Author Jeffrey Archer knows about reversals of fortune, From politics to best seller lists to prison and beyond, his new book A Prisoner of Birth is the latest chapter in a storied and controversial career, Pete Gay sat down with him to separate the man from his story.
What is so surprising or unsurprising about Jeffrey Archer’s latest book A Prisoner of Birth, is how closely the story resembles the man himself. Maybe that shouldn’t be remarkable given the his tumultuous history: making and losing a fortune and getting elected as a Member of Parliament before falling from grace and being convicted for perjury.
Then, he reasserted himself into public life while making a bigger fortune as a best selling author. His PR assistant requests that he be addressed as either Jeffrey or ‘Lord Archer’, but no matter which name you choose, you’ll find an energetic, theatrical and engaging raconteur. After all, he’s an unabashedly ambitious author who literally willed himself onto bestseller lists. With a cadence that blends shades of actors Richard Burton and Peter Finch, an interview easily turns into a lively discussion.
THINK: In A Prisoner of Birth, Danny Cartwright’s (the main character) vengeance doesn’t seem to diminish his soul. You don’t deeply explore how he reckons his vengeance after doing time in jail.
ARCHER: He rationalizes it by not killing the people who lied and sent him to prison. If he killed them, his vengeance would have gone far beyond how much he was wronged. Cartwright was lucky to encounter a mentor in prison who taught him this. But, then he, like all of us, are prisoners of birth, of our backgrounds. And the most successful ones get on with it and make the best of their circumstances.
Cartwright’s dehumanization actually begins very early under incarceration – from finding out that a good lawyer is very expensive to experiencing a sly prosecutor. Did you intend to do this?
Not overtly, but yes, to the average man the legal system is intimidating. And unless you are experienced, the legal legerdemain in questioning is absolutely baffling and infuriating to the average person.
Do you work from an extensive outline and character and story arcs?
No. I think about the story for a while until it’s all in my head. Then, I start writing. I have an assistant to fact check, but I do the research myself. But, I go through many drafts. A Prisoner of Birth went through 17 drafts. I’ve worked harder on this book than any of my previous books.
Was it difficult to publish your first book?
Very. My first book (Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less) was turned down by 17 publishers. And then the publisher only printed 3,000 copies. I was paid GBP3,000 for that. However, my next book (Kane and Abel) went on to sell 25 million copies.
What are the main influences in your writing today? The Internet? TV?
No, none of those. I just keep open minded towards anyone I meet and experiences I encounter. And my wife and I make sure we travel regularly around the world.
Director William Friedkin (French Connection, Exorcist) told that an artist compromises his artistic integrity when he takes his first tennis lesson at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Are you mindful of your audience and celebrity status when you are writing?
Never. You have to be truthful to your story, write your book and completely avoid thinking about your audience. Never write to a ‘demographic’. Being a celebrity author is a double-edged sword and you have to be careful not to cater to that animal.
Who are your favourite writers?
All of my favourite authors are dead. Like Faulkner, Steinbeck and Irving. And of course, Shakespeare. Could you imagine someone of that time sitting in the audience and watching Romeo and Juliet and experiencing the ending for the first time?
To what do you attribute your writing success?
I’m a storyteller first, then a writer. Being a raconteur was a skill I discovered and honed into writing. While many technically minded and smart people can write, few can actually tell a story. There’s a big difference between the two. And I was surprised to learn that if you put it on paper, you might get paid for it…