■ The politician turned author, 78, talks about being a surprise bestseller, his new book and lessons from jail
What’s Heads You Win about?
It’s the story of a young man whose father is murdered by the KGB. He has to escape from Russia. When he gets to the docks he is given the choice of getting into a crate going to England or a crate going to the United States. And he tosses a coin to decide…
What’s the inspiration for this?
Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state. When his mother left Jamaica she had to decide whether to go to Britain or America. He was born in Harlem. I’ve often wondered how different his career might have been if he’d been born in Hackney. Would he have become foreign secretary? I’d have doubted it 40 years ago but now we have the first black woman as shadow home secretary and a Muslim as the home secretary, I think he might have been able to progress today.
Who were your literary heroes when you started writing?
John Buchan, writer of The 39 Steps. It’s a cliché but I admire Dickens as a great storyteller and, as I’ve got older, I’ve come to admire Stefan Zweig as arguably the greatest writer of his generation. He was born in Austria and was the world’s bestselling author in 1938. He committed suicide after only two novels and now he’s a bestseller again. I really recommend him.
Did you have any literary ambitions before you started writing as a career change?
No, I didn’t. It came as a surprise. When Kane And Abel sold one million copies in the first week it came as a shock. When I started writing I’d just left Parliament. Former members of Parliament aren’t that employable so I sat down and wrote Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less and it sold 3,000 copies. My wife told me to get a proper job but I battled on.
Are you a natural storyteller?
I’m not a tenor, I’m not a ballet dancer but I can tell a story — and I’m very lucky indeed for that. The literary critics have been very generous recently — they’ve said telling a story isn’t as easy as it looks. Some of the less snobby ones have come round to that way of thinking.
One of the themes is the turning points in the character’s life — what have been the turning points in your life?
When I was a child, people conveniently retired at 65 and died at 70, and now they don’t — we’re living longer, and the average age in this country for a woman is 87 and for a man it’s 84 so the idea of having one career is no longer realistic. So the turning points have been being a politician and becoming a writer, then returning to politics and then returning to writing.
Was going to prison a turning point in your life?
No. I just got on with it. I wrote three books based on that experience. I took advantage of the interesting people I met and the stories they told me.
Have you stayed in touch with them?
Do you still think Jeremy Corbyn will become prime minister?
With the way the Conservative Party is at the moment — tearing itself apart with certain individuals more interested in their own elevation than the good of the party — yes, I do. I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn will win the next election, I think the Conservative Party will lose it. We’ve been bedevilled by Europe for 40 years. I’m among the people who voted to go into Europe but British people don’t like parties that tear themselves apart. All Corbyn has to do is sit and watch while we do the job for him. I hope the prime minister will find a deal that will be acceptable to the British public. I blame the Europeans. If they’d have given David Cameron a few things when he was campaigning, he wouldn’t have lost, but they were so arrogant, they didn’t think it was possible for the British public to vote to leave.
Do you miss politics?
I’m still in the House of Lords and I’m friends with people in the Commons who brief me all the time. Some of the most important political decisions that have been made in my lifetime are currently being made. I’m just a fascinated onlooker.
Should the House of Lords be abolished?
It’s too large. When I first entered 27 years ago you could find a seat and speak in the debates easily but now it’s difficult. For a long time I’ve wondered if the second chamber should be elected as it’s clearly undemocratic. The argument against that is you get an older generation with experience and wisdom to check each bill and the amendments carefully before they go back to the lower house. Overall I find that a persuasive argument.
What are you proudest of achieving so far?
I was an amateur but running for Britain and England is the thing I’m most proud of. And being No.1 on the New York Times bestseller list is a close second.
Heads You Win by Jeffrey Archer (Pan Macmillan) is out now