His own life story could come straight from one of his books – the rise, then fall, then rise again of the boy from Weston-super-Mare who became a politician and was then made a life peer but who has also spent some time during his life in prison for perjury and perverting the course of justice. “I didn’t start writing until I was thirty-five,” he states. “At school I was a raconteur, I enjoyed acting, the stage and words.”
Calling himself a storyteller, not a writer, Lord Archer comments that anyone who is well educated and well-read can be a writer, but that storytelling is a God given gift.
The road to becoming one of the world’s most popular authors wasn’t a smooth one. Jeffrey Archer says that it wasn’t until he got himself into terrible financial problems and had to stand down as an MP in 1974 that led him to write his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, thinking that it would become an instant best seller and solve his financial problems. “It was turned down by sixteen publishers and the seventeenth publisher sold only 3,000 copies in the first year, so if you want to get out of debt, don’t write a book.”
“The breakthrough came with my third book, Kane and Abel, which sold a million copies in the first week,” Lord Archer tells me. Since then he has gone on to sell over 275 million books in 97 countries in more than 37 languages.
As any successful novelist, Jeffrey Archer has a disciplined writing process. “I arise in the morning at 5.30 am, working from 6-8 am, then I have breakfast and take a two hour break before writing again from 10-12, then I have another two hour break when I may go for a walk, then lunch, then back to writing from 2-4, then I will have a break before my final session from 6-8 pm and I’m in bed around 9.30,” he explains. “I always write the first draft in longhand and that will take roughly 34/35 days, 300 hours, and then I take a much longer break and go back for the next draft.”
Where does he get his inspiration from when starting a new book and how does he sustain an interest in his characters? “I wish I could tell you the answer to that,” he replies, “but I seriously can’t because I don’t know how I do it.” Inspiration can strike at any time, but many of his plots are based on personal experience. For instance, the first book in the William Warwick series, Nothing Ventured, features the world of art and antiques. “I have been a collector for forty years and I love art, and in fact I have just been to a major home in London and spent most of my time looking at the pictures whilst everyone else was talking to each other,” he remarks. “I always say to young authors, write what you know about because then the reader will feel at ease and realise that you know what you are talking about.”
Characters in Jeffrey Archer books are often drawn from interesting people he has met. “In the Clifton Chronicles, the main protagonist Harry Clifton is based on myself,” he admits. “William Warwick was first introduced to readers as a fictional detective created by Harry Clifton and I started to write the William Warwick series after several readers wrote to me saying they wanted to know more about him.”
“I decided to take on that challenge and create a new series with William Warwick as the central character, but I didn’t want to write a detective story, rather a story about a detective,” he says.
“In the William Warwick series, William is based on my chief researcher, former Detective Chief Superintendent John Sutherland (rtd) who sadly had a mental breakdown and retired from the police after what he described in his autobiography as ‘one murder too many’.”
“The women in my novels are so often based on my remarkable wife who is a very strong woman, and I like strong women, so they often make their way into my books.”
It is evident that there is more than a passing likeness to his wife in the character of Beth Rainsford, a research assistant at the fictional Fitzmolean Museum that William falls in love with in Nothing Ventured.
Once heralded by a judge during her husband’s 1987 libel trial as a vision of ‘elegance, fragrance and radiance’, Dame Mary Archer is a very distinguished scientist in her own right. Does she read her husband’s books I ask? “She does, but not until the fourteenth or fifteenth draft, and then she does offer her views,” Jeffrey Archer says. “Mary wrote a very important book on solar energy but I didn’t have a lot of views to give on that!” he laughs.
The William Warwick series follows the protagonist through the ups and downs of his career as he battles against a powerful criminal nemesis, expert art thief Miles Faulkner, and aspires to become Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Force. “We meet him as a Constable on the beat before he becomes a Detective in the Art and Antiques Squad, then in the second book he goes on to become a Detective Sergeant dealing with drugs and in the third book he is a Detective Inspector dealing with police corruption,” Lord Archer explains. Had he always planned the novels to be a series of eight from the outset? “No, I always planned that William Warwick would rise one rank and I had always planned that it would be a totally different subject so that it wouldn’t matter which book you picked up, but I rarely know three pages ahead what will happen.”
In Over My Dead Body William Warwick has become a Chief Inspector and has been moved to the Murder Squad. “If I live long enough, because I am now 81, he will become a Superintendent, a Chief Superintendent, a Commander and finally he will be Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, but I have to live to the age of 86 for William Warwick to achieve that.”
Three of the novelist’s books have already been adapted for film and television, but would he like the William Warwick series to reach the big screen? “There have been a lot of approaches and I will believe it when I see it, but I would love to see a William Warwick character,” he exclaims eagerly. “One actor could play William as he is in the first four books with someone else taking over the last four.”
The first book, Nothing Ventured, is set in the 60s at a time when technology was very different and they didn’t have mobile phones. “DNA didn’t exist, that is the biggest thing that changed crime,” Jeffrey Archer comments. “Agatha Christie couldn’t have written a novel the way she did, she would of course have adapted herself, but DNA didn’t exist as many other things didn’t exist in her time, and I have to watch very carefully which year I am in, but my two police advisors are on hand to remind me what they did themselves in any given year,” he says. Will DNA appear in future William Warwick books? “The answer is possibly, but I haven’t got a clue where I am going with those yet.”
Apart from John Sutherland, Jeffrey Archer relies on Detective Sergeant Michelle Roycroft (rtd) who has just left the force after thirty years having worked in both the Murder and Drugs Squad. “Michelle brings her own flavour and a woman’s angle,” he states. “They read the book when it reaches about its fourth or fifth draft and check every fact to make sure I don’t make a fool of myself, because between them they have got sixty years’ experience in the Metropolitan Police so they can tell me what I can and can’t do.”
How he finds time to read books himself is a mystery, but Lord Archer claims to be an avid reader. “I do read regularly – I take recommendations and if someone tells me ‘you ought to read a particular book’, I am on to it straight away, and although I do find an exceptional book now and then, it is not that common that I do.”
One book which Jeffrey Archer recommends to me is Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity. “It’s among my favourite books. I am a huge admirer of Stefan Zweig and I think Beware of Pity is a masterpiece and he combines the genius of being a great storyteller along with being a very fine writer.”
What would he consider to be his greatest achievement in life? “I am very proud of the fact that I ran for my country, and that I have raised over 60 million pounds as a charity auctioneer – but I think having sold over 275 million books is definitely my greatest achievement.”
Finally I ask Lord Archer if he has any
regrets in life. “Too many to spend talking to you about today,” he replies.