Ignatius: So it’s wonderful to welcome you here this evening. This evening we have a treat. If you have attended events like this in the past, you know we’ve talked with politicians, cabinet secretaries. Tonight we have somebody that I really want to have a conversation with. [LAUGHTER] And that is Robert Harris, who is the author of 12 novels, almost all of which I have devoured. Robert Harris is one of my favorite novelists. And he also, like me, is somebody who has been a columnist, a journalist. He was a journalist first as a student at Cambridge, then worked for The Observer at the age of 30. He was political editor of The Observer. He then, in ways we’ll discuss, found his way to being a novelist, and has really never looked back. And so we’ll talk a little bit about that.
I want to begin tonight by inviting people in the audience, or people watching us live on the stream, to send questions to me, which I will relay to Robert, if I think they’re suitable to ask him. [LAUGHTER] And you should send them to hashtag #PostLive, and they’ll show up on my little iPad here.
This is Robert’s new novel, Munich. If you read our local newspaper this morning, you’ll see that our critic, Patrick Anderson, who often reviews thrillers, reviewed it, and said of the book—which obviously being about Munich, features Neville Chamberlain as a central figure—“His new novel offers a painful look at an honorable man longing for peace, but confronting an adversary who had only conquest in mind, and only contempt for Chamberlain’s good intentions.” And then the reviewer concludes, “Once again, Harris has brought history to life with exceptional skill.”
So I invite you to read the book, but I want to begin by asking, Robert, about Munich, a word, an event, that’s as laden with meaning, heavy with meaning as any in modern history. You write in the acknowledgements, at the end of this book, that you have had a mild obsession with what happened at Munich for 30 years. And I want to ask you to begin by talking about how that obsession began. What it is that fascinated you 30 years ago about this story, and what you then came back to in the novel?
Harris: Well, I made a documentary for the 50th anniversary of the Munich Agreement. This year will mark the 80th anniversary. So I know I don’t look old enough to have done something 30 years ago, but I did. [LAUGHTER] And I interviewed people who’d been there. I interviewed Neville Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, later prime minister, who actually was the only person, apart from the translator, alone with Hitler in Hitler’s apartment when the famous piece of paper was signed. And I interviewed Chamberlain’s daughter. People now long since dead.
And I realized that almost everything one things, the popular conception of Munich, is wrong. And it’s almost the complete opposite. Hitler regarded the Munich Agreement as a setback. And indeed, at the end of his life, he blamed it for losing the war. Chamberlain got the better of him, is the truth, but that’s not something that most of us know. Every time any conflict came up, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Assad, out comes Munich appeasement. And it’s just not right. And it’s one of those things that’s got into the bloodstream, and it has an effect. I think it’s one of the few things that still casts a shadow over the modern world, and that was one of the reason why I wanted to write about it. That and the moral compromises involved at the time—shameful, as many people thought.
Ignatius: If we were to have a proper understanding of what Munich means, what that analogy ought to represent, what would it be?
Harris: It would be that Hitler really wanted to have a war in September 1938. He obviously wanted the Sudeten Germans back or into the German Reich. But really what he wanted to do was drive straight through Czechoslovakia, take Prague, which he thought he would do in a week. He developed the Blitzkrieg tactics, and it was the first time he planned to use them. And he was thwarted in this because Chamberlain was as determined to avoid war as he was to have a war.
He flew to meet Hitler, a thing which was a huge gamble. One of the things I try to convey in the novel is that Chamberlain was not this weak, senile, old fool. He was a dynamic, ruthless, you may say “misguided,” but nevertheless incredibly a strong-willed man. And basically, Hitler, surprised to find himself confronted by the British Prime Minister, told him—outlined grievances. And Chamberlain said, “Well,” to paraphrase, “Let me see what I can do.” And suddenly, Hitler found himself enmeshed in democracy, which he didn’t really want to be trapped in at all, and was very careful to avoid in September of 1939. He would never specify any demands that could be met vis-à-vis Poland.
So Chamberlain got what he wanted, which was to postpone or avoid war, because the British certainly weren’t ready either materially or morally. And Hitler felt thwarted. One of the reasons I wrote the novel was because I came across a diary, published, kept by Joachim Fest, the German journalist who was the ghostwriter for Albert Speer’s memoirs, Inside the Third Reich. In May of 1969, Speer was asked by Fest about Munich. And Speers said, “Hitler was in a foul mood for weeks after Munich.” And he took it out on his staff, which was unusual for him. And eventually, at a private function, it all came pouring out. He said the German people have been duped, and by Chamberlain of all people.
At the end of his life, in February of 1945, he was still going on about Munich. He said that we should have gone to war in 1938. September 1938 would have been the perfect time. And most people simply aren’t aware of this view of Hitler’s, of the Munich Agreement. They think, “Oh, he managed to bluff and get stuff out of the British and French, the cowardly British and French. Thus emboldened, he went on to war.” It’s simply not like that.
Ignatius: Munich is a synonym in our modern political lexicon for appeasement and weakness. One of the enduring images of the book, for me, is your description of the crowds cheering for Chamberlain, both in Germany—you say that these crowds that would gather outside of his hotel, or wherever he appeared, really were the, in effect, German antiwar protesters—and the crowds that cheered when he got back to home to England.
So the question that obviously we wonder about is how did your characterization of these events get replaced by the version in which Munich means weakness, it means capitulation? That takes me just a—to get to the point I want to hear your thoughts about. The symbolic figure, counterpoint to the weak Chamberlain, in our historical reading is the strong Winston Churchill, the hero of this story. Chamberlain is the villain, as it’s commonly told, and Churchill is the hero. And I wonder, you’re challenging the Chamberlain side. What about the Churchill side, and to what extend did Churchill manipulate the image of Chamberlain to his own political advantage?
Harris: Well, Chamberlain’s great misfortune was to die very soon after he ceased to be prime minster. And he became a very useful scapegoat for everybody, for the ruling Conservative Party that wished to distance themselves from him. And even more effectively perhaps, the Labour Party. The Labour Party had voted against every measure of rearmament that Neville Chamberlain introduced, including in March 1939, conscription. They denounced Chamberlain as a warmonger.
But in the summer of 1940, it became very convenient to blame him for everything that had gone wrong. Chamberlain, in 1939, was spending 50% of British government spending was on armaments. The Spitfires were commissioned under Chamberlain, the radar, and so on. And when Chamberlain was dying in the summer of 1940, he said, “Well, if I’m to be blamed for the deficiencies, surely I should get some credit for the Spitfires that were winning the Battle of Britain.”
Churchill respected Chamberlain, and Chamberlain was loyal to him. Churchill did a wonderful eulogy of Chamberlain when he died in November of 1940. But he did say privately, “Poor Neville will come badly out of history. I know because I will write the history.” And I think that that’s what’s happened. Chamberlain sort of slipped into this place of being completely friendless really. The Tories didn’t want to know him. Labour despised him. Churchill is such a powerful, and romantic, and human figure. Almost he’s become a kind of secular saint, it seems to me. But of course, the sheer force of his personality obliterates the rather aloof, shy, slightly stuffy Chamberlain.
And none of this matters except insofar as there is a political dimension to this that is still effective today. I read the tweet by Governor Huckabee, who saw the film about Winston Churchill just the day after Christmas, comparing Obama to Chamberlain, and saying that he nothing but retreat. Well, that’s not true. Chamberlain was one of only two men who ever declared war on Adolf Hitler, rather than the other way around. And Churchill, who faced the completely black-and-white issue of confronting evil, I think it’s misleading to think that most issues are quite as simple as that.
One of the reasons it was simple, incidentally, is because Neville Chamberlain had, as it were, demonstrated that Hitler wasn’t to be trusted. He bequeathed to Churchill not only the Spitfires, but also the moral strength that came from having done everything possible to avoid the war.
Ignatius: We just have experienced another big—in fact two, really, in the last year—Churchill movies; movies about that galvanizing moment. So I’m very curious about whether there’s movie interest in this book. So many of your books have been made into films. Are people interested in this one? It strikes me to be an extraordinarily interesting story as you describe it.
Harris: Well, it has been sold to be a TV series, actually. A joint venture by British and German producers; mostly made in Germany with German actors, but with the British actors playing the British characters. And it will be fascinating to see it. I don’t suppose it will—obviously, it would be hard to confront the Gary Oldman, kind of juggernaut of Churhilliana. I mean, there’s not going to be a Neville Chamberlain set of centers in the United States propagating the word of Chamberlain.
But nevertheless, I hope there is some slight corrective. Not least, for instance, most people—I keep reading this in the coverage of Darkest Hour—they say that Chamberlain wanted a negotiated peace with Hitler. The opposite is the case. Chamberlain loyally backed Churchill in May of 1940 and repudiated the idea of hearing a peace offer from Hitler, unlike Halifax. You know, the things like that I think have just been steamrolled off the record.
Ignatius: So I want to ask you, your specialty over the years has become historical fiction. And I want to ask you about how make decisions about fact and fiction. It’s a question people often ask me about my novels, which are drawn closely from the world of fact, from real intelligence operations, but are novels. In this book, the two central figures—British aide to Chamberlain, Hugh Legat, and a German in the foreign ministry, Paul von Hartmann—are both fictional characters, but they’re absolutely central to the story.
So I found myself wondering how much you allowed yourself to invent because there is, you know, when you have real characters called Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, the reader begins to believe that this is a true story.
Harris: Yes. I mean, I think there is a sort of moral responsibility to try to be accurate. My rule is always to not put anything in that I know for a fact didn’t happen. Once I’ve made that rule to myself, I then allow myself to invent. We know the civil servant, the private secretary who flew with Chamberlain on his plane to see Hitler, was a man called Cecil Syers, whose son actually has been in touch with me. I bump Syers off the plane and put my man on instead. Mr. Syers junior very kind said he’s sure his father would have approved.
And so I slot him in, and it means that I hope the reader can feel what it was like; the tension in Downing Street; the meeting with the chiefs of staff that Chamberlain had when Hitler had announced that he would mobilize the next day. The chiefs of staff told Chamberlain that we only had 20 proper modern aircraft to protect the whole of the United Kingdom. The Hurricanes, all their guns froze at 15,000 feet. Most of the RAF fighter squadrons were biplanes.
So my man is there when Chamberlain has that meeting. Then he goes on the plane to see Hitler. And conversely, the young German—they were both students together at Oxford. They hadn’t seen one another for eight years or six years. He is in the foreign ministry, and he travels on Hitler’s train from Berlin to Munich. And what I wanted to do was to really take the reader into the world, and onto Chamberlain’s plane, into Hitler’s train, and the two of them, their own conflicts of loyalty, and their disrupted friendship. And that feeling of these two men, in 1938, young men, who are being drawn ineluctably towards war and disaster; that feeling of being powerless. I wanted to convey that as well.
So, for me, these are like cameras that bring alive the history. But I try to keep the history accurate, not least because the history is so interesting. I mean, you know, in Darkest Hour, which I enjoyed, some of the most interesting things are not in there actually. Truth is often much more interesting than anything one can invent.
Ignatius: I am an absolute believer in that. Without giving away anything in the novel, because I want to encourage people to read it, there’s a fascinating “what if” that’s embedded in this book. What if Chamberlain had been convinced that German designs were so dangerous that he hadn’t signed the famous piece of paper I have here from Heir Hitler? Is it your view that there is an alternative version of how this story might have gone, in which Chamberlains walks away from Munich, refusing appeasement, and that has a good outcome? I mean, what’s your judgment? Suppose Chamberlain had just walked out. What would have happened then, in that?
Harris: Well, my view is that world history would have been very different. And I cannot convince myself, I cannot see that it was anything other than, however shameful, necessary to avoid war in 1938. I’ve already mentioned Hitler’s own view about it. I think it’s almost certain that if the talks had broken down, then the German army would have moved in to Czechoslovakia. And Hitler thought he would take it over in a week; 40 divisions to smash Czechoslovakia; 10 divisions left at the end of the week to hold it down; 30 transferred to the western front to deal with anything from the British and the French.
The French had already made it clear to the British, and they were the ones with a proper land army, that they wouldn’t move until the summer of 1939, when the British were supposed to arrive. I think, and Chamberlain certainly felt, it would be very difficult to convince the British people, less than 20 years after the first World War in which they’d lost, the British alone, three-quarters of a million dead, that they would continue to fight on the issue of whether 3.5 million Sudeten Germans should be in this new state of Czechoslovakia, or in Germany where, clearly, most of them wanted to be.
Chamberlain just thought—and I think most people probably thought—it was just not an issue on which to fight a world war. Therefore, there is a danger that the whole British and French war effort would have crumbled. Hitler wanted to attack France and invade France in 1939. And throughout his life he thought he was a year behind the schedule he wanted. He wanted to knock out France in 1939. He wanted to invade Russia in 1940. And he missed it by 12 months. The British rearmed strong enough that they couldn’t be conquered. And the Russians developed tens of thousands of tanks which made it impossible for him to conquer Russia. That’s why he was lamenting to the end of his life that he’d failed.
Now, you may say this is just a lucky biproduct for Chamberlain, who sincerely believed he was going to get peace from Hitler. I don’t think the record shows that either. I think he hoped that Hitler would stick to the deal. But have you ever been struck by the strange wording of that piece of paper? The reason it reads so strangely is that what Chamberlain actually set down in two paragraphs was Hitler’s own words delivered in the Sportpalast in Berlin at the beginning of the week; saying that he only wanted reconciliation between Britain and Germany, and that he was resolved the two countries should never go to war again.
And Chamberlain went to his apartment to get him to put his name to the thing he’d said in this speech. The foreign office officials traveling with Chamberlain were horrified in that way of government officials. And Chamberlain said, “I think with luck he may stick to it, but if he doesn’t stick to it, the whole world will see, and it may bring the Americans in. And I propose to make a big thing of it when I get back to London.” And that’s what he did. He got off the plane, he waved it in front of the newsreel cameras. He destroyed his reputation as a result, but he did what he wanted to do, which was to pin Hitler very publicly to his words of peace, which of course, he then broke.
I don’t think it’s realistic to think that Chamberlain could have come back from Munich and said, “Listen everybody, we’ve stopped him for a few months, but there’s going to be war. We’re going to spend 50% of our tax revenues on armaments,” because this would have been just like the first World War. This would completely undercut everything he was trying to do. He said that the British having three-quarters of a million people only 20 years before, that he said that he thought the country would have a spiritual breakdown if people didn’t see their leaders trying to do everything possible to avoid another calamitous war.
So I have sympathy for the situation in which he found himself.
Ignatius: One more question about the story that you tell, you suggest that if Chamberlain had walked away and Hitler had invaded, that there was a chance—invaded the Sudetenland—there’s a chance that the German army would have rebelled; that anti-Hitler sentiment was so pervasive in the foreign ministry and parts of the army that there was a chance that this nightmare that lay ahead could have been averted because people would have risen up against him. What’s your own judgment about that?
Harris: I think it’s extremely unlikely that the German army would have turned on Hitler, to be perfectly honest. He was the most successful leader they’d since Bismarck. Although a lot of them were starting for the time to realize where he was possibly going to lead them, I don’t think that they would have arrested him or killed him. I think that the proof of that, if you want some evidence, is that von Brauchitsch, the head of the army at the time—the only man who could have actually issued an order operationally to, say, surround the vice chancellery and arrest him—he was approached in 1947 in a British prisoner-of-war camp by a German intelligence officer called Otto John. And John said to him, “What are these stories,” which had started to circulate, “That you were prepared to arrest Hitler?”
And Brauchitsch said to him, “You must be—me, arrest Hitler? You must be crazy.” Why would he lie about that? I mean, 1947, he died the following year. It would have been in his interest to say, you know, “Oh, yes, I knew. I wanted to stop him, but the cowardly British and French gave way at Munich.” So I think it’s a nonstarter. And the brutal fact of the matter is that the German army didn’t move against Adolf Hitler until July of 1944, and it was clear to absolutely everybody that they were going to lose. And I’m afraid that is the truth of the matter. As long as he was winning, they were perfectly happy to have him. It was only when it looked like he was going to lose that they moved against him.
Ignatius: With this novel, Robert Harris, come back to the terrain that you began your career as a novelist on. If people haven’t read it, they should. Fatherland was your first novel, and it’s an alternative history that imagines that Hitler and the Germans had won. And it makes you think in a deep and a contrarian way about these events. I want to ask you about what happened to Germany in this story of Nazism, which Munich is one landmark, but there are many. And how it happened?
I want to pose the question to you this way: in February of 2016, as our presidential campaign was beginning to go haywire, I was in Munich. I was walking those beautiful streets and looking at the magnificent Baroque architecture of Munich. And I thought to myself, “This jewel of culture and civilization, this is the place where it began. This place tells us that good countries can go bad.” That was a powerful feeling in February 2016. It’s more powerful today.
I don’t want to make this a political conversation, but I want to ask you about how that happened in Germany; how this great country of learning and the very essence of civilization, went over the lip of a waterfall with catastrophic consequences? And what that tells us about this larger question, how good countries go bad?
Harris: Well, I think this is quite a troubling time in the world. And I think that endlessly one goes back to Germany because of the civilization of the country, the learning, the culture, the music, the literature, and the sophistication of its industry, and so on, and that this could have happened. Of course, it’s true that Germany was a relatively new country, 1870, and that democracy had very shallow roots there. Nevertheless, it is frightening, and I think that one circles these stories and writes about them—whether it’s Germany or the collapse of the Roman Republic, the Cicero books that I’ve written—because, really, what we think are very solid institutions—big buildings, you know, history—I’m afraid they’re paper thin is the lesson of history. They can go very quickly.
There’s a book by Hugh Trevor-Roper called The European Witch-case of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. And he asks a very fundamental question in that how could it be that in sophisticated Central Europe 40,000 people were burnt as witches, at the time of the Renaissance, after the Renaissance, when the church outlawed belief in witches in the Dark Ages. He said the whole incident is a warning against those who think that humanity and history is an endless progress of endless enlightenment and improvement. It simply is not.
The Roman democracy was highly sophisticated, centuries old. And in the space of 30 years or so, it simply collapsed. And the story of what happened in Germany fits into that pattern. You know, we have to constantly be on our guard, and looking out, and being concerned about threats to what we take for granted, frankly, because the natural state of humanity is not to have liberal democracies in which everyone can say whatever they like.
Ignatius: Thinking of your trilogy about Cicero—again, just superb historical novels—that story of the fall of the Roman Republic, the way in which Rome became a very different kind of country, is the kind of baseline for thinking about my question, why good societies, good countries, go bad. And I’d love to hear a little more from you about how you see that story.
As I remember those novels, what we would call today “populism,” infected Rome. And the politicians who understood how to play to it became successful. Cicero, this thoughtful man, decent man, stood outside of that. Thinking now about the story you told in those three novels, what would be your account of what happened to Rome that cracked its democratic traditions and led to authoritarian government?
Harris: I think that it was a citizens’ militia, essentially, the Roman democracy. It was even organized along centuries of voters and so on. It was the army was electing its commanders. And it was very successful when Rome was relatively small. But as Rome grew bigger and bigger, and became the world’s main—sole superpower, it was no longer sufficient. I mean, there were standing armies in places like Syria, and in Gaul. And the revenues from these places were colossal. And the money sloshing through Rome meant that the democratic structure became—it lost all credibility. It was just susceptible to bribery.
I mean, Cato spend years trying to get campaign finance reform through. And everything thing became them mired in lawsuits. There was, if you like, gridlock. And into this stepped unscrupulous, often hugely wealthy, men, who sided with the mob, or the poor. They said Caesar—but Caesar not alone, of course, Catiline and others—and they turned on the elite. They said that the problem was all the doing of the elite. And the society became polarized. And there became a complete, almost 50-50 division, as to what the Republic existed for.
At moment, the whole thing split apart and collapsed. That is what happened then. It didn’t mean the end of Rome, of course. Rome then rose and became even more powerful as an empire. But democracy had gone, and democracy disappeared from the world for more than a thousand years. When I say “democracy,” of course, there was plenty wrong with the Roman system. You know, women couldn’t vote. Slaves couldn’t vote. It was weighted in the interest of the rich. Nevertheless, there were a million voters eligible at the time when Cicero was running for consul.
So, you know, that’s what haunted me and drew me to that subject. Perhaps, sometimes, I thought, “Why have I devoted 10 years of my life to writing about Cicero, for God’s sake?” And then actually, it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve started to see why I probably did. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: Those novels are really repay reading now. I’m curious. Cicero is such a wonderful character in those three books. He’s just absolutely loveable. Sometimes makes dreadful mistakes. He has an unpleasant side that you capture. But I’m just curious whether there’s anybody in the contemporary political landscape who reminds you at all of Cicero? [LAUGHTER]
Harris: Well, I suppose there are. I mean, oratory, thoughtfulness, a kind of moderate pragmatism, humanity, a dislike of violence and crudeness. Any politician that fits that bill, I would think is like Cicero. He took the view that a politician, a “statesman” as he would have called it, should be like a doctor; that they would try—and the body politic was the patient, and they would try all manner of cures to try and help the health of the patient. And he said that never for a second has Caesar taken that view of politics. I mean, Caesar was in it totally for himself, for his own glory. And people were merely kind of extras in the great story.
I mean, I know other people take a different view about Caesar, but Caesar strikes me as a psychopath, actually, in terms of the genocide he inflicted on countries. Gaul, boasting about killing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. Cicero would never have done that. He was squeamish, even about the games.
So that is the sort of politician I instinctively like. You know, the one that tries to keep the show on the road, as it were; who’s wary of extreme nostrums from either side. That’s unfashionable, I’m afraid, at the moment, both in your country and in mine.
Ignatius: You worked for a time for Tony Blair.
Harris: No, I never worked for him.
Ignatius: Did you not work for him?
Harris: No, I annoyed him, [LAUGHTER] followed him around, but I never worked for him.
Ignatius: I hope I get this closer to right, that you were, early in his prime ministership, fairly enthusiastic about him as a leader, and then kind of lost that hope. I’d just be interested in your talking about Tony Blair, who is such an interesting, complicated person, who it seems, from this distance, came to such an unhappy end.
Harris: Well, I knew him before he became leader of the Labour Party, and he was such a breath of fresh air. He was like talking to anyone of one’s contemporaries. He was like a guy who lived next door. He was immensely sort of ordinary, if I can put it that way. Highly intelligence, and attractive, charming, but essentially, he was the sort of man you might go on holiday with, with the kids or something. That was really what he started off bringing into British politics; a sense of just common sense. You know, let’s just try and make this work. Whatever is the best idea, let’s use it. Yes, we stand for certain progressive ideas, but let’s put them in a modern context.
This was, in its way, revolutionary. And he had a huge wind behind him, and a colossal majority. And for a while, all went well. I didn’t know him quite well. I admired him very much. I always had sensed there was something not going to work here because it was too much “all things to all men.” And at some point, you’re going to have to make stands in politics, as you know, and then things start to change. But he had a tremendous run of success.
But one of the things that draws me to write about politics is the way that politics—the power is like this kind of nuclear energy or something, that unless it’s carefully screened behind protective shields, and handled only for a short time, it’s immensely destructive to everyone who tries to hold onto it. I think after a few years, he began to think he could walk on water. That’s why, I’m afraid, happens in politics. One of the great things in America is that you restrict leaders to eight years maximum. In Britain, once you pass eight years and get to 10 years, then things all start to go wrong because the leader loses touch with reality, is the truth.
He then parted company with his own supporters, and he became far too close to George Bush, which would have been dangerous for a conservative leader, but was poisonous for the leader of a left-wing party. It ended in the way that it did. And it’s been a tragedy for British politics because Tony Blair is still a relatively young man. He’s only 64. He should have had one of those careers which went on a long time, like a Churchill, who was still sitting in Parliament in 1964. But instead he removed himself. He left Parliament. And he did damage to his reputation from which it seems impossible for him to recover.
And with him went not only his eloquence, but a whole—he’s infected and made toxic a whole kind of progressive politics. That is now a huge problem in British politics because the Labour Party is now very much enthrall to people that Blair fought against all his life. Some of them with views that Clement Attlee, and old leader of the Labour Party, would have kept these people out. Some of them are avowed communists. I don’t want to sound like Senator McCarthy, but that is simply the truth. And there should be no place in a social-democratic party for supporters of Marxism communism in that way.
Ignatius: You wrote a fascinating novel that was turned into an also fascinating movie. I think the novel is called The Ghostwriter and became The Ghost in film. But one of the characters is often described as a very thinly veiled version of Tony Blair. Thinking about that novel, and the [LAUGHS] quite pointed portrait, I was curious whether you’ve talked to Tony Blair in recent years.
Ignatius: It’s somebody you obviously knew well. No? [LAUGHTER] So if not Tony Blair, a question people often ask me—as someone who wants to get to know people in politics, in the military, partly to think about them in terms of my fiction, but also to do my job as a columnist—is that fascinating puzzle of how you get to know people, draw from them what’s interesting, without getting to know them too well.
Ignatius: Which is dangerous in our business of journalism, and I suspect also our business of writing fiction. Do you talk with politicians? You’re famous in Britain. You’re a famous, popular novelist. I’m sure people would love to have you to dinner all the time. How do you deal with that?
Harris: Well, I do know some politicians. And I like politicians, to be honest. I take an unfashionable view that I’m glad that they’re doing it because I sure as hell wouldn’t want to do it. [LAUGHTER] I’m glad someone is trying to run the health service, and to deal with winter flu. So I start from the view that they aren’t all crooks at all.
I did get close to Tony Blair, but you know what was the basis of that friendship? I was a columnist then on The Sunday Times. A rare thing to be in a Murdoch paper and to be allowed to have left-of-center views. My friendship with him was based on the fact that I was that. It wasn’t he liked my lovely brown eyes or anything like that. It was interesting to me, as a novelist and someone who writes about power, to spend time with him. And when he was on the verge of becoming prime minister, I joined him and traveled around.
When you say, “You were on his staff,” in fairness, you are right to the extent that I was actually issued with a pass to fly with him on his plane and everything, as traveling as a member of his staff rather than as a journalist. I think that you could say, as a journalist, therefore I had crossed a line. But I took the view that I was not going to carry on writing the column. I was going to write novels, and this was a rare opportunity to actually see politics in the raw; to see someone who was about to become prime minister close up.
And when, you know, you get the exit poll in Britain, 10 o’clock when the polls have closed, and it’s unveiled, I was standing next to him, just to the two of us looking at the television. And there it came, “We are predicting a Labour landslide of 140 seats.” And his aide came into the room and said that President Clinton is on the phone for you. You know, to actually see all that, to say, “How does it feel,” to the man, to him that’s happening, what novelist wouldn’t want to ask that?
There’s a great passage from Henry James—not a novelist to whom I compare myself—but he said that he had this very intense experience of a summer with all his friends, and it was so powerful that it gave him all the material he needed for the rest of his writing career in a way. And in a funny way, the few weeks that I spent doing that gave me enough material to draw on for a lifetime, of seeing what people in these positions are like.
Ignatius: Would you ever think of writing a novel more directly about Tony Blair? You describe him in a way that makes him sound irresistible as a subject.
Harris: I think I should leave him alone, don’t you think? [LAUGHTER] I think he’s suffered enough. And you know, he’s never really—he’s never complained about the things that I’ve written, and that, I admire it. I admire the toughness of politicians. You know, most of them, [LAUGHTER] are willing to take whatever is said about them, and can do it a professional way, and just differentiate themselves, the public persona from the inner man, if you know what I mean—or woman. And that is a great strength.
Ignatius: It’s hard to imagine Tony Blair tweeting, but maybe [LAUGHTER] the Tony Blair of today would have. So many of your books have been made into movies or TV series, as you described as ahead for Munich. I think we’d all be interested in hearing a little bit about what that’s like as a writer when your work is reimagined. A couple of people that you work with, the gee-whiz factor for me is very high. One of them is Kate Winslet, who starred in the movie that was made of Enigma, I think. And the other is Roman Polanski, who directed The Ghost and who is one of the most complicated, controversial people in the world of Hollywood.
Maybe you could just say a little bit about each of those people, but also about this larger process of writing something that then becomes something else?
Harris: It’s a more attractive proposition to take Kate Winslet, I have to say. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: Hard to get in trouble talking about Kate Winslet.
Harris: Kate was wonderful and enthusiastic. I mean, she’s an old-fashioned, old-style star, actually. The camera loves her the moment she appears in front of a camera. You know, she’s just a big figure. There’s a cruelty about movies, you know, that some really great actors simply don’t work, and others, they just have some ingredient, some larger-than-life ingredient, and she has it. And she is tremendous.
The whole business of having your work turned into something else is what I find one of the great bonuses of being a novelist. I mean, the talent that comes in to turn your ideas into something else. You know, sometimes the music. The Enigma score was written by John Barry. It was the last score that he wrote. And the music in it is gorgeous. Alexandre Desplat did the score for The Ghost. Things like that, things that you feel that have come from you, sitting on an often cold and unpromising day in front of a screen, on your own, writing, has suddenly taken on all these other forms. Sometimes the product isn’t very good. Other times it’s better than you could have hoped.
I’ve had a wonderful experience in the last couple of months. The Royal Shakespeare Company has adapted two of the Cicero books, and they run over six hours at Stratford; been one of the great experiences of my professional career has been watching the skill and talent of those actors, and the direction, and the adaptation. That’s been wonderful. So, you know, it’s a bit like I would imagine having grandchildren. You know, that you’re sort of—you can enjoy them, and they’re part of you, but you can sort hand them away [LAUGHTER] to someone else at the end, and you’re not entirely responsible for everything. You can just get pleasure from them.
Ignatius: I’ve often thought, when people ask which of our books they should read, or which one we like the best as author, it is like asking you which of your children do you love the most. [LAUGHTER] The truth is, it’s just not a question that you can answer. You shouldn’t. But you love each of them in a different way. There are things that you know in each book that are wonderful things, that are dreadful things you could go back and rewrite if you could.
I want to just ask you to step back and talk about the arc of your career. You began as a journalist, had enormous success, but then began writing fiction. In 1992, Fatherland was published. Sold—I was reading today—3 million copies. I think that’s the number. That’s stupendous. I wrote in the acknowledgments at the end of my most recent book that when I published my first novel in 1987, I thought I would have to choose between being a journalist and being novelist. And I said, “I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I straddled the two and kept doing both.”
You made more of a choice. You decided that you wanted to be a full-time novelist pretty much, and you have had enormous success at that. I’m just curious whether you ever wonder about the journalism side and feel the itch to do more of that; to take a break and go back to writing, you know, twice a week, a column. Any newspaper would be happy to have you as a columnist. Does that have any appeal?
Harris: None whatsoever. [LAUGHTER] It’s a very strange thing.
Ignatius: I’m so sorry to hear you say that. [LAUGHTER]
Harris: But you know, David, it’s completely true. I was so pleased to stop being a journalist. [LAUGHTER] I remember the day that I start—I wrote the paragraph of Fatherland, it’s literally the first paragraph of fiction that I ever wrote. And it really didn’t change from the first draft right the way through. There’s rain coming down in Berlin, and a body on the shore. Do you know, I can remember I wrote it early on a Saturday afternoon, and I had to go and lie down. It was so extraordinary to just be able to make it up. [LAUGHTER]
It was the difference between riding a bicycle and flying a helicopter. I just felt I could switch on so much more in my head that I could—and I’ve never lost that feeling. Although, you know, occasionally, when I hit a dry patch as a novelist, I went back and wrote, and did a column, a couple more stints of columns. And one of them was the one that brought me into the Blair orbit.
Nevertheless, I realized from that moment of writing that was what I wanted to do. However bad things have been—and of course, sometimes when you’re writing you hit very—you know, it doesn’t work. Nevertheless, I would always rather be failing as a novelist than succeeding as a columnist or a journalist. But that’s me. But that’s simply how I feel. I took pains, really, to avoid appearing on, you know, current affairs panels and all that sort of—the British equivalent of Face the Press, or whatever. You know, just because I didn’t want to get away from what I now saw as the central thing I wanted to do, which was to take my preoccupations about power and the way the world works, and to turn them into stories.
And that’s, you know—so I don’t miss journalism, to be honest with you.
Ignatius: I’m sorry to hear that, but [LAUGHTER] you make a persuasive case. Your novels, for the most part, are historical novels. As you’ve explained to us, they take very contemporary issues of power, the way power is exercised, even contemporary personalities. As you talk about Tony Blair, I’m thinking of characters in your book that drew from what you learned from Blair.
But by and large they’re historical in their frame. I’m wondering whether you find the present we’re living in, especially here in America, but generally, just too outlandish for fiction? It’s just too difficult. The real-life characters are so enormous, almost cartoonish, that it’s very hard. I write spy novels. You can’t think of a spy plot as crazy as what we’re living with. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: So I’m curious about whether you could be tempted to write more novels set in a contemporary time frame, or whether you just as soon stick with historical themes?
Harris: Well, I think you’ve put your finger on it. You know, first of all, in the time between when I’m finishing a novel and it appearing in a bookstore, which can be quite short, two months, nevertheless, anything could happen that would render it obsolete. Things are moving so quickly and they are, as you say, so outlandish, that an attempt to capture the present, it’s a bit like going to Walt Disney World. You know, the thing that’s really a bit lame and passé is Epcot, the attempt to capture the future. You know, the fairy stories and so, that’s fine. That feels fresh.
That’s one of the reason that I prefer to write about the past because one can—it doesn’t date. And also, there’s more room to develop character. The internet is a destruction of our trade really, because—or any novel. I mean, imagine the opening of Pride and Prejudice, where Ms. Bennet can google the people, you know, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. She’d know everything about them before the whole story started. This instantaneousness of communication and knowledge is highly destructive to narrative.
I prefer to write novels about politics. I really enjoyed writing about the Roman Republic because all of those characters—the Cato, the ideologue who’s prepared to drive himself mad with the remorselessness of his own logic; the devious, pragmatic Cicero; the businessman turned politician, Crassus—each of these architypes one can recognize today. I couldn’t improve upon how could one in fiction place your president? I really, simply—[LAUGHTER]—I’m defeated by it. Anything else.
I often feel in my fiction that wherever it seems outlandish, improbably, ridiculous, that’s the absolute fact. Wherever it seems prosaic, obvious, and sure, that’s what I’ve struggled to invent. I write the novels I do because I do just find reality so much more extraordinary than anything one can make up.
Ignatius: So I have a quick question. I actually did finally get—I’ve been looking down at this iPad and thinking, “Is there anybody out there?” Low and behold, a message arrives, and somebody is watching this—it’s awfully late—from Munich. [LAUGHTER]
Harris: Be careful. [LAUGHS]
Ignatius: This person asks, “When will Robert be visiting his book’s namesake city?” So I’ll ask you that question, and then I have one to conclude with.
Harris: Well, I’m sorry for this person because I was actually there in November. And I did an event in the Führerbau, in the very place where the Munich Conference took place, and fascinating it was. So I’m sorry. I was there, but hopefully I’ll be back.
Ignatius: I won’t mention this person by name, but I’m sure that she regrets missing that.
Harris: Another time.
Ignatius: Another time. So that leads me to ask a final question, which is, as you think about your next novel, obviously you love writing fiction, can you give us any hints about time, setting, issues that you want to engage in your next book? You’re probably well-along with it if I know fiction writers.
Harris: I have two or three ideas. I’d really like to write all of them, and I’m trying to settle on the one that I’ll do. I have had a busy run. I’ve done three novels in three years, four in five years if you take in An Officer and a Spy. I can’t, in all conscience, get one finished for this autumn. Therefore, I’ll take a little more time. I do have an idea, and one of the pleasures of life is to carry these ideas around in your head, and wherever you go, you’re taking this bit of your own inner reality with you. I’ve brought it with me to America, in my head, and in a sense, it’s been a great inner resource wherever I travel.
Ignatius: But we can’t tease out you [LAUGHTER] just a little hint of what it might be about?
Harris: Well, do you know, I don’t think you can do this because if I say to you what my idea is, and you raise just a slight skeptical eyebrow, I cannot tell you the damage that will do to me. [LAUGHTER] And so I have—until it’s got a little more strength, and it can leave the womb and survive, I think I have to leave it in there.
Ignatius: In truth, I do understand that feeling. I’ve had it precisely, and have gotten skeptical looks that made me think, “My god, that was such a stupid idea.” So this has really been a treat. I just want to say on behalf of The Washington Post what a pleasure it’s been to have you here. As I say, you’re a writer whose work I admire enormously, and to have a change to talk with you for an hour about the books, the ideas behind them, really, really a treat for all of us. So thank you very much, Robert.
Harris: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thanks, David. Thank you. Thank you.
Ignatius: And I believe that Robert will sign books. I hope I’m not mistaken in that. So they are for sale and to be signed.
Harris: Yeah, the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned. [LAUGHTER] Thank you. That was great. Thank you so much.