In January 2020, author and Wilbur Smith collaborator Tom Harper travelled to South Africa to research a new book. We caught up with Tom, once the experience had a chance to sink in, and asked him to tell us more about his time there. 

WNSF: Can you tell us a bit about where you visited and what you were researching?

I went to South Africa for ten days, visiting Cape Town, Durban and Kwa-Zulu Natal. I was researching the new novel I’m writing with Wilbur Smith, provisionally titled ZULU. The book is based around the first white encounters with the Zulus in the 1820s and 1830s, most famously the extraordinary figure of King Shaka. Of course, Wilbur’s been living this stuff for decades and has a lifetime of research under his belt. I’m trying hard to catch up!

WNSF: How did you plan your research for this trip? We know you managed to fit a lot of different people and places into the time.

The trip was driven by the history behind this book, and the Courtney series more broadly. Cape Town is the jumping-off point for pretty much any Courtney coming to Africa, so that’s where I started. Durban is where the first British settlers arrived on the east coast, and is well known to Courtney fans as Nativity Bay where Tom and Sarah settle in Blue Horizon.

And of course I had to see the heartlands of the Zulu empire: Shaka’s capitals of KwaBulawayo and KwaDukuza; his successor’s capital at Mgungundlovu; and the battlefield of Blood River, where the Zulus were finally defeated by the Voortrekkers. At Mgungundlovu, you can still see the remains of the glass beads that adorned the support posts of the royal residence, now melted into the ground by the fire that consumed it after Blood River. Moments like that, you really feel the history.

WNSF: Can you describe the day you spent in Eshowe? How does it differ to your day-to-day life?

Like a lot of people, I carry a certain mental image of Africa which is heavy on corrugated iron, dust and poverty. Eshowe, in the foothills of Natal about fifty miles inland from the ocean, reminded me of nothing so much as the leafy and spacious American suburb where I grew up. What I learned that day is the truth of William Gibson’s line that ‘the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed’. In the area that used to be the black township, you get multiple BMWs parked outside large new homes; but the house next door doesn’t even have windows. 

Further out, in the rural areas, I delivered food parcels to families ravaged by HIV and unemployment, living in shacks without electricity or water, and just down the road I spoke to elegant professional women who still have the traditional Zulu kraal full of cattle in the centre of their homestead. I met a teenager surgically attached to her Beats headphones, who would think nothing of slaughtering a cow for a family celebration; and an adopted child who was illiterate until the age of seven, who is now applying to study at the University of Cape Town. It’s such a complex society, clearly in the throes of huge changes. Its problems are well documented, but seeing it in action I really felt a tremendous sense of hope.

WNSF: You visited the Gratton School and led a writing workshop for their students. How did this experience compare to workshops you have led in the UK? 

I led a workshop on how to create tension and suspense in writing, for about twenty-five 16-18 year-olds at Gratton School. It’s an independent school run by the Zulufadder NGO, and there were also students from two local state schools there, Sunnydale Secondary and Eshowe High. I’ve given talks at UK schools before, and always found them really hard to gauge: teenagers don’t give much away if they don’t know you. But the students in Eshowe were a fantastic group to work with: smart, engaged, responsive and really thoughtful. They gave me some of the best answers I’ve ever had in a group.

WNSF: How was your meeting with the local writer’s group in Eshowe?

The most striking thing about that talk was what a range of writing is happening, even in a small and relatively out-of-the-way place like Eshowe. I had novelists, poets, historians, and even a TV scriptwriter for one of the major satellite networks in Johannesburg in the audience. At a time when we’re having such a big conversation about whose stories get told, and who gets to tell them, it was great to see such diversity of storytelling happening there.

WNSF: What was the most inspiring place you visited or most memorable people you met?

Every day had some kind of highlight, and there were so many memorable encounters I almost feel unfair leaving anyone out. But three that particularly stick in the mind were:

1. Visiting Wilbur and Niso at their beautiful home in Cape Town. Sitting in his study, seeing the desk where he writes and a half century’s worth of research materials on the bookshelves around him, while he told me stories of his family’s past and a storm rolled in over Table Mountain: that was an experience I will never forget. Wilbur gave me one of his own books about King Shaka, a book that he himself used much earlier in his career. I’ve got it on my desk now, both as a resource and as a totem.

2. Meeting a genuine Zulu prince. Nick and Sylvia, who run Zulufadder, were both amazingly inspiring in the work they do, and incredibly kind to me during my stay. We were having lunch at the local Historical Museum café, when the curator (who’s a friend of theirs) mentioned that the man at the next table was a Zulu prince. We introduced ourselves: it turned out he was Prince Nhlanganiso Zulu. He’s an impressive man in his own right, having devoted his life to fighting HIV and TB; but he’s also a one of the closest living descendants of King Shaka. To meet him, by such complete chance, was one of those moments when you feel that the gaps between the centuries have collapsed, and some higher fate is smiling on you.

3. Chasing waterfalls. The last day of my trip, I hiked up a river gorge in the Drakensberg mountains. There’d been a storm the night before and the river was high: I reached a point where the gorge narrowed and the path went underwater. Since I was on my own, I didn’t want to risk it. I was going to turn back, when a group of young Durbanites turned up. They thought you could go further, and they didn’t mind if I joined them. So we went on. First we took off our boots; then we rolled up our trousers; then I stripped down to my underwear (my companions had had the foresight to bring swimming costumes). We waded through ever-deeper water, scrambled up and over whitewater, rapids, through an ever-narrowing tunnel in the rock and out into a freezing pool where water poured over a waterfall too high to climb. 

Even then, we weren’t finished: we found a small overhang behind the waterfall where you could swim through and shelter. Bobbing in that tiny cave, jammed in with half a dozen complete strangers, with the water thundering over us: that was when I realised what adventure really is. 

WNSF: What do you feel is the difference between primary and secondary research? What tips for research would you give to other writers?

For a historical novel, the secondary research is critical because it’s the only way to get to the past. All the details that give a historical novel its veracity – the turns of phrase, the attitudes, the ways of life, the material world – you can only find in secondary sources. But you can pile up a mountain of historical detail, and it won’t be worth anything if you can’t integrate it into a coherent world that your readers want to live in. Going to the locations to see them first-hand gives you details you’ll never get from a book – the smell in the air, the colour of the earth, the shape of the land – but it also gives you a concrete foundation on which to build the fictional/historical world of the story. You need both.