Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

An Interview With Jeffrey Archer

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Jeff

Jeffrey Howard Archer

If life can imitate the thriller’s art, then Jeffrey Archer’s (b. 1940) has been a dramatic roller coaster ride. The former British politician and bestselling author’s combined book sales total more than 135 million copies and Kane and Abel (1980), his tale of two siblings at war, continues to sell at the rate of a thousand copies a day. Archer set his sights on a political career as a charity fundraiser after Oxford and was elected MP (1969-74). As a confidant of Margaret Thatcher he was made deputy chairman of the Conservative Party (1985-86) and a life peer in 1992. Though officially styled as Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare, controversy has long been Lord Archer’s middle name.

Libel suits, links with prostitutes, bankruptcy claims, dodgy accounting practices and allegations of insider dealing have tainted his career; it has even been said that he was never a full undergraduate at Oxford. In 1986, Archer was forced to resign as deputy chairman of the party because he paid a prostitute £2,000 to go abroad; as a fall-out of a libel case in 2000 he was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, expelled from the party for five years, and served a two-year jail term; and in 2001 it was alleged that millions of pounds had disappeared from Archer’s charity for Kurds. The satirical magazine Private Eye’s nickname for him is “Lord Archole”.

But he bounces back with resilience, often in unexpected ways. In jail he produced three volumes of prison diaries and was let out to star in a production of his courtroom drama The Accused.  

This recording with Archer followed a glittering lunch given in his honour by a sports impresario and was attended by the capital’s political, bureaucratic and cricketing elite. A large hall on the luxury hotel’s rooftop was crammed with PRs, event managers and camera crews for press interviews. As befits a former athlete, Archer has the reputation of behaving like a feisty pugilist with the media; he is a master at the politician’s skills of subtle evasion, over-simplification and rhetorical exaggeration. Establishing an easy intimacy, however, he was frank, freewheeling and often quite funny in this interview. 

One bestselling thriller after another and, indeed, sometimes your own life reads like one. Fame, fortune, political dramas, scandals and the infamy of serving a two-year jail term—how much of it goes into your books?

I think any author is prone to use his own experiences. When young people come to me and say, “Jeffrey, I want to write a book, what should I do?” I say that you must not think like that. You shouldn’t do a ghost book or a spy story or a war story because they are fashionable. You must write about what you know. I always quote Jane Austen who wrote only wrote five books in her life, arguably five of the greatest novels ever written. She lived in a small town in England. She wrote about a mother who was trying to get rid of four daughters, a mother trying to get rid of three daughters, a mother trying to get rid of two daughters and a daughter trying to get rid of herself. You write about what you know, what you understand, and if you are any good at it, and you can make readers turn the page, they will turn the page.

You spent two years in jail on charges of perjury and you turned the prison term into a page-turner: you produced three volumes of Prison Diaries and also a play with you appearing on stage. So you turned a period of adversity, in one of harshest prisons in Britain, into a publishing success. How tough was that?

Well, you are right, because the three prison diaries ran into a million words. That was my output in one year. Normally I write a hundred and fifty thousand words in a year. I wrote Prison Diary I, II and III all within a year. When people come to me and ask how to finish a book I say that you must get away from what you are doing. You must get away. You must have at least three months away from everyone. So I was sitting in a cell with a pad and pen, with three meals a day, and no one bothering me. This was exactly what I needed but it was also very noisy.

What is it about your personality that you have managed to turn every disadvantage, in fact serial disasters from public litigation and scandals, into an advantage. You just picked yourself up from the bootstraps, in crisis after crisis, to produce bestsellers which have sold about a hundred and thirty five million copies in all.

I think if you have to sit down and start crying or you have to look over your shoulder you will stop. So, yes, there have been some disasters but you have got to get yourself up and get on with it. You can always find excuses, you can always say it was someone else’s fault, it wasn’t really fair, but that’s rubbish. It is always your fault. So get on with life and start again.

When you came down from Oxford, writing wasn’t really on your horizon. It was a political career that you after, wasn’t it?

Correct.  That was what I wanted to do. I entered the Greater London Council at the age of 25 and I entered the House of Commons by the age of 29 in the days when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. I wanted to be a politician. But writing came strangely because I made a very foolish investment in a company and I lost everything I had earned, and more, because I was stupid enough to invest more than I had. It was then that I sat down and wrote my first book called Not a Penny More Not a Penny Less, the story of four men who between them lose a fortune and, one of them, an American brings them together. Nowadays I read regularly in the press that this was an instant bestseller but, in fact, it wasn’t. It sold 3,000 copies and it took a whole year to sell those 3,000 copies before it began to sell well. My writing life really didn’t take off until Kane and Abel which sold millions of copies, including in India. Even today it’s selling a thousand copies a day. It changed my entire life.

What is at the core of writing thrillers? Is it actually the craft of writing, creating characters, inventing situations or do you first get down and figure out a cracking good plot?

You have to have the plot. You have got to have a story that has a beginning, middle and an end and you have got to make people turn the page. I write up to 17 drafts. I get away for two months and I wake up at 5:30 in the morning. I write from six to eight and take a two hour break, I write from ten until twelve and take a two hour break, I again write from two until four,  followed by another two hour break,  then I write from six until eight, light supper, go to bed at 9:30 or 10:00 and begin again at 5:30 the next day. Fifty days of that in a row.

If anyone watching this programme thinks that it can be done in a weekend it can’t be. I was in a restaurant the other day and saw a man of my age with a young lady, who certainly wasn’t his daughter, and as I was passing his table I heard him say to her, “Oh, look, that’s Jeffrey Archer…does he knock off another book this weekend?” They have no idea that it’s hour upon hour of craftsmanship to hone it sharper and finer.

Apart from the rigorous discipline of sitting at your desk and writing, correcting draft after draft, the key to thrillers is the twist in the tale, to borrow a title from one of your books. Where do the slick, often outlandish, twists come from?

Often the young will come and ask that question. They mean it. I say to them, “Do you play the violin?” They say, “No, Jeffrey, I don’t play the violin.” I say, “Do you paint a picture?” They say, “No, I am not an artist.” I say, “I tell a story. It’s a God given gift.” I can tell a story any day of the week; words never stop coming out, they are there all the time.

But in the end it’s the readership, people out there, who make the decision. Ironically, with all your experience and professionalism it isn’t the prose that makes the decision, it’s the public. You’ve got to give them a story they will love. They won’t come back to you if they don’t. One of the joys of India is that many people come up to me and say, “I have read them all, Jeffrey!”

Despite your success as a thriller writer you never set out to be a writer. Was it an accidental vocation?

Totally. I fall in with the Proustian theory that we all end up doing the thing we are second best at. I wanted to be a politician. But I couldn’t get a job when I was out of politics and facing bankruptcy. I sat down and wrote my first book. Then someone said, “You ought to write a second one Jeffrey.” I always wanted to, and did, instead of listening to my wife who said, “Go out and look for a real job.”

That’s the “radiant, fragrant Mary Archer” as described by a judge in one of the court actions you faced. What is it about your life that lands you in real trouble as opposed to many of your heroes who also land into trouble but manage to get out unhurt?

 I think I trust a person too much and there’s a naivete about me. I often say that if I had to make a decision between being a tough cynic and a naive enthusiast, thanks very much, I will be a naive enthusiast. You only get one life. So what if I have made mistakes, who hasn’t? I am not talking about individual things that happened to me. Most people have disasters in their lives. Most people have had tragedies or things gone wrong from which they had to fight back. Very few people sailed smoothly through life.  If you have, “Well done, sir”.

It’s your first long tour of India and you’re going to several cities. What does the country mean to you apart from a big readership and your old love of cricket?

A love of cricket goes way back. I had the honour today at lunch to meet up again with the Nawab of Pataudi who was captain of cricket at Oxford when I was president of athletics. But he captained India before he met with the tragic accident from which he recovered and played just as well. Indians are among the greatest players of cricket in the last 50 years. Watching Virender Sehwag the other day get his triple hundred and  watching Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid score those amazing runs!  It’s also a personal thrill for me because they read my books. I never thought this book tour of India would happen. I have done Australia, I have done America, I have done New Zealand but a tour of India is very thrilling because it’s the nation everyone is looking up to at the moment. In Britain we are very conscious that India is striding to the fore and people talk about the next two decades belonging to India. When the Wall Street Journal said that Jeffrey you’re better off in India than you would be in America, I believed them. That’s why I am here. It’s alright to be the number one on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s alright to be number one on the Sunday Times but to sell at traffic lights in India is different.

What is it about the British political establishment that produces bestselling writers? There’s Ken Follet, a champion of the Labour Party champion, whose wife is a minister, and who’s your competition in thrillers. There are others too. Top-selling crime novelists P.D. James and Ruth Rendell are both members of the House of Lords. What is it about the British propensity to combine fiction writing with public life?

Disraeli wrote novels during the holidays when he was Prime Minister and so did Winston Churchill.  John Buchan gave us The Thirty Nine Steps when he was the High Commissioner in Canada. Douglas Hurd as Foreign Secretary was still writing novels. I think that one of the things about politics is that you meet fascinating people and you face problems every day that are unbelievable. So when you sit down to write a novel you often say, “I can’t put that in because I know it happened and I can’t put in that bit because no one will believe it.”

 

One of your achievements as a Conservative Party MP and later member of the House of Lords was your reputation as a fund-raiser. At key moments you raised large sums of money for the party under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Do you think that it was your ability to raise money through charities and fund-raisers that moved your political career onwards and upwards?

I love people and I am a street politician. I am not very good at pages of paperwork. I worked for Margaret Thatcher and John Major because I liked being on the street and doing that side of the work. I don’t like piled-up boxes with memos and things. I like to touch the people and report back what was happening. And we raised a lot of money for the party because nowadays sadly politics, and I mean sadly, is based on how much money you can raise to run your campaign.

Big political changes have occurred in British politics during your long political career, with the move from Conservative to Labour rule. But how have public attitudes to politics and politicians changed?

When I entered politics forty years ago there was a clear left and a clear right and people were not fighting for the centre ground. Nowadays everybody stands on the centre ground. Tony Blair as Prime Minister was, frankly, a couple of points right of centre. Everyone is fighting for the centre ground, that’s the big difference. The strategic difference is what Margaret Thatcher always pointed out. I had to accept her judgement when she said, “Jeffrey, you know, what happens these days, they put an idea in the air, and they get an opinion poll, and if the opinion poll says that’s what the people want, they go ahead with it.”  She said that that was not conviction politics. Conviction politics is a belief in something, believing you will be elected by the people to lead them.

The era in which I was brought up was under Harold Wilson, a highly intelligent and sophisticated man, who knew that he couldn’t move without the backing of the trade union movement and he couldn’t run a parliament without their support. That’s no longer true. But, in the end, people get bored with the person who is in power. After Margaret Thatcher had ten years they wanted her out for no other reason than she had done ten years. After Tony Blair had done ten years they wanted him out. The truth of the matter is that, after a certain period of time your sell-by date comes up, and they take whoever is the leader of the other party.

You’re a rich man. Your books have made you a millionaire many times over. What do you spend your money on?

Art mainly, I love collecting art. So if a large cheque comes because of a book I go out to buy some art.

You have an impressive collection of Impressionist art, haven’t you?

I love the Impressionist period and I have been collecting for 20 years but I will let you into a secret: I can’t afford my own pictures now and I will tell you why. The world has gone mad. You could once buy a Picasso for a certain sum, then you could buy a Pissarro for a certain sum but, now, the Russians and the Chinese have knocked the markets silly. I can’t afford to buy those paintings any longer. I have come down to lower levels.

So what are you buying nowadays?

I have just seen and am fascinated by Australian artists. They’re much underrated. I have also been buying Fernando Botero, the great Columbian artist now lives in Italy. I am always looking for the next young artist who I think will make it good. But in my own country, if you take someone like Damien Hirst, he is now five or six million dollars for a picture. The world has gone mad.

Perhaps you’re in the right country, after all, because the Indian contemporary art market is undergoing a boom. And it was recently reported that you met M.F.Husain, one of our great artists in London. 

I had a great honour of meeting him and what a dignified gentleman he is! But if I may say so, the difference between him and many other modern artists is that, you give Husain a pencil and he knows what it’s for and that he can actually draw. I went to an exhibition the other day where they put two egg boxes together and framed it and where charging 72,000 pound sterling for it. I say the best way to find out if someone can draw is to give him a pencil.

Do you think India will feature one day in a Jeffrey Archer novel?

You’ve got to be careful about that and I will tell you why. This nation has produced some of the greatest writers on earth, some legendary names, and it would be very foolish to go and tread on their territory just as I wouldn’t expect them to write a book about a man who escapes from Belmarsh prison and seeks revenge on four people, which is all very English. Indians have a worldwide reputation in literature and I am not going anywhere near that.

May, 2008

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