Robert Harris began his career as a reporter on Panorama and Newsnight, going on to become political editor of the Observer at the age of 30. He established his writing credentials in nonfiction, with titles such as Selling Hitler, an investigation of the Hitler diaries scandal, then made his fiction debut in 1992 with Fatherland, which sold more than 3m copies. The bestselling Enigma followed soon afterwards. An Officer and a Spy is his ninth novel.
What made you decide to write about the Dreyfus affair in An Officer and a Spy?
In 2012, I went to see Roman Polanski in Paris to talk about what we were going to do next [Harris wrote the novel on which Polanski's film The Ghost Writer was based].And I noticed he had books on the Dreyfus affair. I asked him if he'd ever considered doing a movie on that. He said he'd always been desperate to do something but had never found a way. Then I discoveredthis fellow, Colonel Picquart [supporter of Dreyfus], and the sequence of events he was involved in. And I suddenly realised that if one told it through his eyes one could recreate the whole thing, actually recast it in a very modern light, as an espionage, cover-up, whistleblowing story.
As you were writing a novel with the idea of adapting it for a screenplay afterwards, did you find yourself writing cinematically?
Oddly enough, the reverse. The novel runs to nearly 500 pages, so it's a vast quarry from which you might excavate a two-hour film. And it's really a rather literary novel. I don't mean that in a pretentious way. I mean that it concerns letters and piecing together bits of paper. So it's not a classic action number. But I do have a visual imagination and I do like writing scenes.I realise that almost every one of the novels I've written has an archive in it or papers people get hold of. It's my stock in trade.
There are several literary references. Dumas and Zola, obviously, but also Dostoevsky. Were these writers you were thinking about while writing?
Well, Picquart was an extraordinary figure. He spoke six languages. As a young man, he was a fan of Dostoevsky and had a letter back from him. He met Proust and I'm pretty certain he met Zola before J'accuse. He was a very good friend of Gustav Mahler. He was tremendously handsome with a lot of female lovers. He was part of that Proustian world of the belle époque.
There's a line in the book that says thrillers contain more truth than all Zola's social realism.
I felt that while writing the book. The truth is that my novel is essentially what happened. I don't really embroider the truth. I have to simplify but none of the main things didn't happen. I thought this story can only be told as a thriller. That is what it is. You wouldn't believe it in a novel of social realism.
It's about a public moral scandal. You had a walk-on part in the scandal around Polanski [Harris defended him in the New York Times], when he was threatened with extradition for rape of a child in the 1970s. Did that experience inform your understanding of the Picquart character?
To some degree, yes. I'm not saying this in a tone of aren't I wonderful but several times in my life good friends have found themselves in trouble with a kind of lynch mob after them. Peter Mandelson, who was wrongly forced to resign from government. Andrew Mitchell, who has been stitched up by the police in a way that has echoes of the Dreyfus affair. It would be offensive to equate the Dreyfus and Polanski affairs – Roman did a terrible deed – but nonetheless there were features of the mass media hysteria and a refusal to examine the difficult legal technical issues that led up to both. Whenever a crowd is running one way, it's my instinct to run the other.It's just part of my contrariness, I think.
You wrote the book very quickly. How was that?
I'd done all the research and at the beginning of January, I still hadn't written anything. I think this is the advantage of being on the ninth novel – you learn to keep your nerve. I always knew that Picquart would be the central figure but the crucial moment came when I wrote the first paragraph of him in the first person, and then really the book went very quickly and was a pleasure to write. It was a totally immersing experience to write 150,000 words in six months. I think it's to do with having been a journalist, having to deal with deadlines. You see things under pressure. If what you do is write narrative fiction then to do it at that speed is probably quite good.