‘I just sit down and let the pen move’: writing lessons with Jeffrey Archer

The former MP and prolific author of Kane and Abel, The Clifton Chronicles and many more gives some left-field advice for writers – and reveals why he doesn’t feel his political career was a success

On his writing process

‘I handwrite every word, and write for eight hours a day, which I split into two-hour blocks – 6-8am, 10am-12pm, 2-4pm, and 6-8pm. I’ve been at that now for 40 years, and quite honestly I don’t think it’s changed that much. But it would be interesting to go back and see how I wrote; I’m sure I’m more disciplined now.’

On shaping characters quickly

‘The truth is, at my age – having met and interacted with so many interesting people – that I enjoy putting them down on the page. In the case of The Clifton Chronicles, there’s a lot of Harry in me, my wife is Emma, my mother is Maisie – and heaven knows who Lady Virginia is.’

On structure

‘I’m not sure I do it consciously, in fact, I’m not sure I’m even aware of it; the pen just moves. I never plan out my books, I just sit down. I’m lucky if I know three pages ahead. Because if I don’t know, you won’t know. I don’t want readers to tell me: “Oh Jeffrey, I knew exactly how your book was going to end.” I’ve never had a letter telling me that one of my endings was obvious.’

On secrets in his books

'I remember finding out during research for my last book, that Putin’s grandfather was Stalin’s chef. So I slipped that in there, when Harry is working with a Russian and trying to get him out of the country. That’s fun, and the readers love it.’

On the class system

‘It has been fascinating to write about class in The Clifton Chronicles, as the timeline progresses from the 1920s to 2000. And how things have changed. When I was a child, I was considered lower middle class, which only shifted on entering the House of Commons at the age of 29.  But people talked about all that, whether one was upper, middle or working class… and they meant it! You’d never hear that nowadays. That has changed, thank goodness, and we now hopefully live in a meritocracy, especially when it comes to women. Now my wife is Chairman of the Science Museum in the UK, and was the first woman to chair a public gallery or museum, which is disgraceful. She should’ve been the thirtieth.’

On his dual careers of writer and politician

‘I do not consider my political career a success. It was a great honour to work for Margaret Thatcher for 11 years, but like so many politicians, I didn’t achieve half of what I would’ve liked to. It’s been a privilege to do two careers, but three? Maybe that’s a little greedy.’

On his next journey

‘I’m 77! I’m quite happy to continue writing and hope fervently that people continue to read what I’ve written. I don’t intend to do something like captain the England cricket team: that was something I would’ve liked to have done 50 years ago, but I failed.’

On money

'I’ve had enough money since Kane and Abel’s success 40 years ago to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do in life. Money isn’t what drives me, I’m driven by the readers. I’m driven by the hundreds of emails I get every day. The fact that my talk at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature was sold out: that’s what keeps me going. I have enough, thank you – I don’t need any more.'

The 2017 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature takes place from 3-11 March. For more on the festival visit www.emirateslitfest.com