Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Imperium

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Imperium

A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Robert Harris

Imperium by Robert Harris
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 496 pages

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Beyond the Book

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49-year-old Robert Harris, the son of a printer, was brought up in Nottingham, England. He studied history at Cambridge where he was president of the Cambridge Union and editor of the student newspaper, Varsity. He has been a television correspondent with the BBC and a newspaper columnist for the London Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph. His novels have sold more than ten million copies and have been translated into thirty languages. He lives in Berkshire, England, with his wife and four children.

He got started as a writer of books when he won a contract to write a biography of John le Carré; but le Carré said the book could not be published until his death, so Harris started roughing out a novel exploring what would have happened if the Nazis had won the war - which became Fatherland.

He sent a few chapters to his American agent, and didn't hear from him for two weeks, then a call came through to tell him that there was to be an auction with 12 publishers involved. Harris says, "The American rights went through the roof, hardback about half a million, I think, and paperback more than a million. So that solved the mortgage problem and we moved to the country in 1993 and lived happily ever after."

His preferred method for laying out the plot of his books is to lay hundreds of index cards across a snooker table. He says, "From the age of thirteen or fourteen I wanted to write about [politics], because to say simply that politicians are crooks or that politics is boring is to miss one of the fundamental dramas of life. Politics has such fantastic elements to it – ambition, power, obsession, soaring idealism and cynical betrayal." His interest in politics started young - he claims that his first school essay, written when he was six was entitled, "Why me and my dad don't like Sir Alec Douglas-Home" (Douglas-Home was Conservative Prime Minister from 1963-64).

When asked why he didn't go into politics himself he replies, "Well, because I think by temperament I'm an observer and I don't really like giving orders or bossing people about. To go and do the daily round of politics would be deadly for me. I'm not very good with bores and I'm hopeless with faces and names - I once introduced Gill (his wife) as Elizabeth! And I am a writer naturally and always wanted to be. At eight, nine, ten, I was inventing fake newspapers and I've always just wanted to earn my living by writing. The best thing is to go into my study in the morning and stay there and put words together."

He reads very little fiction, and when he does, tends to revisit old favorites such as Greene, Conrad, Orwell and Waugh. He particularly hates "literary" novels and thinks that people who claim to like them are victims of snobbery - "It must be good if it's difficult. Oldest con trick in the world!"

"To me, an election is as exciting as a football match, and the book is really an attempt to convey something of the drama and excitement of politics." - Robert Harris

Novels
Fatherland (1992)
Enigma (1995)
Archangel (1998)
Pompeii (2003)
Imperium (2006)

Non-Fiction
A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Gas and Germ Warfare (1982, with Jeremy Paxman)
Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries (1996).

This article was originally published in October 2006, and has been updated for the July 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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