell in large numbers this means that the author concerned has likely worked him or herself half to death over a period of years for pretty much £50 000. We’re talking about a salary of maybe 2 000 pounds a month, or less. I don’t get out of bed for that sort of money!’

Clint then laughed at that, a sense of mischief glinting in his eyes. Of course, I was awake enough to realise that he was making an important point. The only opinions that really matter are those of the people who spend their hard-earned money to buy your work.

And in that moment the last wisps of my pettiness fell away and I saw Wilbur Smith for the man he truly is. Strong. Bold. Courageous. Single-minded. Unafraid of controversy and wholly unapologetic at times. But also a gentleman of the highest order and undoubtedly one of the most loved writers of this or any other generation.

Mr Smith, it was an honour.

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