Jeffrey Archer: An interview

If words are arrows, he’s the Archer. Jeffrey Archer makes the most of his licence to thrill, churning one page-turner after another with amazing regularity. For the last two years, however, he has chosen to stick to his one-book-a-year schedule. After A Prisoner of Birth (2008), Lord Archer is back with his 14th novel, Paths of Glory, his latest bestseller.
Before you get around to doing an interview with him, you are asked to send a brief profile for Lord Archer to go through before you are granted the tete-a-tete. When you meet the author, who was in India for the Landmark Jeffrey Archer Tour to promote Paths of Glory, at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, he reclines imperiously on a sofa. He is in the middle of an interview. When it gets over, he gets up and walks in your direction. But when you, rising from your seat, extend your hand and introduce yourself, he walks away.
There are two things he must do before he settles down for another interview (something he is touring the country for, but something which he doesn’t quite enjoy doing: that explains his selective interaction with the media here): he has to see the lady interviewer off and he has to check out the IPL 2 score. It’s Chennai Super Kings vs the Mumbai Indians and since Lord Archer is a Dhoni fan, he’s rooting for the former. It’s also the day the UPA stormed back to power. And Lord
Archer goes on record terming this as “great news” as, for a change, it’s not a fractured verdict.
Lord Archer is a publishing phenomenon. Each of his books, “compulsively readable,” turns out to be “the No. 1 bestseller”. His readers cut across cultures and continents and run into millions. It’s been long since the “disgraced” former
Tory MP reinvented and redeemed himself through his writings, and when you meet him, it’s the real Jeffrey Archer, the writer, who stands up. While he revels in the British stiff upper lip and the occasional haughtiness, he has a disarming
charm and, even at 69, bristles with energy. He has hawkish eyes and his forehead is fiercely wrinkled. He speaks in a commanding, almost theatrical, voice, gesticulating wildly as he talks about himself and his work.
Lord Archer owes the idea for Paths of Glory, based on the real-life mountaineering mystery of George Leigh Mallory, an English mountaineer who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mt Everest in the early 1920s, to British athlete and Olympic gold medallist Chris Brasher, to whom he dedicates the novel.
“He suggested I should read the non-fiction books on him as there was a magic story there,” says Lord Archer who was struck by Mallory’s advocacy of women’s liberation and his attempts to “getting women at Oxford and Cambridge”. He says: “I love that side of him. It made him such a fierce individual.”
For Mallory, Mt Everest, or Chomolungma (which means Goddess Mother of Earth in the Tibetan language) was “the other woman” in his life, besides Ruth, his wife, whom he
loves very much, keeping her posted about his expeditions through a series of letters. Another key character is that of Australian mountaineer George Finch, Mallory’s rival.
Lord Archer says that Finch, who plays a minor role in the non-fiction books on Mallory, is crucial to his novel. “I wanted to explore their relation. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS), a bunch of bloody snobs, did everything to stop an Australian to be the first person to climb Everest,” says Lord Archer.
When World War I breaks out, Britain is at war with Germany. Mallory leaves his pregnant wife to join the Royal Artillery, though he is exempted from serving in the armed forces as a school teacher. The war sees the death of most of
Mallory’s associates. In the end, the two men who can fulfil the British dream of climbing the Everest are Mallory and Finch. But the latter is disqualified by the RGS on two grounds: he’s an Australian, and he didn’t go to Oxford.
Lord Archer says that had Finch been standing by Mallory’s side, the two men would have conquered the last six hundred feet together.
So, did Mallory actually summit Everest? Well, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that except that Mallory said he put his wife’s photograph on top of the mountain. And when they found his body and looked in his wallet, there was no
photograph of Ruth. Lord Archer says: “We know he was six hundred feet from the top. We know it was his last climb when he was 37. We know that it was now or never for him. We know that his body was found at 2,000 something hundred feet. He’s got to be on his way down. Does it mean he reached the top and then went down? Or does it mean he turned around? But the fact is he would never turn around. 600 feet left, last chance. Turn around? Not a hope! It doesn’t mean he actually went to the top, but these are three pointers that suggest he must have triumphed. If you ask me, he must
have climbed.”
“I’d rather be a dull success than a bright failure,” says Mallory somewhere in the novel. “You get only one chance in life,” says Lord Archer, who has never written about a historical figure before.
His next book, a collection of short stories titled Thereby Hangs a Tale (the best of which is called Casteoff, a love story set in Mumbai), is the next feather in his cap. He reads out the story’s opening line from a piece of paper on which he has been scribbling, jotting down the lines coming to his mind: “‘You must understand that there is no chance of us having a long-term relationship,’ were the words he said after they slept together for the first time. ‘I must make it clear that there is no chance of us having a long-term relationship,’
were the words he said after the first time they slept together.”
“It’s a very good story,” he says, adding that it is based on a real-life couple whom he met last year in Mumbai when he was touring the country. This time round, he again met the couple, met each of them together, and then each of them separately, to get their real story. While the book is due for release this year, Lord Archer, as of now, he has been away for the last nine months, rewriting Kane and Abel. “I set out to rewrite it, thinking it would take a couple of weeks. It took
nine months, 500 hours. And it’s 7,200 words shorter than the original. It’s very different. Not the story, but the treatment,” says Lord Archer about the novel which will be released on October 3. Lord Archer’s concern: 50 million people have
read its earlier edition in this country. God knows how are they going to react to the re-written novel!
It was Kane & Abel (1979), says the author, which changed his life. It topped the New York Times bestseller list. Not A Penny Less, Not a Penny More, his first novel, sold 3,000 copies in the first week. And it kept going. When Kane & Abel came out, it sold a million copies in England in the first week. “I wasn’t prepared for it. Could you imagine that the book comes out on the first day and the publisher rings you up saying, ‘We have sold a million copies in the first week’.”
Lord Archer has also written the screenplay for Paths of Glory. While he has found a director (Bruce Beresford, the Oscar-winner director of Driving Miss Daisy), he is hunting for an actor to play Mallory. The names doing the rounds are those of Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis. While both are amazing actors, you tell him how much you loved Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and how he will be more close to your idea of Mallory. “He was my first
thought. I chose him because he is an actor. He was in school with my son. I went to see him when he was a schoolboy. And he was already very good. So confident. He has got an aura. It’s interesting you said that. I haven’t seen the film, but I have got to do it now. The movie will require a real actor. You better believe in climbing the mountain, otherwise there is no point.”
Lord Archer, an R.K. Narayan fan, is happy to do one book a year and not do anything else. “I watch cricket. I go to theatre. And I am not doing any politics. So the whole energy, the whole focus, is on the next book,” says the author, who describes himself as a “disciplinarian” and a “workaholic”. His two children keep telling him, “Get a life, dad.” And, sometimes, so does their mother. “But that’s what I am. I can’t do anything about it. If you tell me to get a super life and have a good time, I can’t do it. I just can’t do it,” he says.
It’s “not money” that makes Lord Archer tick. He still wants to be read by “everyone on earth”. That is what makes him tick. That is what drives him. “It makes me get better at it every time,” he says.
Lord Archer turns 70 next year. But say that to him and he bellows: “Don’t remind me about me about that!” And then, pointing at a young lady, a friend, next to us, he adds: “Not in the presence of a beautiful lady. It’s a very unkind thing to
do.”. You explain, “What I meant was ” He roars: “What did you mean?” “That it doesn’t show,’’ you say. “Ah! I’m very flattered,” he says, adding, “The energy is still there. I have been very lucky. You get one gift in life. And I have got mine
in the form of writing.”
But, surely, there is more to Lord Archer’s gifts in life. He is blessed to have a wife, Mary, who is known for her charity works. She introduced Lord Archer to the Chanel hospital at Cambridge. When Lord Archer talks about Mary, he is filled
with a sense of pride: “She has 1,000 doctors, 3,000 nurses, £500 million budget.”
The conversation veers off to his short stories. You tell him how much you enjoyed his short stories a tad more than his novels and prison diaries. He tells you how the lady interviewer told him the same thing, naming some of his short
stories which even he didn’t remember.
Lord Archer, like all writers, is inquisitive by nature. For every set of queries that you have for him, he matches it with his own set of questions. “Are you a writer yourself? Have you written any book?” he wants to know.
You tell him how you are dabbling in writing short stories. And hope to get an anthology published soon.
“When?”
“May be by next year.”
“Great. Short stories are a lot easier. In one day, you can create the whole thing, while you can’t write a 400-page novel in a day. You need at least five days to even get there,” he says.
The media here had been abuzz about the fact that Lord Archer might pick a Bollywood director. Some even circulated some names: Rakesh Omprakash Mehra. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. You ask him about his interest in Bollywood. “What is Bollywood? You had great writers and directors even before what is now called Bollywood. What do you think Merchant Ivory was doing? If you compare your old cinema with the contemporary, it’s like 20-20: Merchant Ivory is Test cricket,” he says.
Lord Archer says he “loved” Slumdog Millionaire. “It’s a great film. I fell in love with the young girl and fell in love with her when she grows up. I fell in love with them both. It’s a secret of Danny Boyle’s direction. It’s a great story,” says Lord Archer.
But, what did he make of the parallel view that the film predictably “glorified” India’s poverty. “You can’t ban the film for that reason. If you have problems with poverty, you need your political leaders to get on with it. Don’t blame the film,” he says, singing peans to the emergence of the new middle-class in India and its youth between the 20-30 age group. “The world is going to take off under the new India. Out of its one billion people, a great many of them are faced with hard times. I accept it. And I understand it. But don’t undermine great writings or great films for this reason,” he says.
Coming back to his writings, he has made it clear it is “not for money”. He tells you a story that stands testimony to his claim. A publisher approached him sometime back for a contract. As per that contract, he was not supposed to write but sell his name to the publisher. Someone else would write the book under his name. The publisher was willing to pay him £20 million for a five-year contract (four books a year).
But Lord Archer refused. He says: “I would have 50 million people who wouldn’t know I had written those books. When I dared to face them, they would corner me. Indians like to tell you what they think. They would say, ‘You didn’t even write this book and I bought it because your name was on the cover. I told them, ‘No thanks.’”

And then, Lord Archer is back with his own set of questions.
“Next year, when you write your book, how old will you be?”
When you answer him, he says: “I was 34 when I wrote my
debut, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less. Good luck.
Good luck.”

And then, another set of questions.
“Where were you educated?”
“Aligarh Muslim University.”
“You never went to England?”
“No.”
“Your English is good.”
“Thank you.”
“When you write your first book, will it be in English? Or
your mother tongue?”
“English.”
“That’s interesting. That’s the reason why India is doing so well because it takes English for granted. The Chinese, on the other hand, fall short in this department. It is in this respect that the Chinese are lagging behind.”

When you take his leave, Lord Archer reminds you: “Talker, write the book. When you report to me next year, young man, I want to see the book. No excuses, ‘I really got busy with other things’. You will DO it.” And then he gives you a piece of advice: “Even if you have read R.K Narayan a hundred times before, do read him when
you write your book. His is simple writing at its best.”

While he signs his books for you, you find time to ask one last question: What happens to the brand Jeffrey Archer when he is not writing anymore. You avoid to hint at the event of his death. But he wants to know. He wants you to be precise.
“Do you mean when I am dead?”
“Well, yes, God forbid!”
“I am not going to die. I shall attend your funeral.”

Lord Archer talks about how 20-30 years from now, there will be reprints of his novels. His writings will live on. They will endure. And each time, his book is reprinted, he will be “reborn”.

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