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The master of best-seller lists

  • Jeffrey Archer on storytelling, a changing India, and a seven-book series in the making
  • ;Heads You Win' is Archer’s first stand-alone novel in almost 10 years

Jeffrey Archer at the 2019 Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras/Mint
Jeffrey Archer at the 2019 Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras/Mint

The best-selling English novelist and former politician, Jeffrey Archer, 78, is razor-sharp, witty, amusing, a master of repartee. He uses his own special pen to sign books, does not like the tea and coffee in India and loves Test cricket—the late Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi being his all-time favourite cricketer. Archer’s novels and short stories include The Clifton Chronicles, the hugely successful Kane And Abel and his latest novel, Heads You Win, which has been on best-seller lists in India for the last few weeks.

Heads You Win is Archer’s first stand-alone novel in almost 10 years, and follows the story of Alexander Karpenko as he flees Russia, flipping a coin to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. Archer’s novels have been published in 97 countries and more than 33 languages, with international sales crossing 330 million copies. He spoke to Lounge on the sidelines of the 2019 Jaipur Literature Festival. Edited excerpts:

You’ve had an extraordinary career, spanning literature and politics. What do you consider some of your major milestones?

Well, I married a remarkable woman. Mary is the chairman of the Science Museum and the first woman to chair a museum or gallery in Great Britain. The Queen has made her a Dame, she got the double first at Oxford, she ran one of the great universities’ hospitals (Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust). She now wants to build a children’s hospital in Cambridge, so a very remarkable woman indeed. What more do you want? I think being No.1 on The New York Times best-sellers’ list and five books in the top 15 at the same time—that was an amazing day in my life. Then, running for my country Great Britain (he was a member of Parliament) and working for Margaret Thatcher for 11 years—I’ve had a very, very privileged life.

Which of your books changed your life?

Kane And Abel changed my whole life. It is 40 this year. On its 125th reprint, it has sold 32 million copies and is the 11th most successful novel ever.

What makes ‘Kane And Abel’ so special? How do you spin such stories?

I don’t know. Storytelling is a gift—I don’t sing at the Royal Opera House, I am not a ballet dancer nor do I play the violin. I tell stories—that is what I do. I was a raconteur from the age of 4 but the more important question is, did I know I would be a storyteller? Not until I wrote Not A Penny More Not A Penny Less and I really didn’t know it then because it only sold 3,000 copies in its first year. Now it has sold 27 million copies. So the breakthrough really was Kane And Abel.

Your latest novel ‘Heads You Win’ has two endings and is said to have been inspired by Colin Powell’s mother. Tell us something about it.

Halfway through The Clifton Chronicles, I was reading about American secretary of state Colin Powell, how his mother left Jamaica with him and wasn’t sure whether to go to Great Britain or the US. I thought it would be fascinating to take that and make it a modern story. So I have a Russian escape from Russia to try get somewhere, and his mother, a formidable woman, has to decide between Britain and the US. The reason it fascinated me was the thought of the same person going in two different directions. Then, I made the decision to make him land in both countries and follow two stories. So he is Alex in one country and Sasha in the other. The challenge was to bring his two lives together in the end. So, from a writing point of view, it has been the biggest challenge.

Do you think you should get the Nobel Prize?

No, I am a storyteller and not a literary writer. R.K. Narayan should have won the Nobel Prize for Malgudi Days. We all love Dickens, Maupassant, Dumas, and they are all storytellers—it is the storytellers who survive.

You’ve been coming to India for 20 years. What changes do you see?

The big change is twofold. The least important, first. The roads and airports, when I first came, were dreadful. Now these are modern and sophisticated. The second is the role of women. Women were very subservient 30-40 years ago, but now I sense the next generation of women are going to rise. They are powerful, determined...when I go into my meetings, it is the women who lead them, not the pathetic men.

What are your views on global politics, Donald Trump and Brexit?

The big change is that with (Emmanuel) Macron in France, Trump in America and the others, non-politicians are taking over. I am not sure how long this will last because Trump seems to go from disaster to disaster. This morning (26 January), I woke up to one of his key aides (Roger Stone) being arrested. The wall is not going to be built, mind you, but the Democratic party doesn’t appear to have a serious candidate, sadly. They will, I hope, have one soon. Regarding Brexit, we will know all soon enough. Politics, I’m afraid, is a game for about 5% of the country, the other 95% are doing their jobs.

What is your advice to budding writers?

Indians are such a well-educated race that you are bound to produce a lot of writers. But you won’t produce many storytellers. How many world-class tenors are there? How many world-class ballet dancers are there? They are very rare. Why would India be any different? Dickens, Dumas, Victor Hugo—they don’t come very often. So you have many great writers, rows of Nobel Prize winners, but not storytellers. My advice is to read the classics, read, read, read, and get some experience before you write. I didn’t write Kane And Abel till I was 40, so get some experience of real people before you write.

Any regrets?

Have you got 3 hours?

Okay, one regret?

I didn’t have a daughter, I have two sons. I would have loved to have six daughters.

What’s coming next?

I’m nearly 80 but TheClifton Chronicles series has done so well that people have been writing to me asking for another series. In The Clifton Chronicles, the hero is Harry Clifton, he writes about a guy called William Warwick, a detective in Scotland Yard, and I am going to be writing about Warwick. I will write seven books in a row where he will go from Constable Warwick all the way through being commissioner of the Metropolitan Police...if I live that long.

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