While serving time in prison, bestselling author Jeffrey Archer reread Alexander Dumas’s classic novel of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, which became the springboard for A Prisoner of Birth (Reviews, Jan. 14).
What new impressions did you gain from rereading The Count of Monte Cristo?
Many years ago, I wrote a novel called Kane and Abel, and a critic was kind enough to compare it to Dumas. When I read the story a second time, I realized the whole secret rested on (a) Dantes’s escape from jail, and (b) having escaped, aware that in a cave on Monte Cristo was a treasure trove unequaled in the world. Such a convenient ploy may have been acceptable in 1844, but surely not today, so I was aware that it would be necessary to have an original escape and an original way of becoming wealthy before one could set about writing the opening paragraph. This process took about three months of intense thought before I came up with a solution to both problems.
You certainly seem to have dug deeply into your prison experiences.
The question of how I used my time in prison is indeed a fair one. By the time I was released, I had written three prison diaries, a set of short stories [Cat O’Nine Tales], and now A Prisoner of Birth. Although the section of the novel devoted to Danny Cartwright’s time in prison is only around a hundred pages, it’s the crux of the plot and sets up the revenge that Danny extracts on the four people who put him there.
The legal system is used, abused and subverted in your fiction. Is there any way the system can provide justice?
My own experience of prison led me to believe that there are very few people incarcerated who are entirely innocent of the crime for which they have been convicted. However, I certainly came across three people out of nearly a thousand that I am in no doubt were innocent, and in their case a travesty of justice had undoubtedly taken place.
There’s always a risk in echoing a classic such as The Count of Monte Cristo. What made that risk worthwhile to you?
I don’t think A Prisoner of Birth does echo The Count of Monte Cristo because it’s a very modern story. But that will be for the reader, and no doubt the critics, to decide.