On Monday (March 31) afternoon I went to a book talk at the University of Hong Kong, organised by the HKU library. The writer invited to speak at the talk was Jeffrey Archer. (Readers of this post interested in who this person is could, for a start, visit the Wikepaedia site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Archer. Archer’s offcial personal website is: http://www.jeffreyarcher.co.uk/index.htm)

I haven’t read anything written by Archer, but I know he’s a best-seller novelist. So it’s pretty much out of curiosity about what a best-seller novelist would say about writing and about his works that I went to the talk. Archer delivered an entertaining talk. In response to Archer’s well-scripted words and calculated gestures, the audience burst into laughters almost every half minute during the the one-and-a-half hour talk, whole-heartedly or out of courtesy.

Among a wide range of issues he touched upon, he spoke about his experience of getting his first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, published. It had been turned down 17 (hope I remember right the figure) times before a publisher decided to publish it. He also told his audience how he organised his life when he wrote his recently published novel, A Prisoner of Birth. At some point of the book talk, when someone from the audience challenged Archer by saying that there were similarities in this book and the novel about revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, Archer admitted so, and went further to say that his book was intended to be a contemporary version of The Count of Monte Cristo. He said, when he set out to write this book, he had this daily schedule: woke up at 5:30 in the moring, then wrote from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m., then took a two-hour break and resumed writing from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00, then had another two-hour break and back to writing for another two hours, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., then took another two-hour break, then back to writing from 6:00 p.m to 8: p.m., and he went to bed around 9:00 p.m. This went on for many weeks, until the first draft of this recently novel was completed. Then he put the draft aside for a few weeks, and then took it out and refined it into the second draft. In the end the novel that its readers would read turned out to be the 15th (again, I’m not sure I remember the number correctly) draft. Archer’s revelation of a writer’s life seemed to succeed in impressing the audience that the fame and success he has achieved was well deserved. Writing eight hours each day. That certainly requires much self-discipline. 

When answering questions from the audience, Archer made the point that it’s safer for writers to write about things that they are familiar with, not things they don’t know. Indeed, he didn’t hide the fact that it’s because of his few years of imprisonment as a result of being convicted guilty of perjury in 2001 that he was able to write in detail the prison scenes in his new book.

Archer also made a point that there are differences between a writer and a story-teller. I didn’t quite get what he meant by this, but I got the impression that he wanted people to consider himself a story-teller. To illustrate what he meant by story-telling, at the end of this talk he read out an extract. He said he didn’t know who’s the writer of that story, but he believed he/she would be an Arab (my question: why? Can’t people other than Arabs write a story with an Arabian setting? I later found this story on the Internet, and I’ll append the story to this post for readers of this post to work out what in this story makes Archer think that it’s an excellent story. See below.)

When someone from the audience asked Archer at which stage did he have the ending of his novels worked out in his mind, Archer replied that what often happened in the course of his writing a novel was that he wouldn’t know the ending of the story until the very late part of it. His argument was something like this: “If even I, as the writer, don’t know the ending, then it’s very likely that you, as the readers, do not know how the story is going to end as well, and that helps to keep the readers go on reading”. So writing a novel is opposite to writing a short story, Archer said. When writing a novel, you don’t need to have an ending in mind until the very late part of your writing; when writing a short story, you begin with an ending in mind, and then develop your story in the direction of that ending. Quite a point to ponder upon for aspiring writers, I guess.

After the book talk ended, Archer stayed behind to autograph his book(s) for people who bought it/them at the site. A Prisoner of Birth was priced exorbitantly for HK$300 something (again, I forget the exact figure), and although it was being sold at a 20% discount at the book talk, I still would have to pay around HK$240 to get the book to get Archer’s autograph on it, not to mention that I’ll probably have to queue up with the others and wait for another 30 minutes for the autograph. So I left the book talk venue without buying Archer’s new book.

P.S. The story that Archer praised a lot at the book talk (quoted from the website http://www.k-state.edu/english/baker/english320/Maugham-AS.htm , with minor punctuaion changes. ) :
Appointment in Sammara: “There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, she said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

To me, this story contains food for thought. Rather than trying to work out why Jeffrey Archer considers this a good story, readers of this post might like to ponder on what message this story tries to convey.