Lord Jeffrey Archer, at 76, has a record 24 books at #1 on the bestseller lists.
He’s also set to mark a rare feat, with the 100th edition of Kane and Abel. He’s now wondering about the Nobel Prize.
In the closing pages of This Was a Man, towards the end of the seven-part The Clifton Chronicles, the character of Sir Giles Barrington expresses a sentiment that would ring true for the ambitions of any writer.
“They tell me Harry Clifton is dead,” he says, speaking of the lead figure in the series.
“I suggest that whoever dares to repeat that slander should look at the bestsellers lists around the world, which prove he’s still very much alive,” says Giles.
The thought rests close to his heart, agrees Lord Jeffrey Archer, on tour in India with This Was A Man, the last part in the Chronicles.
At the age of 76, he isn’t about to relent with his pace of writing.
Along with Cometh The Hour, Archer turned out two books this year, and the five earlier volumes in the series took him a year each to write.
The thought of death proved invigorating, says Archer. “I am frightened of death,” he concedes. “Now, I don’t stop. I just want to go on. There is so much more to write.”
The fear of not being able to complete The Chronicles was very real, he says. “So I went on working, I’ve never worked harder.”
This Was A Man draws a close to the tale of the Barringtons and the Cliftons, which begins with Only Time Will Tell, in the 1920s, setting up the story of Harry, in a riveting lead-up to the Second World War.
The initial deal for The Chronicles, for which he was paid a reported £18 million in 2009, was for a five-part series.
“The problem was, when I got to the war, I had only one book (The Sins of the Father, the second part in the series) to cover that period,” says Archer. “When I got to the end of the fifth book (Mightier Than the Sword), Harry was only 42, Giles was 42, Emma Clifton was 40, and
god knows what age Lady Virginia was, as she never told anybody.”
Parts three and four, Best Kept Secret and Be Careful What You Wish For, are set in the 1950s and ’60s, leading the tale on with Harry’s son
Sebastian, and into murky episodes of rivalry, deceit and power struggles.
For standing oration
The Chronicles, for readers unfamiliar with it, are wound up in the affairs of the highest offices of England. The narrative brims over with lofty rhetoric and ornate eloquence, of the manner you might associate with the hushed inner chambers of the Buckingham Palace, and expect to find on bended knee, seeking knighthood from the Queen of England. Archer’s taste for speechwriting is more than evident.
“I always enjoyed speechwriting, I wrote for (former British PMs) Margaret Thatcher and John Major,” says Archer.
His love for oratory is natural, as he’s a true man of the stage, and visits the theatre twice a week (back home in London), he says. “Many people say the speeches are the books’ strength,” he agrees.
In a sense, Archer extends a literary tradition that descends from the Winston Churchill school of regimented writing.
“It’s a kind comparison,” he says. “In terms of disciplined writing, yes. I am ferociously disciplined.”
However, he remains rather inept with gadgetry of any kind.
“I can’t type or use any machinery, I still hand-write every word,” he says. “I can turn a light off.”
Can and very able
Archer now has a larger milestone in his sights. In August next year, his 1979 novel Kane and Abel will mark its 100th edition.
“I think, I am the only author on Earth alive who has a book with a 100 editions,” exclaims Archer. “To Kill A Mockingbird (the 1960 novel by Harper Lee) recently did a 100 editions,” he notes. Harper Lee, sadly, died last year.
Kane and Abel has also been translated into a record number of languages, though his English readership stands largest in number,
even in India.
“People worldwide, if they can read a book in the original language, that is what they would prefer,” offers Archer. “I wish
I could read War and Peace in Russian, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues by Erich Maria Remarque) in German, and Les
Misérables (by Victor Hugo) in French.”
What’s going on?
In conversation, Archer is upbeat about his observations, but never droll. His opinions are forthright, and speckled with buoyant jolly goods, quite rights and holy molys. At his blunt best, he’d tell you to “keep your socks on”, when it comesto global affairs.
Recent affairs did catch him off-guard.
“I got it all terribly wrong. I voted for Britain to stay in (the European Union). I certainly didn’t think Donald Trump could be president of the United States. And, of course, I was taken by surprise with the (recalled) Rs 1,000 notes and Rs 500 notes, and rather grateful I didn’t have any!”
“What’s going on is that people are fed up with politicians,” offers Archer. “So, if someone like Trump stands, or Brexit comes along, and
the voter is able to kick the politicians in the teeth, that is what they will do.”
Historically, few people remember the significance of Britain’s allegiance with Europe, he says.
“The main reason we voted to join Europe was that we never wanted another world war.”
It was a tricky proposition to re-enact a time of impending war, in Only Time Will Tell, says Archer.
“People forget today, as we’re coming out of Europe, that peace was always the main theme — we must not go to war again. Today, no
one can perceive a war in which these countries are on different sides.”
Play Lady, play
Disregarding Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the US Elections, Archer asserts that the year 2017 will witness a rise of women in positions of power. “In Britain, we produced two women Prime Ministers (Theresa May and Thatcher), and India has produced one (Indira Gandhi), while America has not had even one!”
“The women of India are going to govern tomorrow,” asserts Archer. “Indian women will set the pace over the next 20 years.”
The Clifton Chronicles also finds passages set in India for the first time in Archer’s books.
The character of Priya, a fleeting love interest of Sebastian was, in fact, based on the story of a lady he met in India. For research, Archer
delved into affairs of arranged marriages.
“It was a fascinating survey,” he says, as he queried couples in prearranged wedlock. One girl’s account, of 30-year-old women finding it
hard to find a husband in India, took him by surprise.
“I didn’t put that in the book, but that shook me.”
’Tis nobler in the mind
Lord Archer has made his love for cricket, and his commendations of the current Indian team, led by Virat Kohli, well-known in his previous interviews. The undying interest ties in with his inner need to be on top of his game.
“I never want to be #2!” he says, with disdain. “You say to Virat, you want to be second! And he will tell you what he thinks of you.”
His next release is a set of short stories, expected in next March. “Then, I will attempt to write a book as big as Kane and Abel,” says Archer.
Readers of This Was a Man would know of Harry Clifton’s book, Heads You Win. “That’s what I’m going to write,” says Archer.
The thought of the Nobel Prize figures vividly in Archer’s thoughts. “I agree with Graham Greene (the late English novelist), that RK Narayan (author of Malgudi Days) should have won the Nobel for Literature,” he says. But he has no quarrel with the songwriter-musician Bob Dylan winning the prize earlier this year.
“I’m naturally sorry that he (Dylan) felt unable to go and receive the prize,” he says, adding, “I want everyone to know that if I’m
offered the Nobel Prize, I will go and receive it.”
TV or not TV is the question
Pitches for a TV series based on The Chronicles are in the works. When it does materialise, the character of Lady Virginia will steal the show, says Lord Archer. “Whoever gets that part will dominate television,” he says. If he could, he’d have the English actress Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (in pic above; Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient), younger by 20 years, take on the role. “She (Lady Virginia) is a wicked woman. You want that sort of rather cool, rather aristocratic, rather off-handed (style), and a very beautiful woman to play her.” Sheridan Smith, who plays the ’60s pop star Cilla Black in the TV mini-series, Cilla, is another prospect for the role.
Kane and Abel has been listed as the eleventh most successful book in the history of novels.
“War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy) is one ahead, and To Kill a Mockingbird is one behind,” notes Lord Archer.
“The editor of a prominent Indian newspaper once rang me and said, 15 million people in India have read Kane and Abel,” he recounts. “I said, that’s not possible. And he replied, it’s a conservative estimate.”
Kane and Abel has officially registered 34 million copies in sales. “Over a 100 million people must have read it,” says Lord Archer
This Was A Man, published by Pan Macmillan, Rs 599. Available at leading bookstores.
— Jaideep Sen