Best Kept Secret, Jeffrey Archer’s latest book, gives readers an insight into the life of an author. Saeed Saeed talks to the bestselling novelist about writing a story and what keeps him going
Jeffrey Archer on the secrets of a good writer
With more than 250 million in book sales, you would think Jeffery Archer would greet the arrival of another assured bestseller with ease.
Speaking last month from the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the 73-year-old author expresses relief in his latest opus Best Kept Secret, which landed in the top spot in Australia and India and, most recently, in the United Kingdom.
The former British politician – who has maintained his success despite spending time in prison for perjury – says that even after decades of breaking sales records with each new release, he is still motivated by the fear of -failure.
“The worst fear after 16 number ones in a row, is number 2,” he says. “I am always competing with myself. I can now be lazy for three or four books and make millions. But I don’t need the money. I don’t need anything, actually. But I want to get better each time and that’s what drives me.”
Archer maintains that determination through his famed writing regimen: a system that begins with a series of Pilot pens and Staedtler pencils lined up on his study table in almost military formation before he embarks on four bouts of two-hour writing sessions.
“It begins in the morning from six to eight, then 10 to 12, two to four, six to eight and then I am in bed at 10pm,” he declares. “That’s for every day I am writing a new novel. Absolutely no shortcuts.”
Archer welcomes the “drill sergeant” description of his writing routine. He explains that the discipline and competitive spirit stems for his pre-writing years as a successful athlete in university.
“The training to run and to be an athlete inculcated itself in me without realising it,” he says. “So when I said I want to be a writer, that same brain said: ‘You wanted to go to the Olympics and now you want to be a writer? Well, then, you have to train hard, work hard and play for gold’.”
These kinds of insights are found in Archer’s latest work. Best Kept Secret is the third of a planned five-part Clifton Chronicles series featuring the protagonist Harry Clifton. After the first two books, beginning in 1919 and set in the southern English city of Bristol, the saga follows Clifton’s colourful life, including his romances.
Best Kept Secret finds Clifton living well as a successful yet disciplined novelist. Archer denies Clifton is his most autobiographical character. However, Best Kept Secret is his closest yet to writing a memoir.
“I just thought it was a fascinating chance to write about writing,” he explains.
“To let people know what it is to write a novel, what you go through, the tours, and show them every aspect because I suspect people who read books are fascinated about writers. So here is a chance to explore that through a central character and look back at my time as a writer.”
Archer is quick to point that there is more to writing a good novel than hard work – he says storytelling is “God-gifted” and you either have it or don’t.
Archer discreetly points around the room to his fellow guest authors at the Emirates Airline festival.
“There are a lot of writers around here, some here have written about mathematics and Afghanistan, but they are writers, not storytellers,” he says. “Being a storyteller is like being a ballet dancer, a concert pianist or an opera singer. Of course, you have to work very hard but you need the gift.”
Archer’s stated blessing seems to have worked against him, though, when it comes to impressing – or not impressing – literary critics. He admits to holding no hope that he will be winning major literary awards, such as the Man Booker Prize, because of his populist writing approach.
Then again, he says, he always played to the crowds. “They are the most important,” he says. “The public will tell you. Not the critics or the clever talkers. The public can always tell who is the storyteller. And that’s why storytellers always dominate the lists.”
Jeffery Archer tells would-be writers to soak up as many life experiences as possible before penning that first novel.
“Start with a short story or an essay first,” he says. “Don’t go for the full novel early on because you actually need the experience of life before you write a novel. I wrote my first novel at the age of 34 and 17 more since. So don’t rush, you still have time. Have a go and if you fail, so be it. But don’t be accused of being a person who didn’t have a go.”
• Best Kept Secret is out now through Macmillan/St Martin Press
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