As his much anticipated book, ‘Best Kept Secret’, is unveiled, Jeffrey Archer engages
in a candid conversation with S Nandakumar, talking about India, his books, and things to look forward to...
With clockwork precision, Jeffrey Archer made an India visit for the third time in as many years. He was in Bangalore as part of the Landmark tour to release the third book in his series Clifton Chronicles, Best Kept Secret. The book was released here a couple of days earlier than in his own country, England.
While beating book piracy was the main strategy behind releasing the book in India ahead of the rest of the world, this is what the witty raconteur said he looked forward to when he came to India: “Beating you in cricket! Apart from that, I love the people. They really do read. They really do care. And I admire that and love it. And it gives me great confidence to go on. I think I am going on for you who are really screaming for the next book all the time. That is wonderful.”
I wondered out aloud what the biggest thing was that struck him as a writer each time he visited India. “I love the country. And I admire her perversities. I mean, here we are, sitting in one of the greatest hotels on earth, and a hundred yards away, there’s a hovel. The contrast is actually staggering.” He admitted that these confounding differences did get to him.
“Yes, on two levels. One, I realise how lucky I have been, very privileged, having the best of everything, everywhere I go in the world, and I think for one gift, the simple gift of telling a story. You are given all this. I sometimes think this is madness. Lunacy. I see my wife running one of the great hospitals on earth, a thousand doctors, 3,000 nurses, a budget of a billion dollars, she gets 45,000 pounds a year! So, the world is mad!”
Archer, like scores of other storytellers, is an entertaining writer, but not amongst the group considered to be ‘serious’ writers, the ones who win the literary awards. Archer’s response is swift. “Well, I’ve just won two major French awards — and the French are not good at giving English people awards (tongue firmly in cheek). I have an American award and a German award. I’ve never had an English award — I think they consider storytellers to not be in the same level as serious writers. For example, Salman Rushdie wins awards all the time. So I have to choose between whether I sell millions of books or win awards — I’d rather sell millions of books.”
“But I do work very hard, as you will know, at the craft — I want to be a good writer, as well as a good storyteller. And there is a quote here that will interest you, from a man called Alan Massey, and he is a Scotsman –– he is a tough critic from The Scotsman, which is a tough paper — ‘There are a lot of so-called writers who would like to be able to do what Jeffrey does.’ And I think that pretty well sums it up.” But did he miss being in the same bracket as a Nobel Literature laureate or a Booker Prize winner? “It’s not realistic... will never get a major prize. Never. But 50 million people have read Kane & Abel. How many people have read Nadine Gordimer? Or even heard of Nadine Gordimer?” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.
Didn’t he ever want to write an Indian story? “I avoid India, there is a texture to India, there is an Indian feel, and I don’t have the confidence to do it. I read R K Narayan, and I think, ‘No, I couldn’t do that.’ I’ll leave the great Indian writers to do India.” It would be very interesting to see an outsider’s view on India, I persist doggedly. “Ah! I could write six chapters on the transport system in India!” he exclaimed with a rueful laugh. “It used to drive me absolutely berserk. Now I just sit back. The driver told me that it would take me 15 minutes to reach the hotel, I knew it would take me 45. He said that to please me. Indians say things they think you want to hear. It’s a great Indian weakness. Now, many modern Indians are not doing it. They’ve stopped it. They’re realistic.”
Archer works long hours on his writing, totally focussed on the present series. “I do eight hours a day, I would think that a book takes 1,000 hours, 14 drafts, every one handwritten. Oh, it’s hardwork,” he exclaims, knowing that I would take the bait. I did, as I interjected with incredulity, “You hand-write your books?” He replies with satisfaction, “Oh, every word.” He was enjoying this bit. Not even a word processor, I ask. “I don’t know how to. Couldn’t turn it on.” “But a typewriter, you had one even in those days when you started…” I say, as he cuts me off with a wave. “I don’t approve of typewriters!” So, did he have a favourite pen that he wrote with? “Yes, it’s called a Pilot, they move across the paper very smoothly, they are very easy, but I am always looking for the latest pen. It is not a real fountain pen; it is a form of a ball-point (gestures with his hands to show how smooth it was). Was his handwriting very good? Pat came the reply, “Nope. But by the time I do the third or the fourth draft — my secretary doesn’t get the first draft — by then it’s okay!”
I ask him about the fourth book in the Clifton series. “I’ve done the first draft, which is the hardest. If I went under a bus this afternoon — and the odds for that are pretty good in this city — they’d print it. But I’d like to do another 12 or 13 drafts before getting it spot on,” he says. He refuses to give out the name of the next book. “Can’t tell you — because you would print it! And people would go all over looking for it. Because I want people to remember the Best Kept Secret.”
But, he does reveal that he is readying a new book of short stories. “I will do a set of short stories when the Clifton Chronicles are finished. I already have nine out of the 12, so I feel pretty confident that I will have before that arrives, because Indians seem to like short stories. In fact, I have separate fan clubs out here that tell me they love short stories. And then I am planning, God willing, to write the biggest novel of my life after that. I know the outline. And it’s just simmering at the moment. But the brain is on this,” he says, gesturing to the latest book lying by his side.
But, getting back to his day job — while it would be interesting to see if his latest offering shoots up the bestsellers list like his other novels, one thing is certain — there will be another novel, and another Jeffrey Archer visit in the coming year.