Good Reading : May 2005
goodreading 17 author profile tempered by the presence of female characters who do more than sleep with men. Africa, he agrees, has changed significantly in his lifetime. But he has no hesitation in recalling how he first became aware of the pull of Africa on his senses. ‘I can remember when I was three or four, going on safari with my parents. It was an extraordinary experience for a young boy,’ he says. ‘Most of the time, I ran along beside the safari but when I was tired, I was carried by porters.We camped at night and Africa was much less cultivated than it is now. It was paradise for a small boy. ‘What stays with me is the sound of lions roaring at night, and the ever-present sense that there were dangerous animals nearby. I dislike snakes, particularly the lights-out kind.’ He gives a sudden rich laugh. ‘They are the kind which give you one peck and you’re gone. ‘When I was a boy, I was a little barbarian. I used to collect birds’ eggs. Once, when I was 30 or 40 feet off the ground, I was looking at a kestrel’s nest. I wore a pith helmet made of cork. As I looked into the nest, I saw that the mother bird was dead and so were the chicks. There was a huge mamba in the nest. I struck and hit it with my pith helmet. I dropped to the ground and ran.The helmet with the venom stains saved my life.’ Stories such as this come easily and spontaneously from Smith’s rich knapsack of memories. He is a writer who mines the past with respect for the veins of his inspiration – his affinity with Africa. His fiction shows a robust love for the dark continent. Smith says that, apart from being born there, he has a simple explanation for its attraction: ‘They say if you are weaned on Zambezi water you are a slave to Africa. I find Africa totally compelling, with a pulse of excitement. As a boy and a teenager, I watched Africa become slowly civilised. These days it is engulfed in new problems. When I was a boy I roamed free. Now Africa has been desecrated. It makes me sad. I write about a vanished Africa.’ Smith was not always a novelist, nor did he have ambitions to become one. In fact, he completed a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce at Rhodes University and entered the business world. He had early hopes of being a journalist, but says his initial inspiration to become a novelist was not through writ- ing words at all: ‘Reading made me a writer. My father was a man of action and to my knowledge didn’t read a book in his life, including mine. My mother, who is 90 years old and still reading, had a huge influence on my imaginative understand- ing of Africa. My mother read stories to me at night. She read to me about Egypt, David Livingstone and the discovery of Rhodesia.This was the childhood fare I received. I then grav- itated to the romantic writers such as Rider Haggard; books such as King Solomon’s Mines appealed to me.’ It would be perhaps doing Smith a disservice to suggest that his books are for mulaic. He does not, however, resile from the description of writer of masculine adventure stories. Does he care? Not at all. ‘I started out doing this and I have stuck to it. I am some- times called a “boys’ own” kind of writer. Still, I’ve softened a lot.