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BW Businessworld

Jeffrey Archer’s Best Kept Secrets

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As we are about to enter the room where Lord Jeffrey Archer is meeting journalists, a loud yell emanates from inside. The manager from Landmark, the book chain that has invited the best-selling novelist to India, rushes in alarmed –- but comes out a minute later looking relieved. “A wicket just fell, and Archer got very excited,” he says, ushering you in.

“Sorry for coming between you and cricket,” you apologise as you are introduced to the 72-year-old author. “Yes, how utterly inconsiderate of you, young lady,” Archer responds instantly, saying cricket is the only luxury he allows himself. You discover that the master storyteller is also a bit of a drama king, theatrically scolding everyone in the room for making him miss such exciting cricket (well, with Shikhar Dhawan in such an awesome debut in the India Vs Australia test match at Mohali, you cannot blame him) and bellowing at the photographer when he asks him to move to another chair. He expostulates about the rain delays at Mohali and comes down heavily on the use of mop and bucket to dry the pitch. “God, that’s so 14th century. Still squeezing out the water with mops! I thought you were a modern nation,” he scoffs. “Do you know at the Lords, they dry the ground so quickly.”

The discussion, you find tends to keep veering to cricket (only Test cricket mind you, Archer dismisses the shorter versions as tomfoolery), but occasionally the man, who is here to promote ‘The Best Kept Secret’ does consent to talk books. Excerpts from a conversation with BW | Businessworld's Chitra Narayanan:

If you tot up your book sales, apparently, every 12th person on the planet has read a Jeffrey Archer novel. How does that feel?
 Where did you get that statistic? That’s frightening to hear.

Is that a burden?
No, it’s not a burden, but it is pressure. Because when you sit down to write a new book that fact is in your mind. You sit down and go.. “One upon a time..” and then think this better be good. The burden would be if nobody was reading me. In fact, a couple of nights ago, I was very tired signing book after book and the queue was still stretching out and I thought, why do I bother? Then immediately the thought struck - would I like it if there were only 10 people here at the signing. Of course not. So, I said to myself, you are lucky, very privileged, and get on with the signing.

India probably has done a lot to contribute to that statistic.
Oh yes. Undoubtedly. Do you know there were one thousand 18 year old girls at Bangalore at the book signing. Nobody in England will believe me. But I have got a picture. ("Show her the picture, go on show her the proof," he tells the Landmark staff).

Best Kept Secret
Best Kept Secret
By Jeffrey Archer
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India
Pages: 400
Price: Rs 350
You have written sequels to novels before. But Clifton Chronicles is the first series? Is there a difference in approach?
Really in the end, the Clifton Chronicles will be one big novel. The story of the Cliftons and Barringtons and what happens in their lives. Each one about 400 pages, 120,000 words. The joy is in taking the characters onto the next book rather than starting afresh. You have Harry and Emma, and Maisie and Hugo and everybody moving through the books -– some die, of course.

But why did you move to a series? Is that a fad now?
At the age of 70, I took the decision. I was terrified of slowing down, and not going flat out. I have always been very focused and disciplined in my writing. There are no distractions when I write. Not even cricket. And let me tell you. I won’t die -– they will have to kill me.

You ended Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less with the protagonists promising to return the money? We expected a sequel with that happening. Is that ever going to happen?
Certainly not. You are too moral to think on those lines.

Is that the best book you have written?
20-25 per cent of my fans think it is the best thing I have done. It isn’t. Kane and Abel changed my life. But The Clifton Chronicles is the best thing I have ever done. It’s a piece of craftsmanship.
Which is the character that you are particularly fond of?
Old Jack Tar in Only Time will Tell. Charlie Trumper in As the Crow Flies. Florentyna in Kane and Abel.

There’s also some criticism that many of your characters are a bit thin?
Thin? No certainly not – they are all fat now.

Any of the characters based on yourself?
I am Harry. My wife is Emma, my mother’s Maisie. Jane Austen taught us how to base characters on real people and I do that all the time.

Are you obsessed with rags-to-riches stories?
People enjoy aspirational stories -– people enjoy someone coming from nothing and making it to the top. Dickens did it. There’s nothing new in that. But as a theme, yes, I enjoy it.

Do you write with a screenplay in mind?
That’s a very Indian question. No I don’t. I am a storyteller. I write books hoping that people read them. At the moment, Columbia is making Paths of Glory. They will start filming in September, but I will believe it when I see it. CBS are making a pilot of the Eleventh Commandment and ITV is looking at the Clifton Chronicles for a television series. So lots is happening.

Do they involve you in the process?
Once my agent has sold it, they don’t seem to take much interest in the author. Sadly.

Would you like to get involved?
Yes, I would like to see what’s going on.
Do you think the age of eBooks and eReaders will affect the fortunes of writers? Their payments?
It will make me richer. Well, I can tell you that my books sell for 3 pounds hardback in England and Amazon pays me that much. I only get richer. But I think new authors might have cause to worry.

What next after this series?
I originally thought that Clifton Chronicles would be five volumes. Problem is I have written four already. Well, the first draft of the fourth is ready. And Harry is only 45 years old in that. So, it will probably be six or seven books, rather than five. Then I am going to write a book of short stories. After that I am going to write the biggest novel in my life. I have an idea. It’s been percolating in my head for several years now. It is bigger than Kane & Abel.

You keep juggling between short stories and novels.. how do you do that?
I like the change of pace. Over a period of five years, I collect a set of short stories. I have got nine so far of the 12 that I need for my next book of short stories. For instance, you might give me an idea this afternoon. I keep collecting stories and make a pile of them. And over time, I say okay, here is the 12 and put it out.

Any Indian stories in the next bunch?
I have got an Indian story from Calcutta. Brilliant, wonderful story. Someone told me a story that happened to them.

So your stories are based on what people tell you?
About half are. But the best ones are the ones where someone tells me the story and you embellish it,change it, but the germ came from them.

Who are the authors you admire?
Scott Fitzergland, Dickens, Maupassant, H.H. Munro.

Any Indian authors?
R.K. Narayan –- he is a great storyteller . So is Vikram Seth. And maybe this man after today. (He pats the pile of Saadat Hasan Manto's translations he has just been gifted and which he says he is going to start reading).

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