‘Dickens’ my highest compliment

2012-04-21 00:00

JEFFREY Archer has been described by some as a charming rogue, but there is more to the celebrated author than empty charisma. He is affable, entertaining, discerning and, of course, entirely self-promoting, but one cannot fail to like the man, who at 71 oozes energy, wit and intelligence.

There are quite a few detractors who have written unflattering things about him, but Archer remains unfazed. He has, after all, been on the best-seller list for over 30 years.

Archer has remained resilient despite a chequered career. A politician in the British parliament for many years — he occupied a seat in the House of Commons before entering the House of Lords as Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare — he recovered from a scandal involving a call girl and perjury, accusations of insider trading, a two-year stint in jail and a near bankruptcy, yet he remains the image of toughness and success. When his political career ended prematurely he focused his efforts on his writing career and it soared.

Reaching 70 gave him a self-confessed “wobble”, so he set himself a target of a five-book series. If his latest volume is anything to go by, he has plenty of juice left in his pen. The Sins of the Father is the second book in the series known as the Clifton Chronicles. Archer describes his decision to write them as “bloody mad”.

“I am under immense pressure to keep on writing and to keep the novels up to scratch. You can’t write a good one and then deliver a poor follow-up. But I am confident that the third book and fourth book will keep readers on the edge of their seats.”

Archer is able to rattle off the sales of his books worldwide like an accountant, exceptionally pleased that his third book — Kane and Able — which he wrote in 1980 is still a favourite read.

When we meet in his hotel suite he looks far younger than his age, and starts our interview with a tour of the bathroom, explaining the subtleties of bathroom design and pointing out that hoteliers should pay more attention to the details.

“I always notice women. I’m a great flirt. If I’m lucky — because I’m famous — I get a cuddle or two.”

I can imagine that quite a few women could become taken with this charm, but he says only his wife Mary has his heart. He likens the female heroine Emma in his book to his wife, whom he describes as gutsy and incredibly smart.

Archer clearly likes his women feisty and he was a great admirer and personal friend of Margaret Thatcher. He said another woman character in the book (Maisie) is loosely based on his mother, who was a real inspiration.

“My mother got her degree when she was 61 years old. She saw that my wife had achieved two degrees and so she went off and got one.”

Even after his sentencing for perjury, Archer saw this as an opportunity to reveal what life was like on the inside. Three books, the Prison Diaries, were compiled from the notes he took from his two years in prison.

“I realised that I was an incredibly privileged person. I had been lucky my whole life. Only in prison did I see how badly life was for other people and it was a real learning experience. It was not the worst experience of my life.

“When I faced bankruptcy, that was a terrifying moment and I was never sure if I would recover. Last year my wife, Mary, was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and facing the loss of someone you love, that was tough.”

Archer believes that he is a gifted storyteller and he does not like to compare himself to other writers who might have won literary prizes. For him, it’s all about sales and the book’s popularity.

“I believe many journalists don’t like me because they are jealous. They all want to write a book and they can’t.”

He has sold over 270 million copies in 97 countries which have been translated into more than 37 languages. Getting his first book off the ground was no easy feat, and he approached 17 different publishers before someone took a chance and published it.

“I believe I was paid one of the highest compliments when someone compared me to a modern-day Charles Dickens. I think people are a little confused by my books, because they do not follow a formula of modern-day requirements — sex, violence and bad language. Yet it is the simple storytelling technique which survives.”

Archer says he believes the Clifton Chronicles will follow other books he has written and be turned into a television mini-series. “It has far too many details to be crammed into a film and a mini-series would allow the drama to unfold at the right pace.

“I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed that many of the fans who have turned up to hear me speak or those who have arrived to have books signed are mainly white South Africans. When I was in politics I fought hard for the end of apartheid.

“In India, a former colony, there are many millions of Indians who are literate and they are one of my hugest fan bases.”

Locally, Archer is encouraging his publishers to give away copies of his first book to encourage reading.

Archer says he will not be writing a biography about his fascinating life just to still wagging tongues.

“At the end of the day, I have learnt not to give a damn about what people think or say.”

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