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"Every waking hour of my life is involved with my novels" - Wilbur Smith Talks Shop with James Rollins

Wilbur Smith and PharoahWilbur Smith is famous for his historical Ancient Egypt thrillers. James Rollins, in contrast, sends his high-tech Sigma Force team all over the globe. But both authors have a lot in common, including new books that hit shelves this fall.

These two adventure-minded writers recently spoke together about Smith's newest novel, Pharaoh.


James Rollins: Wilbur, the first book of yours I read was The Sunbird back in the late seventies—where you masterfully blended a modern story with one set in ancient Egypt—and I've been an awed fan ever since. What do you think are the key elements to writing such great historical adventure novels?

Wilbur Smith: A knowledge of the area gained by traveling widely and reading every book I could on the subject.

Rollins: After decades of crafting stories set in Ancient Egypt, you continue to find thrilling and intriguing new tales to tell—and your latest, Pharaoh, is pure genius. Taita, the hero of the series, is a demigod and adviser to the Pharaoh. How has the character evolved over the course of this series?

Smith: There have been six books in the Taita series, and neither he nor myself realized that he was a demigod at first. It became clearer that this was the case as the story progressed.

Rollins: As with all of your prior books, the historical details and descriptions in your Ancient Egypt novels are incredibly evocative. You immerse us in that ancient world. You reveal details that are historically accurate and oftentimes revelatory. Do you see your role as a novelist to entertain or do you also seek to educate your readers about those long-lost dynasties of Egypt?

Smith: My books are sheer entertainment and as such I go out of my way to make them interesting and for the action to move forward swiftly. If the storyline rings true and the characters are convincing, and all that follows falls into place brick by brick and word by word, they add up to a narrative that the reader accepts wholeheartedly. I believe in my characters. When they speak, I listen. This way, I am able to convince my readers of their real existence.

Rollins: You currently write three series – two are historical adventures, and one is a contemporary thriller. How, if at all, does your life in Central and South Africa influence your novels?

Smith: My life in Africa and in the world influences my novels completely. For fifty-odd years they have occupied me. Every waking hour of my life is involved with my novels.

Rollins: You, like me, love to travel the globe. I often find myself learning intriguing details about people, places, or history that I fold into stories. Have your travels found their way into your books? And I have to ask (if only to learn of a new place to visit), what is the most thrilling trip you've taken?

Smith: I've traveled the world very extensively, not only in Africa but in every other continent in the world. South America, North America, Europe and the Far East. These travels have played a huge role in the lessons I have learned. It would be certainly impossible for me to pick out the most thrilling journey I've ever taken. There have been so many, from the Corbett National Park in northern India to the steppes of South America and to canoeing in an ancient barge on the Nile.

One personal adventure that made its way into my writing was when I journeyed across the desert on a camel, experiencing how to live for seven days with nearly no water or no food. I did this because The Quest started with Taita starving himself for five or six days, meditating, training himself to go into a place where there was not much to sustain him. I thought, "If I don't feel how hunger feels, what real hunger means, how am I going to write about it?" In order to write that story I had to have that firsthand experience. 


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