This Was a Man, Pan MacMillan Australia 2016.
This Was a Man, Pan MacMillan Australia 2016. Contributed

Jeffrey Archer's life of twists and turns

HE'S sold more than 300 million copies of his books and he's done a stint in jail following a perjury conviction. Author Jeffrey Archer's life has had as many twists and turns as one of his novels. He acknowledges he's enjoyed plenty of luck and privilege in his own life. But it hasn't always been smooth sailing.

The renowned author made his literary debut with Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less in 1976, following his first stint as a British MP. Archer credits his later recovery from his 2003 jail time to the strength of his wife Mary and the support of loyal family and friends.

But it was a scandal which set him on the path to success. The sudden end to his first political career in 1974 following the collapse of a fraudulent Canadian firm he had invested his life savings in prompted Archer to start writing.

"I'd lost my job," he said.

"I was out of work and not a person who lacks energy, so I sat down and wrote Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less without any understanding or realisation that I was a storyteller or any understanding or realisation that anyone would buy it."

In fact, no one did buy it at first. Archer pitched the novel to 14 different publishing houses and was met with rejection on each occasion. Much like JK Rowling and The Beatles, it took some time before a business would take a chance on the fledgling novelist.

Although the 15th publisher took on Archer, it only printed 3000 copies of Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, which managed to sell out in about a year. It wasn't until the publication of Kane and Abel in 1979 that Archer became a book store and library staple.

Archer doesn't believe his road to publication was unusual.

"I think this happens to a lot of people, to be fair," he said.

"I think when you start off, you start at the very bottom. Don't forget when you're unknown ... people are taking a risk on you both financially and just whether there'll be a future."

More than four decades later, upwards of 300 million copies of Archer's 40 books have been sold worldwide. It's a level of success he couldn't have imagined when he started writing.

During his 40 years in the business, Archer has never stopped learning.

"When you start you don't have the skills of the craft," he said.

"That takes many years. So you become more and more confident as time goes by and of course your confidence grows when you see how many people are buying the books. In life I've had a very privileged and amazing life and I'm very aware of that."

His success is something he does not take for granted, having followed in the footsteps of a trailblazing woman - his mother Lola Hayne.

The first female journalist on her local paper and a councillor, she was a driving force behind her son's ambitions as a writer and politician.

"She was a tremendous influence on my life," Archer said.

"She would have had a very different career had she been allowed to go to university because she took her degree at the age of 53. I think if she'd had the privileges and advantages my wife had had, she'd have had a very different career."

During the evolution of his writing career, one thing has remained the same. Archer still considers himself lucky if he knows more than a couple of pages in advance how a story will pan out.

His latest novel, This Was a Man, brings to a close the epic Clifton Chronicles, a story centred on two families spanning almost the entire 20th century.

As with his other novels, Archer planned little before he jumped into writing the series.

"I started the first one, Only Time Will Tell, and frankly didn't know much beyond two or three chapters so it developed and developed and developed and surprised me how it turned out," he said.

"It would have been impossible to have a development for the entire series."

Archer said finally bringing the series to a close and parting with the characters whose lives he had shaped for seven years was "quite a wrench".

When it comes to the magic ingredients for keeping readers glued to the page, Archer puts it down to one thing.

"I think I'm a simple storyteller," he said.

"Most people love storytellers, they love to turn the page. That, of course, is a simple God-given gift. You can't pop down to the local store and say 'I'd like a book on storytelling, please'.

"You can be a great writer by being well-educated and having a command of the language and a love of books, but storytellers are born."

And that's really all Archer hopes to give his readers: a rollicking good tale.

"I hope they've just had a story they've loved from beginning to end with people they believe are real and will remain with them," he said.

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