Interview: Robert Harris
Interview: Robert Harris
Bestselling author Robert Harris talks about his childhood dreams, his writing process and the Barnes Bookfest.
Robert Harris, bestselling author of Munich, The Ghost and V2, didn’t always want to be a novelist. “Secretly, when I was still at school, I’d always wanted to be a playwright. But life didn’t quite work out like that.”
It didn’t indeed. Cambridge-educated, Harris’s started off his writing career as a journalist. First for a student newspaper Varsity, then for the BBC and finally age 30, as the political editor of The Observer. As he admits, “I’m interested in the events.” So interested that at the age of 22 he authored his very first book, A Higher Form of Killing, a non-fiction study of chemical and biological warfare. And then a couple more, covering events such as the Falklands War. After, novel writing came naturally: “I wrote Selling Hitler, about the Hitler Diaries hoax. It was so full of characters! And because I’d researched a lot about the period, I got the idea for Fatherland and the publisher liked it.”
Fatherland, an alternative history detective novel set in a world in which Nazi Germany won World War II, shot Robert to fame. It immediately became a bestseller, selling over three million copies.
Recalls Robert: “The moment I wrote the first paragraph, I felt that I’d come home. It was what I wanted to do, to use my imagination to explore ideas, periods, history. And I’ve never gone back. I’ve never written a non-fiction book in 30 years.”
He has, however, published 14 novels – and the 15th is coming out in September.
Act of Oblivion is a quintessential chase novel. The year is 1660, Parliamentarians and soldiers Edward Whalley and William Goffe, father- and son-in-law, arrive in New England to escape punishment. They’re both wanted for partaking in the murder of Charles I under the Indemnity and Oblivion Act. In London, a man named Richard Nayler is determined to find and capture them, dead or alive.
It is based on a true story with characters Harris invented, including Richard Nayler, the regicide hunter. “I think that the purpose of historical fiction is simply to bring the past to life vividly in a way that historian or scholar can’t do – by getting inside the heads of people.” But credibly mixing reality and fiction requires work and first and foremost, research.
“I read all I can around the subject and I start to assemble the timeframe in my mind. What is the most interesting element? Where there was a gap in the historical record that I might be able to fill? In this case, it was the fact that in what was the greatest manhunt of the 17th century, tracking down and arresting 30 or 40 people, there must have been someone organising it, but whoever it was, we don’t know. So, I’ve invented that person.”
“Actually, everything in the book that seems unbelievable, is true. And everything that seems dull and boring is what I’ve made up!”
As with many famous authors, Robert hasn’t escaped controversy. He used to be a staunch supporter and, privately a friend, of Tony Blair but became greatly disillusioned with New Labour after the war in Iraq. His 2007 novel, The Ghost (and its 2010 film adaptation, The Ghost Writer) featured thinly veiled and to put it mildly, not very flattering fictional counterparts of Blair and his wife Cherie. A decade later, he published Munich, a thriller set during the 1938 negotiations between Hitler and Neville Chamberlain which was met with accusations of historical revisionism. “It was merely reflecting what most people in the world felt at the time,” defends Robert, “that Chamberlain was a hero and that he saved the peace. I think it’s always interesting if you can bring a new angle to an old story.”
Clearly writing about controversies proves inspirational for Robert, as both Munich and The Ghost (as well as Conclave) he’s written in just a year. Other have taken close to two. Act of Oblivion took him about 18 months – he started his research during the second Covid lockdown and the writing process about six months later. Lockdown affected his life deeply: “In one sense, I’m always working at home. But you need a break! You need to go and see friends, you need to go to the cinema, you need to travel to refresh your mind. It was exhausting.”
He survived it in his house in Kintbury which was “paid by Hitler” – meaning, proceeds from his first novel, Fatherland. His wife, Gill Hornby, is also a novelist. “I don’t think we are competitive.”, he laughs. “It doesn’t quite work like that. Obviously, I’ve been doing it a lot longer. But it’s nice, actually, that you are two friends working on the same thing. And there aren’t many couples in that position! We read one another’s manuscripts. Not every day, but every month or two. When there’s a decent new section ready to read, we then advise one another a bit.”
Robert is lucky among novelists in having a string of fabulous film adaptations. Selling Hitler was adapted for ITV back in 1991, Fatherland became an HBO film in 1994, Archangel was made into a TV film starring Daniel Craig in 2005 and recently, Munich was adapted as Munich – The Edge of War in 2021. The Ghost and An Officer and a Spy were both turned into films by Robert’s long-time collaborator and friend Roman Polanski, and both won numerous awards all over the world. Robert wrote the script for both himself – the only two he’s ever done. “[An Officer and a Spy] was originally supposed to be just a film script but after I’d worked on it for a month or so, I realised the material was so rich, that I couldn’t really do it. And so, it was agreed that I could turn it into a novel first, and then the novel was turned into the film.”
He also had his books adapted to the stage – Royal Shakespeare Company turned his Cicero trilogy into a two-part epic play Imperium. Says Robert, “it was much closer to the experience of writing for a novel. On screen, everything is fixed. On stage, every performance is different. It can be reinterpreted. There’s a connection between the live audience and the actors on stage, which reminds me much more of the kind of meeting point between a reader and a writer on the page, where you each bring your own imagination to bear.”
Would he, now at the top of his creative career, want to fulfil his dream of being a playwright? Not really, and neither would he ever want to go back to working as a political journalist: “I’ve been very lucky because I found really, the one thing I wanted to do in life. And I’ve been able to do it now for 30 years. It’s quite hard, of course, and there are days when you feel quite gloomy about it, but I never ever wanted to do anything else.”
Robert comes to Barnes Bookfest on Sunday 25 September. Win tickets and a signed copy of his book in our competition!
Image credit: Nick Gregan