Having the opportunity to interview your favourite author is what I believe student media is all about. A couple of weeks ago, that came to fruition, as I spoke to Robert Harris, about his new book, Munich, historical fiction, student media and Nottingham.
Firstly, your new book, Munich, was released on Thursday 21st September, and follows two young men based around the two most important players at the Munich Conference in 1938, Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. What inspired you to write about this particular historical episode?
“I’ve always been interested in it. Nearly 30 years ago, I made a documentary for the BBC to mark the 50-year anniversary, and I have always been fascinated by the moral dilemmas of Munich. I always thought people had the wrong impression about the crisis, and that it was more complicated than people think.
“For a long time, I have had a sense of character in the British foreign office official; problems with marriage, and questioning should he appease or take a stand. I found characterisation of the German character harder, and finally found it last year. This is the culmination of the 30-year obsession I have had with Munich.”
“The first great dramatist of the Roman era is Shakespeare”
Alongside this, your Cicero trilogy is now being adapted as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Autumn Season? What do you think makes that particular series something that can be adapted successfully onto the stage?
“The first great dramatist of the Roman era is Shakespeare, he was the pioneer. In a way it fits perfectly that the novels should find the way to the stage and RSC, and Roman politics is interesting in how it sheds the light on current politics, and universalises it. It is a massive honour, and one of the great things about fiction is that you never know what it will inspire and where it will end up.”
“Our times are changing so fast, and one looks to the past for a kind of mirror”
One of your previous works, An Officer and a Spy, judging by the credits, required a lot of reading. How much research goes into such a task?
“A lot goes in! For Munich, more than 80 books and published sources are cited at the end. For me, I do all my own research, and that for me is the experience. Where travel writers would go on the Trans-Siberian Express, doing your own research is the lived experience. The process can take years; it took two years for the Cicero novels, as I was doing the work for all three novels together; An Officer and a Spy and Munich probably needed around six months of solid research each.”
Would you say that historical fiction is an effective way of helping a larger audience to engage with history?
“I think it is a great way to engage with it. I learned a lot about history through fiction, and you can do things with the tools of fiction which are by their nature closed to the historian. I try to remain true to the facts, quite deliberately, and I like to think people are reading something useful when they are reading my novels.”
“There may be something of a ‘Golden Age’ of historical fiction”
With the success of Hilary Mantel, yourself and many others recently, do you believe that historical fiction is becoming ever more popular?
“I cannot really say. There may be something of a ‘Golden Age’ of historical fiction at present because our times are changing so fast, and one looks to the past for a kind of mirror, and to turbulent eras for answers.
“It is definitely a way to try and get some perspective on our own time. History generally is definitely popular at the moment, and history generates a lot of history to that end.”
“Nottingham has a real buzz, an atmosphere, and sense of history there”
Having been editor of your student newspaper while studying at Cambridge University, how important do you think student media was in piquing your interest in wanting to be a reporter and writer?
“It was very important indeed, and the first thing I did at university was to join the student paper, and worked on it off and on for most of the time. We did an annual guide for new students every September, and I edited that at the end of my second year. I always wanted to be a journalist, and applied after university to join the BBC, and was able to show it was a passion and not something I had woken up to. In fact, I edited my school newspaper before university, and I was a real passion of mine.”
“I have always considered myself a Nottingham person”
Having grown up in Nottingham, what would you say to those looking to come here to study in further education?
“I love Nottingham! The University of Nottingham gave me an honorary doctorate a few years ago [in 2012], which I was extremely proud to receive. Nottingham has a real buzz, an atmosphere, and sense of history there. There is, of course, a great radical tradition and a literary one, as well as it being a truly exciting place. I have always considered myself a Nottingham person, and I always say I come from Nottingham even though I left at nine years old!”
Image courtesy of Robert Harris and Penguin Books.