When we heard Lord Jeffrey Archer was coming to Calcutta, we couldn’t stop ourselves from shooting off an invitation, fingers crossed. Would he agree? Only Time Will Tell! The answer came promptly — he’d be happy to do an event with The Telegraph. On Saturday, t2 sat amid a select gathering in The Chambers as the 72-year-old shushed, swore and charmed away in his inimitable style, with many A Twist in the Tale at An Author’s Afternoon, presented by Shree Cement along with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Taj Bengal. The riotous raconteur was in town on the invitation of YPO and Dikshit Poddar of Perfect Solutions. Over to the man — or machine (you’ll know why by the end of the chat) — who has 330 million books bearing his name. And Thereby Hangs a Tale, in itself!
I want to start… shush… by saying I am two minutes late… shush. The women are worse than the men, I tell you! It was bad enough spending the whole morning finding the two batsmen are still at the crease [M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli in the fourth India-England Test in Nagpur]. I’m having to check every 30 minutes!
As I was saying, I am late by two minutes and I’m never late. But when I came back after speaking to a group of industrialists, I thought I’d go to the Chinese restaurant [Chinoiserie at the Taj] and have a quick meal before coming to see you. Shush-shush. So, I pop into the restaurant and the waiter goes, ‘Oh, I love your books.’ That would’ve been fine, except two chefs come out and go, ‘We love your books.’ And because the chefs were preparing the food personally, with extra care, I didn’t get past the first course! Funnily enough, that’s the greatest privilege of them all, that’s the great honour, that is how I am treated all over the world. And it’s wonderful, because I’m only a simple storyteller.
While I say it’s very simple, it’s a God-given gift. Great writers, as an emeritus professor at Cambridge University told me, are two a penny. Storytellers are the rare objects. Anyone with a good education can be a good writer. I am not a writer, I am a storyteller.
[Looks at K. Mohanchandran, the general manager of Taj Bengal] So, your kind address where you said ‘We’ve all grown up reading Jeffrey Archer’… is frightening. Well, I know that 50,000 women take me to bed every night [roars of laughter in the audience] but it reminds me how old I am! It also reminds me, as I said, how privileged I am.
We have to publish all my books — and I’m sure it’s true for every other author — in India first. Why, I hear you scream. Because you steal the book and you publish it and you put it out on the street the NEXT DAY! You are the most enterprising group on earth! The papers say 50 million people in India have read Kane and Abel. Yes, I say, but not 50 million people have paid me to read Kane and Abel. The other big difference in this country is… 2.3 people read a book in Britain, 2.4 people read a book in the United States, the average in India is 12. Every book goes around villages, around families. I’ve seen more faded, worn-out, falling-apart copies of Kane and Abel in this country than in any other country on earth. And that’s wonderful too. I hadn’t thought about India like that… I’d only thought about how England beats you in cricket.
Another thing I found out is that the young, and I mean the very young in India, are readers too. And today’s young women of India, I tell you… India will be dominated by women in some years to come.
Writing books, managing traffic
I’m a writer by mistake. I wanted to be Prime Minister… that is what I set out to be but I got it wrong. At the age of 34, I had to leave the House of Commons, having got myself into terrible debt and I wrote Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, because I couldn’t get a job. So, I wonder how many people here have a second talent they don’t even know about. But if I had remained in the House of Commons, no doubt I’d have ended up as minister of transport. And I would have come straight to this country, because you desperately need a minister of transport! I have never travelled in any country that drives the way you do.
Anyway, after I wrote Not a Penny More…, I thought, like everyone else who has written a book, that it’s going to be an instant bestseller. But it sold 3,000 copies in the first year. Only 112 people bought copies in India. And then I wrote Kane and Abel and the whole of my life changed overnight. And they all went back and bought Not a Penny More… 27 million people have now read it.
I’ll talk a bit about how I write, because it’s quite different for everybody. I am an early bird, I get up by 5 and start writing at 6. I write until 8 and take a break for two hours, then from 10 to 12, then a break for two hours, then I do 2 until 4, take a break for two hours and work 6 to 8. I’m usually in bed by 10. And I do that for 50 days, which is the first draft. F--u-r-t-e-e- drafts later, I hand it over to the publisher. It’s damn hard work. There is no substitute for hard work, I don’t give a damn how talented you are, you still got to work very, very hard.
Best Kept Secret
I handed over my latest book to the publisher just before I came. It’s the third book in the Clifton Chronicles, it’s called Best Kept Secret and it will be with you on March 14. I haven’t been allowed to bring a copy to India… they stopped me at the airport and said, ‘Jeffrey, DON’T take a copy to India, they’ll have it out for Christmas!’
I have been writing now for 35 years and have written I think 17 books. But at the age of 70, I set myself a challenge because I am a very focused human being, I’m a very driven human being. And I told myself I’m going to write five books in a row called the Clifton Chronicles, that will take young Harry Clifton from 1920, that’s his birth, to 2020, that’s when he will die. It was going to be 20 years a book. Very neat, very tidy. Problem was, the first book had to take in the War. And I couldn’t do that in 20 years. It took four years. In the second book, I thought I better move along a bit but that only took 11 years. The third book only took another 11 years. So, I’m afraid, not five, the Clifton Chronicles may be six or seven books!
Now I would like to hear some questions from you...
t2: Do you think Sachin Tendulkar should retire?
[loud applause and titters in the audience]
Archer: Oh, three years ago! Sachin Tendulkar is a GOD. Absolute god. I saw him play at the Oval at the age of 17, I saw him take a catch on the move. So, we knew we were in the presence of a genius. I hate this getting out for twos and threes and eights and 10s. I hate it, I hate it. I want this image that is very, very special to remain. I hope [Alastair] Cook — who’s now 27 — won’t make the same mistake in 10 years’ time because he’s clearly a very great cricketer.
My favourite over the years, I think, is Rahul Dravid. I love his style, but see, he retired. V.V.S. Laxman retired… gotta do it at the right time. And I love [Anil] Kumble. The way Kumble behaved in Australia, it was an example for cricketers throughout the world.
Prashant Bangur, Shree Cement: Do you have a structure in mind when you start writing?
Archer: If you have that, you’re a writer. I am a storyteller. I haven’t got a clue when I sit to write! I reckon I’ve got three or four pages in my mind and then I pray… and see where it goes. And in all these years, I’ve never had a letter that said, ‘Oh, I knew how it would end, I could see it on page 200.’ Sometimes I don’t know how it’s going to end with 10 pages to go! I confess to you that I am terrified that one day He will say, ‘You’ve had enough Jeffrey.’ But so far, every single day, it just comes, and comes and comes. That’s how I got Kane and Abel — story of two boys born on the same day, one with everything, one with nothing.
Tapasya Chirimar, teacher at McGill University: How biblically influenced are you for the titles of your books?
Archer: Not consciously, though I’ve, of course, gone with The Prodigal Daughter and Kane and Abel. I thought Kane and Abel was a great title. It was originally called ‘The Brothers’, then it was called ‘The Protagonists’, but I thought they were a bit dull. And one day I was walking along the embankment in London and they must have thought I was bonkers because suddenly I threw my arms in the air and started screaming… that’s when Kane and Abel came in my brain. It helps if you can get a title that people will remember. I think one of the joys of Kane and Abel is that it’s such a simple title. It’s quite hard to forget. Like War and Peace. That’s quite hard to forget.
Rita Bhimani, PR consultant: Your Paths of Glory is based on a real-life story about this man who is obsessed with scaling Mt Everest. I would have loved to title it ‘The Summit’…
Archer: The Summit? Hmmm [stops and thinks for a moment]. Write your own book, woman! [Bhimani and everyone else burst out laughing.]
Saptarshi Mandal, student and dedicated letter writer for t2 Talk: You have been compared to Peter Pan before… I think just like him, you never grow old…
Archer: Ah, that’s very kind. Well no, I’m very aware now. If I was your age I wouldn’t be aware of mortality but I am aware of it now.
But I think energy keeps you young. When I lecture schoolchildren, I always tell them energy plus talent, you’re a king, energy and no talent, you can still be a prince but talent with no energy, you’ll be a pauper.
Swati Gautam, t2 columnist: Any chances of a book on India?
Archer: No. No. Don’t write about something you don’t know anything about. I was reading this man at lunch, I can’t even pronounce his name correctly… I apologise, I apologise, I apologise… [Rabindranath Tagore, his manager prompts.]
And this’ll make you laugh when I say it, but I thought, ‘He’s so Indian!’ I could never do that. I was watching his play with sentences, his play with words, brilliant! But also the way he talked about Indians… he understood them. And he made me laugh, about what I’d seen but never would have been able to put on paper. He couldn’t do that about Englishmen, because he wouldn’t get the same feel that I would have. I’ve written an Indian short story though, a very tragic short story, that I got from a director at Tata [Caste-off].
Pradeep Gooptu, Calcutta Debating Circle:
What do you read?
Archer: I love [Alexandre] Dumas. What people forget about him is that he wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers in the same year … What a man! I love Jane Austen. Here is a woman born in a small village in England, who wrote in her bedroom so that no one could spot her writing... she writes a story about four young girls looking for a husband, then a story about three young girls looking for a husband, then about two young girls looking for a husband and then she writes Emma — the story of a young girl looking for, yes, a husband! Four books on the same subject but you can’t put ’em down! So you see, you should write about what you know.
I think of them all, for sheer writing ability, I love F. Scott Fitzgerald. He uses form and words in a way that makes you think, and then delivers something that you hadn’t thought about. It’s a rare gift. It’s tragic that he was always drunk by lunchtime.
Pradeep Gooptu: What about poetry?
Archer: Oh, I couldn’t write poetry to save my life! I don’t read a lot of poetry but I love [John] Keats, and of course [Robert] Browning. If you count Shakespeare as a poet, there are four of his plays I know by heart — King Lear, Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. The only wish I have had — other than having a daughter — is to have all my knowledge of Shakespeare removed. Can you imagine reading Romeo and Juliet and not knowing the ending?!
t2: Last year you had told us you were fascinated by women in politics. Do you know we have a woman chief minister in Bengal now?
Archer: Well, I worked for Margaret Thatcher for 11 years. And yes, I know of your new chief minister, I hear she’s a fierce lady. Though I don’t know enough about her, I do know that almost every woman who reaches that height is pretty fierce… Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel.... Because you’ve got to beat every man. As Margaret Thatcher always said, ‘You’ve got to be twice as good as any man before they’ll even acknowledge that you exist.’
Are you joining politics too… are you… are you?
[We reply with a very Archer-ous ‘No no no no no’, much to his amusement.]
Barun Chanda, actor: Do you read at all, when you write?
Archer: No. That’s a very interesting question. When I’m doing a book, the brain, the focus, the mind, the thought — no one’s allowed to speak to me until 8 ’clock at night — is totally, totally, totally on the book.
Barun Chanda: That brings me to the last question, are you a man or are you a machine? That schedule would kill any man!
Archer: Not if you lived with my wife (chuckles)! I’m married to one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Mary runs a hospital called Cambridge University Hospital, where she has 1,000 doctors, 3,000 nurses, a budget of a billion dollars.... The Queen just made her a Dame for her services to medicine. So, I’ve spent my entire life trying to keep up with her. And I’m glad it’s like that. And I’m very, very thankful for everything I’ve got — my houses in London, Cambridge, Majorca [Spain], my books, my children and of course, my wife Mary.
Text: Samhita Chakraborty & Sreyoshi Dey