Jeffrey Archer's latest novel, Best Kept Secret, out now in paperback, is the third in his bestselling Clifton Chronicles.
The century-spanning series has recently been extended from five books to seven, with the fourth book, Be Careful What You Wish For, out in March next year. It centers on young docker's son Harry Clifton, and the trials and tribulations of him and his family from the 1920s, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
Archer says: “I did very well in Book One, I got Harry to university and then the [First World] War breaks out. Book Two was the Second World War. I got him up to his 30s in Book Three and I’ve got him up to 44 in Book Four, but I clearly can’t kill him in Book Five because I’d have to cover 30 years and kill him. So it wasn’t a choice. I was happy to do five books but it was forced on me that it has to be seven books—especially as his whole life is going to change in the next book.”
Archer is a disciplined author, with a writing schedule resembling a military regime; his first draft is done in 50 days and he will complete 14 drafts by the time the novel is handed in, rising to write in two-hour instalments at 5.30 a.m. each day. It is “very intense and very disciplined, but I couldn’t do it any other way. I’m not casual in that way.”
Feeling the pressure
For a writer who has published so many successful books and has written in several different forms—from adult fiction and his diaries to children’s fiction and short-story collections—Archer readily admits that he still feels both pressure and nerves. “It is agonising. Every author goes through it—anyone who tells you differently is living in a dream world.
“Heaven knows what’s going to happen now that we have millions of readers waiting for the fourth book, which I’m naturally nervous about. There is the pressure of waiting to see what happens, but that’s fine, that’s part of the deal, I don’t complain about that. It’s better than the other way around: wouldn’t it be awful if sales for the second book had fallen?”
But of course he must be proud of his success? “Proud? Frightened about the next book, actually, always frightened about the next book. If you’ve had 16 number ones in a row, you wonder if the next one will be. We can all think of a lot of authors who have died overnight. You see such big names disappearing and you think, ‘that could be me’. There’s always pressure. You sit down each day and say, ‘this has to be better than anything I’ve done before’, because these are real readers and they are sitting there waiting for it. The day the bookshop opens there will be half a million people around the world in straight away, and if I haven’t delivered . . . well it is a horrific pressure.”
The Sins of the Fathers
Archer has achieved mega stardom around the world, with his books performing extremely well globally. Archer believes the success is down to“the storytelling. I think people love a simple story. There’s no erotica, there’s no ghosts or gore and I think around the world the public just like a good story.”
“The series is pretty autobiographical—Harry is a writer from the West Country, his brother in law is a Member of Parliament, and I have fun writing about things I really love and know about. But I am always nervous about where it is going to go, because it never goes where I want it to go.
“I don’t think a storyteller ever knows where he’s going or where it will end up. I know where Book Four will go, because I have written it, but the one after that I haven’t got a blimming clue. Because if I know, then you’ll know. If I don’t know, how can you possibly know? So I take the risk, and it is one hell of a risk, of never being more than three pages ahead. That’s the difference between a storyteller and a writer: a writer probably has it mapped out all the way through.”
Archer’s success is undeniable, but does the snobbery of the British literary scene ever bother him? Does the differentiation between storyteller and writer ever grate?
“I’ve won two major prizes in France and I’ve won a major prize in the US, but I have never won anything in Britain. Are you asking: ‘because you’ve never won anything in Britain is that sad?’ Yes. I am touched that the Americans and the French acknowledge me as a writer, but the British have a tendency to put me in the category of storyteller and dismiss the fact that you might be a writer as well. That’s fine.
“If on the other hand you’re asking me, “would I rather have £250m sales or the Noble Prize in Literature?”, I’d rather have £250m sales. That doesn’t take too long to think about. Does the snobbery bother me? No, I couldn’t give a damn. I am read by some of the cleverest people in this country. It doesn’t worry me one little bit.”
For a man with such a tight schedule it would be easy to assume that Archer has no plans after the Clifton Chronicles climaxes in 2017, but he says he has “one very big idea, for one book. Which may be the last book I ever write; it is so big I’ll be frightened of doing another one.”
Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer is out now from Pan.