Robert Harris (novelist)

Robert Harris

Harris at a reading in Cologne in November 2008
Born (1957-03-07) 7 March 1957
Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England
Occupation Novelist
Language English
Nationality British
Education King Edward VII School
Alma mater Selwyn College, Cambridge
Period 1982 - present
Genre Fiction
Subject Historical fiction
Notable works Fatherland
Notable awards César Award
Columnist of the Year
Spouse Gill Hornby
Children 4
Relatives Nick Hornby (brother-in-law)
Robert Harris's voice
from the BBC programme Desert Island Discs, 28 November 2010.[1]

Robert Dennis Harris (born 7 March 1957) is an English novelist. He is a former journalist and BBC television reporter. Although he began his career in non-fiction, his fame rests upon his works of historical fiction. Beginning with the best-seller Fatherland, Harris focused on events surrounding the Second World War, followed by works set in ancient Rome. His most recent works centre on contemporary history.

Early life and education

Born in Nottingham, Harris spent his childhood in a small rented house on a Nottingham council estate. His ambition to become a writer arose at an early age, from visits to the local printing plant where his father worked. Harris went to Belvoir High School in Bottesford, and then King Edward VII School, Melton Mowbray, where a hall was named after him. There he wrote plays and edited the school magazine. Harris read English literature at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity.


Early career

After leaving Cambridge, Harris joined the BBC and worked on news and current affairs programmes such as Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987, at the age of thirty, he became political editor of The Observer. He later wrote regular columns for the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph.

Non-fiction (1982–90)

Harris's first book appeared in 1982. A Higher Form of Killing, a study of chemical and biological warfare, was written with fellow BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman. Other non-fiction works followed: Gotcha, the Media, the Government and the Falklands Crisis (1983), The Making of Neil Kinnock (1984), Selling Hitler (1986), an investigation of the Hitler Diaries scandal, and Good and Faithful Servant (1990), a study of Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary.


Fatherland 1992

Harris's million-selling alternative-history first novel Fatherland has as its setting a world where Germany has won the Second World War. Publication enabled Harris to become a full-time novelist. HBO made a film based on the novel in 1994.

Harris stated that the proceeds from the book enabled him to buy a house in the country, where he still lives.

Enigma 1995

His second novel Enigma portrayed the breaking of the German Enigma code during the Second World War at Bletchley Park. It too became a film, with Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet starring and with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.

Archangel 1998

Archangel was another international best seller. It follows a British historian in contemporary Russia as he hunts for a secret notebook, believed to be Stalin's diary. In 2005 the BBC made it into a mini-series starring Daniel Craig.

Pompeii 2003

In 2003 Harris turned his attention to ancient Rome with his acclaimed Pompeii. The novel is about a Roman aqueduct engineer, working near the city of Pompeii just before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. As the aqueducts begin to malfunction, he investigates and realises the volcano is shifting the ground and damaging the system and is near eruption. Meanwhile, he falls in love with the young daughter of a powerful local businessman who was illicitly dealing with his predecessor to divert municipal water for his own uses, and will do anything to keep that deal going.

Imperium 2006

He followed this in 2006 with Imperium, the first novel in a trilogy centered on the life of the great Roman orator Cicero.

The Ghost 2007

Harris was an early and enthusiastic backer of British Prime Minister Tony Blair (a personal acquaintance) and a donor to New Labour, but the war in Iraq blunted his enthusiasm.[2] "We had our ups and downs, but we didn't really fall out until the invasion of Iraq, which made no sense to me," Harris has said.[3]

In 2007, after Blair resigned, Harris dropped his other work to write The Ghost. The title refers both to a professional ghostwriter, whose lengthy memorandum forms the novel, and to his immediate predecessor who, as the action opens, has just drowned in gruesome and mysterious circumstances.

The dead man has been ghosting the autobiography of a recently unseated British prime minister called Adam Lang, a thinly veiled version of Blair.[4] The fictional counterpart of Cherie Blair is depicted as a sinister manipulator of her husband. Harris told The Guardian before publication: "The day this appears a writ might come through the door. But I would doubt it, knowing him."[5]

Harris said in a US National Public Radio interview that politicians like Lang and Blair, particularly when they have been in office for a long time, become divorced from everyday reality, read little and end up with a pretty limited overall outlook. When it comes to writing their memoirs, they therefore tend to have all the more need of a ghostwriter.

Harris hinted at a third, far less obvious, allusion hidden in the novel's title, and, more significantly, at a possible motive for having written the book in the first place. Blair, he said, had himself been ghostwriter, in effect, to President Bush when giving public reasons for invading Iraq: he had argued the case better than had the President himself.[6]

The New York Observer, headlining its otherwise hostile review The Blair Snitch Project, commented that the book's "shock-horror revelation" was "so shocking it simply can't be true, though if it were it would certainly explain pretty much everything about the recent history of Great Britain."[2]

Lustrum 2009

The second novel in the Cicero trilogy, Lustrum, was published in October 2009. It was released in February 2010 in the US under the alternative title of Conspirata.

The Fear Index 2011

His novel The Fear Index, focusing on the 2010 Flash Crash, was published by Hutchinson in September 2011. It follows an American expat hedge fund operator living in Geneva who activates a new system of computer algorithms that he names VIXAL-4, which is designed to operate faster than human beings, but which begins to become uncontrollable by its human operators.

An Officer and a Spy 2013

An Officer and a Spy is the story of French officer Georges Picquart, a historical character, who is promoted in 1895 to run France's Statistical Section, its secret intelligence division. He gradually realises that Alfred Dreyfus has been unjustly imprisoned for acts of espionage committed by another man who is still free and still spying for the Germans. He risks his career and his life to expose the truth.

Dictator 2015

Dictator is the long-promised conclusion to Harris's Cicero trilogy.[7] It was published by Hutchinson on 8 October 2015.[8]

Conclave 2016

His next novel, Conclave, was published on September 22, 2016.[9] Harris announced on Twitter that the novel is "set over 72 hours in the Vatican" and follows "the election of a fictional Pope."[10]

Work with Roman Polanski

In 2007, Harris wrote a screenplay of his novel Pompeii for director Roman Polanski. Harris acknowledged in many interviews that the plot of his novel was inspired by Polanski's film Chinatown, and Polanski said it was precisely that similarity that had attracted him to Pompeii.[11] The film, to be produced by Summit Entertainment, was announced at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 as potentially the most expensive European film ever made, set to be shot in Spain. Media reports suggested Polanski wanted Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson to play the two leads. The film was cancelled in September 2007 as a result of a looming actors' strike.[12]

Polanski and Harris then turned to Harris's bestseller, The Ghost. They co-wrote a script and Polanski announced filming for early 2008, with Nicolas Cage, Pierce Brosnan, Tilda Swinton and Kim Cattrall starring. The film was then postponed by a year, with Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams replacing Cage and Swinton.

The film, retitled The Ghost Writer in all territories except the UK, was shot in early 2009 in Berlin and on the island of Sylt in the North Sea, which stood in for London and Martha's Vineyard respectively, owing to Polanski's inability to travel legally to those places. In spite of his incarceration, he oversaw post-production from his house arrest and the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2010, with Polanski winning the Silver Bear for Best Director award. Harris and Polanski later shared a César Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Harris was inspired to write his novel An Officer and a Spy by Polanski's longtime interest in the Dreyfus affair.[13] He has written a screenplay based on the story, which Polanski is set to direct.[14] The screenplay is titled D, after the initial written on the secret file that secured Dreyfus' conviction.

TV and radio appearances

Harris has appeared on the BBC satirical panel game Have I Got News for You in episode three of the first series in 1990, and in episode four of the second series a year later. In the first he appeared as a last-minute replacement for the politician Roy Hattersley. He made a third appearance on the programme on 12 October 2007, seventeen years, to the day, after his first appearance. Since the gap between his second and third appearance was nearly 16 years, Harris enjoyed the distinction of the longest gap between two successive appearances in the show's history until Eddie Izzard's first appearance after 20 years in 2016.

On 2 December 2010, Harris appeared on the radio programme Desert Island Discs, when he spoke about his childhood and his friendships with Tony Blair and Roman Polanski.

Harris appeared on the American PBS show Charlie Rose on 10 February 2012. Harris discussed his novel The Fear Index which he likened to a modern-day Gothic novel along the lines of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Harris also discussed the adaptation of his novel, The Ghost that came out as the movie, The Ghost Writer directed by Roman Polanski.[15]


Harris was a columnist for the Sunday Times, but gave it up in 1997. He returned to journalism in 2001, writing for the Daily Telegraph.[16] He was named "Columnist of the Year" at the 2003 British Press Awards.[17]

Personal life

Harris lives in a former vicarage near Newbury, Berkshire, with his wife Gill Hornby, herself a writer and sister of best-selling novelist Nick Hornby. They have four children. Harris contributed a short story, "PMQ", to Hornby's 2000 collection Speaking with the Angel.

Formerly a donor to the Labour Party, he renounced his support for the party after its appointment of Guardian journalist Seumas Milne as communications director, tweeting: "Council house born. Comprehensive-school educated. Voted Foot, Kinnock. But not for private-school apologists for IRA and Stalin. Sorry".[18]



Short stories




  1. "Robert Harris". Desert Island Discs. 28 November 2010. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. 1 2 Archived 28 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. Harris, Robert. "Robert Harris: 'The Ghost' of Tony Blair". NPR. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  4. Anthony Holden. "Review: The Ghost by Robert Harris". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  5. Edemariam, Aida (27 September 2007). "Aida Edemariam talks to author Robert Harris". The Guardian. London.
  6. National Public Radio interview, 31 October 2007.
  7. "Richard and Judy ask Robert Harris". W H Smith. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
  8. Robert Harris. Dictator. ISBN 9780091752101. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  11. Beard, Matthew (2007-02-03). "Polanski to bring best-seller on last days of Pompeii to the big screen | News | Culture". The Independent. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  12. Dave McNary; Alison James; Dade Hayes (2007-09-11). "Polanski pulls out of 'Pompeii'". Variety. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  13. Andrew Anthony (2013-09-24). "Robert Harris: 'Whenever a crowd is running one way, I run the other'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  14. McClintock, Pamela (9 May 2012). "Roman Polanski to Direct Dreyfus Affair Drama 'D'". The Hollywood Reporter.
  15. Archived 13 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. "Robert Harris joins". Daily Telegraph. 2001-09-08. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  17. Archived 16 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
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