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The truth according to Archer

ZIYA US SALAM

On a tour of India to promote his latest book, A Prisoner of Birth, Jeffrey Archer says that he doesn’t depend on controversies, that his books sell because he is a story-teller who appeals to everybody. Excerpts from a conversation…

Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

A story-teller first: Jeffrey Archer promoting his book in New Delhi.

He sells a thousand copies a day. Almost 30 years after its publication, his Kane and Abel is still in demand. A bit of a surprise that Jeffrey Archer calls his latest book, A Prisoner of Birth his best yet, and adds quietly in the ear, “I enjoy short stories better though. I have received greater critical acclaim”.

The short stories will have to wait a while, for, Archer is on a Landmark 11-day, six-city tour of India, his first as an author. Prompted by a friend in New York, Archer was advised that “a trip to India was more important than one to the U.S.”. India, he decided then and there, even stepping beyond the metropolises like Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai to go to Lucknow and Pune. “There are more readers in India than the U.S. With some 200 millions readers here, that is almost the size of the U.S. population. There are at least 50 million serious readers in this country. For me Japan was a big market, but India is emerging as huge now. I got some 5,40,000 hits on my website last month and almost a quarter were from India.”

Little wonder, Archer has been busy giving media interviews, signing copies of the book before heading for a formal release of A Prisoner of Birth in the evening. How does he squeeze in so much into one day?

“I write for two hours daily. My preferred time is from six to eight in the morning. But I had to write for about eight hours a day for 50 days non-stop to complete A Prisoner of Birth. That was for the first draft. The book has had 17 drafts.”

Wasn’t it a test of patience?

“No. When you see that millions of people write to you, and a thousand people pick up a copy of the book some 30 years after it is written, you don’t feel tired. That is just the energy kick you need.”

What is the secret of his success? Is it the fact that he is never short on controversies? Never away from headlines? From the brink of bankruptcy to a stint in prison, he has experienced it all.

“The books don’t sell because of the controversies. You got to be a story-teller, not a writer. If you look at Patrick White or Nadine Gordimer, they won all the prizes but how many copies do they sell? A few years down the line only academics would be reading them. People are reading my books and writing to me, talking about them. I am just back from a tour of Australia, the U.S. and of course my country U.K. A Prisoner of Birth is number one in every country it has been released so far. It became the bestseller in Britain within two days of the launch.

“A controversy helps you only if you have interesting things happening to you. Then you write better. But not much has happened in my life for the past six years and I have still written three books, been to theatre, attended art shows and done charity. I don’t need controversy to drive me on. The media does.”

Then he gets a bit acerbic with the media that has always attributed his success to every factor other than his own ability. There have been murmurs about his wife’s contribution, of his bad original drafts having to be polished by the editors and the like. Not to ignore the accusations that the man generates controversies to feed the author in him. “If the books were rubbish nobody would buy them. Success is not generated by controversy. In the end the reading public decides. And thank God for that. The reader is not bothered about any controversy. He is concerned about the quality of the book. I am what I am. I am a positive person. I have not allowed anything to come in the way, focus of my book. The journalists cannot handle my success. They thrive on controversies, not me. The readers like story-telling, love a tale, a yarn. The great writers appeal to intellectuals, a storyteller appeals to everybody. Whether it is Charles Dickens or Tolstoy or Jane Austen, it is the story that matters. Rudyard Kipling is still read in this country and thought wonderful. I am first and foremost a story-teller.”

Not quite enamoured of some of the big Indian names dotting the international literary firmament, Archer is a keen observer, a big-hearted man, generous with compliments. On the one hand, he comes across as an indulgent elder, who notices a child’s scribble on a notepad, and says, “Oh! The kids! They don’t know notebooks are for writing!” On the other hand, he does not hold back from expressing his opinion, even if it means not winning new friends with his words. In the middle of an animated discussion on his new book, he sneaks in a half sentence in a whisper-like fashion, “Can you jot down the name of one Indian guy I should read? Quick, give me a name.” It is not a query, just a little remark on the paucity of great story-tellers from India. But considering he gets so much mail from India, and his books are as popular in the book shops of five-star hotels as they are with the humble book vendor in down town railway stations, should he be writing more about India? “I don’t write much about India in my books because I am not qualified. For instance, it is only after coming here that I have discovered there is a huge market for translations in India and some of the regional languages have a huge readership. It was the same with Japan. I have had great readership in Japan, but it does not figure prominently in my work. If I were to speak about India and Indians in my books, it would be the same as an Indian writer talking of somebody living in Bristol without having any first-hand experience. It would be unwise to tread on unfamiliar territories. My characters are based in the U.S., U.K. That is the world I am confident talking about. I do politics, revenge, big business through my characters there. Others do it better for India and Indians.”

Now that he is here, having criss-crossed the country by touching places like Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Delhi, Archer is keen to find publishers for his work in Indian languages. “I am read in 131 languages across 137 countries. Indian rights are very important to me. I would love to have a Tamil, a Hindi or a Malayalam version of my latest book.” Of course, he struggles to pronounce the names of the languages but that does not dissuade him from proudly proclaiming, “I probably sell more here than most much feted names.”

Some candour. There is more to come. “I absolutely adore Vikram Seth. He is a genius. I loved his book, A Suitable Boy. He can do anything. I am surprised he does not open the batting for India! He can play the violin, he does poetry. He is pretty special. I am a huge fan.”

One thing he would very much like to do is to be able to go back to his short stories. “Oh! They are my favourites. I have got a lot of critical acclaim with them. They are a hard medium, very different to novels but I enjoy them immensely.”

Some 30 books in 32 years — his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less came in 1976 — to go with all the accusations of perjury, misappropriation of funds and the like. How does Archer find the solitude for his work?

“Again, I don’t allow things to affect me. I think of my readers, and then words come easy,” he says. He might be a prolific writer and a fine orator but listening is not his forte. “I have a problem,” he admits modestly. May be, some day, he would use the condition to put together a book on the subject, having used every calamity in his challenging career as an opportunity to pen a fresh book. He put together A Prison Diary based on his jail experience in the perjury and conspiracy case.

Amidst all the challenges, he manages to sneak in time for charity. “I do charity auctions in the evening. I did one for Ian Botham last week for leukaemia. We need to raise 2.5 million pounds a year.”

Well, if A Prisoner of Birth does half as well as Kane and Abel, he would be able and willing to help!

At a glance


Not a Penny More, Not a Penny

Less (1976): His first book stemmed out of necessity. His investments had gone so horribly wrong that he was almost bankrupt. He wielded the pen to ward off accusations of being insolvent, and the result was a book he calls “a sentimental favourite”.

Kane and Abel (1979): A hugely success

ful book which is “bought by someone somewhere every day”. Almost 30 years after it was published, he calls it “my passport to lasting rapport with reader”. The book sells many more copies through pirated versions across India.

The Prodigal Daughter (1982): Back in the news thanks to the Clinton campaign in the U.S., the protagonist is inspired by the lives of the five women Prime Ministers of the world at that time. “I worked with Margaret Thatcher. So some influence is natural and unavoidable,” is all he offers by way of tribute to the lady.

Twelve Red Herrings (1994): “My favourite” is how Archer sums up the 1994 short story collection. But then that is the expression he has also reserved for Kane and Abel and A Prisoner of Birth!

False Impression (2006): A lady is murdered on the eve of 9/11 in this book where Archer takes his readers to Tokyo, a rarity considering his characters operate out of the U.S. and the U.K.

A Prisoner of Birth (2008): Archer calls it a modern day version of The Count of Monte Cristo. This latest book uses his prison experience to the fullest with the story of a guy accused of a crime he never committed. “We draw from our experience of life. We are comfortable writing about what we know,” Archer says, indirectly admitting to the influence of his prison years on his book. Incidentally, his two-year imprisonment has lent itself to four books now. “My challenge was to make everything authentic, including getting the guy out of the prison and making the reader believe it.”

Quick takes

On writing to mint money, almost like a factory production…

Who has the time to sit back and understand the classics these days? My books are racy to read. My readers are proof of my success as a writer.

On allegations that his wife writes for him…

Ridiculous. Just rubbish. She is a scientist. She knows nothing about the kind of books I write. I wrote three books in prison, she could not have written them for me.

On thriving on controversy…

You are the first one saying that I thrive on controversies. There have never been any controversies, just different experiences.

His love for cricket…

I absolutely adore Indian cricketers. Sachin Tendulkar has to be among my favourites along with Brian Lara. I also keenly watch the progress of Virender Sehwag and Anil Kumble.

Not much of a T20 fan…would prefer to watch an “India versus England Lord’s Test match with England winning”.

On India…

I have been to Mumbai before but this is my first official visit to India. I love it because Indians are voracious readers. For one mistake in my book, they write six pages to me. I love that too. It shows they read carefully.

Delhi? A green city. I looked out of my hotel conference room, it was all green. Awesome. I am told it is full of heritage landmarks but I would need a separate tour to visit all of them.

l Coming up next…

Archer is working “a script” for a film that he intends to turn into a novel shortly. To be directed by Bruce Beresford, Archers intends to wrap it up shortly. It is based on a real person, a first for Archer.

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