Around two weeks ago, we got a call from our in-house film critic and brilliant writer, Rajdip Ray about how he had managed to get an interview with none other than master storyteller, Lord Jeffrey Archer who was in town to promote his latest novel, Only Time Will Tell. Lord Archer was caught up with autographing copies of his book and addressing his fans. However, here’s Rajdip in conversation with Archer (who managed to take some time off) about Kolkata, cricket, writing and more…
Rajdip Ray: So, this is your first time in Kolkata. What do you find most intriguing about the city?
Jeffrey Archer: It is actually my second time. I had stopped over in Kolkata for 24 hours on my way to Hong Kong more than 30 years back. But yes, this is my first proper visit. I’m bound to say, without meaning to be offensive, that Kolkata is not moving at the same pace as other cities. The contrast in this city really hits you in the face. On one hand, there are bookstores which are like the best in Europe, and yet the minute you step out, there is so much poverty all around.
RR: Any plans of writing a novel about Kolkata?
JA: No. To write a novel about the place, you have to stay over there and understand the nuances, culture and religion. I can do that in England and somewhat in the USA, since I’ve been there so many times, but if I write a novel about Kolkata, a reader will immediately be able to point out that I was just visiting the city as a tourist for a couple of weeks.
RR: Do you still use a pen to write?
JA: Yes. I do about 14 drafts for every book and I hand write each and every single word. My wife uses all these new devices. She presses buttons to make a fridge turn and recently bought an Apple. But I do not use any of these devices to write. I like the feeling of writing with a pen. And I get a different sort of satisfaction when I have finished a book and there are 120,000 words and I know I’ve written every one of them.
RR: Why 14 drafts?
JA: By the end of the 1st draft, I’m halfway there. By the end of the 2nd, another one-third is done. In this way, by the time I’m done with all 14 drafts, it ensures that the book is a smooth read and the audience does not feel disconnected at any point of time. And that my friend is the secret to why 50,000 women take me to bed every week.
RR: I heard you use an hour glass….
JA: It’s a two- hour glass actually which my wife got made for me as I write in slots of 2 hours. It’s got silver at the top and bottom with glass in the middle. Now I’ll tell you why I use it. You see, most of us are lazy, me included. But if you have an hourglass it tells you how lazy you are being in case you stop your work before the last grain is through. Writing is a great discipline. The hourglass reminds me of the discipline which I have to maintain.
RR: You love cricket….
JA: Yes, I absolutely love it. And the World Cup final is going to be between England and Ireland, and this time we are going to win. I was quite surprised with the Indian fans actually. I expected all of them to always go on about India being the best and winning this time. Not a bit. On the contrary, all the Indian fans I have come across are criticizing the Indian bowling and fielding and think that their chances of winning are quite slim. And I’ll tell you why their chances slim. A team which leaves out Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid are just plain mad. If they had been in the side, India would have won the cup for sure. If Ganguly and Dravid want to play for England, we will be more than happy to have them.
RR: Any plans of writing a novel based on cricket?
JA: No, because the Americans who constitute the majority of my audience don’t understand the game. Oh by the way, I saw Lagaan, and I liked the movie. I hated the dances though. And the only reason the Indian team managed to win that game was because the English umpires never cheated.
RR: What made you take to writing?
JA: Well, I was out of a job when I wrote ‘Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less’. And I’m amazed at the number of Indians who say that it’s their favourite book. And I’m like “Wait a minute. That’s the first thing I ever wrote.” And I never expected it to be a bestseller. Now the book has sold more than 27 million copies, but it was much later that I discovered that the real breakthrough was ‘Kane And Abel’. But now, I’m an author by love and freedom and choice. I love it. And I feel I’m very privileged to be one.
RR: How do you manage to write one bestseller after another?
JA- I don’t know how I do it. I don’t consider myself to be a writer. I believe I’m a story teller. I don’t write about vampires or wizards. I tell a simple story. And I hope and pray that people will read it. And so far, I’ve been very lucky.
RR: Most writers write about their own times. A lot of your stories on the other hand are based in the late 19th century or the early 20th century.
What makes you write about a time which you haven’t experienced?
JA: I’m fascinated by history. I enjoy mixing story telling with facts. When I’m doing my research, I’m constantly looking for stuff which will help others learn historical facts without it being taught like a boring text book and forced down the person’s throat. For example, while writing ‘Only Time Will Tell’ I discovered that people who were poor during and before the war in the 1930s smoked a cigarette called Woodbine. Now I knew of their existence because I was born in 1940, but what I didn’t know was that they were also called “coffin nails”. So when I get a fact like that, I try to mingle in into the book without rubbing it down your throat. It also gets you thinking when you are reading it. So the fun in research is that you are getting all of this across without being monotonous.
RR: Have you ever tried writing poetry?
JA: Ah. No. And that’s because writing poetry is very difficult indeed. And it is completely different altogether. Plus, poets never make any money. They die hungry and are remembered after several years as great poets who died hungry. But that being said, poets are absolutely wonderful, and they deserve more support.
RR: ‘Kane And Abel’ is considered to be one of your most successful novels. Why then did you decide to rewrite it?
JA: ‘Kane And Abel’ had its 30th anniversary 2 years ago or so, and it had 84 editions printed by then. Now it has 91. And I thought this book has lasted 30 years, it has sold 33 million copies. And I thought if it’s lasted for 30 years, why will it not last another 30. The average age of my reader is 25 and last night I was attacked by a 12 year old girl who has read all my novels and was complaining about me not writing fast enough. So I decided to write for the next generation, and hence I altered and re-wrote ‘Kane And Abel’.
RR: What was the inspiration behind ‘Only Time Will Tell’?
JA: I’m nearing 71 and I wanted a new challenge which would make me work harder. There are a lot of authors who keep on releasing new books with the same story with a few changes here and there. Actually, the public is not that stupid, because their sales drop. So, I desperately try to come up with something new every time. And I thought that this time I’m going to write the biggest thing of my life and I’m going to call it the Clifton Chronicles and it will cover Harry Clifton’s journey for 100 years of his life, right from 1920 to 2020. And this is the first part of the 5 series book.
RR: Is Jeffrey Archer’s life as unpredictable as the last page of his new novel?
JA- Yes. Absolutely.
RR- Do you plan to write an autobiography?
JA- No. But Harry Clifton’s life in the Clifton Chronicles is similar to that of mine. That is why I write about his life for 100 years, which is by the way, the age to which I intend to live. In Book 2, Harry will become a writer, as I want to let the world know what it feels like to be a writer. So, in a sense, the Clifton Chronicles are fairly autobiographical.
RR- Any Indian authors that you like to read?
JA- R.K. Narayan. I think he is a fabulous story teller. It is a shame that he hasn’t got worldwide recognition, which I believe he should.
RR- You have achieved almost everything that there is to achieve…
JA- Oh no. My latest ambition is to become the Transport Minister of India. This is the 4th consecutive year that I’ve come to India and I’ve noticed that the driving instructors are not teaching the people how to drive properly. And the other stupid thing which must be looked into is that no lorries should be allowed into the outside lane. I go down the road and there are 3 lorries on the outside lane on a motorway doing 20 miles an hour, with a rickshaw overtaking them. And I’m in my BMW on the inside lane trying to make my way to the airport. If this is done in England, then the license is confiscated. And it must be done in India as well.
RR: What have you learned from India?
JA: I was chatting with this very middle class, well educated friend of mine a couple of days back and he explained to me the concept of arranged marriage. It took me some time to understand it, but I think it makes more sense than the way we are doing it in Europe which is a complete mess.
RR: What do you consider to be your greatest success?
JA: In 35 years I have never received a letter saying “Jeffrey, I knew what was going to happen at the end of your book.” And the only reason that has not happened is because I, myself, don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of my book while writing it. That’s what I’d consider to be my greatest success as a story teller.
RR: and finally, any advice for budding authors?
JA: It is only in India that I come across so many people who aspire to be writers. In England, 3 out of 300 people want to write a novel. In India, 150 of them want to write a novel. See, the truth is, that when it comes to writing, very few are successful and can make a living out of it. But if you believe that you have got it in you and that you are one of them, you must give it a shot. You must do it and succeed or fail. But you must never turn back at a point of time in your life and regret the fact that you didn’t even give it a try.