Novelist Robert Harris describes how technology, Europe and the current political maelstrom are shaping our lives
I’ve done a lot of books set in Ancient Roman times, including Pompeii, which meant that I had to research archaeology. I wondered what people maybe 2,000 years on from us, if they looked back on our civilisation, would make if it, and what might have happened to it. All civilisations think they’ll last for ever, but none does.
It began with that seed quite a few years ago and it’s gone on from there. I just thought I would turn it into a novel. Ideas sit in your head for a long time and then something begins to stir and make it move. I thought, what is the great threat to our civilisation?
I think we have become over-dependent on technology and we’re quite vulnerable to an interruption. The speed with which panic can sweep across society: that is something that I wanted to explore as well. I wanted to write a different kind of book: Cormac McCarthy… those apocalypse books where you actually see it happening – I wanted to have what had happened far in the past so people are trying to piece it together from archaeological ruins.
In September I have a very busy schedule – something almost every day. On one particular day I’m doing three literary festivals. I also have to go to Holland. In October I go to Germany – the major cities – to do a week-long tour and then I’m going to Milan in November.
There’s a lot to do when a book comes out. What I like to do is get it all concentrated in a limited time so that I can get back to work. The peculiarity with writing is that the more you’ve done, the more you’re taken away from your desk and the harder it is for you to do what’s important.
I stop in about November and think about the next book; I try to start writing in January and finish it in the following June or July. I like to write a book a year if I can. It’s not always possible. But I prefer being busy to not, and it’s my pleasure to write as well as a job.
I haven’t joined the party, but I would certainly vote Liberal Democrat. I think the Labour party has been taken over by people who in an earlier time wouldn’t have been allowed in the Labour party. There are people there who were members of the Communist Party until just immediately before they got their hands on the levers of power of the Labour party. Whether they will eventually lose control of it, I don’t know.
They certainly don’t represent anything much that I believe in. I will cheerfully vote Liberal Democrat. I also believe it’s a mistake to leave the European Union. Insofar as the next general election will be a kind of referendum on Brexit, that’s another reason for voting for a party which is unequivocally for remaining, rather than Labour, which is trying to straddle both sides.
Spoils of war
The big problem is that the British are the only nation that came out of the Second World War in Europe feeling better about themselves. It’s something that we look back on with pride and nostalgia: that’s not the case in Germany, or in France, or Italy or any of the other countries that were occupied. They were all traumatised. Most of them took part in the Holocaust.
Their men became slave labourers. For them, the overriding desire is to avoid another war. For us – well, just look at the rhetoric of Brexit. People are rather nostalgic for the war. Our conception of what Europe should be has been totally different from those on the continent, and that’s really a tragedy. There will be trouble.
What form it will take, I don’t know. There’s obviously a big disconnect between the mass of people and the super-rich and the markets facilitate that, and this explains the rise of populism and the collapse of the centre-left parties. It’s hard to justify the enormous disparities of wealth, and that does create a revolutionary situation. God knows, if I could predict what would happen on the financial markets I’d be rich, but I’ve no idea. It’s not hard to see a period of turbulence coming now.
All my life I’ve been fascinated by politics, and at one time British politics became very boring and we were all complaining about it. But now politics is appallingly interesting, and although I slightly dread it I will be fascinated to see how it plays out this autumn. For connoisseurs of politics, it’s like the greatest World Cup that has ever been held. It’s certainly going to be interesting if nothing else.
As told to Alec Marsh
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson, priced £20. Robert Harris is appearing at Capital Crime, London’s newest crime festival, on 27 September at the Grand Connaught Rooms