'I was in love and thought this was my last chance at happiness’
He met her in a book shop in London and she's 39 years younger than him, but Wilbur Smith says fourth wife Mokhiniso Rakhimova fills each day with joy. His relationship with his three children, however, is not quite as pleasant, he tells Hannah Stephenson.
There's no doubt that Wilbur Smith, whose adventure-filled, savage tales of life in exotic and often treacherous landscapes in Africa and Egypt, is feeling rather pleased with himself.
And so he should, in this, the 50th year since his debut novel When The Lion Feeds was published. Since then, he has written a further 34 bestselling novels, which have sold more than 122 million copies worldwide, translated into more than 20 languages.
He has long lived a life of luxury but has now reduced his number of residences to two – one in Cape Town, South Africa, and the other in London's glitzy Knightsbridge, a short walk from Harrods.
These days, the 81-year-old author buys designer clothes from the exclusive store, and his bespoke Brioni jackets bear the imprint, 'Especially made by Brioni for Wilbur Smith'. He likes that.
He has just penned Desert God, the sequel to River God, published 20 years ago, which continues his Egyptian Series with the return of Taita, a freed eunuch slave in ancient Egypt, who leads a savage battle against southern Egypt's enemy, taking his mighty warriors on a perilous journey up the Nile.
But away from his brutal writings, there's a softer side to Smith when he talks about his fourth wife Mokhiniso Rakhimova, or 'Niso', who is 39 years his junior and to whom he dedicates his latest book.
'I never really knew what happiness was until I met you', he writes. 'Now you fill every day of mine with love, laughter and happiness'.
"It's flamboyant but exactly right," he reflects now. "When she read it, she burst into tears, of course."
They met in 2000 in a WH Smith store in London, when she was a student from the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan studying English. She was looking for a John Grisham novel, but Smith led her to the 'S' section and picked out one of his own books.
"I took her to lunch and we've been lunching ever since," he says, smiling.
His first two marriages were short-lived and his third wife, Danielle, to whom he had been married for 28 years, died from a brain tumour in 1999, six years after it was diagnosed, her husband by her side to the end.
Six months later, he was depressed and considering retiring when he met Niso – but says now she rejuvenated him.
The age gap never worried him, he reflects.
" I was in love – and still am – and I thought this was going to be my last chance for happiness.
"I know she'll be with me until the end of the road."
So, who wears the trousers in the relationship?
"Niso wears skirts that look like trousers," he says, laughing. "She's a very strong girl with definite views on everything in life. She's clever and sharp with money. I rely on her immensely for everything we do. Trust has built up over 15 years and she's never let me down."
These days, they enjoy a life of luxury, travel a lot, and while his days of scuba diving and big game hunting are gone, he still goes fishing and she goes shopping. He finds it easier to switch off and relax than he used to, he says. "Niso keeps me young. I get a dressing-down if I even mention my age. Retirement is a word that is not allowed to be spoken in our house."
His relationship with his three natural children – two from his first marriage and one from his second – has not been so amiable. When asked about them, it's the only time Smith seems steely during the interview.
"They are grown up now. The eldest is 58. They've gone their own way. I gave them advice and they didn't take it, that's their prerogative. I've got so much going on in my life that I can't afford to pick up fallen baggage.
"They have no real desire to see me, because I'll preach to them when I do see them, and they are going to disappoint me, so it's best they go their own way."
Does he think he was a good father?
"No. I think I'm a good writer, that's what I do well, and I don't like to be distracted from what I do well. If I allowed myself, I'm sure I would have regrets about many things in my life, but I don't do it. I look forward with shining optimism to every day that lies ahead of me."
His ability to dismiss his children in a few words may be a legacy of his background. Brought up on a cattle farm in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in a strict household headed by his father, a rancher, he grew up in an environment where 'men were men' and women stayed at home. He'd get the buckle from his father if he misbehaved. He shot his first lion at the age of 13, and his experiences growing up in Africa inspired his early books, which are bloodthirsty and raunchy, with warriors being slaughtered on the battlefield. Over the years, the women in his books have become more important.
"Women have always been a very strong influence in my life. I've been married four times, my mother passed away recently at the age of 95, but she was a pillar of strength to me and I like being with women.
"I went to a boys-only school, and little girls were a strange breed that wore uniforms and occasionally gave a little smile when they were ogled. That changed when I went to university and discovered they were warm-blooded creatures."
Niso runs Smith's Facebook page and he jokes that he struggles to look intelligent in his photos. "I try to look stern and forbidding."
"I'm trying to catch up with technology, which is outpacing me," he continues. "When my computer stops working, I just shout, 'Niso!', and she comes over and taps a few keys and it's working again. I feel like Stone Age man sometimes."
He's reputedly worth millions, and yet insists he's not extravagant.
"I like to see my wife well dressed and drive nice cars but that's not extravagance, that's getting the best out of life. Extravagance is holding parties for 200 people with caviar and French champagne. I wouldn't do that."
He's now struck a deal to write with two co-authors, whereby he will come up with the ideas and the story outlines, and the other writers will fill in the finer details, with Smith's careful editing.
"I have so many stories that I'd still like to write and I can only write one a year, if I work hard. I've written 35 books in 50 years, so if I live to 100, there will only be another 20 books. This way I'll be able to write much more," Smith explains.
"When they put me in the box, I'd like to have 60 books to my credit.
- Desert God by Wilbur Smith is out now, HarperCollins, £20