Jeffrey Archer’s flair for storytelling has made him one of the best-selling authors of all time. It’s also landed him in hot water, most notoriously in 2001 when he was jailed for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
These days, he’s preoccupied with the affairs of the Cliftons and the Barringtons, two families from opposite ends of the English class system whose entangled fates drive his latest saga, “The Clifton Chronicles.” The third volume, “Best Kept Secret,” has just been published, and he’s already completed seven drafts of the next installment.
On a recent London morning, I caught up with the Conservative peer, 73, at his art-stuffed penthouse on the Thames. Fresh from the gym and chatting in a kind of adrenalized shorthand, he wore velvet slippers with golden crowns embroidered on their toes.
Anderson: You start your novels on January 1. What else does your routine entail?
Archer: I like discipline. My writing room is in our home in Majorca, Spain. I rise at about 5:30 a.m. and work in two-hour blocks until 8 p.m. First session will be 50 days, second session 23, 24 days, the next 15, and so on.
Anderson: And when you’re not writing?
Archer: I really try to get away completely so I can go back fighting, wanting it. I do auctions for charity. Yesterday was particularly thrilling because the room was full of entrepreneurs who were all self-confident and wanted to show off, so I just beat them up and they loved it! We raised 40,000 pounds ($63,000) for an eye charity.
Anderson: You wrote your first novel almost 40 years ago after fraudulent investment advice left you facing bankruptcy and ended your career as a Member of Parliament. Would you have begun writing otherwise?
Archer: No. I could have been Under Secretary of State for Transport and retired as a failed politician and never known. I wanted to be a politician but it’s not the same as 3,000 women in India screaming when you come into a room as a writer -- not as a pop star, as a writer.
Anderson: What does the money mean to you these days?
Archer: Nothing. It doesn’t mean a thing anymore. Much more interested in being read. If you said to me, “Jeffrey, I’m going to take away 1 million pounds for every million new readers,” I’d give you all my money.
Anderson: You’re not doing too badly for readers. What’s your secret?
Archer: I’m an old-fashioned writer -- no sex, no violence, no bad language -- and millions of people buy it so it has to be they love the storytelling.
Anderson: Do you plot each novel in advance?
Archer: I’m lucky if I know a day ahead. You sit down, you pick up a pen, and then that paragraph comes and you’re off --in a direction you had not planned when you got out of bed. Now that’s storytelling.
Anderson: Is there a difference between writers and storytellers?
Archer: Very big difference. You look at Charles Moore, who’s just written “Margaret Thatcher.” He’s a writer, not a storyteller. Couldn’t tell a story to save his life. But then I couldn’t write the Thatcher biography, not me.
Anderson: Any tips on surviving scandal?
Archer: You need a good family, good wife and a God-given gift. Reputation still matters to me but only with my friends. Margaret (Thatcher) stood by me all the way. And so did the public, the public didn’t walk away, God bless them.
Anderson: Would you have done anything differently?
Archer: Of course. I am a man who makes decisions on the spot, which has got me into trouble. But look, regrets? No, thanks very much. You’re foolish to regret. Stand up and fight again!
Anderson: What was the Thatcher funeral like?
Archer: I didn’t sleep the day before, frightened I wouldn’t be there on time and she’d be cross with me. Then I realized how close we’d been because for four days afterward I didn’t sleep. It was really weird. All the memories came flooding back.
The funeral stamped her position forever. It puts her up there with Churchill.
Anderson: What advice do you give aspiring novelists?
Archer: You’ve got to really work hard. Go and watch a ballet dancer, then you realize what hard work’s about. You want to take me on? You’d better take me on at my level, because I get up each morning wanting to beat the world, and if you don’t, I’ll kill you.
I’m exhausted at the end of every day -- can hardly walk -- but I wouldn’t say I was there otherwise.
“Best Kept Secret” is published by St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and Macmillan in the U.K. (373 pages, $27.99, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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