THE WRITE STUFF
The Unstoppable Lord Archer
By Jane Vorster
Friday, July 06, 2012

Novelist, politician, sprinter, jailbird — Jeffrey Archer has been there, done that

He’s regarded as one of the world’s greatest storytellers, yet Jeffrey Archer’s own life has been so full of drama it could easily provide material for a bestseller. Most people would need several lifetimes to fit in all he’s achieved — he’s run the 100-metre sprint for his country, served as member of parliament under Margaret Thatcher and was made a life peer (lord) by Queen Elizabeth.

And that’s even before we get to his writing.

Over the past 35 years he’s written more than a dozen novels, including Kane and Abel and The Prodigal Daughter, which have sold around 300 million copies and seen him frequently commanding the top spot on bestseller lists. Even being jailed for two years for perjury in 2001 didn’t stem his output. He used his time behind bars to pen a candid three-volume memoir, A Prison Diary, which sold like hotcakes.

In real life, the 72-year-old Lord Archer is just 
as colourful and entertaining as he is on the printed page. Within five minutes of meeting him in his luxury suite at Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel he’s already holding forth, complaining about the poor quality of the food in Jo’burg restaurants (“appalling, stodgy and fattening”) and the racial makeup of the audiences on his South African 
book tour (“Too white. Where are all the black readers?”).

He’s visited South Africa five times and another thing that gets his goat is how badly men dress here. “They’re such a bunch of louts,” Archer huffs. “I went to a breakfast this morning and there were the women, turned out beautifully. The men don’t even try.”

He glares for a few seconds and then gives a faint smile to show the rant is over. But a question about whether he’s had time to slot in any sightseeing sets him off again. “No, I don’t know what you are but I’m a worker. I get up at 6am and then I work till I fall over and then I go back to bed again. If you’re here, you may as well work. I’m not visiting for fun — I’m here to promote my book.”

And promote it he does, at every opportunity, reeling out a mind-boggling array of sales figures about The Sins of the Father, the second part in his Clifton Chronicles series.

“My new book is No 1 
at the moment on four continents at the same time,” he brags. “Within the first 10 days, it sold 170 per cent more than Only Time Will Tell (the first in the series) sold in its first six weeks.”

While his giant ego can sometimes be a little overwhelming, you’ve got to admire his drive 
and ambition. He could easily have chosen to retire after releasing his third novel Kane and Abel in 1980 but by then he was totally hooked.

“I don’t know what drives me but I’m extremely focused,” he says. “Every day of my life, the pen moves — it just happens. It’s a God-given gift — like playing the violin or painting a picture or being an opera singer. I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do.”

There are few authors half his age who would commit to writing a five-part series but that’s exactly what Archer did — and the Clifton series is undoubtedly his most ambitious project to date. Spanning 100 years, it’s a sweeping multigenerational saga of fate, fortune and redemption that starts out focusing on young Harry Clifton who’s on a quest to uncover the real identity of his father.

At the age of 70, Archer told his publisher he needed a challenge and promised to deliver a book a year for the next five years. And so far he’s well on track — he’s already done eight drafts of book three, Best Kept Secret, which is due to be released next year.

These days, he does most of his writing at his holiday home on the island of Majorca off Spain. He writes every word of the first four drafts by hand using a Pilot pen on lined Oxford notepads. Then it’s typed up and he goes to work editing it using a Staedtler pencil and rubber.

With every new book 
it’s an all-consuming labour of love.

When reading the 
Clifton series, it isn’t hard to spot that much of it is drawn from the author’s own experiences. Like 
Archer, the main protagonist, Harry, goes to Oxford, is sent to prison and turns his hand to writing. “Oh, yes, the Clifton saga is very autobiographical — there’s a lot of Harry in me,” Archer says.

Just like Harry, he’s frequently been amazed at how twists of fate have irrevocably altered the course of his life. In 1974, he was a Conservative Party MP and was looking forward to a long and fulfilling career in politics but when he invested a large sum of money in a fraudulent scheme, he was forced to change direction.

ARCHER UNCOVERED

Biggest vice: 
“Falling in love. I fall in love three times a day 
— I love women and put them on pedestals the whole time”


What he read in prison: “I tried Ulysses for the fourth time but didn’t get very far with it”


Biggest regret: “I’m very sorry I have no daughters — I only have two sons”

The secret to a long marriage: 
“Respect. You can lose a lot of things but if you lose respect, there’s no reason to stay together”


Philosophy that underpins his life: “Loyalty. I don’t like people who walk away from you when things aren’t going well”

On the brink of bankruptcy, he decided to write his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. “If I hadn’t left parliament in debt and hadn’t written the book, we wouldn’t be sitting here. I wouldn’t have sold 300 million copies,” he muses.

Of course his wife, Mary, thought he was mad. “When my first book didn’t do too well, I still remember her telling me it was time for me to go out and get a real job,” Archer says with a chuckle.

It’s clear he holds his wife, who is chairperson of Cambridge University Hospitals Trust, in very high regard. During our interview, he mentions her almost as often as he does his phenomenal book sales and tells us he can’t wait to return home so he can give her the present he bought her.

During their 46-year marriage, Mary has been his rock through good times and bad. Last year, it was Archer who found himself in the supportive role when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer and had to undergo a seven-hour operation.

Another tough time for the couple was when Archer had to spend two years behind bars after being found guilty of perjury in 2001, relating to an earlier libel trial in which he won £500,000 in damages from a British tabloid that accused him of paying a prostitute for sex.

The verdict put paid 
to his hopes of running to become mayor of London. Quizzed about this chapter, he becomes uncharacteristically tight-lipped. 
“If people want to know about it they must buy my books (the Prison Diary series),” he says.

Far from turning their backs on him, his friends stood by him. “If you have good friends, they do that,” he says. “The first letter awaiting me when I got out was from Margaret Thatcher. She took me to The Ritz hotel and we sat at the centre table.”

And with the release 
of his prison memoirs, he was back dominating the top spot on bestseller lists — and that’s where he intends to stay.

“I want to be the most successful author on Earth,” he says. “Kane and Abel is on its 92nd reprint. It sold 33 million copies. 
I’d like, in 100 years’ time, for it to be on its 200th reprint and to have sold 60 million copies.”

As always, it’s all about the sales. 

- Gallo Images

 

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