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Saturday 25th of November 2017
1204 14th of June 2012 by laura 14th of June 2012
First among storytellers

More than 270 million copies of Jeffrey Archer’s books have been sold worldwide. speaks to him about his latest work, The Sins of the Father, the second book of his five-volume epic, The Clifton Chronicles

“My wife always says that villains are much more interesting than heroes,” Jeffrey Archer explains, “you can do terrible things with them whereas with good people you can’t.” He is, of course, talking about the characters in his best-selling novels, although having spent five decades in politics, one would be forgiven for wondering if he was in fact talking about his experiences in the House of Commons.

            The former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party is in Mallorca writing the third part of his epic five-book family saga entitled The Clifton Chronicles. Working in regimented two-hour blocks, with two-hour breaks in between during which he catches up with the England cricket scores, he writes for eight hours a day. There is, he says, little time for enjoying the pleasures the small island usually affords its visitors. However, the temperate winter climate and his attentive staff make working in one of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations a home away from home for Archer, and he retires there whenever he wants to work on a new project. His only bugbear with the peninsula is the elusiveness of his novels. “In France a book goes to number one and in Spain it’s hard to find. It’s very strange.”

 

Tale of the century

His current undertaking will eventually span one hundred years in the life of protagonist Harry Clifton, and his family, from his birth in 1920. Only Time Will Tell, the first of the quintet published last year, quickly reached the bestseller lists and further cemented the author’s reputation as a master of the craft of storytelling. The second volume, The Sins of the Father, was published last month and covers the World War Two years, an epoch so historically and socially significant that Archer decided to dedicate the entire book to that comparatively short amount of time. He explains, “A war is such a big deal you’ve got to cover those four or five years in a big way. The Sins of the Father goes from 1939 to 1945; it covers six years, but it’s such a dense six years.” Sins of the Father

            Set in Europe, North Africa and the USA, the book pulsates with action from bloody battles in allied-occupied Libya and escapes from Prisoner of War camps in Germany, to an east coast American penitentiary, where our protagonist is holed up due to a case of mistaken identity. His mother, a restaurant manager in Bristol, believes her son is dead, but his girlfriend, who may, in a strong plot thread, be his half-sister, is convinced that he’s still alive, and sets sail for New York to find him. And that’s just scraping the surface of the multiple plotlines. A slew of villains—horrendous, cowardly, and violent characters—help to keep the story racing along.

 

Incarceration and inspiration

With Archer having spent two years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure himself, for perjury and perverting the course of justice, a stint which spawned three hugely successful Prison Diaries, it is hardly surprising that he chose not to revisit prison to research his central character’s storyline. “No, absolutely not,” he says with conviction when the suggestion arises. Presumably he didn’t need to search the recesses of his mind to recall the emotions and thoughts that come with incarceration. Similarly, he didn’t have to look too far for inspiration for the novel’s tenacious female characters. “My mother, Margaret Thatcher and my wife,” he confirms. His wife is fellow Oxford-graduate Mary Weeden, with whom he has enjoyed 46 years of marriage. “I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by strong women. If you write a book you’ll find you write about what you know. You’ll write about what you feel safe with and there are strong women in my book because I’ve been brought up with strong women. I admire them. I work well with strong women.”

            Archer’s wide reading list helped with many of the bigger storylines in the book. “The two or three big war stories are based on the man the book is dedicated to,” he explains. The Sins of the Father dedication is to highly decorated Scottish World War Two hero Sir Tommy Macpherson, and Archer refers to one of his famous wartime exploits. Parachuting into Nazi-occupied France dressed in full Cameron Highland uniform which included a kilt and sgian-dubh, Macpherson proceeded to infuriate German officers by driving a car emblazoned with British and French flags around the countryside. Evading capture, he went on to bluff 23,000 German troops into surrendering. “That was exactly what he got his knighthood for,” Archer says. “He was a very great man. I researched him, read his book and decided to put him into mine. What he did was so unbelievable.”

 

Craft and graft

Despite such extensive research and finely executed plotlines, the author has, perhaps surprisingly, no idea where his characters will end up. “I never know where I’m going. I’m on chapter 26 of book three, I know what 27 will be, but I haven’t got a blooming clue about chapter 28.” For Archer, the only certainty from the outset was the timeline. “I always wanted Harry Clifton to go from 1920 to 2020. I always thought there was a nice symmetry about that, particularly in five books.”

            Now in his 72nd year, having sold 270 million books worldwide, and with his most famous work, Kane and Abel, in its 93rd edition, Jeffrey Archer is undeniably a master of his craft. “Story telling is a gift, but you’ve still got to work hard,” he says, and in trying to dispel the myth that skill is somehow inherent he continues, “Skill is hard work and you get damn good and you become a craftsman. You may well have the gift to be a ballet dancer or play the violin but you’re not going to get to Carnegie Hall unless you do a lot of work. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

The Sins of the Father (published by Macmillan) is available now.

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