Jeffrey Archer
Jeffrey Archer Image Credit: AP Photo

Jeffrey Archer has just finished an hour-long talk at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature when I corner him for an interview. Dressed in a white shirt with blue pin stripes, a pair of charcoal grey trousers and a smart dark grey jacket, he has a genial air around him and although he fielded a number of queries from his fans at the end of his session, the 82-year-old bestselling author is ready for an exclusive chat. After a firm handshake, he politely offers me a seat before he sits down cross legged beside me, an air of quiet certainty about him.

A former politician, Sir Jeffrey Archer, who served five years in the House of Commons and 30 years in the House of Lords, turned to writing in 1974 when he released his first book Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. The only author to become a bestseller in non-fiction, fiction and short stories, Archer’s books have been published in over 114 countries and sold more than 320 million copies during his 40-year writing career.

The beginning though was not easy.

‘I was a member of the Parliament. I had to leave because I was in debt. I wrote my first book – Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. It was a struggle to get it through; it was turned down by 14 publishers and only sold 3,000 copies in hardback. It has now sold 25 million paperback copies, but that has taken 40 years,’ points out the author who greatly adores R K Narayan’s work and believes that Malgudi Days is a work of genius.

However, it was his Kane and Abel that changed his life overnight.

The book was number one on The New York Times bestseller list and sold 47 million copies. ‘It changed my life and remains one of the bestselling books in the world- read by over 100 million people,’ he adds.

Attention to detail

How does he feel to have topped the bestseller list? ‘I feel very privileged, very lucky, aware that I have a simple gift to tell a story and lucky that millions of people have wanted to read those stories,’ he says.

An author who pays a lot of attention to detail making his characters so life-like they almost spring out from the pages, I am curious to know what inspires his stories and characters.

Jeffrey Archer 2
Every writer has habits. I am very keen to keep hours,' says Jeffrey Archer

‘I have an interesting life and have met fascinating people. I keep my eyes open all the time for incidence, for sentences, for human beings and they creep into my books. I regularly combine anything that I feel can let an insight for other people.’

‘In Clifton Chronicles, Harry goes from a boy in Bristol right through to being an author. He is married to a woman, very much based on Mary, who goes to the House of Lords,’ he explains, beaming with pride as he speaks about his wife, Dame Mary Archer, a British scientist and the Chair of the Science Museum Board of Trustees.

At 82 years of age, the author clearly enjoys writing. ‘If you don’t enjoy doing something, don’t do it,’ he advises before admitting that Prisoner of Birth and Paths of Glory are his favourites among the series of about 48 published books. He is also sentimental about Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.

Known to churn out at least one bestseller every year Jeffrey lists the reason for being so prolific to his sense of discipline. ‘Every writer has habits. I am very keen to keep hours. My desk overlooking the Bay of Palma is carefully laid out, I do not like anything out of place.’

He writes in two-hour slots from 6am to 8pm with two-hour breaks in between.

‘One book a year probably takes 1,000 hours. You follow this routine, always. It is what is needed.’

When in doubt about a certain fact or if he wants to check a certain thing he is writing about, he doesn’t stop and look it up. ‘I go on writing so as to not stop the flow. I can look it up afterwards when I’ve got to the end and go through the hundred places where I’ve got to put something in. If I stopped, I would never get to the end of the book,’ says the author who writes with a rollerball pen and reviews his work at least 14 times.

‘When I have young people coming in and saying, I have written my book, Jeffrey. I have done one draft. I tell them that is not writing a book, that is one draft,’ he shakes his head in disapproval. ‘You got to go on and on. You would think at my age I could cut it down a bit, but no, I have to go on and on.’

He mentions a more recent work of his where ‘I changed a whole character in the 13th draft, and I had to do a massive re-write because the book goes in another direction’.

At the moment, Archer is on the first draft of the Book 6 of the William Warwick series that is due to be published in September this year. ‘I have to go away and spend some considerable time checking on all sorts of incidents and people because I just make it up as I go along,’ says the life peer who claims that he has never experienced writer’s block even though most of his bestsellers have been penned in his Mallorca home – interestingly named Writer’s Block!

‘I sometimes get myself in a mess that I must get myself out of, that can happen, and it happens regularly. But I have never had a problem of not knowing where I am going or what’s happening next. The story keeps flowing all the time.’

So what is William Warwick up to this time?

‘William is now in charge of Royalty Protection,’ he reveals, ‘He has been told by his commanding officer that there is someone out there breaking every rule in the book. They are getting away with it because they think no one dares to look at people who are protecting the Royal family, and he has been given the unpleasant job of working it out.’

For all you short-story fans, there is a collection of short stories in the works too!

‘Don’t start too early’

What is his advice to budding authors?

‘Don’t start too early,’ he emphasises. ‘Get a bit of experience of life. Get to meet people. Write about what you know. You need to have the feel, the inside knowledge. Write short stories to begin with. Test yourself out. When you get to the big novel, share it with someone whom you have never met, and you might get the truth. You need someone who will read it and will have the courage to say it won’t get published. Do not share it with your partner who will say, ‘It is wonderful. I don’t understand how millions aren’t buying it’,’ he chuckles.

And does his wife get to read his early drafts?

‘She got to read Next in Line after it was published,’ he says without a moment’s hesitation before continuing, ‘ I have one son who is a devoted fan, one son who is an intellectual and reads me, which is very kind of him, and a wife who would not read me if we were not married. She is a scientist who does not read novels.’

As we come to the end of the interview I ask the author if the secret to him being a best seller time after time, book after book, is his dedication to working on a story until it is perfect.

He disagrees. ‘I think if you look 
over the 40 years, it has to be more than that. I am sure there are people who work just as hard as I do or are just as determined as I am, but I think it is a gift. I don’t play the violin, I am not a countertenor in the opera, I am not a ballet dancer – I am a storyteller, it is a God-given gift.’