Lord Jeffrey Archer, in India recently to promote his latest novel Only Time Will Tell, takes time off to talk about books, authors and the art of writing.
Lord Archer turns away from the TV as I enter the room to inform me that the England-Bangladesh World Cup match has just started. He's so sorry but I'll have to leave now... maybe another time? His voice booms and bounces around the room, as if he's addressing not one anxious journalist but a whole hall of spectators. I'm anxious only for a second though because the way his eyes twinkle and his voice holds back laughter puts me at ease. He wrings his hands in a theatrical manner and tells me how his manager is keeping his trapped in this hotel.
Lord Jeffrey Archer is definitely a storyteller, and one of the best at that. He's a writer, yes, but every word of every bestseller he's ever sold is a tale spun with such finesse and brilliance, that his own earlier description of himself is the only one that suits him to the hilt. Before I begin, I tell him that his new book, Only Time Will Tell, is a winner. I don't really need to because, on the first day, the book has already climbed to the top of bestseller lists, breaking all records. Still, Archer leans forward and asks in a dramatic stage whisper whether I want to know what happens to Harry Clifton. I nod eagerly, hoping for some sort of a spoiler. He laughs out loud, saying, so earnestly that he forgets to add the effects, “But, my dear, I honestly don't know!” Excerpts from an exclusive interview facilitated by Landmark, Delhi.
What got you telling stories? Or should that be who?
I don't have a story like most authors. I can't claim that I always knew I'd be an author. I was an MP, a very young MP, with financial difficulties. In fact I was almost broke. And so I took that story, a story of aspiration and failure, and turned it into a book. It was a most dreadful surprise when I realised that people were paying to read what I'd written.
On another note though, yes I was always a storyteller. As a child, I did love telling stories. There was no one event or person who inspired me though, I always did love telling tales.
There must be authors you admire. Any Indian names?
Of course there are authors I admire. Yes, that's the word. I won't say I'm inspired, because everyone has their own style, but I love the works of E. Scott Fitzerald, Alexander Dumas, Steinbeck to name a few. I also love theatre, and I particularly enjoy Shakespeare. Actually Alan Quilter, the man my latest book is dedicated to, was my English teacher, and I suppose he'd be someone I could say inspired me.
R.K. Narayan is an author whom I think is brilliant. I love his stories and I've often wondered why he isn't more world renowned. His stories are universal and I think he's the best you've produced.
Only Time Will Tell is your most ambitious work yet, spanning several decades and ending in 2020. Tell us a little about the research that went into it and the reason for this massive project.
This book was a way to test myself. Three years ago, I rewrote Kane and Abel. When that happened, I thought, let me try something bigger, something greater. I've put everything into this book and, while people might miss it, an immense amount of research has been put into it. Right now, the first volume is set in the 1920s; I've taken great care to ensure that the characters talk like they belong to this period. I'm going to keep bringing in changes as times change. Harry will live through the age of computers and Internet and everything else that's happened. The last book will have me writing about the future. I find that thought extremely exciting. I'm grateful this book is doing so well, because it is my greatest project yet, and it's also very autobiographical in a way.
So is a little bit of Harry Clifton autobiographical?
Yes. Actually there's a little bit of me and my life in the whole book, not just Harry. I've borrowed from my experiences, and that always helps. Maisie is based loosely on my own mother, Hugo is an amalgamation of a couple of people I know, Alan Quilter is reflected in Harry's own English teacher, Old Jack is based on an extremely close friend. Giles actually goes on to become a writer. I suppose by the time this book ends, I'll be sick to death of autobiographical writing. But the thing is, there's a story everywhere. When it comes to finding them, I treat every situation and every person equally, and you never know which event or person might lend you a story to tell.
You've used several, six to be precise, narrative voices in the book. How did you manage, to find an insight into not just the hero or heroine of the book, but all other major characters?
I would love to tell you, but I don't know. It's strange, but I honestly don't. People don't believe me when I say that. A few days back, in Mumbai, a journalist just like you promised she wouldn't tell anyone my secret. But, you see, this is a gift I have. It's not something I can explain or have trade secrets about. I wake up every morning and I'm grateful to God, and I always ask him if he's going to let me do it again.
Why this period in history? Why not something else?
I suppose I was looking for a challenge. After Kane and Abel's rewriting, that's all I was looking for. This book is demanding and, let me tell you, after I gave it to my publisher, he too asked me about Harry's fate. That time, I didn't even know what would come on the next page, let alone the next book. I've chosen a period where a lot of research is required, but I've made sure I stay authentic and real. In the next book, there's a world war sequence that involves Giles. And when you are reading it, you'll find it so outrageous that it'd seem like it's completely made up but I could tell you the exact day and date it happened on.
When I write about Harry becoming an author, I'll borrow from my own experience of the literary and publishing world. I would never write about vampires, witches and fairies because that's something I don't know anything about. People ask me to write about India, but I can't. My experiences of India are limited to hotel suites and airports and bookshops and fans. I can't write authentically about an India I don't know well enough.
A story in your collection, And Thereby hangs a Tale was about Indians. Tell us how you came to write that?
That was about people I know, close friends who are Indians. It was a short story, and so possible to write. In fact I had lunch with them when I arrived and I'm meeting them again in a day.
How has the Indian journey been so far?
Disastrous! Tonight is the first night I'm being let out of the hotel for something other than related to work. I'm attending my first Indian engagement party at the Kumars'. But otherwise it's been one long ride of signing books, meeting people and giving interviews. But, you know what, I'm not complaining. There are millions of people reading my books and they love what I do. I'm so grateful for that. There was a time when I went to a book signing; precisely three people showed up. I had the whole day to sign their books and enough time to include long messages with that. Now, people have brought my books with such speed that it's already on the bestseller's list after a day. Why would I be anything but grateful?
Your stories, though not set in India or in a context that would be familiar to Indians, are immensely popular here. What makes them tick in India?
Indians love stories. And they love aspirational stories even better. The thought of reading about someone making it big, that's always universal, right? I think that's it. I'll tell you a little story. Yesterday, a boy, about eight years old, came up to me during the book signing. He wanted to ask me a question. His mother was holding his hand and looking a little worried. So this eight-year-old walks up to me, and asks me in a grave voice, how I got those lines on my forehead! The thing is, I knew that was a sign of his own aspiration shining through. He thought that to do what I'm doing, he had to find out the secret to those lines on my forehead.
Many cricketers from the Indian team love your books, don't they?
Yes! And I find that a huge compliment. I know they read my books when they are touring and visiting unfamiliar places. That I can provide them with a sort of relief is a nice thought, isn't it? In fact not only Indian cricketers but others too. Just a few days back I sent a hardcopy of my book to A. B. De Villiers. He had told me earlier just how much he enjoyed my books and I thought it would be a nice gesture.
You have a distinctive style. Have you ever wondered about changing it?
No, and I don't think I will. I'll continue to do what I do best, and as for fashions changing, well, I think storytelling - solid, honest to goodness storytelling - always stays in fashion. People still love my books, and I hope that they will continue to do so, even as constantly changing trends come and go.