Desert island books: Wilbur Smith

The best-selling author's choices are peopled with deeply conflicted characters taking on epic adventures, from the high seas to herding cattle across America.

"Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry.
Powered by automated translation

With his books averaging sales of three million copies each, Wilbur Smith is one of the best-selling authors ever. Born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1933, he grew up on the family ranch. It was as a child that he first developed an interest in the written word, inspired by his mother. "Before I could read myself she taught me to revere books and the written word. Every night she read bed-time stories to me," he says. After a short career as a chartered accountant and a couple of attempts at writing, he hit the jackpot with the best-seller When the Lion Feeds, a book about "all the things I knew well and loved better" such as "hunting and gold mining and carousing and women". He describes writing as utterly vital to him. "Writing for me is life," he says. "I have two existences, one on the page and the rest of the time in this wicked world." He divides his time between London and Cape Town and shares his Desert Island Books with Helena Frith Powell.

Books: The National Reads

Book reviews, festivals and all things literary

For Whom the Bell Tolls

by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was a trailblazer in the modern style of writing, which makes him extremely important. I love all his work but this is about people in a hugely stressful war situation. I love his sparse writing and the fact that he saw people clearly. His characters are so well defined, without him saying too much about them. And he was a tragic figure himself, an unhappy man who hid uncertainty behind a macho image.

The 11 Hornblower Books

by CS Forester

Horatio Hornblower is a character rather like Hemingway, terribly uncertain of himself and always self-doubting, even though he has incredible courage. And he never shows his real face to the world. I first read these books as a youngster and they have remained with me. Hornblower is very much alive to me, and not just a paper figure.

Cannery Row

by John Steinbeck

I love this book for its humour, pathos and understanding of people who are lower down in the social order. It is a wonderful look back into Depression-era America; touching, moving and funny. Steinbeck's humanity is like a shining light.

Master and Commander

by Patrick O'Brian

I love these books for their characterisation; it is so tense and spot-on. And I love the friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin as well as all the writing about tall ships and the sea. Very fitting for a desert island.

I, Claudius

by Robert Graves

I have always enjoyed Graves's work but for me the masterpieces are the two Claudius books. The central figure of Emperor Claudius is a damaged character; he stutters, he has a club foot, and yet he is a brilliant man and a man who engages my sympathy. Added to which, of course, Graves's prose is wonderful. It is a period of history that excites me and my imagination; this is a book I can reread at any time.

Lonesome Dove

by Larry McMurtry

This is one of the books that I really love to read. It is a western story about a group of Texas Rangers who become trail-herders, taking cattle from Chicago to Montana. The characters are so funny; one of the minor characters eats only the yolks of his breakfast eggs, as he believes the whites make you go blind. My wife eats only yolks, too, so I always eat her whites. Well, I don't want a wife in dark glasses.

Justine (from the Alexandria Quartet)

by Lawrence Durrell

Justine is many things and one of the most fascinating women in literature. The prose in this quartet is extraordinary and the characters are all exquisite. It is the same story told by different narrators and you never get a really clear picture of what is going on because it changes according to whichever storyteller is speaking.

Wilbur Smith's latest novel, Those in Peril, is out now