LONDON At 71, bestselling British author Jeffrey Archer is tackling his biggest project to date -- a five-novel saga called "The Clifton Chronicles" that sweeps through the 20th century and into the 21st.
The first installment, "Only Time Will Tell," has just been published, and follows Harry Clifton, whose angelic voice is his ticket into a good education and out of grinding poverty.
He befriends Giles Barrington, born into a wealthy family, and falls in love with his sister Emma, but a tragic twist of fate threatens his happiness and the story ends with World War Two looming over the lives of the entire cast.
"What I didn't realize in my stupidity at the age of 71 and a quarter is what an incredible challenge it would be, because if you commit yourself to five books, there's no way out," Archer told Reuters in an interview.
"Luckily I've finished two of them by now - but I've had some sleepless nights," he added in his luxury penthouse overlooking the Houses of Parliament in central London.
Archer first came up with the idea of the Clifton series when he was working on a 30th anniversary edition of "Kane and Abel," one of his most popular novels published in 1979.
"I thought, 'Do you know, I'd like to do a saga that goes 100 years, so I decided on 1920 to 2020, one family, the Clifton family. But I then realized that I couldn't do it in one book, and I felt it would work well in 20-year segments."
He has only a broad outline in mind of the direction the plot will take, giving him a sense of freedom.
"I'm going to have to run into their (characters') children ... and what's more, I'm going to have to move into the 1950s and 60s and 70s so I'm going to have to bring that up to date too. That's all I know, that's the challenge, that's the fun."
Archer, who has sold more than 250 million books during his 35-year writing career, is as famous in Britain for his political career in the Conservative Party and two-year imprisonment as he is for his novels.
A favorite of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he served in parliament and was made a lord yet also went to jail in 2001 after lying in a libel trial against a newspaper which said he had had sex with a prostitute.
He produced a three-volume diary of his time behind bars and has continued to write full time since. The Clifton Chronicles are likely to keep him busy for the next few years.
Only Time Will Tell recounts the story through the eyes of each of the main characters, highlighting how differently they perceive the same events. Archer said he would continue with the structure throughout the saga.
He based Harry loosely on his own life, as he has done with characters in previous works.
"There's a lot that's me in Harry," Archer said. "I was brought up in the West Country (southwest England), with a mother who had a very hard time because my father died young, so all those things are parallels, it is autobiographical."
The mysterious figure of Old Jack Tar, who acts as sage and mentor to Harry, is also based on a real person, this time the much-decorated British army officer Tommy Macpherson.
Archer first launched the book in India, a deliberate attempt to maximize sales in a country where the author is popular but where pirated editions of his books appear within a few days of publication.
"I got a young kid with a stack of books tapping on my window as I was driving slowly into Mumbai," he said. "I put the window down and the young man said 'Would you like the latest Jeffrey Archer?' and I said 'I am the latest Jeffrey Archer!'"
With the rise of electronic readers, the problem will only get worse, he warned, adding that he did not know where the publishing industry would be in 10 or 15 years' time.
He recalled how Kane and Abel sold a million copies in the first week when it appeared in paperback.
"Today 100,000 is a big figure in your first week in paperback. Are less people reading me? I'd feel that on the street, you know ... and the answer is no, more people are reading me but the sales are going down."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)