Published in T Emirates: The New York Times Style Magazine (May 2013)
He has sold more than 250 million books in the course of his career, but author Jeffrey Archer’s success has been punctuated by introspective pauses and even some arresting question marks. T Emirates unravels the persona of a writer who continues to thrill and entertain at the age of 72.
By Priyanka Pradhan
It may come as a surprise that the man who has authored many a Machiavellian scheme and plenty of meandering conspiracy theories is, in person, a hard-as-nails straight talker. He’s also quite a number-cruncher for someone who is so entrenched on the literary side of the world. He rolls off numbers, figures and statistics with the ease of a seasoned marketer.
“I have to say my figures are very cool,” he says, comparing his latest book in The Clifton Chronicles Trilogy, with his last published novel in 2009. “For my last book, hardback sales were up 40 percent, e-book was up 26 percent and softback was down 7 percent.”
But then he suddenly floors you with his witty, animated (and somewhat geriatric) charm. He worries as he predicts a bleak future for bookstores in the face of competition from the e-readers and Kindles of the world.
“If this [trend] continues, soon there will be hardbacks and Kindles, no paperbacks. Next, hardbacks will go and Kindles will remain, and sadly bookshops will go too. I much prefer to hold the physical book and read the old-fashioned way, but looking at the statistics, it’s going to be very tough on bookshops.” His voice wavers with emotion, but only for a moment, before the shrewd marketer within him reappears.
“Personally, this trend doesn’t affect me, because more people are reading me now on the digital platform than ever before, so no, it doesn’t affect me as a writer – look at my readership figures, for example. In the digital world today, it’s the bookshop that will be affected, not the author,” he says.
According to Archer, there’s a positive side to the democratization of the publishing world.
Today,” he says, “anyone can showcase his or her talent on the digital platform by being a self-published author or even a blogger. So yes, I’d encourage young talent to get going by themselves. If I had had this sort of opportunity back in the day, I would have adapted to whatever was needed, as I always have.”
Archer has picked up a few survival skills along the way, to maintain the momentum of his success. One of those skills happens to be his sharp marketing acumen, something he acquired the hard way.
“In my first experience of promoting my book Kane and Abel on an American TV talk show,” he recalls, “I learnt that time is money. I was on the show with other guests such as Billy Carter and (believe it or not) Mickey Mouse, and we all had just six minutes to share between the three of us.
The first two guests had taken up 4.5 minutes by the time the host said ‘Hi Jeff, I see you came over on Concorde,’ and I answered. ‘Yes, indeed!
The Concorde – it’s a feat of mankind built by the British. It’s twice the height and speed of any aircraft built by man so far.’ I rambled on, ‘You can have breakfast in London, lunch in New York and dinner in….’ and I was cut off by the host saying ‘That’s great. Thank you, it’s been lovely having you on.’ My publishers were livid.”
Looking back to his early days, Archer says his main literary influences were American author F. Scott Fitzgerald and English writer Richard Crompton, but there were also others. “My all-time favorite remains the classic, The Count of Monte Cristo– it is a masterpiece. Of late though, I’ve been reading
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and the Hilary Mantel book, Bring Up the Bodies.”
What interests him most in the books he reads (and writes), he says, are people and characters.
Being a steadfast admirer of the late Margaret Thatcher and an ex-politician himself, he says he always writes strong female characters, drawing inspiration from the women in his life, and the villains in his books are inspired by politicians he has come across.
“Most of my own characters are based on people I know, because then they become more real to me and to the reader. Also, people even inspire me to write – normal people I meet everyday. You see, stories are in people… sometimes they just don’t know it.”
So, then, there’s no writer’s block for Archer, one would imagine? He confirms: “No, I never experience writer’s block, because I’m a story teller… and
characters and stories are everywhere! Another thing is that I don’t plan a particular plot more than two pages before I write it – mapping things out in detail beforehand really scares me. It’s a hell of a risk, but it’s a lot more fun if I don’t know, otherwise the plot may become predictable and stale for me and for the reader.”
Archer’s last 16 books have all been interntional #1 bestsellers, and his top-selling work, Kane and Abel, is on its 97th reprint. He was recently in Dubai at the
Emirates Literary Festival 2013 to promote his latest book, the third in his Clifton Chroniclesseries, which he hopes will surpass his previous record. Does he feel under pressure to outdo his previous accomplishments, then? “
Of course there is pressure when I sit down with a pen,” he agrees, “and it gets worse in a way, because I am expected to churn out another number one with each book. There’s always pressure, but what I think any author must do is not buckle under it and do what is popular or fashionable at the moment – don’t just toe the line. Remember, Jane Austen came from a small village and she wrote about a mother trying to get rid of her daughter by way of marriage. It was a great hit. Next, she wrote about a mother trying to get rid of four daughters! But you see, Austen was a genius because she didn’t move with the fashion of the day – she stuck to what she was great at, and did it exceptionally.”
Another strong motivation for Archer is recognition, though not necessarily by way of literary awards or prizes. “I have won awards in France, one in Germany
and one in the us, but I have never won anything in England and I never will, by the way. I am what is known as an ‘entertainer’ in the UK, and I’m not allowed to be a storyteller and win a prize – only ‘writers’ win prizes in England, and I’m happy this way. I’m happy that my books are read by the masses. In fact,” he sums up, “if you asked me ‘What do you want in life, Jeffrey?’ I’d say I want to be read by more people than any other author on earth.”