Wilbur Smith: Africa, Oil and a $20 Billion Ransom, EIBF 2012, Review

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Wilbur Smith with Jackie McGlone (Chair)
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Wilbur Smith was introduced by Jackie McGlone  as the author of some thirty four novels which had sold over one hundred and twenty million copies world wide and been translated into twenty six languages.

He was welcomed particularly warmly as this year was his fiftieth as a journalist and writer, but this was his first visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival.   McGlone said that the film rights for the latest Wilbur Smith novel, Those in Peril, had already been secured.     She added that the new novel followed the previous ones in the levels of excitement, but had a plot which included kidnapping, pirates and a huge ransom. 

The author said that the genesis for the book had come partly from his own experiences having owned part of a house in the Seychelles for some fifteen years, so he knew the general area the Somali pirates operated in well.   

He recalled one occasion when coming back from fishing with his Somali boatman, when they were passed by another vessel heading out to sea. Smith recognised those on the other boat as being Somalis and said to his boatman - "are those your brothers?"   The boatman said, "yes but don't look at them!"   He had recognised those in the other boat as bad people.  However, now big money is to be made from hijacking ships and holding them for ransom.

McGlone said that there have been some improvements and the navies of the world are working together to tackle the problem, however, Wilbur Smith has a very much more radical solution. To find out you will need to read the book!  Smith spoke of the tactic of separating families from one another and using this as a bargaining chip in the quest for money as a ransom.

Speaking about the technicalities Wilbur Smith said he had close links with the Biretta family and could visit them to get help and try out the various types of firearms.   He recalled one occasion when he had been out-shot by his wife but he tried to keep this quiet!   The discussion moved on to big game hunting and Smith confessed he had hunted wild animals, however, he was now a fervent conservationist    He admitted that lion "does not taste good".

Returning to kidnapping Smith asked why should people do this to others just because they have no money?   As we are in a recession this does not allow people to go out and kidnap people.    He thought that being held by the pirates must be a dreadful experience,  like living on a knife edge all the time.

Asked by McGlone if he was a feminist, Smith replied that it took him thirty years to learn about women and to find out that they were 'good stuff', but he also found that while they were soft and cuddly they were also tough, often having more courage and greater endurance than men.  He said this came out in his books where they originally just 'appeared' in the book he now uses them to influence the plot.  

Asked how influential his wife, Lisa, had been he confessed that he had been married four times - but that only one was still alive!   He said that she is younger than him but he trusts her and she is the only one ever to have read his books before publication.

He spoke about growing up; his father was an artisan and told him to get a proper job and dismissed becoming a journalist by saying that, "you will starve".  

He described how young men often view their fathers, for the first ten years they are God, in the teens boys have doubts, in their twenties they think he is an idiot, but in their forties they realise that their father was right all along and that he had steered them away from many disasters.  

However, Smith said his mother had been very supportive and loved reading any books - she was his inspiration.   In the end his father used to always carry one of his books and say to everyone, "My son writes books", proudly showing off the book in his hand - when asked what it was about his father did not know!

McGlone asked what he had read at school, Smith hinted that he found boarding school repressive, saying that he thought they were set up to contain rebellion!   Anyway he read the 'Biggles' books which he enjoyed.  When told that Boris Johnson liked his books, he said, "good man Boris, with a good eye for literature!"   

Asked if he would be writing an autobiography, Smith said that he had thought about it as so many people had suggested it, however, he intended to try something different and making it a 'golden years' safari where he would be showing Africa to various people.  He thought this would be less boring than the usual record of events.

Smith said he was writing his next book which would be called Vicious Circle and this would be out in the spring of next year.   He said that he enjoyed writing follow on books as he knew the characters and did not therefore have to re-invent them. 

The audience asked if he had any regrets at giving up accountancy - he said that actually he was still working for the Income Tax Department!

Asked what he read himself he said he just loved books and has a significant collection at home.   He said that a young reporter came to see him once and marvelling at all his books asked, "what are these?" to which Wilbur Smith replied, "these are the Encyclopaedia Britannica," at which the young reporter was taken aback and said, "do you mean you downloaded all these!"

Wilbur Smith was brilliant and let us hope that we see him again soon in Edinburgh.