Resurrecting history

The Guide caught up with author Wilbur Smith on his first trip to the city for the promotion of his 32nd book, Those in Peril

Wilbur Smith is one of the few authors around the world who has more than 150 bloggers talking about him. To cut a long story short, he is a celebrity but without the airs of a bestselling author. Perhaps his humility comes from the fact that life hasn't dealt its best cards for him. "What my life is or has been has sustained my passion for writing," he says. 

All of Smith's books are a combination of history and fiction and are also notorious for their graphic sexual scenes. They fall under three broad categories -- Courtney, Ballantyne and Egyptian. His latest book, Those in Peril, follows the story of Cayla (19) who is kidnapped by African Muslim pirates and the efforts put in by her mother to save her. 

When history meets fiction
Wilbur Smith has a knack for mixing history and fiction so effortlessly that the reader hardly realises that the book is based in the 16th or 17th century. When asked about how easy or difficult it is to bring these two ends of the spectrum together, he says, "History is in all of us; we are creatures of history. History is about people and it is easier to deal with your characters if they are realistic. When I am reading other books I have seen that suddenly the characters do something that is very unlike them and I tend to lose interest. I want my characters to come to life and start running the story. A historical background helps a lot. I feel like a mere puppet in the process," he adds.  

Visualising the characters
The protagonists of Smith's books have often been immortalised in public memory. So does he visualise his characters before he writes about them? "There are very few people who are simple, fair men with a good sense of morality. These characters, including Cayla's character, are a combination of my own morality and of the people I know. The Sheikh's character in the book is someone who stops at nothing, who has no morality and no pity. I have known people like that." 

Being a bestselling author
Even after 31 books, Smith felt equally passionate about writing his 32nd book. "These are just numbers for me. My publishers and agents have checked and the numbers have come up to 125 million readers but again that is just a number. I could have stopped at 15 books but I can't. I am a writer and this is what sustains me." An interesting anecdote from his life is about his father telling him to get a real job instead of becoming a journalist. So, is writing a real job? He laughs a long deep-throated laugh and says, "Of course it isn't, I look at it as more of a passion than a job. I write for my readers who have been reading for 40 to 45 years. I got a letter one day from a grandson who said that his grandfather's last wish was to be buried with all my books, and attached was a picture of the old man in a coffin with all my books. This is the kind of love I get."

A book is not its movie
About seven of his books have been adapted into movies, so we quizzed him about which one is next on his list. "I am not interested in making movies. I will sell the rights of the book and whoever wants to make movies can. But I think my characters aren't justified in movies. They change the name of the book and the characters. I feel that movie-making is a boring process. I like movies but I don't like my books being made into movies." 
Commenting on the graphic scenes in Those in Peril, he says, "If I thought I went too far I wouldn't have written it. On a serious note, I thought it fits into the book. These things happen every day where girls are raped and brutalised. I haven't invented anything new." 

Chetan Bhagat, Who?
Jeffery Archer once said that at a signal a little boy approached him and told him to buy a pirated Jeffery Archer novel saying that it is a "bestselling author's" novel. Archer promptly told him that he was the "best-selling author". Smith finds it alarming that piracy is rampant in India. "I think its tantamount to stealing and we are being ripped off our rights."  Smith admits to have met the Amish, the author who wrote Immortals of Meluha. "I like to meet people who have similar writing ideas like me. I am afraid though that I haven't heard of Chetan Bhagat," he signs off.

Those in Peril is available at leading bookstores.

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