'Desert God': A Talk With Wilbur Smith

Photo: William Morrow

Wilbur Smith has been described by Stephen King as "the best historical novelist." James Rollins said of Wilbur Smith's novels, "Every new book is an event, a cherished time to get lost in ancient worlds." His sales speak for themselves: since his debut novel When the Lion Feeds, published in 1964, Wilbur Smith's novels have sold over 125 million copies and have been translated into 26 languages.

Desert God is the fifth book in the Ancient Egypt series. The novel brings to life the struggle between a defeated Egypt and its foreign invaders, the Hyksos. A cunning Egyptian eunuch named Taita seeks to gain an alliance with Crete and the Sumarians to drive the Hyksos from Egypt and restore Pharaoh Tamose as the ruler of a united Egypt.

Your first novel was published fifty years ago. How does it feel to have been writing so successfully for half a century?

It seems natural because I don't really remember the times before When the Lion Feeds. It's been a wonderful ride on the backs of my characters; and sometimes, when I go to sleep at night, before closing my eyes, I say a little prayer and just feel smug (Laughter).

I understand when you were a boy, your father and mother had very different views about your prodigious reading. Will you tell us about that?

My mother was an artist, musician, and she loved reading. She introduced me to the joy and pleasure of books. My father, on the other hand, was a man who worked with his hands. He was an artisan by trade, and became successful by dint of hard work. He didn't believe in reading for reading's sake. For him, reading was for studying plans when you were going to build a hotel or some construction project. He read the Farmer's Weekly. He discouraged me, while my mother encouraged me to read.

Looking back, what influences did your parents have on you?

They both influenced me tremendously. My mother inculcated in me a love of books, and the beauty of music. My father taught me life isn't easy, and you must work hard to succeed. Between the two of them, I had the best possible education.

You became an accountant and then made the transition to writing fiction. How did that come about?

When I went to my father at the age of fourteen and said, 'I am going to be a journalist,' he said, 'Don't be an idiot. You'll starve to death. Get a real job.' So I went out and did what he told me to do. I converted my degree to that of a chartered accountancy. And despite that, I went right back to what I wanted to do, which was to write fiction.

Did you have any formal training in fiction writing?

Not at all. And I think that was a good thing. I'm not certain if anyone can be trained or taught to write fiction. I think you either can or cannot do it. No one can really teach you how to do it. For me, the hunt for a good story and the building of character are a natural process. When I meet interesting people, I immediately think of them as potential fictional characters for a future novel. I imbue them with thoughts, motivations and all the elements that go towards making a good story. I believe writing fiction is really more a product of one's nature rather than of nurturing. To capture the cadence and rhythm of a story; to build characters and tell enough about them to make the reader interested; to create characters' goals with which a reader can identify; and to build an entire world around the characters, is a writer's job. I think it comes naturally to some people. And they are the ones who write fiction.

Over the years, you've given heartfelt advice about writing. Tell us about that.

I've given a lot of advice, and I'm not sure it's all sensible. The best advice is this: if you are going to write, you must do it with all your heart and soul. You must have courage, and be willing to pay the necessary cost. It's a tough job with a low rate of success. You see only a handful of people whose books regularly make the bestseller lists.

On a more practical level, it's best to write about what you know. Another piece of advice is to write effectively about love. One of the most difficult things to do is to write about love. It must be handled with delicacy, and you must try capturing the beauty and magic of love between two people. It's a universal constant and can only be written about well, once you've been in love yourself and understand it.

What fascinates you so much about history and ancient people?
The stories are all there. They've already been told. You need only pick them up, give them some polish, and mount them for the reader. I've written love stories and thrillers, but I love historical works because they are the story of people who actually lived.

Desert God, as do all your historical novels, contains incredible detail about geography, clothing, weaponry, and religions of the time. Tell us about your research.

The research is really an accumulation of seventy-five years of reading. I've read good books and bad ones. If you're going to be a writer you must read both--so you know what to avoid and what to strive for. The story of mankind is so complex and so rich in detail. Man is such a strange and wonderful creature. He can be the most evil and cruel of all animals, but can also be beautiful, and give of his inner soul to others. As for specific research, things like clothing and weaponry of the ancients are reflective of man in his time. Weapons were essential equipment for early humans. They kept him alive and predators at bay. Clothing kept people warm and comfortable. If you are going to write about early human beings, the descriptions of clothing -- along with weaponry -- must be part of the story.

I understand you're considering working with a co-author.

When it was first suggested to me, I was appalled. I thought I would never do such a thing. But after researching it thoroughly and looking at people who have done it--James Patterson, Clive Cussler, and believe it or not, Alexander Dumas--I realized that by taking on co-authors, those writers enlarged their audiences and their influence, because they've published more books.

I have so many more stories I want to tell, and I've made the decision to get them told by working with a co-author. I simply can't keep up the same pace, having written thirty-six books in as many years. So, it could be a way of achieving the other ambitions I still have left.

If you could have dinner with any five people from all of history, who would they be?

Oh, my goodness. Well, Alexander the Great would be the first of them. (Laughter). Then, Julius Caesar. And then, Taita from The River God, even though he's a fictional character. But, he's very much alive in my imagination. I would have to have a woman -- Joan of Arc would fit in. And then, Elizabeth the Great would be a perfect dinner guest.

What would you all be talking about?

Our conquests. (Laughter). And we'd be talking about what we still had left to conquer. (More laughter). Although I must say that these days, I simply love to smell the roses.

Congratulations on the publication of Desert God, a sweeping epic conjuring magic, mystery, romance, and the bloody intrigue of a lost world.


Mark Rubinstein is the author of Mad Dog House, Mad Dog Justice and Love Gone Mad