“I haven’t given up yet!” Jeffrey Archer says over the phone in a menacing growl and then laughs.
It’s a few days before the author, a former MP and the Right Honourable Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, jets off to Sharjah for an appearance at the international book fair. I’ve just asked whether, after selling somewhere in the region of 300 million books, he still has any unfulfilled ambitions.
“Certainly! I want to captain the England cricket team!” is the first answer and, although it’s a joke, it’s one that’s typical of Archer’s restless nature. As a boy, he represented Somerset in running due not to a natural physique, competitors have said, but because of his superior willpower.
“There’s no doubt,” he says now, “that that discipline percolated through to other things.”
The serious answer to the question is that he wants his current series of novels, The Clifton Chronicles, to be “the best thing I’ve ever done”, and for the film adaptation of his book Paths of Glory, about Mallory’s conquest of Everest, to be “a really great film”.
He says that it will begin shooting next year, renamed Everest, with Tom Hardy attached to star (there have also been rumours about Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role) and The Bourne Identity’s Doug Liman behind the camera. But he won’t get excited “until I’m eating the popcorn”.
In the meantime, things aren’t going too badly on the book front. Best Kept Secret, the third volume of The Clifton Chronicles – which follows a poor dock worker’s son with talent, secrets and ambition from childhood to old age over the course of what will eventually be seven books – came out in March and its sales are up on the previous two. It contains everything from political intrigue and legal wrangling to smuggling and murder, and the next volume, Be Careful What You Wish For, will be published in March 2014.
In India, the series has become a phenomenon, shooting to the top of the best-seller lists, and Archer is mobbed when he appears there on book tours. “It was a shock,” he says of the legions of fans he encountered on his first trip. “They were all young women, 16 to 20, very enthusiastic.”
One fan, he says “had taken three days to cross India to get to me and he just wanted to say thank you and then he went. I chased after him but I lost him. I felt so guilty about the fact that he’d come all that way.”
The reason for all this mania, he suspects, is what he calls the “aspirational” aspect to his work, which often contains rags-to-riches stories. “They make you think that you can achieve something,” he explains. “Of course, that sums up India.”
Archer himself came from humble beginnings, winning a scholarship to a private school and later doing a teacher-training course at Oxford University, where he threw himself into the establishment’s sporting and political life.
His ups and downs after that have been well documented: as the promotional materials for Best Kept Secret succinctly summed up, he has served “five years in the House of Commons, 21 years in the House of Lords, and two at Her Majesty’s pleasure”. With more than one scandal behind him and three best-selling volumes of his Prison Diaries added to his lengthy back catalogue, he’s still a life peer and his books still fly off the shelves.
It’s writing, he says, that keeps him going. “I’ve always been a raconteur, but I didn’t really believe, until I wrote [first novel] Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, that people would pay you for telling stories.”
To come up with ideas, he’ll read a book and watch two plays and a new film every week.
“But the storytelling, frankly, is a God-given gift,” he says.
If there’s a thread that runs through all his work, it’s “certainly ambition and hard work, but in the end, it’s simple storytelling”.
• Jeffrey Archer will be talking about his life, his writing and his latest work tomorrow at 6pm. Visit www.sharjahbookfair.com for details.