Wilbur Smith says his 16-year-old self would reckon he’s a ‘jammy sod’

"I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Unfortunately they are the only way to learn. Fail again; fail better. Move on; learn."

My teens were a pretty miserable time. Reading became a sneaky pleasure for me. In those days all the heating and cooking in the house was done with wood, and one of my chores was to go off with the tractor and trailer and a gang of guys who would cut the wood and load it on and I’d bring it back. I always used to sneak a book down the front of my shirt, so I could perch up on the tractor with a big hat on and read my books even in the middle of the day. My father never caught me at it, because I could always hear his car coming.

As a child I preferred being on my own, reading whenever I could. As soon as I was able, I started to read books myself, starting with Biggles and Just William. Soon I was lost in the worlds of CS Forester, with his exquisite Horatio Hornblower tales of adventure on the high seas. My mother struck up a friendship with a public librarian in Bulawayo, almost 800 miles to the south, and every month a package of new adventures would arrive on the freight train. From that moment onwards I always had a well-thumbed novel in my pocket. I could dive into books where I found gripping tales of death and danger, the heroism and savagery of this continent we called home. I loved the romance of Africa.

My father thought that reading too much was unhealthy

When I was 16 I was stuck in a horrible boarding school. However when I got to university, that was special. By the time I was 18, the gates of heaven had opened for me at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Suddenly there were girls who did not wear gymslips and walk primly to church in crocodile formation. Up until that moment I had never dreamt of how soft and warm these gorgeous creatures were, or how sweet they smelled.

I remember a used convertible I bought that was very popular with the ladies. I lived in Matthews, part of Founders Hall, but I soon found my way to the leading women’s residence, Oriel, named after Oxford’s Oriel College. I fell for a girl who was in her second year. Her boyfriend was a lawyer in Port Elizabeth but she took a shine to me, a bumbling first year, naive and eager to please, but longing for adventure and new experiences. Within a week I discovered, to my joy, that the mouth wasn’t the only way to give pleasure during sex.

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Celebrating his 80th birthday with wife Niso in London in 2013

The only saving grace of my boarding school was an influential English teacher who took time to talk to me about the books I read. He focused my mind on what was I trying to achieve in writing a story.  He liked to have a structure in the classical style: beginning, middle, and end. The idea of picking the story up and letting it go, and then picking it up again in the middle, and then at the end to engender excitement and tension, of not giving too much away at the beginning, of letting characters develop themselves and keeping some mystery about how it’s all going to turn out were all formulas that he proposed to me. Of course it’s the way you take those formulas and employ your own instincts that makes all the difference. If there is a genius in writing, that’s where it lies.

I was very fortunate in having two wonderful parents. My father was a man of action and my mother was an artist, a very gentle person who loved books and loved  painting; I have many of her paintings to this day. My father taught me about the outdoor life and my mother gave me the other side of the mirror with music and books, and before I could read myself, she’d read to me every night. My father thought that reading too much was unhealthy. He only read non-fiction, mostly manuals about how to fix things on the ranch.

In 1949 the year Wilbur Smith turns 16…

  • Israel is admitted to the UN
  • George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is published
  • Rationing of clothes ends in Britain`

In 1962 I was 29 and, sitting in the bedroom of the bachelors’ lodgings where I lived, I stared at the 20th rejection letter I had received for the novel I considered was my masterwork, The Gods First Make Mad. As I screwed it in my fist and prepared to tell my agent to stop submitting it any more widely, I faced a troubling thought: my father might have been right. Books were a waste of time. A few years later, I returned to my love of writing and never looked back.

I remember the first time I saw someone reading my first novel, When the Lion Feeds. I was in the departure lounge at Heathrow in 1964, after a disheartening trip to London when I realised that the red carpet of success was not going to be laid out for me after publishing one novel. An attractive woman was reading my book! I was so overwhelmed that I walked over to her and said, “Excuse me, you’re reading my book.” She looked at me and then put the book down and said, “I’m sorry, someone had just left it here.”

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Smith in 1964 with a copy of his first book 'When The Lion Feeds'

I would hope my 16-year-old self would look at me now and see something in himself where all of this would have been possible. Writing fiction on my own terms, in my own way, and never doffing my cap to another is something my younger self would be pretty pleased about. I think he would look at me and say, you jammy sod, save some for me!’ 

I’d tell my younger self, be careful what you wish for! If you don’t have the chops to deal with the trappings of success, go and work for someone else. The criticism, the uncertainties of self-doubt – it will gobble you up. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Unfortunately they are the only way to learn. Fail again; fail better. Move on; learn.

If I could go back in time I would like to watch my mother and father drinking tea on the veranda of our house again, talking about what had happened on the ranch that day. The happiest times for me now? It’s simple: waking up next to my wife Niso on the first day of writing my next novel. Pure bliss.

On Leopard Rock: A Life of Adventures by Wilbur Smith (Zaffre, £20) is out now