I had first laid my hands on a Jeffery Archer novel in my teens. Kane and Abel was it. Within a few days of opening that fat tome, I had devoured it, utterly captivated by the pacy twists and turns in the tale. The thriller was slated as the perfect read for an ‘instant gratification generation’. The categorization, to my mind, carried whiffs of deprecation. As a reader I found myself riveted by most books by Archer. And really, if as a writer you can transport your readers into another world and make your books unputdownable, you have pretty much cracked it.
I was getting to meet the man behind those page-turners of my youth, in the summer of 2008. I was short of being starry eyed, but as always I was careful to maintain a neutral visage when interviewing an icon (which means, no, I did not get any autographs or photographs clicked with the people I was meeting in a professional capacity – that is one thing I cannot help being scornful about). Darn it, but I was excited.
It was around the time that the Indian Premier League had just taken off in a big way. It afforded me a cricket quip to start off a conversation with the storyteller while we were seated in the vast, empty banquet hall of a five-star hotel. It turned out that Jeffrey Archer was not an ardent fan of the pocketbook edition of the game. The purist streak in him called for a Test match between India and England at Lord’s. And a century for his hero Sachin Tendulkar at the same venue.
At the time, Archer was 68 years old and on his first tour of India. He was busy with book readings and signings for his newly released thriller, A Prisoner of Birth. He made pitstops in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Chennai in a tie-up with Landmark. It was accordingly being promoted as the Landmark Jeffery Archer tour.
During a book-reading session at the Landmark bookstore in Gurgaon, Haryana, the British peer had a captive audience of 700 for the entire evening. He knew which buttons to tap. He waxed eloquent about having dined with Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid and the fact that he had squeezed into his itinerary a Twenty20 match — Delhi DareDevils vs King’s XI Punjab — at the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi.
Cricket, he fessed up, is his passion. “As my friend, Farookh Engineer, says, ‘Jeffery, you would have been the natural captain of England, what a pity you can’t bat or bowl,’” laughed Archer.
There’s some truth in Engineer’s statement. Archer is a bundle of energy and it’s visible in everything he does. He was canny enough to know how to woo his Indian audience as he boomed out to a 700-strong audience in a bookstore: “I must tell you this — when your Indian team goes abroad, they’re your best ambassadors.”
You see where his talent comes from when Archer professes to being fascinated by a Seanchai (pronounced shanakey it is Irish for ‘storyteller’). Because he himself turned out to be a dramatic one as he regaled his readers while signing books for them. “In England, book signing has become unfashionable,” he grinned.
The session inspired in him the recollection of an earlier book signing event for Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less — his first book published in 1974.
“I was in a session together with authors David Nevin and James Herriot. The queue for both ran into the hundreds. I had no one. At the end, Nevin purchased a copy and told me later: ‘Long after they have stopped reading my book, they’ll be reading Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.’ That made me want to go on.”
The first impression I had of the millionaire writer and disgraced politician — he was jailed for lying about being with a prostitute – was that here was a shrewd man interested in the machinations and makes of the people he comes across. Because it supplies him with fodder for his various fictional characters. Thus it happened that while I was interviewing him, he was asking me as many questions back. Naturally, a little flattered initially, I could, with time, feel vestiges of annoyance creep in. I had to really work hard at bringing the spotlight back on the man himself.
The principal query he posed to me went like this, “Young lady, when do you get up every morning?” Bam. Now, what was I to make of it? A line of questioning that to my mind had no point of reference whatsoever. The answer to it is something that I do not make a habit of shouting out from rooftops. Early mornings are just not my forte. Sheepishly I mumbled, “Around 10 in the morning.” The deep lines on his forehead comically furrowed in further. I suspect he could not believe his ears.
“You have got to wake up early in the mornings, young lady, if you want to write! I have a routine of getting up early and writing. I hand write every word with a felt-tip pen. I cannot work on a computer,” he confessed. It is said that he is a victim of habit. An article I once read said about him that he “cannot begin his day’s writing unless three Pilot pens and three Staedtler pencils, pristine tips facing north, are precisely positioned above his Oxford pad, with his folded spectacles on the left and his pencil sharpener two inches above the pens”.
Archer, who has a knack of rising phoenix-like from the ashes of disasters that would fell more ordinary mortals, was on a literary high. He was on bestseller lists with a book that drew on some of the convicts he had met while working in the library of the high-security Belmarsh prison in southeast London. He was sentenced after being convicted of perjury at the Old Bailey in 2001 for having concealed his encounter with a prostitute.
Having already written three volumes on prison life under the title of Prison Dairies, I wondered aloud if he had developed a deep fascination with the prison world. He replied: “You’ve got to write what you know about. Or your readers will know the difference. Anyway, the only time the critics compared me to Dostoyevsky, Pepys and Shaw was when I was writing in a cell.”
And sure enough, A Prisoner of Birth had ended up topping fiction bestseller lists in the New York Times, The Sunday Times and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. “While in India I’m being sold at traffic lights — apparently a measure of the success of an author here,” noted Archer. A Prisoner of Birth takes takes you into the life of a man who’s wrongly imprisoned in Belmarsh for the murder of his best friend and promises “an ending that will shock even the most ardent of his fans.”
“We’re all prisoners of birth. You and me…There were prisoners out there who couldn’t talk of a proper upbringing. My time in prison has made me realise how privileged I am,” said Archer, recalling his prison days.
He flipped open a page in his book and pointed out an acknowledgement to a person called Billy Little. A slew of degrees and diplomas are mentioned below the name. “He got those while in prison and is studying even further. Billy Little is serving time for murder,” said the author.
A particularly dry sense of humour and a keen ability to play to the gallery came across as he talked about a writer’s inspiration. He gives the example of Jane Austen, who wrote her novels sitting in a small village in England.
“First she wrote a story of four women trying to find husbands for themselves, next it became the story of three women followed by that of two women and finally one woman finding a husband for herself,” he pointed out with a twinkle in his eye.
They might sound like boring plots but not so, he insisted. “Look at how phenomenal they were. They were no murder thrillers. They didn’t even have sex. They were just about pure love. My point is that inspiration comes from around you. You’re actually surrounded by stories around you.”
Archer’s has been a life that bestsellers are spun from. In the ’70s a bad investment left him bankrupt and ended his career as MP. That’s when he took up writing at the age of 34 and paid off an overdraft of £427,727 by writing novels. Penning a book for the author is not easy even after decades of practice. “It takes a 1,000 hours and two years to pen a book. A Prisoner of Birth took 17 drafts,” he pointed out.
Archer has penned bestsellers like Kane & Abel that sold 27 million copies worldwide, The Prodigal Daughter and Shall We Tell The President? Also, he has written short stories like Twelve Red Herrings, A Quiver Full of Arrows, To Cut a Long Story Short.
In 1999, he stood for election to be the Mayor of London. During the campaign Archer showed the qualities that have catapulted him to fame. He campaigned tirelessly, criss-crossing his way around London, meeting almost anyone and everyone. “No group was too small for him to bother with,” says one person who saw him at the time. Every day he was doing about 7-10 meetings, which given the size of London is not to be scoffed at.
But his campaign ended prematurely when a scandal about his liaison with a prostitute erupted. He was found guilty of perjury and in 2001 he was sentenced to four years, of which he served two. For a man who has faced ruin as a politician and businessman, Archer has learnt to bounce back time and again.
In prison he authored titles such as Cat ’ Nine Tails. He also wrote The Prison Diaries, in which he confided that he briefly contemplated suicide. The publication of it had resulted in disciplinary action against him because he had identified fellow inmates in it. “It’s been damned hard work fighting back with six books in the last eight years,” said Archer, adding that he had at that point of time sold a total of 135 million copies worldwide.
His power tool though has always been his pen. Sample how he puts it to use even while stringing together an introductory passage about himself in his novels: ‘The author has served five years in the House of Commons, 14 years in the House of Lords, and two in her Majesty’s prisons, which spawned three highly acclaimed Prison dairies’.
“Learn to laugh at yourself,” he said with a smile.
Not a dull man to chat with in the least, Archer lives in London in his Thames penthouse overlooking the Parliament. But he also has a country cottage in Grantchester in Cambridgeshire where he retreats for peace and quiet.
After having dabbled in various occupations from art gallery owner, Tory MP to a highly successful fundraiser, he commented to me that he had realized something — he’s basically a writer. On the sidelines, though, he continues to invest in art and theatre while doing his bit of public service and charity auctions. And he has made one promise to his fans he vows to never break.
“An agency in the States made me the offer of publishing four books a year with them. All I needed to do was give them a three-page outline for each. The rest of the novels would be ghostwritten and they would pay me $2 million per book. You might as well imagine where I told them to go. When I go to the grave, I want to go knowing you’ll be reading the books I wrote.”
Talks of retiring from the world of books, which he vowed never to do, led him to volunteer light-hearted details about his plans for his funeral when the time comes. “There will be shepherd’s pie and Krug,” he laughed. Much to the tune of his famous Christmas parties that he throws annually and where he is famous for serving shepherd’s pie and champagne. He smiled as he crooned a couple of lines, noting: “And there’ll be music. There’ll be Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter singing Every Time We Say Goodbye.”
(A version of this story was published in The Telegraph on June 1 , 2008)