Friday, 23 May 2008

EASY, STRAIGHT AND NO DART







Friendly and straightforward – that’s how celebrated author and playwright Jeffrey Archer came across, never letting me feel the weight of his title and fame. In fact, throughout the interview, he talked to me as if my father is chatting on a lazy afternoon over a glass of soft drink. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting that.

As I entered the room, I found him comfortably seated on a sofa with a green-collared white tee and light grey trouser.
He stood up and greeted us (photographer Maitrayee and me).
“Hi” he said and shook hands.
I couldn’t get rid of the British ‘Hello’.
“Sit down, sit down… here..” Lord Archer pointed to the sofa near to him.

We got ready for the interview as he signed a copy of his latest novel for a girl who was standing nearby. The sight of the book frightened me. I had finished reading it quickly before meeting the author. I was almost up through the night going through pages after buying the book in the evening. I knew Lord Archer has this inclination of quizzing people about his writings. So, I wasn’t taking any chance.

Lord Archer looked at me again.
‘Will he ask me questions on the novel?’ I thought.
He didn’t actually. It can be very difficult to remember the minute details in his novels despite my legal background.

‘So..have you been watching the IPL cricket matches?’ I asked.
Lord Archer smiled…let’s say it was like short of laughter.
“Ahh…. Yes, I did…Delhi versus Punjab…sad….”
‘Why?’
“Is that cricket? It’s not Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid batting in a Test match against Australia…that’s cricket my boy!”
‘And beating the bloody Australians…’
“Yes!! (loudly…almost roaring) But it’s sad whatever happened in Australia…hmmm…”
‘So…what do you think IPL is?’
“Entertainment…all for money”.
‘Okay, so let me ask you about your novel…’
“Oh…so have we finished with cricket…hmmm… yes…”

This new novel A Prisoner of Birth reminded me of Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo and Galsworthy’s play Justice. Even the murder of Bernie Wilson in the story can remind one of the real-life murder of Anthony Walker in July 2005 at Merseyside, Manchester. I had studied race relations in the UK for my dissertation. So, I know little bit about the race-crimes there. I asked him whether they were just coincidences.
He looked slightly amused but didn’t duck the question.


“Murders happen all the time. So, they are just coincidences,” he replied with a smile.

‘Why did you choose such a title?’
“Title? Ahh…title. You see…titles are important to me. We don’t choose our mother and father – neither you or me or this lady (pointing towards Maitrayee). We all are prisoners of our birth. That’s why I chose this name with an universal feel,” he said hinting at the distinctions that bloodline imposes on us.

I then asked a routine question.
‘How was your experience of writing this novel which as it has been put your greatest work after Kane and Abel?’
“Even better than Kane and Abel…Well…it took me 18 drafts and thousands of hours to write this one. I felt like being beaten at the end. But I enjoyed it”.
And as he penned down chapters of the novel, Lord Archer began loving the character of solicitor Fraser Munro.
“He’s the best one, I think”.

‘But how did the idea for such a story come about?’ my other stock question.
Lord Archer placed his fingers on the forehead….“Ideas keep coming to me always”.
In the same flow he mentioned his play The Accused. It has two different endings, depending on the verdict of the audience, who act as the jury.
‘What about that one?’
“I always wanted to do something different and the play gave me a wonderful opportunity”.
Did I look ‘not convinced’ about his flow of ideas? Could be as he told me in detail how ideas can come even from block of bricks.
“We are building a new house. Few days back Mary (his wife) and I went there and it was just blocks and blocks of bricks…Then this idea of naming the building as Writers’ Block came across…I can even write a new novel of that name”.
I jotted down the name. Lord Archer leaned over to see what I am writing.
“But, all these words are not for printing,” he cautioned.

We go back in time about his well-known works Kane and Abel, and their sequels The Prodigal Daughter and Shall We Tell the President, Lord Archer expressed his “love” for the United States.
‘Why did you set those stories in the US?’
“Ah… good that you didn’t ask like others why I have not written about India. I know United States for last 40 years and I think they have the best political system in the world”.
‘Hmm…but they still haven’t got a woman President. The last time a woman was nearer was Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 as the running mate of Walter Mondale…and senator Clinton is unlikely to get the nomination…’
“But Mrs Clinton too has come closer even if after over 20 years…”

‘Tell me…is the fictional character of Florentyna Kane, who becomes the first woman US President, a kind of statement directed towards the American polity about what role a woman shall play in the most powerful democracy?’
Lord Archer shook his head in disagreement.
“That’s not the purpose – to make statements to the readers. But I believe that men and women are equal”.
‘India had Mrs (Indira) Gandhi as the Prime Minister…’
“Yes…and we had Prime Minister (Margaret) Thatcher”.
‘Yes…’
“My wife…she runs a big hospital…so many people working…and she manages it perfectly”.
‘So, what’s your view on the current Presidential contest in the USA?’
“I support (Barack) Obama first and then Mrs Clinton. McCain comes last,” the once-politician informed of his choice.

We then discussed his other works.
‘In the story The Perfect Murder the actual murderer is the foreman of the jury…Do you have the end points in mind before you begin writing or just add on as the story proceeds?’
“Yes, of course…in case of short stories, I always have the last line decided before I start writing. However, in case of novels, I have about one-third of in my mind and then it evolves”.

Lord Archer then compared The Perfect Murder (published in A Twist in the Tale) and the recent novel. “Short stories are easier, while novels are more intricate”.
‘What about the As the Crow Flies? Wasn’t that complicated with so many characters…”
“Ahhhh… (loudly) Mary loves that one. You’ re right…As the Crow Flies has been a complex story to write from the perspective of five people and often in first person or third person. But, the hard work has been satisfying”.
‘Umm…’
“My wife loves that story,” Lord Archer said again in a tone as if he is confiding something in me.
‘The differences in the UK and US versions of First Among Equals... are the Americans that ignorant?’
“Then...yes. The Americans did not understand the Liberal Party...but now all the differences are gone”.

We get diverted for a while as he took my pen and writing pad and scribbled to show how he got stuck in Delhi traffic. “Truck on this lane…slow buses on that lane and my car in this one…terrible…just terrible. In Europe and the US if they can manage multiple lanes then why can’t it be done in India? You know I had to take a detour while coming to Pune from Mumbai because some minister was using that road. In England such a minister will be killed…”
Lord Archer exploded into laughter.
“But…don’t print these words…” he was still laughing loudly and threw back the pen to me.

During his days in active politics, Lord Archer has seen the who’s who of the legislators and administrators. And several of his works has a combination of the real life and fictional characters.
‘Did any of the real characters object? Prime Minister Heath for example?’
“None of the real life characters objected to that. Rather, they enjoyed it”.
‘Did you ever had a tinge of doubt whether such a combination will work among the readers?’
Lord Archer looked at me.
‘Did he get my question?’ I thought.
“Umm…Hmm…Well…there have been doubts of course. Even though we write for ourselves first, we know that it will be for the readers to judge ultimately. So, yes, there are worries once in a while”. He nodded in agreement.

‘In one of your earlier interviews to Don Swaim you had said that “It’s not enough” to pick up a book from the shelf and hand it over to the reader with a hope that they will enjoy the book “A writer who is in close contact with politics has the opportunity to come closer people”. Now that you are completely into politics…do you miss that avenue of meeting people…representing their wishes…’
Lord Archer paused for a while, perhaps to remember the words he had uttered in 1991. “Not only writing ... I am also into fundraising for charities. Just few days back I was doing that for Ian Botham and Chesire homes. I love doing that. And politics .... it was great privilege to work with Prime Ministers (Margaret) Thatcher and (John) Major. But now the younger people like Cameron has taken over and the (Conservative) Party is doing well. To answer to your question – No, I don’t miss it that much”.

I turned to look whether Maitrayee is shooting photos or not.
Lord Archer tapped on my knee to get back my attention.
“In India it’s different…I will be considered young as a politician in this country…” he laughed again like a thunder.

Politics in the UK has often revolved around the issues of multiculturalism and integration. I raised it to find what his ‘Conservative’ thought might be.
‘What do you think about the debate on multi-culti and integration?’
Lord Archer again looked at me possibly to find out what I am trying to get at when he was supposed only to talk about his books.
He then offered a rather indirect reply: “With almost 51 per cent ethnic people in that country, we don’t have an option but think about it always”.
I was expecting some better response. But decided against pressing Lord Archer on the issues.
“All right let’s get on with the books again”.
‘What’s your impression about Indian writings in English?’
“You know what, I am fascinated to know that in India people love reading short stories. I am told almost every writer has short stories to offer”.
‘Yes, we have a tradition of short stories…’
“That’s what I have found. You know, I like Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy. Good work”.
‘Are we seeing reversal from the colonial days of English literature or is it one of the many effects of globalisation?’
Lord Archer thought for a moment.
“I am not sure whether without the English language, the works of Indian writers would have become famous worldwide”.
Then possibly to buttress his point, he referred to R K Narayan and his Malgudi Days. “He (Narayan) has captured the life in that place wonderfully, and it surely has a colonial feeling”.
‘Yes, he is one of our finest…’
“What’s also interesting, I am told that my books have been translated into Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and other Indian languages. That’s amazing”. He said with obvious excitement.

Children’s literature then found a place in our discussion.
“I think (J K) Rowling has been doing wonderful work with Harry Potter series. She has shown newspaper advertisements are not important than the children’s literature”.
‘But Professor Michael Rosen recently said that Harry Potter stories are boring and will not like to see his daughters reading the stories…’
“No…I don’t agree. If anyone says the stories are boring then he is wrong”.

‘You once told Andrew Marr (of BBC) that UK prisons need to be reformed and also spoke about need for education…I didn’t quite get it then. But in A Prisoner of Birth, the main character of Danny gets educated and proceeds…’
Lord Archer nodded in agreement.
“I am glad you reminded me that point. Let me tell you…more than 80 per cent people in the British prisons don’t know how to read and write. These people go to prison for crimes they might not have committed had they been educated. It’s been proved in Japan”.

Now that his book has been launched and on the bestsellers list, he surely looked upbeat.
‘What about the reviewers? They have nice words to say…’
“Reviewers mostly write about famous writers. But some of them forget about the effort the writer has put in”.
‘I understand…’
“The craft of storytelling can go unnoticed. Alexander Dumas’ statue wasn’t there for a long time. But we all know about his capacity”.
Clearly, there was sadness in his tone.
“Where’s your book?”
I gave it over to him and he signed my copy of A Prisoner of Birth.

“Thank you Biswadip. It was a pleasure”.

‘Thank you Lord Archer. It was a pleasure indeed…’

(Interviewed by Biswadip Mitra on May 22, 2008 at hotel Taj Blue Diamond, Pune, Maharashtra, India around 1420 hrs Indian Standard Time.
The interview was published in Sakaal Times of Pune, India.
)