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Monday, March 14, 2011

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 13th March, 2011)

This is an interview I did with Jeffrey Archer on his promotional tour of Only Time Will Tell, the first book of the five-part Series The Clifton Chronicles. The audio of the interview is here, and the text of my write-up below. From his mock-racial profiling to his rant against publishers and Bollywood, none of the author's barbs is seriously meant. He was usually pulling the leg of someone or the other within earshot. So, here's the interview - which consists largely of his witticisms and my giggles - and a write-up, which some of you may prefer. As for the interview, and I'm not saying this to sell it, the last bit, about colour-blindness, is the funn(i)est.



As I wait in the Presidential Suite, I wonder whether I should address Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare as ‘Lord Archer’, ‘Mr. Archer’ or ‘Jeffrey’, and prepare for a suited-up, right-wing nobleman to walk in, adjusting his pince nez as he dusts off lint with a monogrammed handkerchief.



When a white-haired, T-shirted gentleman saunters in, hands in pockets, hollering, “’Morning!” to the squirming hotel staff, I’m so surprised I say, “Hi!”


“Hello!” he grins, and looks around, “nice room! Why wasn’t I given this one?” Shaking his head in mock-frustration, he plonks himself down on the sofa.


“It can’t be much fun to be on tour when the World Cup is on,” I begin, and the author says, “It’s awful not to be able to see any. Which reminds me – come back, Australian!” – this to Daniel Watts, the Managing Director of Pan Macmillan, Asia (whom he bullies at regular intervals, seemingly with more enjoyment after I remark that it’s like watching the verbal-attack version of Bodyline). He wants his latest offering, Only Time Will Tell, first book of the five-part series The Clifton Chronicles, hand-delivered to AB de Villiers, on pain of death.


He then chides the Australian for not knowing who de Villiers is, and the Indian representative of his publishers because, “Your problem is AB can run three runs while your lot run one. You’ve got the best batting team in the world! But they can’t run between the wickets, and they can’t field. They’re FAT!” Having left the two men looking suitably sheepish, he turns to me, “The final will be between England and Ireland!”


“What is with you and the Irish?” I burst out, forgetting that this man has been a bestseller since before I was born, and that his weekly tax bill likely tops my annual earnings.


“Oh, I love the Irish!” Jeffrey Archer smiles, “They’re such a great race! Good people. They read such a lot of books too. Big readers, big writers.” In The Prison Diaries, he declares, “God gave the Irish the gift of language, and threw in some potatoes as an afterthought.”


We finally remember he’s here to promote Only Time Will Tell, which traces the early years of Harry Clifton, the son of a waitress and either a stevedore or a titled shipping magnate. The series will span a century, but the first book is a cliff-hanger. “It’s a horrible ending!” I whine, “the book’s too short!”


He gasps, “It’s nearly four hundred pages! What do you want, blood?” He waves his hand dismissively, “stop complaining. You’ll know in a year. I’ve written the first draft, so I know what happens to Harry. At the end of the first book, I thought, ‘oh, my God, how am I going to get out of this?’ I’m not TELLING you! The one thing I will tell you is that he’s a writer. So you’re going to get all my knowledge of awful publishers, and all the experiences I’ve been through!”


The other things he reveals about the second book are: (a) it could be called Above and Beyond, or The Sins of the Father (b) it’s set in the 1940s, with the backdrop of World War II (c) half of it will take place in America. “No KGB,” he smiles.


I ask if his writing has got more personal, since A Prisoner of Birth took us to Belmarsh, and Only Time Will Tell takes us to Weston-super-Mare and Oxford – Archer’s alma mater. “All authors do that, don’t they? You know, you write about what you know about. Jane Austen, Scott Fitzgerald... Of course, Shakespeare didn’t. He never went to Denmark or Italy or France, and he wrote about them all the time.” I smirk, “if he had, he’d’ve known there were no monasteries in the Roman Republic.” Archer laughs, “good point!”


He then says, “There’s a lot of Harry in me. I want Harry to come from a background I understand. I’m going to do him for a hundred years, and I don’t want to keep making him up.” Harry’s mother Maisie is based on Archer’s own mother, who graduated at sixty, wrote a novel, and created a character called ‘Tuppence’ – Jeffrey’s alter ego.


When I indulge myself in psychoanalysis, and suggest Archer got more comfortable talking about his own life after writing The Prison Diaries, he muses, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that! How interesting!” I venture to suggest his experience in prison was contrary to a poignant sentence in Harry’s story – “an abundance of sympathy can be more overwhelming than solitude.” To that, his Lordship snaps, “You don’t take everything so literally! I’m a writer. I do what I do. Treat me as a simple man!”


On the subject of hypocrisy, I tell him that for someone who was once so proud of not being computer savvy, he’s rather an avid blogger and tweeter. He gives me a ‘gotcha!’ look and says his secretary Alison does all of that. “I tell her on the phone, or I dictate it!”


He speaks of how painstakingly he brought in the temporal setting, of an era when tennis players wore long trousers, and football fans applauded the opposition. I smugly point out that he referred to the United Provinces as “Uttar Pradesh”, before 1940. “Oh, that’s bad!” he says, looking sheepish for once. Then he adds graciously, “Well done! But it didn’t stop your enjoying the book!”


However, he refuses to allow my contention that colour blindness isn’t inherited from the paternal side. “Stop making things up! I had that checked by a leading doctor. Go back and get in your basket!” he roars. “So there’s no loophole?” I ask, and he shakes his head furiously, “no loop...ah! Wait for Book 3!”


I ask whom he would cast if the series were televised. He wags a finger at me, “Only Indians say ‘who will play the main lead?’ It’s because of Bollywood!” He sighs, “get back to serious questions!”


I decide to do all his fans a service. “You have to tell me who Mentor from A Matter of Honour is!” Archer looks puzzled, “Mentor?” and pauses. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! The only book I’ve read in the last twenty years of my own is Kane and Abel, which I re-crafted. I don’t read them again. I’m on to the next book.”


However, he plans to take “a whole week off” after his sixteen-cities-in-four-weeks tour. Then, it’s back to writing in chunks of two hours through the day, with the indulgence of two theatre visits a week when he’s in London.


He’s also busy with charity auctioneering, and will conduct auctions for the Queensland floods, and the earthquake in New Zealand on his tour. I can’t resist asking him what he thinks of Anish Kapoor’s art and he sighs, “I can’t work it out. I’m not a modern. Very popular, though. Very highly thought of.”


As he signs my books with a felt-tip pen, we discuss a mutual hatred of people who can’t read books without bending their spines. Daniel steps in with a hard-sell of the limited edition hardback, which Archer ruins with, “humph! A first edition of Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less is worth something. This isn’t!”


He chases me off with, “We’re tired of you. Go away and don’t darken my doorway again! Write your own novel. I’m going to find lots of things wrong with it!”


As I leave, he begins telling Daniel everything that’s wrong with the Australian cricket team, since “the day you lost Gillespie, Gilchrist and Warne.” I recall reading that journalists in Mumbai had to interview him with the England-South Africa match on mute.





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