Wilbur Addison Smith was born January 9, 1933 in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). It was named in honor of Wilbur Wright, the aviation pioneer. His father, Herbert, was a rancher who became a sheet metal worker. Her mother, Elfreda, was a painter who encouraged her to read.
He contracted cerebral malaria when he was 18 months old. “It probably helped me,” he said later, “because I think you have to be a little bit crazy to try and make a living writing. He contracted polio as a teenager, which resulted in weakness in his right leg.
When he was 8 years old, his father gave him a .22 caliber Remington rifle. “I shot my first animal shortly thereafter and my father ritually smeared the animal’s blood on my face,” he writes in his memoir, “On Leopard Rock: A Life of Adventures” (2018) . “Blood was the mark of nascent virility. I refused to bathe for days afterwards.
He attended Michaelhouse, a private boys’ school in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands of South Africa. He started a student newspaper there, but he hated school.
“Michaelhouse was a debilitating experience,” he later recalls. “There was no respect for the students. The teachers were brutal, the prefects beat us and the older boys intimidated us. It was a cycle of violence that kept on going. Reading and writing, he says, have become his refuge.
“I couldn’t sing, dance, or wield a worthwhile paintbrush,” he told Australian website Booktopia in 2012, “but I could weave a pretty story.
He said he initially wanted to write about social conditions in South Africa as a journalist, but his father pushed him towards what he believed to be a more stable profession. After graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1954 from Rhodes University in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), South Africa, he worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for four years, then joined the company from manufacture of sheet metal from his father. When this business faltered, he became a government tax assessor.