Off last night to the LSE to see the author, Robert Harris, being interviewed by Peter Kemp (chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times) on the subject of The Political Novel. It was a very enjoyable event mainly because the rapport between the two men was a good one and because Harris is an amiable and amusing interviewee. Harris started out as a reporter with the BBC, working on Newsnight and Panorama, before becoming the political editor of The Observer. His first novel Fatherland was published in 1992 and was a huge bestseller. It’s a thriller set in an imagined future in which Germany has won the war, Hitler’s 75th birthday is coming up and no one knows anything about the Holocaust.
Here’s a summing up of some of the things discussed:
- Political influences – being with his father as he heckled Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 general election campaign and also being born close enough to the Second World War for it to be talked about all the time.
- Difference between political journalism and fiction – political journalism is ‘all up front’ and fiction is about ‘hiding and concealment.’
- On the writing of Fatherland – he said he started off writing twenty or thirty pages with lots of people in a room and then didn’t know what to do with them or how to get them out. He put the novel away for a year and then his agent wrote to him with a quote from American writer John Irving which stated that you must know what happens at the end before you start. He then went back to the novel and set off writing it from about five different points of view before deciding to settle on only one, the detective, because he was the most conflicted and therefore the most dramatic.
- His experience of writing fiction – once he ‘went through the looking glass into his imagination’ and began writing fiction he felt there was no going back.
- The pace of his novels – Kemp asked if that had to do with the speed with which he wrote. Harris replied that if he had one contract with his readers it was not to bore them and that the use of an urgent timescale was useful in that regard. He also pointed out that the great 19th century novels (Dickens, Trollope) were written under great time pressure.
- Writing habits – he starts to write in January delivering the manuscript in June or July and then having the book published in September or October. He writes about a 1000 words a day gets up early and is done by lunch time. He talked about letting ‘the boys in the basement’ do some of the work. An expression used by Stephen King to describe the subconscious.
- Influence of George Orwell – he said that the book 1984 was the great argument for fiction because by inventing characters and creating an imaginary work Orwell created a work of imagination which will never date. Non-fiction will always be rewritten i.e. someone at some point will write another history of Stalingrad, but fiction is imperishable. Amusingly he said that apparently Orwell thought that War and Peace was much too short that he could have stayed in that world created by Tolstoy for much longer.
- His own favourite book – that was the one he was working on (his present one is on the Catholic Church) because it was ‘a perfect sphere of possibilities which had not yet crashed to earth.’
- His favourite 19th century novel – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
- On Anthony Trollope – the reason why there is no modern Trollope is because Britain simply isn’t as important in world politics anymore. When Trollope was writing, British politics was the fulcrum of the world and had the most powerful legislature in the world.
Harris is an interesting writer because he writes across a broad range of different time-frames and countries:alternative history detective novel (Fatherland), second world war Britain (Enigma) contemporary Russia (Archangel), contemporary Britain (The Ghost) the classical world (Pompeii, Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator). He is so spectacularly bestselling he transcends branding. He said the book his publishers flinched at was Pompeii but that when it sold as well as Fatherland they didn’t mind. You have to sell a very great many books to earn that kind of freedom. Long may it continue. His most recent book is the third in his trilogy about Cicero called Dictator.
Personally, my favourite Robert Harris is The Ghost. It’s about a ghostwriter who is hired to write the memoirs of Britain’s former Prime Minister. It’s brilliant and apart from anything else it’s incredibly funny. If like me you have dark thoughts when you think of Tony Blair and the Iraq war, this is the book for you.
Have you read any Robert Harris books? What’s your favourite political novel? Or what have you read recently that you would describe as a political novel?