Saturday, May 24, 2008

'Best Stories Are True'

Novelist Jeffrey Archer, in the city as part of his book tour, talks about being 'sold' at traffic lights in India, about everyone being a prisoner of birth, his discovery of R.K. Narayan and about always drawing inspiration from the present
Dibyajyoti Sarma & Maneesha Singh

"Avoid using cliches," says a character in the latest Jeffrey Archer bestseller. However, it is difficult to avoid them when you spot the man himself sitting alone for a quiet lunch. You are impressed by his unassuming personality. You watch him slapping backs and sharing jokes with visitors; you hear him gush about R.K. Narayan trying to get the pronunciation of his name correct.
"I think Narayan is a marvelous storyteller. I read him last night and he is still on my mind. Mind you, if he were alive, I would not be talking to you right now. I would be sitting at his doorstep and begging that I be allowed to touch him."
As we rave about his humility, he says, "I don't want to be like God. I like being close to people. You must never take yourself too seriously."
This brings us to his latest bestseller 'A Prisoner of Birth', and his stint in prison as well. "Yes. It changed my perspective. Today, I feel privileged and lucky to be the writer that I am. In a sense, we are all prisoners of birth. We do not choose our lives. We just get lucky." As a point in example, he mentions about a little girl knocking at his window in Mumbai and begging for money. He says, "We should all feel lucky for what we get in life." Point noted.
On a book tour to India as part of the Landmark Jeffrey Archer tour, visiting six cities in 12 days, Archer is amazed by the reception accorded to him by his Indian fans. In fact, his experience in India has been good enough to motivate him to write a love story, drawing inspiration from the 1920s. "This would be a true story," he says, adding, "The best stories are always true." But, this is not going be his next book. His forthcoming novel is called 'Paths of Glory', which he is in the process of revising.Cut to 'Prisoner of Birth', which went through 18 drafts, and a 1,000 hours of writing! Archer explains his schedule as a writer, where he wakes up at 5:30 am, writing in phases from 6 to 8 am, 10-12 am, 2-4 pm, 6-8pm. He goes to bed at 9.30 pm, sleeping by 10, only to be up again at 5.30 the next morning. "This continues till the first draft of a book is over, which takes about 300 hours!" Then, he takes a break and works on the second draft. "And, mind you, all my writing is done in long hand. Later, my secretary types out the drafts for me."
This in no way means that Archer is opposed to things technical. He maintains a blogs (he plans to write about Narayan there) where he interacts with his fans "I answer almost 150 mails a day. In fact, recently, I have noticed that almost 25 per cent of the visitors are Indian. Though it may be due to my recent trip to India," he adds humbly. When we remind him that he is very popular here, he quips "Yes, my books are sold at traffic lights here and I am worried." Dispelling all qualms the next moment, he says, "It's very flattering. Who does not want to be pirated?"And no, he is not worried about internet taking over the readership of books, especially in India, where the age group of his readers varies from 25 to 30 years. "In England, it is above 50. I think, I am more popular here than in England. The English-speaking population of India is more than the entire population of England." Then, there's also the added incentive, Archer says with a glint in his eyes, "500 young girls turning up at your book reading is certainly inspiring indeed."
What about Indian authors apart from Narayan? We suggest Ruskin Bond, he says Rudyard Kipling. On a serious note, he says he has read many Indian authors, nurturing a soft corner for Vikarm Seth. "I think 'A Suitable Boy' was wonderful."
But popularity has a different equation altogether. "It's not about how you write, but about how well you tell a story. The story of Cain and Able is of two men born on the same day, at different places, who meet only once in life, but their lives are intertwined. This is the story. I told you. Now, go write 500 pages on this for me. You can't, because that's my job."
He mentions meeting a young boy in Delhi, who wanted to know how to write a book, wanting to author some himself. Archer says belligerently, "You cannot steal ideas, as creativity is about individual craftsmanship. For instance, after the first draft of a novel is complete and I were to die, you would get the book, but not the story."
After a novel is over, do the characters get in way? "No. 'A Prisoner of Birth' would be dead after the Indian tour is over. I will move on to my next work. You have to move beyond set peripheries. You cannot write one bulky thriller after another. It's not motivating enough. May be, I will indulge in short stories again." About time for some more short stories, we agree.
While on the subject of writing, Archer does not believe in dwelling in the past. "I always draw inspiration from my present. You meet a lot of people in your life, from prime ministers to doormen. But you never know who is going to inspire you next."

The plot structure of Jeffrey Archer's latest novel carries an uncanny resemblance to Alexander Dumas' 'The Count of Monte Cristo'. We ask him about Dumas. "It took them 200 years to give him a statues. Why? Because he was a great storyteller." And inci-dentally, 'The Count...' is one of his five Favourite books. The other four are:
'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck, 'Collected short stories of H.H. Munro', 'All Quiet on the Western Front' by Erich Maria Remarque and 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens

A lot has been written about his love for the game. When we ask him about IPL, he roars: "Twenty20 is not cricket. Cricket is a test match between India and England at the Lords where Sehwag is out for zero. Rahul Dravid goes for seven, while Kumble is struck all over the ground " We say, now, are we going to have a fight over it right here? Archer smiles, "I am storyteller after all."

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