commencement of Jeffrey Archer’s India tour, Landmark bookstores across the
country have been flooded with seekers of autographs and advice. When he makes
his entry at a Chennai outlet, complete with cricket-ball cufflinks, Archer is
in top form. “I have an announcement to make, and it would be nice to make it
on a serious occasion like this. I want to say how absolutely delighted I was,
how proud I was, and how pleased I was... that England defeated you so easily.
And how equally delighted I am that you’re smashing up the Australians.” After
asking us “useless individuals” to concentrate, he adds, “Now, it would appear
to me that, of the current Australian team, there are four of them who can’t
read or write. So let’s not waste any time on them.”
Once the laughter dies down, he conducts a masterclass on writing a 100-word story. People hang on to his every word. Some take notes. Some announce that they have written books. Some want Benedict Cumberbatch to play Archer in a biopic. When he asks for water, four people rush at the single bottle on the podium. When he says The Chronicles could be six, maybe seven books, and says he plans to write a short story collection and his magnum opus after that, there’s an ovation.
Fact: Everyone adores Jeffrey Archer. Fact: Jeffrey Archer adores everyone. He chides, teases, provokes, and complains. But he’s happy to be in this country where hotel staff keep a watch on the time, so he won’t miss a single ball of the cricket series, and where his horror upon finding out the Six Nations Rugby isn’t being telecast is mollified when a live stream is organised, and where people have t ried to sell pirated copies of his own books to him. After recalling that he’d asked me not to darken his doorway two years ago, he sits down to an interview.
When you started work on The Clifton Chronicles, you’d planned for five books, spanning a century, 20 years each. The first stuck to that, second covers the World War, the third ends in 1957, and you’ve said the fourth will go up to 1964. But you announced there may be a sixth or even seventh book. You’re the sort of disciplined author who puts down an outline, and fills out the plot. Is this the first time the book has got bigger than you, and become its own master?
Yes, I think so. Well, certainly it’s out of control, because I had planned to do five books in a hundred years. And I’ve done four books, and Harry is only 44 years old. I can’t kill him off at 44. Now I think it’ll be six or seven books, so I’m out of control. And I was delighted when I told an audience this last night, and they all cheered, and I thought, well, I’d better get on with it. Yeah, it’s taken over, it’s taken over my whole life!
Well, certainly it’s out of control, because I had planned to do five books in a hundred years. And I’ve done four books, and Harry is only 44 years old. I can’t kill him off at 44. Now I think it’ll be six or seven books, so I’m out of control.
You’ve crossed 1947 in the series, but there’s no reference to the loss of India to the British Empire, though all your characters are politically clued in.
No, I avoided it. There are lots of historical events I’ve avoided. You mustn’t think you’re the only race on earth, young lady! You mustn’t think you’re the only people on earth, you Indians! But if you count every single historical fact in, the book would be this big (gestures with his hands). No. I avoided India and 1947, because it would have taken at least three chapters. You couldn’t just put a sentence in—‘Oh, and by the way, we lost India. And that funny little man in a loincloth, called Gandhi, is walking around London.’ You couldn’t do it. It needed more. Because I read the stuff about Gandhi being in London, and the amazing speeches he made, and thought, no, this is off the story. It would have pleased a few Indians, but it didn’t serve a purpose. No. I must stick to the story. The story is the thing.
This series has a lot less violence than many of your other books, even when you’re describing war.
Really, do you think so? (Pauses) Gosh, I hadn’t noticed that. Hmm, I suppose you’re right. Yes. That’s interesting.
Do you think that’s because violence is so much closer to our lives now, we don’t feel the need for it in literature, or we tend to avoid it in literature?
Yes, you’re right. And one is very conscious, when one travels in an airport in India now, how many times you’re checked before you get on the plane. They worry about it. But I think, in my own writing, and dare I say, in my own defence, people want to escape when they read one of my books. They want to go into my world, and come with me on that trip. And don’t forget, I haven’t yet reached the 1960s. There were none of these problems in the 1960s. There was no al-Qaeda in the 1960s. There was no terrorism at airports in the 1960s. In the 1960s, you could still walk up to No. 10, Downing Street, and have a photograph taken outside. You could still leave your car door open. So, I’ll get there, probably.
Do you feel a moral obligation to let the good guys win?
Because the evil people in your book are so much cleverer, really.
Yes, they’re much better, they’re much more interesting, aren’t they? Hugo and Major Fisher... and Martinez—of whom you’ll see a lot more in the fourth book...they’re clever. And there’s the wicked Lady Virginia. So many people wrote about her, I thought I should keep her—she’s too good to be true, they love her. It’s the villains they love! It’s going to be Martinez versus Emma in the next book. And Emma is a very ambitious lady—she’s my wife, you know—and she’s going to rule the world.
How do you find out
whether people who interview you, or who say they’re your fans, have really
read your books or not? Do you use trick questions? Or did you, at least early
in your career?
Well, you can tell straightaway. There are three sorts of interviewers—(a) the ones who’ve read everything, and seriously want to talk about the books, (b) the ones who’ve read them but because they’re journalists, they feel they have to keep a distance, and (c) the ones who haven’t read them, and can’t understand what all the fuss is about. It’s like I always say—I can ring the Pope, if the Pope has read my book. I can ring anybody, but you never know who has and who hasn’t. I mean, I was once at a hotel, where the manager said it would be a great honour if I would have lunch with him. And he hadn’t read even one of my books. And I thought, well, why is it a great honour to have lunch with me if you haven’t read the books? His two assistants had read everything, and I thought you go away, I’d rather sit with the two assistants!
You mention the Ypres battlefield quite often. It’s in several of your books, including As the Crow Flies. Do you have a personal connection to it?
Oh, yes, I do. My grandfather was at Ypres. He lost his life at Ypres. A great man.
You once said the media have been very good to you – but the media never comes off well in your books. The press is seen mostly as nosey, uninformed, eager, silly.
Well, they’ve been good to me recently. And of course, some of you lot know more than I do, keep me on the ball! (Laughs) Well, you see, I think it’s true of any country that there are very good journalists, and mediocre journalists, and bad journalists. And it’s true of any profession too—there are good lawyers and medium ones and bad lawyers. Now, when I read your morning papers here in India, if you follow a story closely—and I’ve been following the story of these four Australian cricketers who’ve been thrown out of the team, and I’ve been reading about it in every paper— and you can see that some people just write it much better, they make me want to read it. And others really write badly.
Do you truly believe the prison diaries of a debutant author—Max Lloyd or Harry Clifton, in this series—would sell as well as those of a famous one?
No, they wouldn’t. (Smiles) That’s storytelling, isn’t it? But a book can take off that’s unknown. I mean, E L James’ erotica books...there’s no explanation why they’re selling so well. There’s no explanation, at any level, why she’s breaking every record. So, it can happen. And of course, millions of writers think ‘It’ll be me next’. That’s wonderful, I have no complaint about that. But it’s not realistic.
In the Clifton Chronicles series, there are recurring instances of credit being stolen for someone’s work—with Clifton’s prison diary, with Giles’ heroism at Tobruk—and it always gets set right. Was this a major concern for you, in your younger and less famous days? That something you wrote could be stolen?
Well, a classic one, funnily enough, was a title. I was terrified that someone would steal the title Kane and Abel. I knew how strong a title it was, and I thought of it six months before the book came out. And I hadn’t quite finished the book, and I had to change all the names in the book, to work with ‘Kane and Abel’. And I was terrified that a book would come out a month before, called Kane and Abel. And I’d be out of the window. Because I thought that was the cleverest title I’ve ever come up with. Though the experts think that Only Time Will Tell is the cleverest title I’ve ever come up with, because it’s very Dickensian, it shows the whole sweep.
There are still silly people, of course, but it doesn’t come up more than once a year, once in two years, now. They’ve worked it out. People have seen me at my desk, you know. And, by the way, why isn’t the ghost-writer talking to the press and saying, ‘It’s me, it’s me, and I’m not getting the money! Or the fame!’ Yeah, that was just stupid
As for ideas, I guess very, very little is original. Most people have thought of something. There are normally variations on an idea. But the idea I have for the bigger novel I want to write in five or six years’ time is the biggest idea I’ve ever had, and I’m very afraid someone else could steal it, so I’m not going to say a word about it.
You’ve also been on the other side of this—for a while, you were accused of employing ghost-writers.
Yeah, yeah, luckily we got rid of that. I tell you what killed that—The Prison Diaries killed that. People said, well, who’s writing this? No, that’s dead now. There are still silly people, of course, but it doesn’t come up more than once a year, once in two years, now. They’ve worked it out. People have seen me at my desk, you know. And, by the way, why isn’t the ghost-writer talking to the press and saying, “It’s me, it’s me, and I’m not getting the money! Or the fame!” Yeah, that was just stupid.
You engage with the class system of England a lot—in Only Time Will Tell, Harry is bullied because he’s a dock-loader’s son; in The Sins of the Father, Maisie is surprised at the warmth shown to her by Americans at a dance and wonders if the same would happen if her partner were a British officer; Giles is commissioned, whereas the butcher Terry Bates is not. You’ve been on both sides—you didn’t go to a public school, but you’re landed and titled now. How do you really feel about the British class system?
Well, it’s pretty dead now. It’s killing Cameron at the moment. My Prime Minister is having a lot of trouble over the fact that he went to Eton and Oxford. So, it’s not dead in people’s minds. But it’s dead in terms of social equality. There’s nothing to stop you from getting to the top in Britain if you’ve got ability, and if I dare to say so, it’s the Indians who are proving that. I think we’ve got about a dozen Indians in the House of Lords!
And a lot of them went to Eton as well, I think.
(Laughs) Yes, that’s a good point. Fair point, I’ll admit.
You’ve covered most of your personal experiences already, in your three latest novels—school and Oxford, army, teaching, politics, writing, book tours, art, disproportionate sentencing, prison... what’s left for the next few?
I don’t know. I wish I could tell you. One of the problems with being a storyteller is that I genuinely don’t know. Some people think you plan it right out, and I can now prove to those people who think I’m making it up that I don’t plan it right out. If I did, I wouldn’t have Harry at 44 at the end of the fourth book. I don’t know where it’s going.
In pop culture—fiction and movies— the English teacher often becomes a mentor. And this happens in your books too. Why do you think English teachers in particular develop these bonds with schoolchildren?
In my case, a man called Alan Quilter, who taught me English at school, gave me a love of Shakespeare, and a love of the theatre that has lasted all my life...all my life. I’m very lucky. I love Shakespeare, I love the theatre, and he gave me that. I love books. He gave me that, and I’m going to be eternally grateful. English teachers in general, I think, do often become mentors. And he was a particularly nice human being as well. Mr Holcombe in the series is my headmaster, from when I was a primary schoolboy.
And now, I think all your readers have a bone to pick with you. When you know we’re going to buy the next book anyway, why is each book in this series a cliff-hanger?
See, that’s the reason! I want you to wait a year. I want you to be angry with me. I want you to be cross with me. My agent didn’t want me to do it, you know. When I wrote the first book and ended on Harry being arrested, and going to prison for a murder he clearly didn’t commit, my agent said, “That’s a hell of a risk, Jeff, I don’t want you to do it.” But my publisher loved it. So I thought I’m going with this, and I’m going to make it bigger. You wait till the end of the fourth book. I’m going to drive you mad by the end of the fourth book.
What is it about the idea of people losing things and building them up from scratch that fascinates you?
That’s what I’ve done. So, I’m only mimicking my own life. And there are millions of people out there who want to do that. There are millions of young people who say to me, “Jeffrey, you’ve made me believe I can come back. You’ve made me believe I can do things.” And women in this country, because of my wife, and because of the way I treat women, and because of the way I admire women, and my prima genitor Bill in the House of Lords, making sure that Kate and William’s first child will be the monarch (irrespective of the child’s gender)—a lot of women in this country come up to me and say, ‘You know the problems we’re going through with these stupid men, and their even more stupid parents who won’t let us be professionals.’ You couldn’t live with Mary (Archer’s wife) for 45 years and not acknowledge that women can conquer anything.
My advice to aspiring writers would be—you’ve got a one in hundred thousand chance of making it, so don’t think because you’ve written a book, you’re going to get into number one. And as you break each barrier, you get into the next one—making it to the bestseller list, and then the next barrier—to the number one!
To get back to the Clifton series, was your first book tour to America as gruelling as Harry Clifton’s?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. (Sighs) Oh...yes. Kane and Abel was a 17-city tour in 21 days. And I did have someone reminding me about how it was the most important thing in the world to get into the Top 15 on The New York Times’ bestseller list – all...the...time. That’s all they care about, these bloody Americans!
So your advice to aspiring writers would be, read The Clifton Chronicles, and stay away from writing?
(Laughs) Well, not quite. My advice to aspiring writers would be—you’ve got a one in hundred thousand chance of making it, so don’t think because you’ve written a book, you’re going to get into number one. And as you break each barrier, you get into the next one—making it to the bestseller list, and then the next barrier—to the number one!
Your writing schedule is pretty rigorous. And you’ve dismissed the idea that you’d retire after writing The Clifton Chronicles by telling us your plans for the next 7-8 years. Don’t you ever want to leave it all behind, and go to the Bahamas?
No! Never! I want to be Number One continually!
I’m going to switch to a career you have retired from politics. The Conservative Party, which you were a member of, is now facing a serious crisis. And with their new cuts on spending, and increase in student fees at universities, a lot of opportunities people had are being taken away. Don’t you think it’s a terrible thing for England?
Well, I think the problem is that Britain is in a massive deficit. It’s got to cut back in order to get into the real world. And this means everybody has to suffer— you can’t have areas that don’t suffer. I would agree with you that it’s a terrible thing when education is affected. Mind you, we have an outstanding Education Secretary in Michael Gove, who acknowledges that education must be a priority. But getting the books straight must be a priority.
The Tories do have a reputation for xenophobia, and now they’ve tightened visa norms. You make allusions in your books to discrimination against foreigners like Bruno Martinez, against Jews...do you think the situation’s any better now, with this clamping down on visas?
We have a massive immigration problem—from Europe, not from India. For example, Bulgaria and Romania have just become part of the European Union. And they’re all out to come get jobs in England, and use the National Health Service. We haven’t got enough nurses, we haven’t got enough doctors, we haven’t got enough hospitals. And we know it.
You’re deeply involved in art collection, and in your latest book, you speak of the British government purchasing items that they don’t want leaving the country. There have been demands from Greece for the return of the Elgin Marbles, and from India for the Kohinoor. How do you feel about that?
I think both of them are classic examples of journalists managing to make one story float. There are 10,000 Elgin Marbles... that the Russians should return to the Polish, that the Germans should return to the Jews, that we should return to...it goes on forever. We got those Elgin Marbles by buying them—one of our great collectors did. And one actress has made it a big front page story. It’s no different to a hundred different stories. And, by the way, if the Elgin Marbles went back to Greece, they would not be displayed as beautifully as they’re displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum for everybody to see. And they’re ours, that and the Kohinoor. Go away, now! (With a mock frown)
You’ve often said you release your books here first, because India is a large piracy market.
Oh, yes, you Indians...30 million people have read Kane and Abel, according to the Times of India, and I don’t see it in my bank balance. And I’ll tell you why. In America, 2.3 people read a book. In England, 2.4 people read a book. In India, 20 people read a book. It goes around families, it goes around friends, and that’s wonderful. And then, as you quite rightly said, are the pirates. You know, I was coming in from the Bombay airport a few years ago. I got caught in a traffic jam, and this smart little boy carrying a stack of books came up and knocked on my window. So, I rolled my window down, and he said, ‘Would you like the latest Jeffrey Archer?’ I said, ‘I am the latest Jeffrey Archer!’ But then, you know you’ve made it as a bestselling author if your book is being pirated!
But don’t you think the availability of e-books has increased the risk, across the world? At your book launch, you said e-book sales have grown from 5 per cent for Only Time Will Tell, to 16 per cent for The Sins of the Father, and over 25 per cent for Best Kept Secret. And when I was Googling to make sure I’d got the answer to your cryptic crossword clue right, I found the whole book online, without having to pay.
Oh, how weird! My book? I didn’t know that! Well, secretly, I’m...(leans in conspiratorially)...delighted. Delighted. When your book is pirated, you know you’ve made it! Don’t tell the publisher, though.
What do you think of new writing in Britain?
Well, we’re not doing it the same way as you’re doing it here in India. There are far more new writers in India than there are in Britain. You’re much more an aspiring nation. But, yeah, our new young writers are very good.
You said R K Narayan is one of your favourite Indian storytellers. What do you make of new Indian writing in English?
Oh, I can’t be bothered with it. Now, stop asking me about India. Go get out into the world! Stop it! And don’t bother me until you make No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list!