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Archer Shoots From The Lip

Jeffrey Archer in Calcutta in March during the launch of Only Time Will Tell, the first title in the five-part Clifton Chronicles, published by Pan Macmillan. A Telegraph picture

The master storyteller is a master charmer, whether sitting next to you on a bumpy car ride in Calcutta or speaking over phone from faraway London. Forty-two short stories by Jeffrey Archer have been compiled by Pan Macmillan into an omnibus titled The New Collected Short Stories (picture below). The 850-pager hit the stores this month and t2 took the opportunity to catch up with the Lord...

Let’s start with short stories. What, according to you, makes a good short story?

Well, you have to have a twist at the end. Something that the reader is not anticipating, something that will surprise them. So, even before you start, you have to know what the ending is going to be. That’s the big difference between a short story and a novel. In a novel, you really can’t even know what’s in the next chapter but in a short story, you have to really know the whole story.

Mentally, you know where the ending is. Then, of course, it’s a building process, to make sure that you get to the ending without the reader realising the game you’re playing!

One of your short stories, Caste-off, is set in India and a little dot beside the title indicates it’s based on a true story...

Yes. I met Nisha and Jamwal at a dinner party in Bombay. Someone told me about them and I thought it was a truly amazing story. So, I asked Nisha and she told me the story initially, then I asked her husband separately, because I wanted to hear his version too. I thought it was a very romantic story, a very sad story…

Your favourite short story writers? Other than RK Narayan, of course.

RK Narayan, HH Munro, F Scott Fitzgerald and (Guy de) Maupassant.

Which are your favourites among your own short stories?

There are two I get the most letters about — one is Cheap at Half the Price and the other is Never Stop on the Motorway. They are two of my favourites…

Moving on to one of your other passions, cricket, you recently tweeted “Another century by Dravid, bravo! If he’s not the king, he’s certainly the crown prince.” So, who according to you is the king?

No, no, what I said was, if Tendulkar is the king, Dravid is the crown prince. I think Dravid is almost as good as Tendulkar. I know them both and they are both totally charming men.

So, are you waiting for Sachin to get his 100th international 100?

I’m sitting watching him on television now [on Day 3 against West Indies in Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai]! As you spoke, I’ve just seen him get 50!!!! He scored 50 runs in 88 balls, he’s now acknowledging the crowd. This is his 63rd Test 50. And I shall be sitting here religiously in case this is the time he gets the 100th 100. It may happen today, but, if he manages to stay in, it’s more likely to happen tomorrow morning. [Sachin fell at a heartbreaking 94.]

You rued the empty stands during a South Africa-Australia Test and tweeted “Is Test cricket doomed? Is it?

We [England] are the only country left on earth where you get 20,000 people coming to watch [a Test match]. Which is sad, because this match at the moment between the West Indies and India is a good match. And the match last week between Australia and South Africa was thrilling but it had nobody watching it. I suspect, that if Tendulkar gets into the 80s, there will not be a seat left in the ground. [Sadly, even that didn’t happen!]

And your prescription to bring back the crowds to Test cricket?

Umm, the young seem to like Twenty20 and One Days more than Test matches, so it is possible that Test is not going to be the biggest attraction any longer...

You’ve described yourself as the “would-be captain of England’s Cricket XI”...

I’m not the would-be, I am the obvious captain of the Cricket XI... It’s a pity that I can’t bat or bowlbut… I am the obvious choice!

So, what would you do differently if, rather when, you are made captain?

Yes, thank you! Well, there would be no entry visas for Tendulkar, or Dravid, or See-wag (Sehwag) and Dhoni…. They would not be allowed to enter Britain, they would be sent back on the next plane. When I suggested this to Rahul Dravid, he said ‘It wouldn’t matter, our second team will take care of you’ (laughs heartily)!

Good plan! But what when you have to play overseas?

That would be tricky, I agree (chuckles). You are very good in your own country. Well, you are a very good side in any case, you’re a very great side.

Thank you! When you were here, the World Cup was on and you told us “Ireland and England will play the finals. The match will be close, but England will win” and mock-strangled our photographer for saying that India would lift the Cup!

Yes, yes, I remember (laughs). Well, you were always the favourites and, of course, you must know I was teasing. I wasn’t serious!

Oh, absolutely! Okay, while we are on cricket, you were a friend of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi...

Yes, very much. Great man. The thing that we were all most conscious of, both when I was at Oxford and when I saw him in later life, he believed in the old-fashioned values of fair play. He was a thoroughly decent man. Much loved.

When he had the accident, when he lost his eye, it was tragic. Because at that time it was looking like he would be one of the greatest batsmen of all time. The fact is he did brilliantly even with one eye and was a great captain. But he was, above all, a thoroughly decent human being.

I was very touched when I came to India 32-33 years ago, for the launch of Kane and Abel, in the days when he was still a great, great figure in cricket... but he took the time to come and see me. Lovely man!

Word is out that there might be a movie on Kane and Abel soon?

Well, there’s an attempt at the moment by a major Hollywood company to purchase the rights for Kane and Abel.

So, do you have any actors in mind for playing Kane and Abel?

Brad Pitt and me!

Ha ha, that sounds great! And, let us guess, you’ll play Kane? You anyway are biased towards him…

Nah, he’ll [Brad] get the first choice, I’ll take the other one!

What about the Clifton Chronicles? How’s the second book coming along?

The second book [The Sins of the Father] is finished. It’s been handed over to the publishers. It will be published in March, next year. It will come to India first.

Great! And you’re coming to India for the launch, right?

I hope so… I am very keen to come. Only Time Will Tell was, you know, No. 1 for 22 weeks. So, I am naturally hoping that the Indian people are waiting for book No. 2!

Yes, we are. Can you give us a quick peek into what to expect…?

NO! You are a wicked woman… (laughs)! Well tried…

You don’t know yet if you’ll be coming to Calcutta, do you?

No, I won’t know till about next year. I’d like to…. My dear friends the Kumars are in Calcutta [Naresh and Sunita Kumar] and I always love coming to Calcutta. About 3,000 people turned up at the bookshop [Starmark, South City Mall]. Just over a thousand of them managed to get in. The road was full outside… it was wonderful… absolutely amazing!

So, what’s the book on your bedside right now?

I’ve been reading, sort of, two books a week at the moment. I’m currently reading a book called Too Big to Fail [by Andrew Ross Sorkin], which is a non-fiction book about the inside story of how Lehman Brothers collapsed.

What with the global recession and all, have you thought about basing any of your stories on that?

Well, no. I’m doing five stories at the moment, for the Clifton Chronicles. So, I can’t think about anything else for the next five years.

A recent holiday that you really enjoyed?

Mary [his wife] and I went this year to St Petersburg because we both love art… we visited the Hermitage [Museum], one of the greatest art galleries on earth. We had a most wonderful trip on Queen Elizabeth up to St Petersburg and back.

But you didn’t drink the water there, right? [One of his canniest short stories is Don’t Drink the Water, where the husband tries to poison the wife in St Petersburg.]

(Laughs out loud.) No, no! Well remembered.

You said you are thinking of giving up pasta to cut down on calories. Is that your favourite food?

Oh yes, I loooooove pasta!

Since you write longhand, any particular pen you favour?

Yes, I use a Pilot.

Your message to your readers in Calcutta...

Much looking forward to seeing you again. Thank you, as always, for keeping me at No. 1. Very grateful.

Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure talking to you…

No, thank you. I look forward to seeing you when I’m in Calcutta!