Monday, June 27, 2011

Denis Edwards on Jeffrey Archer

The 33rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1996 issue. I have a guilty feeling that it might have been me who prompted Denis to ask the £10 million question. That’s one good thing about being an editor: getting people braver than oneself to ask the hard ones. I still think that Archer told L├╝genspiele.

The intro read:
In the blue corner: Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, better known as Jeffrey Archer, squillionaire author of bestsellers like Kane And Abel and now The Fourth Estate. Facing him, Denis Edwards, bracing himself to ask the £10 million question, “Who writes your books, Jeff?”
Interviewing overseas authors and hoping the interview will produce real insights tends to be a waste of time. Any writer successful enough to have publishers – who are notori­ously stingy – paying to fly them around the world will have many hours of
meeting the press behind them. This means they arrive equipped with a stock of “good for all seasons” quotes. Should those fail to fend off probes, they can always switch back to the book, and the safety of talking about the agony of the creative process and world-wide trends in their particular genre.
It’s usually enough to keep awkward issues safely distant until the publicist eases into the interview, murmuring and looking at her watch. “Her” because they are inevitably female and usually extraordinarily attractive. They are signalling that it’s time the journalist gathered up the tape recorder and notebook, shook hands all round and cleared off so the next interview can begin.
The reporter is left to trudge away with just the press-kit material and a few well-washed quotes with which to fill the space between the ads, under the headline and around the photo. All too often that means glumly rewriting the press kit, with its party line of this being a wonderful book and the author a fine and talented human being. What’s missing is the interesting material, the unexplored dimensions of the writer – as in, what are they really like?
This time was different. Jeffrey Archer put it all on display, but not straight away. It all began with the standard author-tour patter, carefully controlled and cheerful.
Archer was effusive and exuded an air of mischievous roguery, full of the “how far can we push things and still get away with it?” panache which once let the Oxford-Cambridge crowd colonise half the world. This was in the suites at Auckland’s Sheraton Towers hotel, where he was getting his shoulder in behind his latest, The Fourth Estate, which he describes as a “novelography” of Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell’s political and financial brawls.
The odds are the book won’t need much pushing. Archer is a success. His 10 books have sold 100 million copies. HarperCollins is confident of his ability to score again, to the point of printing a massive 300,000 copies just for the UK, New Zealand and Australian markets alone.
Archer’s sales have left him with the sort of wealth to make stories like this one credible: “Do you earn £10,000?” he was asked, when applying for a small credit facility – and he is reputed to have replied, “Some days I do, and some days I don’t.”
Behind life as a bestseller is his career in public life, one he holds near and dear and which saw him rise to the inner circles of the Conservative Party, and which led directly to his well-publicised courtroom fights: libel cases, suing newspapers after allegations about his sex life and his investment strategy.
He learned when and how to dodge the bullets, and when to fight back. All this has earned him a seat in the House of Lords as Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, “the only seaside peer on which Danny La Rue has not yet performed”, according to Ned Sherrin. There is also a thoroughly deserved reputation for being tough, even knifingly vicious, with interviewers – his Kim Hill interview is a local broadcasting legend (see Kim Hill, Bookseller, December 1994, and accompanying letter).
With all that lurking in his character, it was just a question of tine before the range of Archer personalities was revealed – the Writer of integrity, the faux bonhomie of the Politician, and the Killer with a fine sense for the jugular.
The moment is a quarter of an hour into the interview and is triggered by a mild query about the often-aired allegation that Archer is given to contracting out the hard graft of the book writing to hired hands.
“Who said that?” The cheery amiability has gone, replaced with the fast hard tones of the man who fought with Hill.
“I heard it first on the BBC World Service, and they were quoting someone else, so it isn’t exactly fresh, but the story is in play. Is there anything in it?”
“No there isn’t!” he snaps. Then the sides of his personality spin past. The Writer is pointing out, reasonably enough, that the contracting-out idea is plain stupid. “Why would you take £250,000 to write my book, which might make me £10 million? If you could do it, surely you’d do it for yourself? Isn’t that the answer to that question?”
It is. At the same time his voice deepens and strengthens. The Politician has taken over. He has moved physically close, taking over the space between us. Even though he is shorter and less physically strong, he has become the dominant force in the interaction.
He has approached from the side. Front-on is too aggressive and too primal, guaranteed to spark anger and defensiveness. Archer the Politician would not want either of those in the game. They are too difficult to control.
He is snapping his fingers and saying he has kept all 19 drafts of The Fourth Estate. If anyone goes public with an allegation that he hired a writer, he would “sue the same day, and I got half a million from the Daily Star in a libel action, and I would take those drafts as evidence into court with me”.
By now he is right alongside me, urgent and tense, commanding and dangerous. In a perfect world, journalistic training would click in and it would become a battle as I dug in, to fight and persist. Alas, I didn’t. Archer’s mix of personas – Writer, Politician and then Threatening Litigant – struck so quickly and so skilfully that it was impossible to resist giving him what he wanted, shifting the conversation onto less controversial ground.
When he has what he wants, he completes the rout with a reward, instantly re-warming the atmosphere with a purring bonhomie that flows out to every corner of the room.

Archer writes by hand. “Don’t like word proces­sors. Hate them. Wouldn’t have one. You can keep them.” When it’s time to begin a book – he writes one every two years, in a ratio of two novels to a collection of short stories – he sticks to a regime of rising at five and scratching away with a felt-tipped pen from six until eight, from 10 to noon, from two to four and from six to eight. Start and finish times at each session are controlled by an egg-timer.
He credits his early years in track and field with giving him the resources to accept and maintain that disciplined regime: “When I stopped as a runner I never thought the discipline and the competitive sense, the internal one, would be of any use again. But it has turned out to be one of the things which has made me a successful writer.”
He isn’t one to lock himself away in any old rat-ridden garret. When the Muse summons him Archer takes her, himself, his wife Mary, a typist and a cook to a villa overlooking the Mediterranean on an island off Spain. He also takes 60 or so felt-tipped pens, paper and the egg-timer.
Six weeks later he has a first draft, which will be worked over and over again, until he has been through those 19 drafts and can hand the final version over to the publisher.
He has never had a publisher ringing up asking if the book will be on time or whether he needs any help. “I don’t need it. They know I am driven and that I will keep going until the book is finished. They also know I am fanatical about quality, because there are authors out there who have had hits and whose work fell off, and they can’t get published now. If there is a fear that is it, that I won’t be able to deliver the goods, that the readers will sense I am losing my touch and they’ll stop buying. When that happens you’re finished, and it doesn’t matter how many successes you have had.”
That writing career, with its books, money, film deals and power – and driving sense of insecurity – began in a strange way. It was a form of exorcism and therapy, one he used to distract himself from impending ruin. “I was in the House of Commons, after being on the Greater London Council. I love public life and I was determined to stay in it. Money has never been an issue with me. I always knew I could make money, so that wasn’t the driving force. Public life is.”
He had invested heavily in a Canadian company which folded and saw three of its principals jailed for fraud. Archer was left with debts of over $NZ1 million, and came within hours of being bankrupted, which would have ended any question of staying in politics. “There is this great myth,” he says, “that I started writing to make money and pay off my creditors. That’s ridiculous. No one can do that. No one. God knows I couldn’t. The manuscript was turned down by 17 publishers! I have met a lot of people who are writing their books. All of them are doing it to get published, certainly not in anticipation of making millions.
“I started writing as a way of keeping myself working. That’s the truth of it. I did have an advantage in my being a raconteur and a storyteller, which made up for my not having, and still not having, the slightest idea of dramatic structure. I work one line at a tine, without knowing what is going to be in the next paragraph, and reach the end of the page without knowing what is going to be in the next chapter. That way I can keep the reader guessing too, because if I had worked it out beforehand I would instinctively have put something in at the start, perhaps even one sentence, which would let a reader say ‘Ha, I knew what was going to happen!’ You can’t have that if you want to keep people coming back.”
When Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less finally connected it was a hit, selling all over the world, and being aired on both BBC radio and television. The third book, Kane And Abel, was the one which set him up for life. The Coronet edition alone sold 3.2 million copies, with the film rights going for $US2.3 million. “That was the end of the debts,” he says. “It made me a millionaire overnight, all from writing.”
Archer is famed for being an assiduous promoter of his books, down to stopping cars on country roads so he can dash into a shop and browbeat the bookseller into moving the Archer stock into the window display. “Nothing wrong with that at all. I love it. I want to be read. It’s what I do. I would get thoroughly bored sitting in the Bahamas all year drinking pina coladas. I would get bored after one week!”
His selling extends to his being a legendary hand at a book signing. When he gets a following wind behind him, he can do 500 in an hour. At that rate, a valuable Jeffrey Archer first edition will be one without his signature in it.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Nicely written. Well done D.E. (And Ed)