x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jeffrey Archer doesn't know where this story is headed

The author talks to The National about his bestselling novels and his huge international following.

Famously, Archer writes in two-hours-on, two-hours-off shift patterns, which are so intricately planned, he knows that a book takes 1,000 hours to write.
Famously, Archer writes in two-hours-on, two-hours-off shift patterns, which are so intricately planned, he knows that a book takes 1,000 hours to write.

Jeffrey Archer lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You know," he says, pointing to his latest novel Only Time Will Tell, "the critics are saying this is the best thing I've ever done."

Only Archer, one of the most successful writers in the world, could look worried when I tell him that it probably is. It's certainly the most ambitious, the first of a five-book series - "pentalogy", he corrects me - spanning 100 years in the life of Harry Clifton, in which each chapter is written from a different person's point of view.

"Tell me, though," he says, looking genuinely concerned. "You don't think the fact that it's a bit more complicated, a bit more of an intellectual challenge, will put off normal readers, do you? I mean, you're clearly a weirdo," he laughs, "only happy when you're reading something that is pushing you another yard."

Thanks.

"No, that's like me! But don't people prefer something simpler these days, like [thriller writer] James Patterson?"

Such is the dilemma for the writer of some of the bestselling books of our age.

He's spent most of his life being happily dismissive of the "snobbish press who are prejudiced about my books before they read them", and has an international following so huge, particularly on the subcontinent, that he has claimed 50 million people in India have read Kane and Abel. In fact, Only Time Will Tell has been number one on India's bestseller list for more than 12 weeks.

It suits him to cast himself as a simple storyteller rather than a beautiful writer - so much so that he calls the three major awards he's won "a bit embarrassing".

"The people who survive are the storytellers," he fidgets, pointing me towards Alexandre Dumas, Hans Christian Andersen and Agatha Christie.

So, just for the record, Archer hasn't written an avant-garde, literary epic. But it is great fun. Sitting here in his extravagantly luxurious penthouse apartment on the banks of the Thames, with its mesmeric floor-to-ceiling views over London, is a reminder that his extreme wealth is down to his skill as an entertainer, someone happy to provide for his readers, as he puts it, "six or seven hours of utter enjoyment from a book". He finds the figures farcical, but Archer is certainly not shy of telling me that 330 million people have bought his books, one billion people have read them or that "you can't find an Indian who hasn't read Kane and Abel... it's become a sort of world text book."

You'd laugh at the exaggeration from anyone else, but looking at the original Monet on the wall, bought from the proceeds of that novel, it's probably true. Archer is insanely popular in India - he's just come back from a hugely successful tour there - and puts such success down to the Indian tradition of clear storytelling.

"Take Slumdog Millionaire," he says. "It came out 30 years after I wrote Kane and Abel but it's the same story, really. A guy from the slums who becomes the top dog."

There's more than a little Kane and Abel to Only Time Will Tell, too. Two boys from different families grow up in different parts of 1920s Bristol. One is privileged and wealthy, the other, Harry, is poor, reliant on his mother's work as a waitress, but naturally bright. It's soon suggested they might actually be brothers, which sets us off into a world inhabited by typically Archerian manipulators and schemers. Archer says it's his most autobiographical book to date - he also grew up in the West Country in relative austerity - so I wonder whether there's more to his writing than simply heroes overcoming adversity.

"I like clever people who don't have the start in life but still get there," he says. "And I do hate snobbery, which was so prevalent in the 1920s to 1950s. I think it's mostly gone now - there are still some frightful snobs around, but it's not the way it was. I do believe that ability matters now. You can't get a top job because of who your father is. I mean, you may be able to get in to 'The City', but you won't progress because the kid who has got a better brain from the East End of London will walk all over you."

Baron Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, the liberal conservative? I wasn't expecting that. Although he clearly conducts his interviews in his apartment so he is in control, Archer is surprisingly genuine, likeable and straightforward. When I ask him why, at 71, comfortably well-off and seemingly happy, he wants the hassle of writing five books in five years, he is refreshingly honest.

"I haven't needed to do this since Kane and Abel, actually, but what else do I do? I can go to five cricket matches a year, do my charity auctioning; I go to the theatre twice a week; I go to art galleries. But I love the writing. At the age of 70, I needed to focus. I needed to concentrate - something that would drive me for five years so I didn't drift. It makes me get out of bed at six in the morning."

And that's no lie. Famously, Archer writes in two-hours-on, two-hours-off shift patterns, which are so intricately planned, he knows that a book takes 1,000 hours to write. If that sounds overly mechanical, then he does at least make one concession to art over industry. He genuinely has no idea where the story is taking him until he sits down to start it.

"I haven't got a clue - most of the time," he smiles. "When I finished the first book, Jonathan Lloyd, my agent, was the first person to read it. And he said: 'Well, how does Harry get out of this?' And I said: 'I don't know... but I will by January when I start writing the second one.'

Isn't that a risk?

"Yes, and Jonathan thought it was too. But it also means the reader can't know either, do you see? Which I think is really important to the sense of intrigue."

Intrigue does tend to follow Archer around. His own life is like one of his stories; a bumpy epic taking in the highs of bestsellerdom and influence in the Conservative Party and the lows of losing all his money (fictionalised in Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less) and going to prison for perjury.

So perhaps it wasn't so much of a surprise that even his non-fiction prison diaries, written in disgrace in Belmarsh, Wayland and North Sea Camp, were bestsellers too.

"I think most people wonder what it would be like to be in prison. So they looked at me and said: 'How did he handle it?' I handled it by writing, really. It was a coping mechanism: I was killing time because prison is so boring. Such a waste of time. But it never crossed my mind that it would sell well. It's still selling, 11 years later."

It's tempting to ask whether, if the Clifton Chronicles are semi-autobiographical, Harry Clifton will also end up in prison. But then, as Archer has already admitted, he probably doesn't know himself yet. What is clear is that Only Time Will Tell couldn't have been written by Archer when he was 34 - it very much feels like the product of a life extravagantly lived.

"You know, this young boy came up to me to ask me a question recently. I knew he wanted to write a book - I could see it somehow. And he said: 'How did you get those lines on your forehead?' He clearly thought he had to get those before he could write. It was such a perceptive thing to say.

"I've had a hell of a life," Archer says, looking out over the Thames. "Fortunately, I'm able to get a lot of it into books."

 

Only Time Will Tell (Macmillan) is out now.