Lord of longhand
Author, millionaire and peer of the realm, Jeffrey Archer, will be in Townsville tomorrow for a lunch at James Cook University. Mary Vernon caught up with him earlier this week in Melbourne
EVERY January, Jeffrey Archer, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, leaves his home in Cambridgeshire and travels to his house in Majorca, carrying with him a large box of Pilot felt-tip pens and plenty of lined paper.
There, he sits down every day for about seven hours and writes a book. In longhand.
‘‘ I don’t know how to type and I like the feeling of the pen sliding across the paper,’’ he said.
‘‘ But it means I have to be very disciplined to get it done. I go to Spain to do it because I love being warm and hate the cold. My wife visits me when she can get away from work.’’
The first draft is completed by February, then his typist creates a triple-spaced version which he revises. There are usually at least 12 more drafts until the book is ready for the publisher.
This year, that discipline has produced his latest book which he’s promoting on a tour around Australia, Only Time Will Tell.
It’s the first of a planned five-volume saga spanning more than a century and focused on the life of Harry Clifton from his humble beginnings in 1920 to his death in 2020.
This first one covers his first 20 years and, like all of Archer’s books, is compulsively readable.
Harry is a bright boy, living with his widowed mother, his grotesque uncle and his deaf grandfather in most insalubrious circumstances in Bristol. His ambition is to be a professional footballer and he works on the docks until it is discovered that he has a wonderful singing voice.
This changes everything and we follow Harry’s stellar career through to Oxford and the outbreak of World War II.
The punchline is exactly like those in the old Saturday afternoon serials – leaving the reader hanging out for volume 2. Which, of course, is the point.
Archer says that this project, five books in five years, for which he has reportedly been paid an £ 18 million ($ A28.4 million) advance, will be the biggest challenge of his career – one that has provided enough challenges for several lifetimes.
His original love was politics and he won a seat on the Greater London Council in 1967. Two years later he won a by-election for the Tories and, at 29, became Britain’s fourth youngest MP.
His political career was derailed when he invested his life savings in a crook Canadian company and lost the lot.
In 1974, facing bankruptcy, he wrote his first novel Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, published in 1976. Critics panned it, but readers loved it, as they have everything he has written, and his career as a novelist was launched.
By 1985, now a wealthy man, he went back to politics and became chairman of the Conservative Party, a position he only held for a year. He resigned when the Daily Star newspaper reported that he had paid a prostitute £ 2000 ($ A3150) . He sued the paper and was awarded £ 500,000 ($ A790,000) in damages, a win which would come back to haunt him.
More books and lots of charity work ensued and he was awarded a life peerage for his fundraising for the Kurdish cause.
Everything looked rosy and in 1999 he won the Conservative candidacy for London’s Lord Mayor. But he had to stand down before the election when a scandal blew up about the libel trial from 15 years before. He was arrested, found guilty of perjury and served two years in prison.
The experience has not dented his boundless enthusiasm, although he does admit that he won’t
Critics panned his first book, but readers loved it, as they have everything he has written, and his career as a novelist was launched
go into politics again. He’s perfectly happy with his gruelling schedule as an author.
Gruelling it is. This promotional tour started in India.
‘‘ This is how publishing works these days,’’ he said. ‘‘ You have to publish in India first because if you publish somewhere else first there will be pirated copies of the book on the streets of Mumbai within 48 hours and by the time you get there nobody will want to buy yours.
‘‘ Then, because of Australia’s ridiculous publishing laws, you have to publish in Australia within four weeks of publishing anywhere else in the world, or else anyone can publish it, you lose your rights to your own work
‘‘ It won’t be published in Britain until May and I hope they like it as much there as everywhere else. It’s the first of five, so I’ve got to get this one right.’’
Only Time Will Tell came out in March in India and was an immediate success.
‘‘ The Indians are great readers, especially of English language books. They believe they have to read English to advance and read they do,’’ he said. ‘‘ In India 50 million people have read Kane and
Abel, my most successful book so far. But the interesting thing is that there, an average of 25 people read each book. That’s compared to just 2.3 people for each book in Australia.’’
Despite initial lack of success with the critics, Archer said that attitude had changed.
‘‘ I have won a few major literary prizes in France, Germany and the US which has forced them to rethink. Only recently the London Times referred to Kane and Abel, which has now sold 33 million copies, as ‘ a modern classic’ which was quite a significant change of attitude.’’
He loves warm weather and is looking forward to visiting Townsville tomorrow, although the visit is very brief.
‘‘ It’s been a very successful tour in Melbourne and Sydney, so I hope for more of the same in Townsville.’’ Lord Archer, who rarely uses the title, will speak at a literary lunch tomorrow at noon at the JCU Medical Theatre precinct. You can book on www. jcu. edu. au/ alumni/ or buy a ticket ($ 30/$ 25) concession at the door.