Lord Jeffrey Archer: "I'm today"
He's famous for his way with words, but it appears Lord Jeffrey Archer also has a head for numbers.
Sitting with him in his luxurious London penthouse to chat about Tell Tale, his new collection of short stories, I’m bombarded with them: he’s sold 275 million books, give or take a few; most authors only achieve 50 per cent of their usual sales when they write short stories, while he achieves 80 per cent; and—my personal favourite—he’s worked out that he gets 28 five-star reviews on Amazon for every one-star review. He scrolls through them in front of me.
Sales figures are important to every author,” he states. “There’s no author alive to whom they aren’t.”
I ask him if dipping sales figures would ruin his day.
“Silvina,” he shouts. Then, a little louder, “Silvinaaaa?”
A lady, who appears to be his housekeeper, calls back. “Yes, Sir?”
“Can I have my ears?”
Looking back at me, he says, “I can hear men. I just can’t hear women.”
Hearing aids inserted, we continue our conversation. Yes, he asserts, poor sales figures would ruin his day, “But I’ll tell you when it happens.” He has every reason to be confident. Since his first book was published in the mid-Seventies, Lord Archer’s titles have dominated the best-seller charts.
His tomes have weathered some of the more salacious plot lines or his own life, too—including extra-marital affairs, expulsion from the Conservative party and imprisonment for perjury and perverting the course of justice. In fact, he wrote during his incarceration and— you guessed it—those books sold well too.
“A lot of people go through terrible troubles,” he shrugs. “Mine have just been more public that others. I’ve always had the advantage of storytelling running right through. You can’t be sacked from being an author; the people can stop buying you, but you can’t be sacked.”
Sitting amongst his resplendent gold and green furnishings (“The colours of the Hermitage. I saw them in there and said to my wife, you know, they’re just wonderful—we must do them in the flat”), it’s quite obvious that even if people did stop buying his books, he wouldn’t exactly be thrown into hardship. So why does he continue?
""There are a hundred reasons not to get up at six in the morning and write—I have to be disciplined""
“Certainly not for the money!” He gestures around him. “I have everything I want, thank you very much. I don’t want yachts or aeroplanes. But I do like being read. It gives me a great thrill to know millions of people are reading me.”
And yet he insists it’s a thrill that’s hard won. Now 77, Lord Archer still maintains an almost militant approach to his work, rising at 6am to write in a twohours- on, two-hours-off pattern before going to bed shortly after 10pm.
“I have to be disciplined, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. There are a hundred reasons not to get up at six in the morning and write. I make myself do it, and actually it’s a routine I like very much indeed. I’ve just finished the 14th draft of a new book, and there’s at least three more to go. I wish there was an easier way but, if there was, I’d have found it.”
Writing his way out
Many know, of course, that Lord Archer first began writing to avoid bankruptcy, following a misjudged investment. Does this, like many of the other difficult periods in his life, make him wish he could go back and tell his younger self a thing or two?
“That question is a waste of time!” he exclaims, adjusting his slippers. “You can’t. I’ve reached where I am—I can’t change what has happened. The amount of people who think it would be nice to look back…I’d have been captain of the England cricket team; I’d have got a gold medal at the Olympics. All the things I would have done—it’s a waste of time. I’m writing my books and praying they’ll be better than the one before. I don’t go backwards. I’m today.”
Perhaps that’s easy to say, when your life today is so obviously comfortable. Despite the many tribulations, he remains happily married to his wife of 51 years, Mary, maintains an active social life, and flits between his homes in London, Cambridgeshire and Majorca. “I’ve had an amazingly privileged, wonderful life. I’m not in a position to complain,” he admits.
Lord Archer has been married to his wife, Mary, for 51 years
That’s not to say nothing troubles him, however—the descent of manners, for example. “I was brought up by a mother who was very polite, and I come from a family where you stand up when a lady comes into the the room. My sons stare at me in disbelief when I still do it.
“I’m just clearly completely out of touch; I went on the London Underground a couple of days ago, and there were two young boys sitting in a packed carriage. A pregnant woman got on, and they remained seated. I actually wanted to throw them on the tracks, I got so angry with them.”
So manners are important to him. What else? “Loyalty. You go through life, and you’re lucky if you have a dozen really close friends. “I’m by nature an optimist,” he continues. “I see the best in everyone, and I’m always shocked when I find someone is bad. Even now my children say I’m naïve.”
Three score year and ten
Despite his positive outlook, a brush with cancer five years ago did bring a keener awareness of his own mortality. “Once you’re past 70, that’s the maker’s deal in the Bible: three score year and ten. So you you’ve got to think, Wait a minute, any more is a bonus.
“My closest friend at Oxford [University], who was one of the great Olympic athletes of his day, has dementia. He was my best man, and he doesn’t know who I am. So I’m very aware of how lucky I’ve been.”
I remark that there can’t be much more he feels he needs to achieve.
“I think my chances of captaining the England cricket team have gone, I’ll admit this,” he chuckles. “But I’d love to be in the middle of Brexit. I’m by nature someone who likes performing, and it’s fun on the centre of the stage. I’m still able to talk to other politicians and hear their views—and there’s a whole new generation telling me what they think is happening. But like all old fogies, I’m sitting outside watching now, and have been for years.”
""I’d love to be in the middle of Brexit—I’m by nature someone who likes performing, and it’s fun on the centre of the stage""
It seems, then, that his books shall remain his focus. “I’ve got seven literary awards outside Britain, but I would love to win one in Britain,” he says, throwing his head back to laugh. “I had the great honour in South Africa to meet [the late] Nadine Gordimer. She said, ‘Jeffrey, do you think I wouldn’t trade my 10,000 sales for yours?’ She got the Nobel Prize, dear old thing. She told me to stop grumbling.”
And with that, we’re talking about numbers again. “As you know, my second novel Kane and Abel has just had its 100th reprint. I don’t think there’s another author alive who’s got 100 reprints. Harper Lee certainly did it, but she died last year. A hundred editions of your book in your lifetime? That’s pretty exciting.
“If you look at the authors who survive, they’re storytellers. Look at Dickens. Look at Dumas. Storytellers talk about themselves, of course they do—and I want people to still be talking about my books.”
He picks up his Kindle, and deftly scrolls through to see if there are any more reviews.
Tell Tale by Jeffrey Archer (£12.99, Macmillan) is out now.
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