This Archer's quiver is full of tales

Authors nook

This Archer's quiver is full of tales

Legendary Novelist : Jeffrey Archer during the launch of his book (inset) in Bangalore.  DH PHOTO BY  M S MANJUNATH

I go to meet Jeffrey Archer with more than a bit of trepidation, as India is playing Netherlands in the World Cup cricket preliminaries that day. Aware of how much he loves his cricket, I am afraid he might, quite characteristically, dismiss the interview for the match. But I needn’t have worried.

Despite his attention being drawn towards the TV from time to time, and our conversation veering towards cricket every now and then, he was more than forthcoming with his answers. In Bangalore to launch his latest book, Only Time Will Tell, the first in a five-part series, this 71-year-old could surely turn on his legendary charm.

His five-book series that spans a century from 1920 to 2020 and called the Clifton Chronicles is his most challenging work yet. Surely, even at his age, this Archer’s quiver is packed with tales to be told. Only Time Will Tell is the story of the early life of Harry Clifton, gifted with a beautiful voice but damned by circumstances. It ends with a seemingly difficult dilemma to resolve.

Archer tells me that he’s completed the first draft of the second book, and it ends with a dilemma even bigger than the one, in book one. He refuses to be cajoled into revealing what it is about, though. “Definitely not,” he thunders when I try. “Emma becomes big in the second book,” he concedes as an afterthought. “It deals with Emma’s quest to find Harry.”

“I was brought up in Weston-Super-Mare and I knew Bristol, the city I am writing about, very well. It was a tremendous challenge to write five books in a row and I wanted to take it up,” he says on why he began the series in the first place. He hasn’t worked out the entire story in his head yet, and therein is its charm. “Sometimes, you write the book and then suddenly realise it’s gone off in another direction. Then you’ve got to write a new book that fills in the gaps,” he says. At the end of book one, he didn’t know how he’d get Harry out of the situation he had put him in. 

Quite evidently, a lot of research has gone into his writing, as his story is set in the 1920s to the 1940s. So he’s read novels set in that period, even a couple of non-fiction to get a feel and flavour of the speech and life of the time, he says. He believes it is his love and fascination for people that helps him write interesting stories. It also helps that he keenly listens to what people have to tell him. “Just this afternoon I had lunch with a gentleman who explained arranged marriages in great detail. Will that ever get into a book? I don’t know. But I am always learning, always wanting to know, always digging...” he says, talking about how he researches for his books. 

A classic line in Only Time Will Tell is evidence of how receptive he is to creatively using acquired information. When Old Jack asks his father why he always travels third class, his father replies: “because there’s no fourth class.” I ask him if he’s aware that this very line is popularly attributed to Gandhi. “No! I got that from my wife’s professor,” he tells me, sitting up straight, evincing genuine surprise.

For someone whose books have sold by the millions, he can be very modest when it comes to talking about his writing skills. His books sell only because he’s been blessed with the sheer gift of story-telling, he says. “I don’t play the violin, I don’t sing a song, I don’t paint a picture. I tell a story.” And he wouldn’t be able to teach anyone how to do that — “creative writing classes are rubbish”. Neither does he think he’s very clever or philosophical. He just sits down and writes a simple story — no analysing or trying to look for deeper meanings, for him. 

Like all writers, his writing too tends to be autobiographical in the fact that he writes only what he’s familiar with and that is a strength that has worked for him. “It’s a weakness if you suddenly decide you want to write about vampires because vampires are in... I write a simple story and pray that people will turn the page and hopefully enjoy it. But I can’t be writing Jurassic Park this year because that’s what somebody wants!”

When it comes to writing, he’s totally disciplined, alternating two hours of work with two-hour breaks right from 6 in the morning to 8 in the night. And when he’s not writing, he does theatre, art galleries and charity auctions. And of course, watch cricket. If he hadn’t been a writer, he would open the batting for England, “unquestionably.”

Writing came to him quite by accident, he says. He was on the brink of bankruptcy when he wrote Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, not sure he could write at all. It was turned down by 17 publishers, published by the 18th and sold just 3,000 copies.

Subsequently, of course, “it sold twenty five million seven hundred and fifty thousand copies!” But it was his next book, Kane and Abel, that changed his life, selling a million copies in the first week. “It came as a bit of a surprise to me that I could actually be paid for telling stories,” he says. Kane and Abel has now sold 33 million copies and has been read by 50 million people in India alone.

If not for his financial woes, would the world have lost a great storyteller? “I think that’s a fair comment. I would have probably ended as a minister of transport in Britain and been forgotten in 10 minutes,” he laughs. He can even be philosophical about going to prison, now. Although he didn’t enjoy the experience, those two years in jail helped him gain knowledge about a group of people he would never have known otherwise, and a 100 stories have come out of it.

It’s hard to imagine that this man, talking animatedly about cricket and writing, lived a life as dramatic as his fiction. Member of parliament, overnight publishing phenomenon, and then Lord Archer — he’s experienced the highs of life. He’s also suffered the ignominy of being an almost bankrupt businessman, accused of lying, and then convicted and jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

“For the past ten years, my life has been quiet and I am totally focused on my writing. I’ve even been winning awards in France and Germany. Being acknowledged as an award-winning author has come as a bit of a shock to me,” he confesses. Whether he will continue to live as quietly as these last few years or get entangled in fresh controversies, only time will tell.

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