Jeffery Archer prides himself on his punctuality. When I arrived at the Taj Palace and Towers almost half an hour early, I was told that the journalist who was supposed to interview the London-based author before me hadn’t shown up. Archer assumed it was I who had kept him waiting and practically jumped out of his chair.
“You’re late,” he said, wagging his finger at me. “You Indians and your Indian Standard Time. Was it the traffic?”
When I explained that I was early, he apologised with a bow. The next day, he arrived 36 minutes late for the launch of his book of short stories, And Thereby Hangs A Tale, at the Landmark bookstore in Parel. Perhaps it was the traffic.
Archer spoke to DNA about his new book, writing, and his passion for cricket. Excerpts:
Why the title And Thereby Hangs A Tale?
Shakespeare wrote that line four times. This particular inspiration comes from The Taming Of The Shrew. And for 15 short stories, I think it’s a clever line.
Most of your stories have an ironic twist in the end…
I’m a fan of twists. I like to keep you on the edge of your seat and make you say: ‘Oh, I didn’t see that coming’. But that’s getting harder and harder. I’ve written 75 short stories. The fans know how my mind works, so they’re waiting for it. It becomes harder to capture them. But this particular story will catch you. I didn’t get it, so you won’t get it.
Retribution and revenge are also recurring themes in your stories...
(Growls) Yes! People love retribution and revenge. People love it!
But why make the effort when you know that life isn’t fair?
It probably makes people happier. But I’m an entertainer, don’t turn me into a philosopher.
What is it about a person — John Kennedy, George Mallory, people you met in prison, for example — that inspires you?
I’m interested in people. I find them fascinating. Often their stories are bigger than a novelist can conquer. Take George Mallory, for instance (English mountaineer who disappeared a few hundred metres off the peak of the Everest.) I couldn’t invent Mallory. His story is unbelievable. I just wanted to write about him.
Which form of writing — autobiographical, short stories, novels or plays — gives you the most creative satisfaction?
Novel writing is much tougher. It takes two years to write a major novel — almost a 1,000 hours. A short story is not as demanding, but it has its own problems — every word has to count. In a short story, you have to know the ending. If you don’t know what the last line is, you can’t start a short story. In a novel, when you get there, the ending will take care of itself. It took me a year to write And Thereby Hangs A Tale, but it took six years to collect the stories. Stories come from all over the world: Florida, Jersey, England, India, Germany. I might get two this week while I’m in India. I might get none in a year. And suddenly I’ll get three in a week. So you can never tell when they’re going to come.
Among your own works, which is your personal favourite?
I’m sentimental about Kane And Abel. Fifty million Indians have read the book and it still sells five new editions every year. The fans still say they like Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less the best. But I think Paths Of Glory is the best piece of writing I’ve done.
You’ve had a colourful life. Are you considering writing an autobiography?
No. I’ve just started on a set of five novels called the Clifton Chronicles. They go from 1920 through to 2020. I’ve just about finished the first one. I’ve done about 600 hours. That’s going to take five years of my life and I think it’s going to be the biggest thing I ever do. It’s my biggest challenge. It’s the story of a family from Bristol in England, and a boy in the back streets whose father is a docker; because he’s got a beautiful voice, he ends up in a prep school, and becomes friends with a rich boy who will one day own the docks. It’s going to take him from his birth year to his 100th year, and it’s going to take me five years of hard work.
Your life has been a rollercoaster ride. If you were to do it again, what part would you omit?
Nothing. What’s the point of regrets? Do you have any regrets? Let’s sit down together and start crying. Oh that’s been a waste of time. Let’s get on with it. Look forward. Be cross with yourself when you’ve made mistakes. We all make mistakes. But don’t sit and cry. ‘Oh I’ve failed because the world has been unfair to me.’ No. Get up and fight!
More than once, you’ve been accused of cheating. How do you deal with such allegations?
I’ve never heard of anyone famous who hasn’t had to deal with such allegations. It’s stupid. I just ignore it.
Looking back now, after so many years to reflect on your experiences, how has your perspective of your time spent in prison changed?
I realise how privileged and lucky I’ve been.
Who are your favourite Indian writers?
RK Narayan. He’s very polished. He’s a good writer as well as being a good story teller. One of your great critics said to me: ignore the sacred cows of India and read RK Narayan. I think she’s right. He has economy of words and a storytelling gift that is very rare. He’s the Tendulkar of short stories.
The last couple of weeks or so have seen a thriller of sorts unfolding in India, with regard to the IPL. Would you consider writing a cricketing thriller based on the heady cocktail of big money, betting, crime, sex, glamour and sport that is the IPL?
I didn’t fully understand it though it’s been written about in the London papers. I did ask someone to explain to me the power of this man Modi. But this side of cricket doesn’t interest me greatly. What you do in India has nothing to do with me. But I remain devoted to Indian cricket. I mean, you have four or five of the greatest batsmen on earth. It’s a privilege to watch Tendulkar, Dravid, VVS Laxman. What is terrifying is there are young people coming in to the game who are just as good. Even Sehwag is once in a lifetime. A man who can score 300 in a Test match is mad. Pure genius!
So would you consider writing a thriller around cricket in general?
No. It wouldn’t sell in America. Even if they are picking up on the game, I’m not going to live long enough to see it. I have written three short stories with cricket in the story, even one where the whole story is about cricket.
Even with the politics, sex and all kinds of crooked deals going on in cricket?
All that is in your country. Not mine. I’ve been reading the papers, trying to understand it. But I’m sure there’s a lot that they don’t even write in the papers.