"A former member of Parliament is not easy to employ," says Jeffrey Archer, explaining how his name happens to be on best-seller lists all around the English-speaking world. "I had no real skills, you see. I couldn't do accounting, for example, so I couldn't get a job."
It was 1974. Five years earlier, at 29, Archer had been elected the youngest member of the House of Commons, launching what he expected to be a brilliant political career. Now, after a spectacularly unprofitable investment, he was 200,000 pounds in debt. "In the United States," says Archer, "bankruptcy is not considered a disgrace, but in England it is; it will ruin a political career. So I resigned from the House and began to look for ways to pay off the debt."
In desperation, he finally decided to write a book. "There's no money in it," warned his wife, who was and is a don at Cambridge. "I'll make at least a few thousand," he said. The book was called "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less;" it dealt with four men who have been swindled and their ingenious plot to recover (not quite legally) exactly the same amount of money. It sold a million copies in the first six months.
He also receives regular payments for an option on film rights, which have not yet been used, and he was paid another 100,000 pounds in royalties for a board game based on the novel.
His success proved, according to an English magazine, that "the step from the House of Commons to Hollywood is really only one pace."
The debt was quickly paid off, of course, but rather than resuming his interrupted political career, Archer found himself launched, in his mid-30s, on a completely different course. His third novel, "Kane & Abel," is now a best seller in half a dozen countries and he talks, only half-jokingly, about his ambition to win a Nobel prize after his 17th book.
There was some autobiogrpahy in Archer's first novel. After graduating from Oxford, where he had been captain of the track team, he had acquired a small fortune in his 20s in a variety of business enterprises. He had an art collection, a comfortable home for his wife (an expert on solar energy) and his two sons, a seat on the Tory side in Parliament (representing Louth, an agricultural district in Lincolnshire) and an urge to make one big investment coup that would give him a solid financial base on which to build a political career.
He invested all his savings and a lot of borrowed money in a firm that was supposed to revolutionize the control of automobile exhaust fumes, and he lost it all. After his spectacular financial comeback, he could probably return to Parliament. "I miss it sometimes," he says, "but if there is a chance that I might be a great as well as a profitable writer, I'll stick to writing."
He still has a way to go. At 40, Archer is a born storyteller who discovered his talent by accident. But being a great writer is something else. He broods sometimes about the difference, reels off sales figures and statistics on best-seller lists with obvious delight, but also questions his own talent:
"I must confess I've been genuinely shocked at the success of this book. I expected it to do well, but not that well. Now, I'm sure I can make lots of money, but I'm not sure I'm capable of being a great writer like Patrick White or Nadine Gordimer."
He has a mental pantheon of modern writers he takes as his own inspiration in one way or another -- a diverse group that includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Michener, John Cheever and Graham Greene. "I adore George Eliot and Jane Austen," he says. "They teach me more than others." He is haunted by Guy de Maupassant, whom he reads in translation ("My French is that of a tourist on a brief visit."). h
"I wonder," Archer muses, "is De Maupassant very different in the original? I read two translations of the same sentence. One says, 'The man entered the room and noticed the woman.' The other says, 'The man came into the room and saw the woman,' and I want to know what De Maupassant is telling me; did he enter or did he come in; did he see her or did he notice her? There's quite a difference."
He is also haunted by one sentence of De Maupassant's on the art of writing -- a sentence that may carry overtones of reproach for one whose latest book weighs in at 540 pages: "Every word must count." When he is working on a book, Archer goes into isolation, rises early each morning and turns out "1,500 words, if I'm lucky." Then he takes a nap and, in the afternoon, revises the morning's writing with De Maupassant's maxim in mind. At this pace, the first draft of "Kane & Abel" took him about seven weeks -- but it was not until two years later that he was ready to go to a publisher with his manuscript, which was the 18th draft.
From a post-Hemingway (or even post-Maupassant) point of view, not every words counts in "Kane & Abel." There are whole sections that might well be omitted -- except that perhaps the whole fabric of the story would fall apart. Just a bit of plot summary shows it:
Two boys are born on the same day in 1906 (by coincidence, the day of the San Francisco earthquake), one in Boston, the other in Poland. The Boston boy, Kane, is destined to become a third-generation bank chairman. The Polish boy, Abel, is a foundling adopted by a peasant family who is discovered years later to be the only surviving heir to a baron, with whom he has spent the last four years as a prisoner of the Germans in a castle's dungeon.Kane and Abel will eventually become mortal enemies through a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up by a few minutes of candid conversation -- but each is too proud to talk to the other. During World War II, Kane saves Abel's life without either realizing who the other is, and years after that Kane's son falls in love with Abel's daughter (unaware of her true identity); they marry, are disinherited and achieve great success on their own.
There is more -- a rare birthmark, for example, by which the baron recognizes his son; a silver bracelet that Abel receives in the dungeon as a sign of his noble heritage; Abel's escape from a prison camp in Siberia and from police in Istanbul who are about to cut off his right hand because he was caught stealing an orange. To a reader raised on modern, realistic fiction, it is incredible -- particularly in a bald summary. It is also the basic material of classics -- the kind of incidents that form the skeleton of most novels from the beginning of the form through the Victorian era.
Archer quotes from memory, and obviously with mixed feelings, a letter from an editor who rejected the book: "I found parts of it quite unbelievable, but I must admit it's the only book this year that I've been unable to put down." That sums up, fairly well, the reaction that can be expected from one who reads books professionally in our time.
A different but compatible reaction came in a letter Archer received from a 9-year-old girl: "Your book and 'The Count of Monte Cristo' are my two favorite stories."
There is, in fact, a family resemblance. Archer is a storyteller in the class (and sometimes the style) of Dumas -- who would also have trouble with a modern publisher if he came in as an unknown writer with the manuscript of a never-before-published "Count of Monte Cristo." Archer is able to be such a writer, perhaps, because he became a writer by accident, as an afterthought, without taking a course on creative writing, where he would have been told that Dumas is terribly out of fashion.
"You'll notice that the little girl said 'story,' not 'novel,'" Archer reflects. "I suppose that means something."
The problem of being a Dumas-style writer in the late-20th century (a description that fills him with pride) may be somewhat reduced, Archer believes, because he was first published in England, where the industry is somewhat looser than it is in the United States.
"British publishing is still a cottage industry," he says. "You can always go in and talk to the chairman, who is a gentleman. You say to him, 'I want another 50,000 in advertising,' and he says, 'Of course, Jeffrey,' and naturally he doesn't do it. But try to get to the chairman of Gulf & Western, or the other American conglomerates that own publishing houses."
Archer has a friend, Pip Gaskill, who is a professor at Trinity College, Cambridge, and who has helped him to explore his place among modern popular writers. "He told me that Le Carre is not quite a great writer or a great storyteller, but very good at both -- and the combination makes him formidable. sLudlum is a good storyteller but not a good writer. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are both: great writers and great storytellers."
In his quest to become both, Archer carries around in his mind samples of prose written by his idols -- a sentence of Greene's, for example, that refers to "a table large enough to hold three whiskies."
"That's enough," Archer comments. "You don't have to describe the bar, the people or the drinks; it's all there. Every words counts."
His own work is studded with passages that try for the same kind of economy and precision and sometimes achieve it -- the death of Kane's friend Matthew, for example, and a final, chance meeting of the two enemies on Fifth Avenue, when they are old men and have used up all their ammunition against one another.
But these carefully crafted, much-rewritten passages are not the reason why "Kane & Abel" is being reprinted as fast as the presses will run, or why Archer was unable to find a copy recently at Doubleday's bookstore on Fifth Avenue in New York.
"I went in there to have a look at their best-seller-table," he recalls, "and every other book on The New York Times best-seller list was there -- not just one or two copies, but stacks this high," and he raises his hand above his head. "So I talked to the manager, and he told me, 'I'm sorry, but I only have seven copies and I don't know when I can get more. I'm holding them for favored customers."
How does a writer go about generating that kind of demand? "You don't bother trying," Archer believes, "if you haven't got a good story. There are too many good writers -- all my friends write well -- but not enough good storytellers."