THE CHRONICLER

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 12.03.11
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Welcome to Calcutta. You said you were here 30 years ago. Was it a book tour like this one?

Oh no, no, no... I was on my way to Hong Kong I think and it was a stopover. And I decided to stay for 24 hours. It would be silly to come this far and not have a look. I don’t really remember a lot but I remember walking along your waterfront. I was just amazed by the amount of people. I had never seen anything like it. Of course, those days nobody dressed as you are dressed today [jeans and shirt].

Nobody. It was always traditional dress. That’s been the big difference in India and Japan.

Also, there weren’t so many cars... carts, horses and bicycles but not many cars. I suppose the Tatas changed all that... God bless him (Ratan Tata)!

How are the tours coming along?

It’s been very hectic. Wonderful turnouts. It should be interesting to see what it’s like in Calcutta.

We hit VIP Road.

Are we already in the city?… Oh, a city near an airport!

Have you watched any of the World Cup matches at the stadium?

No, only on television. Of course, I’m very aware that the World Cup is on everyone’s lips here. But you are very realistic about your cricket. That’s very interesting. You are as passionate as I am, as my countrymen are, I expected you to be unrealistic. I assumed that every Indian that I met would say ‘we are going to win, we are going to win’. But they don’t. They know the game so well, and they know the people involved so well... how can anyone say you are bound to win? And certainly the way you’ve played in the World Cup there’s no reason to believe that you are bound to win… I saw the India-England match while in England, I thought the result [a tie] was fair enough.

JEFFREY ARCHER LEAVES CALCUTTA AIRPORT FOR TAJ BENGAL. THE t2 CHAT HAPPENED DURING THIS CAR RIDE

On VIP Road, he suddenly notices both flanks of the road have traffic plying down the same direction and sits up.

The road rules in your country!

Who are your favourites for the World Cup?

I think probably South Africa. Despite them being beaten. But the truth is, in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, just anything can happen. There isn’t any longer a favourite. It can be anyone, indeed. Pakistan, despite being killed the other day [by New Zealand], could just have three good matches in a row. India could collapse. On the other hand, Seeh-wag [Sehwag] could get a hundred in 40 balls. Anything can happen.

And your wager on Ireland reaching the finals still holds?

Yes, Ireland and England will play the finals. The match will be close, but England will win.

Just Jeffrey: Many moods of the master storyteller at Starmark (South City), the South City International School auditorium and Taj Bengal

(Looks out of the window in Rajarhat.) You have a lot of construction going on… Wow, it’s like a new city! You’ve got too many people?

(When told Calcutta’s population is 10 million in the day and 6 million at night, he gasps.)

10 MILLION? Wow, that is big! And only nine million of them read! (Laughs.) That amount of people is a great strength and a great weakness.

(Near City Centre Rajarhat.) The roads are nice... it’s a three-lane highway.

(Is impressed by City Centre II from the outside and gazes at the apartment blocks.) Nice new apartment buildings. But they have the old-fashioned air-conditioners on the outside. Never mind, New York has them too.

You have come to India so many times, visited so many cities. Can we expect a novel based in India?

No. I am an Englishman, I understand my own countrymen, I think. I have a flavour for the country and probably for the United States. I’ve been there too many times. I wouldn’t like to write about India if I wasn’t living in India, without understanding the religious problems, without understanding the nuances, the little subtleties. So, no, no, no no. You know, I wouldn’t write a book about Argentina. Just because I love India doesn’t mean I know anything about it. I learn every day, in fact, how little I know.

How did Only Time Will Tell come about?

Well, after I rewrote Kane and Abel, I wanted to do a really big challenge, something special. So, I thought of writing five books in a row from 1920 to 2020, cover the life of one man, Harry Clifton, who lives for a 100 years. It was a terrific challenge. I thought if I can get the first one right, then I’d be on the way. But I also realised that if I got the first one wrong, no one would be buying the second one. The first one goes from 1920 to 1940, right up to the Second World War.

And I never know what’s going to come next. The reader won’t know what’s coming next if I don’t know what’s coming next! So I finished the first book without knowing what would happen to Harry. Because I wanted the reader to be genuinely perplexed and worried and that would happen if I was genuinely worried and puzzled myself.

You say there will be five books. So, you really don’t know what will happen to Harry next?

Well, I’ve done a first draft of the second book in January and February. I went away to my house in Spain. So, I now know what happens to him, till 1960. But there’s a bigger dilemma at the end of the second book. I certainly don’t know what’ll happen in the third book.

(Looks out of the window to see cows and buffaloes grazing on the empty Rajarhat plots.)

Do you see as many cows on the roads as before? When I was here earlier, they were all over the road. Now I see them in the fields.

(He is told that owners can be fined if cows stray onto the roads.)

Oh, how stupid of me. I thought they were religiously allowed to sit in the road. But why aren’t they fined for more simple things, like lorries driving on the outside lane? Why are you taught in driving school that you must have the white line come down the middle of the car? I presume you are taught that at driving school, everybody does it! When I’m minister of transport, all that will change. No lorries will be allowed on the outside lane.

(Points to an autorickshaw.) What do you call them? A rickshaw? If I was minister of transport, they would only ever be allowed on the inside lane.

(Looks out of the window.)

We’ve come four or five miles of straight three-way highway!

Is this a sort of new town?

(He’s happy to learn that it is, in fact, called New Town.)

(Looks at some apartment blocks.) There are so many people to house these days. A huge challenge for any government. Physically giving them somewhere to live. I don’t envy any government that.

(Looks at the DLF building.) Very smart, very modern.

Jeffrey Archer plays to the gallery at Starmark, South City Mall.

The back cover of the book says this is your most ambitious work in four decades. Is that because of the time span?

I think so. Taking on five books in five years! It’s got to be in five years. No one’s going to wait longer to know what happens to Harry on the last page. The US doesn’t even want to wait for a year, they want it in six months. So, I should take that as a compliment or consider the Americans a strange race.

So, when is the second book coming out?

A year today (March 10, 2012).

Do you have the name yet?

I have two titles and I can’t decide. I like them both.

“Keep up the good work, young man,” said this fan at Starmark. “I certainly will, sir,” replied Lord Archer.

In Only Time Will Tell, you have adopted a unique style of storytelling, where the same story is told by different characters...

Yes, they tell the story from totally different points of view. So things you have missed or things you haven’t had fully explained, another human being, who’s seen them or heard them or has another viewpoint, tells the story. It was a literary challenge. The easy way out would have been to do the book in the third person. But this was a challenge.

Will the other books have a similar style?

Yes, they will be uniform.

When Harry and Emma fall in love, the reader almost cringes at the possibility of incest.

They cringe in India. We live in such a modern world now, people don’t cringe at much, do they? You watch a film and 20 people are mowed down by a machine gun, you’d think that’s a bit worse than incest! But your question leaves me to face the challenge, I have to face it, yes.

“Don’t you dare say India will win the World Cup!” Jeffrey Archer tells t2 photographer Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya by the Taj Bengal pool

Did you wish to shock the reader?

No, I didn’t. I just set them [Harry and Emma] in their natural circumstances. He goes to the local grammar school, she goes to the equivalent of the local grammar school. The chances of them meeting are quite good. In any case, she is his best friend’s sister. And he falls in love with her. She’s a very bright, pretty girl.

Do you find traces of Abel Rosnovski [Kane and Abel] in Harry?

No, no, no, no... Abel can’t speak English, Abel was born in a forest.

We mean in terms of potential, intelligence or the desire to rise above his birth...

I hadn’t thought of that. That’s interesting. (Grows thoughtful.) Harry is born in Bristol, goes to the local grammar school, Abel has no education at all, other than being taught by one man — the Baron. Interesting observation.

And you rewrote Kane and Abel just before you started on this one...

Yes, good point. Kane and Abel was 30 years old and had done 84 reprints. It’s done 91 now. But the story doesn’t change at all. But I suppose you are quite right. While I was rewriting Kane and Abel, I thought I must do this again, on an English scale. In Kane and Abel it’s a Polish family and an American family.

Old Jack Tar is the most fascinating character in Only Time Will Tell. Why did you kill him?

Oh you silly thing! (Laughs.) You actually liked them that much, did you? (Laughs heartily). The problem is, in every book you’ve got to kill someone. They can’t all live happily ever after. You’ve always got to have someone who’ll make you cry. I want you to meet my man, tell him you love him and want more of him. That’s when I kill him. Because then the reader complains. If you didn’t care about Old Jack, you wouldn’t mention his death. I’m delighted you care.

I think he’s very delightful. Personally, I think the first paragraph of Old Jack’s section is the best paragraph in the book. “On a balmy Thursday afternoon in the Northern Transvaal, I killed eleven men and a grateful nation awarded me the Victoria Cross.... I haven’t had a peaceful night’s sleep since.” I got that from a man who killed 16 people in the last war. He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep for 70 years. He dominates Book II.

The last line... is the twist in the tale your signature style?

No, no. But I am a storyteller. I want you to turn the page. Endings are difficult. I have many authors telling me, I just can’t do it Jeffrey, how do you do it? But endings are very important. In a book like Only Time Will Tell, of course, the ending must set you up for the next book. We want people not to be able to wait!

How many drafts do you go through?

This one was about 14. I don’t think there’s a short cut. I work till I fall. I only stop when I feel I can’t do any better. I push back deadlines till the time I am satisfied. I would never stop till I am satisfied. In fact, I am having a problem with one sentence in this one.

(Takes t2’s copy of the book and reads out the first line of Harry Clifton’s story.)

“I was told my father was killed in the war….”

Would it be better if it was “I was told my father had been killed in the war”?

(Harking back to long-forgotten lessons learnt in torturous English grammar classes and then editorial lessons learnt at the workplace, t2 was able to come up with an answer that pleased The Lord. Yes, we said, “had been” would be better, since there was already a “was” in the sentence.)

I’m going to talk to my people (possibly meaning the publishers or printers) about this for the second edition. You see, I never stop! The first edition had 120,000 prints. If you take the pirated ones, there’s probably half a million out there.

Is this paperback an anti-piracy version of the book? Also, the book’s been launched on March 4 here, while England will only get it in May...

If we brought it out anywhere else in the world first, it’d be out on the streets before it would reach the shops! On the other side of that coin, if India is going to be a serious leading nation, you’ve got to tread on that. You are damaging the publishing companies, you are damaging the bookshops, you are damaging the writer; the only person who gains is the one who’s stolen it. Internationally, India is a very, very, very, very important country.

David Cameron has said that India is a big partner for the UK...

Yeah, we’ll be coming to you for aid very soon! There’s a very strong — and dare I say — genuine friendly relationship with India. I see the strong relationship every time I come here.

(Looks at a traffic-light hawker armed with black window shades.) At least he’s not offering me one of my books!

Are you angry when you see your books pirated?

Well, I want to be read. The irony is that 50 million people have read Kane and Abel in India and that’s a wonderful, wonderful figure to have. And it wouldn’t be 50 million if it wasn’t for the pirates. But I can’t have my company going under because they can’t make a profit.

With the many hats you wear, how often do you write?

All the things I do are fitted in between the writing. The writing comes first, it’s the main thing, the focus of my life. So, I finish a draft, come on tour and immediately get back to writing after I return. In between I do my theatre, my auction, my cricket.

Salman Rushdie once told us that he would write 600 words every single day. Are you an everyday writer or do you write when gripped by the urge? About 2,000 words every day, hand-written. I have a home in Spain. It overlooks the sea. I have built a study and I write there, away from everybody, no phones, no one’s allowed to talk to me between 6 in the morning and 8 at night. I like peace and quiet. No distractions.

You have written novels, short stories, plays, the three prison diaries and even a gospel. Do you have a favourite genre?

Unquestionably, the novel is a great challenge. But I do enjoy short stories. And the fascinating thing about India is that they love short stories. But that may be because you have a tradition of short stories. RK Narayan is one of the greatest short story writers of all time. Young people in India still read HH Munro, Maupassant, which is wonderful. You have such a desire to learn in this country, it is amazing. You and the Chinese are the most thrusting nations on earth.

What makes a good thriller?

The ability to make the person turn the page.

Art — that too very expensive art — is an important part of many of your stories. You are an avid collector too. Does the hobby creep into the plots or did your literary research translate into a hobby?

No, good art. You have this very bad habit in India of involving everything with money. I have art that I paid almost nothing for. But it’s good art. Yes, some of the works I’ve got have not come cheap but I do not look at the price tag and then buy it.

I think all writers use the knowledge they have. If you were a collector of Indian coins and you wrote a novel, we’d all learn about Indian coins.

But I got told off yesterday by a 17-year-old. He said, ‘You really love Caravaggio? He’s in five of your books.’ So, I thought, Mr Caravaggio, no more of you in my books!

Which is your personal favourite in your collection?

I don’t think I have one particular favourite. But I do have a wonderful Picasso and a sculpture by Rodin. It’s been a lifelong madness.

After being a No. 1 bestselling author in fiction, short stories and non-fiction, what keeps you going?

Well, you have two choices. You keep going or you die. I’m a workaholic. And when a new book comes out, it’s very thrilling. I am driven. I wouldn’t do it if it bored me. I don’t do it for the money...

You wrote your first novel Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less to bail you out of financial troubles. Wasn’t banking on a book too much of a risk?

It wasn’t only risky but damn stupid! Fourteen publishers turned it down. Anybody who writes a book to make money is nuts!

But we like it more than Kane and Abel!

Oh, you are a silly romantic! But a third of my fans say they like this book more... A lot of women like this book. Also Paths of Glory.

Which is your favourite?

My wife says As The Crow Flies. I think…well, I’m sentimental about these things. I know Kane and Abel changed my whole life, but I think it’s A Prisoner Of Birth — it’s going on selling every week, everywhere in the world.

It’s been 32 years since Kane and Abel. If you had to pick a favourite between the two, would you?

Oh no, no! You’ve got to believe they are the same person. You’ve got to believe that if Kane was born in the forest he’d have done that, if Abel was born like Kane, he’d have done the same. And at the end of it, you mustn’t love one more than the other. You mustn’t have one favourite.

As the writer you probably can’t, but as the reader, we do! We think Abel’s story is more appealing…

Oh do you? Of course, it is to Indians, because they are the most aspiring race on earth. The Americans, they all love Kane…

One of the inspirations for Florentyna Kane, who becomes US President in The Prodigal Daughter, was Indira Gandhi?

Yes, I am fascinated by women who make it to the very top, like Margaret Thatcher. Indira Gandhi was staggeringly ahead of her times. I am a great admirer of powerful women who break the odds. What is interesting is that the first five women prime ministers in the world went to the same college at Oxford, Somerville. Isn’t that amazing? Mrs Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, the fifth is a Swedish lady...

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

No, I don’t. But I always tell young authors who come to see me that they have to be prepared for very hard work. If you think you can knock out a book in a weekend, you can’t! You’ve got to start small. My first book sold 3,000 copies. It doesn’t happen overnight…it builds and builds and builds. You have to be ready to work unbelievable hours.

What I do point out to them is that there’s a great deal of difference between being a writer and a storyteller. It’s the difference between, say, V.S. Naipaul and RK Narayan. Naipaul is a great writer and he wins the Nobel prize but RK Narayan makes you turn the page. He’s a great writer as well as a good storyteller.

Going back to cricket, you met Sachin Tendulkar the last time you were in India...

I’ve met him several times. I had dinner with him and Rahul Dravid quite recently in London. I’m hoping Dravid will be on the tour of England this time. I hate to think that I might never see him bat again. He’s a stylish batsman. I am hoping Sachin will score a 100 at Lords… The last time he scored 92 and was given out when he wasn’t out. With the new referral system he would’ve been given “not out” and undoubtedly would’ve scored the 100. That was very sad.

Any other cricketer you want to meet?

I’ve met most of them…the older ones. I think Mr Kumble is very nice. I think he behaved magnificently during that controversial Test in Australia and the Australians behaved like a bunch of thugs.

Have you met Sourav Ganguly?

Great player… Ganguly is great. But I haven’t met him. Sehwag is pretty fantastic too. Of course, you can get him out in the first over. I could get him out in the first over! But once he gets going…. I mean you can’t stop the blighter.

Are you interested in any other sport? You used to play and referee rugby…

Rugby, yes. I’m interested in athletics too, because I ran a little myself. But cricket is my first love, rugby my second love.

Have you watched any Indian film?

I go to the cinema once a week, but if you mean Bollywood, no. I loved Lagaan though, except the dancing. Get rid of the dancing! Great story, but it was the English umpires who make it all possible!

You had a cameo in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Any plans of facing the camera again, this time probably long enough for the audience to realise it’s you?

(Laughs) True, true. Ya, you go like, there he is, but oh, he’s gone! I’ll do another bit, if I’m invited to. I’d consider it.

[The car pulls into the Taj Bengal driveway and it is time for Lord Archer to catch a nap and for Samhita of t2 to spend a sleepless night transcribing the chat]