“I’m not Mr. Archer!” Dear God, what have I said wrong? My memory has never served me well, but thankfully fate didn’t want me to feel more embarrassed than I already was. I suddenly recalled him being knighted, a good many years ago.
I attempt to stand corrected. Jeffrey… Lord Jeffrey Archer? “One of the two. I don’t mind which. I’d rather Jeffrey.”
And certainly not Jeff, yes? I desperately try to lighten the tension I’m already feeling.
“Not Jeff! You will be shot for that. That’s a hanging offense.” He mocks a man clearly seething with disapproval. And then, breaks into a smile. I’m comforted. We settle into our seats opposite each other and his breakfast is served.
The previous night was a full house at the auditorium where swarms of people jostled one another, pushing their way through the doors to see him speak about his third book release, “Best Kept Secret” from the Clifton Chronicles series.
I’d resolved to attend just to warm myself up for my meeting with him the next morning. In the least, I was expecting to hear the usual impassive speech made about the rigors, frustrations, and the routine drama of the book writing process most writers speak of at such sessions. But what I didn’t expect to see was a theatrical extravaganza where actor and audience became part of the act. Who was what, I couldn’t tell.
He seized the length of the stage, standing tall and confident. Everyone seated was hypnotized by his staggering presence. He’s loud and enthralling. The audience is rapturous. They’re goading him. The clapping gets louder. He tactfully engages the audience members and they’re cheering wildly.
This man appears to me no less than a trained performer. But in all reality, he’s only a man of many shades, who also by the way just happens to be one of the world’s most famous best-selling authors.
Now, seated in front of me, he dives into his coffee and takes a large sip. “It’s silly really. There are 270 million readers of my books out there, and I should get used to it, but I don’t. But it’s always wonderful when I see a room crowded… Full… I haven’t gotten used to it yet, you know. You never get used to everybody wanting to talk to you.”
He is 73 years old. Three years ago, he decided to undertake the arduous task of writing a five-part series, called the Clifton Chronicles. It has been the biggest and perhaps the most important challenge of his writing career.
“It was bigger than I realized. Now, having done three and having just done the first draft of the fourth, I’m a lot more relaxed.” He gives a small but self-assured chuckle. “Because I know I will get there. I will do the five. But if I’d known in the beginning what a challenge it was, I’d certainly have thought more carefully. And what I hadn’t realized was the pressure. The first one went to Number 1 and the second went to Number 1. The third has just come out. The pressure of waiting to hear how the public feels about it…” he shakes his head.
Do public reactions still bother him? “Oh you better believe it. The day you stop thinking about it…” he taps the table to make his point, and gives me a fixated gaze, “is the day when things will go down.”
“I always say to young people, the first one is the really tough one. Only one person in 100,000 who writes a new book gets published. That’s tough. ‘Not a penny more, not a penny less’ was turned down. It was rejected by 16 publishers.”
The novel went on to become one of the most defining books of his writing career. His agent believed in his work and encouraged him to keep persevering. His has been a long, hard road. And certainly not an ordinary one.
“I kept getting these little letters, ‘Dear Mr. Archer, well done. Keep going. But not for us.’ Awful! I got 16 of those. But my agent, she battled on and on. She said, ‘No, you’re wrong. This man is a storyteller. And he’s gonna write more.’ I think because they saw me as a politician. They thought, ‘He’s written this one book and he’ll never write again. He’ll get back to politics.’ That I think was the judgment. One publisher believed in it. He said, ‘No, this is a good story.’ At first, they only sold 3,000. By now, it’s sold 27 million.”
And what does he attribute that large success to? Chance? Connections? Destiny? “You don’t get anywhere unless you’ve worked damn hard.” He looks at me intensely and says, “Do you want the sentence repeated? Did you understand it?” “You don’t get anywhere unless you work hard.”
He is assertive and so charismatic that you shake under his glare. But there’s also a sublime gentle quality that lurks in the superstar frame of this world famous author, if you can see it. The character of Harry Clifton is alleged to be an autobiographical rendering. I ask if he thinks he really is Harry.
“Oh, I think I’m Harry. Well, I wanted to write about a writer in this book. I had to decide what Harry would do as a profession. Would he be a lawyer, or would he be a dentist? What would he do? And I thought that if I wrote about a writer, then I could tell about all the experiences I’ve had as a young man. When things began to go well and when things went mad. That was irresistible because I had never done it before. One or two intelligent critics said, ‘Harry’s too nice, he’s perfect.’ And I thought, ‘No, he is not.’ So in the fourth book he makes a terrible, terrible mistake and will never recover from it.”
Never? “Never.” Speculations into his personal and professional life have always been a part of his rather decorated history since his foray into the public domain as both author and politician. I ask if the ceaseless questioning about his past life beset with scandals and other fantastic allegations continue to bother him.
“No, I like the questioning. Not a problem. Not a problem.”
You’re really okay with that? He takes a sip of his coffee. “Ummm,” he gives me a throaty response, and nods. It means yes.
I feel much bolder so we talk about the two-year stint he served in jail between 2001 and 2003. Writing, he says, was his saving grace then. It was a period during which he wrote a memoir titled, ‘A Prison Diary.’ I wonder if there was a more compelling moment in his life than that as a writer? How did the experience change him?
“It made me more conscious of other people’s problems. It introduced me to interesting people. It was certainly an advantage. I met some people I would never normally meet, who had amazing stories to tell. And it also made me very aware of how privileged and lucky I am. I’ve had a very privileged life. And one simple gift.”
He is known to be one of the best storytellers of our times. How have his methods of inspiration for his storytelling changed today? Is the desire for super-achieving more about keeping score with past success or the fulfillment for self-gratification?
“Rubbish to that self-gratification. When crowds swarm to see you it’s an inspiration. You go back wanting to do it again. If the books were falling, steadily falling, I’d give it up. It’s the public who inspire me.”
Indians are famously known to be among his most avid fans. It’s no secret that he has continued to launch his books first in India ahead of publications anywhere else. He is amazed when I ask him about his popularity craze in the Indian subcontinent.
“Don’t think we haven’t studied it. Don’t think we haven’t had lots of people trying to work it out. Here, I saw the morning papers and a thousand people came to see me. In India, there will be 3,000 people outside the hall not able to get in. There’ll be a couple of thousand at the airport. I burst into tears the first time it happened. So I turned away from the audience and controlled myself as quickly as I could because I wasn’t used to it. I can now walk today into a room of 3,000 as if it happens everyday. I just couldn’t believe it. I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed that people had traveled thousands of miles just to be there. You feel, ‘Wait a minute what have I done? I don’t deserve this. There was one who slept outside the hotel on the pavement. I said, ‘What are you doing there?’ He was there all night. People say, ‘It’s the greatest day of my life.’ How can it be the greatest day in their life? I’m just a simple storyteller,” he says pleadingly.
I tell him there must be some other reason to this that he’s missing to acknowledge. He speaks softly, like he’s telling a secret only I am privy to. “Indians want to be writers. I have little girls screaming in the street. They want to be writers. It’s the highest acclaim. In most countries, they want to be popstars. But, popstars? There are a lot of them there. I agree it’s weird. I can see the look on your face. You can’t understand it.”
He’s whispering now, “By the way, neither do I.”
“They love story-tellers. I don’t think it’s me. But I have two advantages. Not only are they the biggest readers in the world, the Indians, they also love the game of cricket. And they know that I love the game of cricket.”
He looks in the direction of a young, pretty-looking woman with blonde hair who is walking toward our table. “This is my useless assistant by the way,” he introduces us. Sarcasm is his second-nature.
He asks her for the latest score of a cricket match he’s following. Cricket is his first passion. The second is art. “Bought two pictures yesterday.”
It’s an indulgence that started at a young age. He bought his first painting when he was 26. “Paid 50 pence for it. I’ve still got it. I’ve got a thousand pictures now. I’m very lucky.”
I ask if he actively follows any contemporary artists. “I like the impressionists. I’ve been a collector of the impressionists for 20, 30 years. If I see something and it’s beautiful, I want it. Sometimes I can’t afford it, and then… I crave it. My wife’s very cross with me because there’s no room on the walls. There’s one here and there’ll be two there, and three there. There’s no room left.”