York writer Tom Harper's latest blockbuster adventure novel has gone straight to the top of the bestseller lists. But then, he did co-author it with Wilbur Smith. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

TOM Harper has carved out a name for himself as the author of historical action-adventures that are pitched somewhere between a thinking man's Dan Brown and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Often, they involve travel to dark and dangerous places - the Amazon jungle for Black River, the freezing wastes of the Arctic circle for his take on the Frankenstein myth in Zodiac Station.

The author usually insists on researching his novels by visiting the places he writes about.

So for Black River - which tells the story of adventurers searching for a lost Inca city in the deep jungles of the upper Amazon - he really did journey deep into the heart of the Amazon rainforest. And while working on Zodiac Station, he spent ten days on the Arctic island of Svalbard, so as to experience the cold for himself.

It was like a physical thing, he told The Press in an interview a few years ago. "It was so cold that the membranes in your nose froze, and your head hurt!"

Nothing, however, could quite have prepared him for the rollercoaster adventure of co-authoring a blockbuster adventure novel with one of the world's most famous authors.

Tom - in real life the quietly-spoken young dad of two and York school governor Edwin Thomas - had just come off the squash court on a Monday evening when he picked up a message.

The gist of it was: 'Call your agent at once!'

He did - only to find, to his amazement, that he had been invited to consider collaborating on a novel with Wilbur Smith, the author of such epic historical action-adventures as When The Lion Feeds, set in South Africa during the Zulu wars.

He's never read any of Smith's books. But he bought Monsoon, a swashbuckling adventure story of piracy in the high seas around India in the early 1700s, and read it on the train down to London to see his agent.

"I was completely hooked," he admits. "It's an epic, a tremendously vivid and exciting piece of writing."

He was offered the chance of collaborating with Smith (who is now in his mid eighties) on writing The Tiger's Prey, a planned sequel to Monsoon.

He debated with himself for a while - he'd never before considered co-writing a novel, and wondered how he would find it. But it was too good a chance to miss. "I just thought working with someone like Wilbur from a writing point of view was going to be fascinating."

So it proved. Tiger's Prey was like nothing he'd ever written before, Tom admits.

"He writes these big, epic stories. I've never tried to write anything so bold. The storylines are incredible."

Tiger's Prey is set between the events of two of Smith's earlier novels, Monsoon itself and Blue Horizon.

Both are part of Smith's epic series of novels featuring the Courtney family, buccaneers, traders, wanderers and adventurers who, over the course of a few generations, move from England in the early 1700s to India and then to South Africa in time for the Zulu wars - the territory of When The Lion Feeds.

Tiger's Prey, set in and around the Indian Ocean in 1710, features two members of the Courtney family: Francis, who flees the comfort of his Devonshire estate when his stepfather's debts leave him penniless; and Christopher, who gives up his privileged position as the son of the Governor of Bombay so as to make his own way in the world.

The book opens with a desperate sea battle in the Indian Ocean. A heavily-laden merchant ship is running for her life from the ship that has been shadowing it. "She'd appeared at dawn, long and low and sleek as a ravenous wolf," the book begins. "Red-painted gun ports chequered her black hull. She was gaining."

It is a pirate, of course: and it makes for a breathless opening.

But Tiger's Prey is much more than just a book about pirates on the high seas, Tom says. In the hands of a lesser writer, that's all it would have been. But for Smith, that's just the starting point. And Tom was taken along for the ride.

He met Smith twice, initially to thrash out a storyline. He was amazed at the complexity of it, and the sheer number of characters. It was interesting, also, in that the book was intended to ill in the gaps between two earlier novels. So they had to take the characters that had survived the events of Monsoon, and, over the course of more than 400 pages, bring them to the point at which Blue Horizon began.

It soon became clear that Smith was a master of the storyline, Tom says.

Where Tom, overexcited, tended to over-complicate the plot, Smith pared it back, making sure that every twist and turn served the story and was consistent with the characters.

"He doesn't say much, but what he does say is right to the point," Tom says.

Tom was then given the job of writing a first draft. "He said 'You write the book in the way you think it should be written, and then I'll take the draft and make it the book I think it should be.'"

That's exactly what happened. Smith made quite a few changes to his initial draft, Tom admits. Sometimes the' were fairly minor stylistic changes; but sometimes whole scenes were rewritten.

Smith also proved very good at detecting bluster.

"Some bits I'd written were maybe a bit self-indulgent," Tom says. "Wilbur can sniff that stuff right out."

The resulting book was a true collaboration. But was it better than Tom's original draft?

"It definitely made it a better Wilbur Smith book! I was really pleased with it."

And so he should be. The book jumped right to the top of The Sunday Times bestseller list.

It is the first time of Tom's books to have reached such a heady height. And yes, OK, Wilbur Smith's name appears on the front cover in huge lettering, while Tom's is at the bottom in a much smaller font.

But it's a bestseller. A writer he once knew who collaborated on a book with James Patterson put it best, Tom says.

"He said 'You dream of getting to the Wimbledon singles final, and then one day you find yourself at Wimbledon in the doubles final. But you're at Wimbledon!'"

With two more Wilbur Smith/ Tom Harper blockbusters already written and awaiting publication, the quietly-spoken York author has certainly hit the big time. But he hasn't given up on writing his own solo novels.

"I'm putting together proposals for a new Tom Harper," he says.

Fans will glad to hear it...

BLOB Tiger's Prey by Wilbur Smith with Tom Harper is published by HarperCollins, priced £20