Jeffrey Archer: 'I admit, the thought of life without Mary really frightens me'
After completing his seven-volume series, The Clifton Chronicles, Jeffrey Archer tells Andrew Lynch why he's still obsessed with being the best at the age of 76
Jeffrey Archer likes to think he has just made a 102-year-old Irish woman very happy. Last month, he sent her an advance copy of This Was A Man, the final book in his seven-volume series The Clifton Chronicles. Her family had emailed to tell him she was completely gripped by the story, he explains, and worried about dying before she had a chance to discover how it all turns out.
"I do hope the lady enjoyed it," Archer muses. "I would have liked to visit her during this trip, but it didn't prove possible." The bestselling author, Conservative peer and former prison inmate is now 76, with a forehead so lined he describes it as "a crossword puzzle" - but he remains obsessed with reaching as many readers as possible and giving every one of them total satisfaction.
"You know, I could easily have retired in 1980 after the success of Kane And Abel," he points out. "But I can't bear the idea of just doing nothing.
"I began The Clifton Chronicles when I was 70 because I needed a big, ambitious new project to keep myself sharp. Now I think it may be the best work I have ever done."
Whatever about its literary merits (Archer's vast sales have rarely been matched by critical acclaim), The Clifton Chronicles is, by his own account, the closest he will ever get to writing an autobiography.
Over the course of 3,000 pages, it tracks Harry Clifton's progress from a poor West Country docker's son to an internationally renowned novelist. This, however, is just one plot line in a stunningly eventful saga that includes murder mysteries, war exploits, international espionage, boardroom battles and a strong dose of Archer's beloved Westminster politics.
"I always borrow from my own experiences," he says. "There is obviously a lot of me in Harry and some in his brother-in-law Giles.
His wife Emma is 100% based on my own wife, Mary. But, above all, these books show my admiration for self-made people and my total belief in free enterprise - that is the one reason I could never have joined the Labour Party."
This wish-fulfilment aspect of his stories, Archer thinks, is why research has shown they are particularly enjoyed by the young. "When I go to India on speaking tours, sometimes 80% of my audience will be females under 25. It's an aspirational thing - they have a strong desire to move up."
The Clifton Chronicles ends with a startling twist that Archer jokingly orders me not to reveal on pain of death. "I wasn't sure about it at first," he says. "But grown men have told me they couldn't read the last 30 pages because their eyes were full of tears, so I know it was a good decision."
Now that his epic tale is complete, Archer badly wants to see it brought to life on screen. "Netflix are looking at a possible adaptation, as are others. I think it is tailor-made for a television serial along the lines of Downton Abbey - the books have been number one in 27 countries, so that would surely give it a ready-made audience."
Archer was a champion sprinter in his youth and, in some ways, he still sounds like a man in a great hurry. "I'm obsessed with being top of every bestseller list," he admits.
"I check my online ratings all the time. Kane And Abel is officially the 11th most successful novel of all time, one behind War And Peace. I'm determined to get ahead of Leo Tolstoy."
A high-achiever himself, Archer's London penthouse is renowned for its own valuable art collection and anyone who asks for the bathroom will be told: "Go past the Picasso and turn left at the Matisse."
"When I look back at my life, I can see all the failures," he says. "I wanted to make the British Olympic running team in 1964, but wasn't fast enough. I would have liked a daughter (he and Mary have two sons). I still haven't become prime minister, captained the English cricket team or managed to get through Ulysses. But I don't dwell on those things, it's a pathetic waste of time."
Archer has been known to address interviewers as if they are in the back row at a public meeting, which may be why he is often called bumptious - or worse.
Archer is still a highly political animal, who loves few things more than a vigorous debate about current affairs.
"I have got everything wrong this year!" he laughs. "I voted for Britain to remain in the EU and was convinced we would, although I am quite optimistic about it now. I wanted Hillary Clinton to be elected, because I don't know how Trump can even do the job - you see him reading lines off a teleprompter and he clearly doesn't know what they mean."
As long ago as 1982, Archer's novel The Prodigal Daughter featured the-then fanciful idea of a female US president. "I really thought it would have happened by 2016," he admits. "But I'm convinced women will be running the world soon, anyway, because they are so much better at it.
"Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel all have certain things in common - total integrity, fantastic attention to detail and a willingness to work all the hours God sends."
Archer says he has been profoundly influenced by a number of strong women, none more so than his wife of 50 years (they spent their honeymoon travelling around Ireland).
He recently made a full recovery from prostate cancer, but claims this was far less traumatic than the day in 2011 when Mary was operated on for a similar illness.
"The deal is that I go first," he declares. "I don't mind admitting the thought of life without her really frightens me."
When the end finally comes, Archer hopes he will peg out in the middle of a sentence. "Just like my hero Charles Dickens. God gave me one great gift, the ability to tell a story.
It's a fantastic privilege, but I work damned hard, too - each book takes about a thousand hours and goes through at least 14 drafts.
"Even this morning, when I had to go on TV, I got up early so that I could write from 5am until 7am. What else am I meant to do - just lie there and think?"
Archer's mother, Lola, was a Conservative councillor, who wrote a weekly column for her local newspaper in Weston-super-Mare.
"I'm never sure of what my 10-year-old will be up to next and I don't really rest content until he is safely tucked up in bed," she once confided.
Jeffrey has certainly got into plenty of scrapes since then, but close friends, such as John Major, insist they should never be allowed to obscure his basic kindness and generosity.
"Mary often tells me off by saying I am too ambitious for other people," Archer reflects. "She's right, of course, but I just can't help it. Even in prison, I was always encouraging inmates to learn how to read and get an education.
"I'm still friends with a convicted murderer who has just got his MA."
This Was A Man is published by Macmillan, £7.99
The Clifton Chronicles is a colourful saga that still pales in comparison to Jeffrey Archer's own life story.
As a young man, his charity fundraising led to him hanging out with The Beatles in Oxford University and President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office.
He became a Tory MP at the age of 29, was forced to resign when a bad investment led to massive debts ("I couldn't afford to get the bus or have my shoes mended," he recalls) and then began producing the books that have given him an estimated net worth of $195m, according to one US rich list.
After serving as a close advisor to prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Archer experienced a spectacular fall from grace in 2001 when he was sentenced to four years in jail for perjury over his liaison with a prostitute.
Bloodied but unbowed, he passed the time by keeping a prison diary of one million words and has resumed his writing career with just as much success as before.
a life stranger than fiction