Robert Harris's "The Fear Index" makes a thriller out of a man sitting at a computer
Robert Harris, the author of 'The Ghost,' discusses his new financial page-turner "The Fear Index" and his predilection for writing about ancient Rome.
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On finding thrillers in unusual places: There’s nothing more interesting than the details of someone’s life. All my novels are characterized by one thing. I like to take a central character and show him at work. The code-breaker, a guy who runs aqueducts, the politician in ancient Rome or in this case, people who work in a hedge fund. I just like the detail of the daily life. What’s the office like, where do you sit, what’s the first thing that happens in the day, how does the day go on, who comes to see you. Because I have an enormous interest in the detail of other people’s lives. That gives my books a sense of rootedness in reality and then you can introduce something unexpected happens and away you go. I like to take people you wouldn’t really think people would write novels about: an aqueduct engineer, a code-breaker, a hedge-fund manager. It’s in those sorts of lives that I find more fascination than in a CIA operative or a Marine or something like that.Skip to next paragraph
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On the inspiration of Frankenstein in "The Fear Index": Especially once I went to Geneva, where Frankenstein was created. I felt that Geneva gave me the opportunity to write a modern Gothic novel and use the tricks of the old Gothic writers: Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker. All the sense of menace. It’s a literary genre that’s about the hinterland between the human and the other. The vampire, the werewolf, the monster, madness. It suited my purposes entirely because I wanted to write about artificial intelligence and money and the sense of something being created out there. It unlocked the book for me after 10 years.
On talking shop with Nick Hornby: Well, we meet a lot. We always go on holiday in the summer for a few days together and in between and inevitably we talk a bit about what we’re doing. Not a huge amount in the technical sense. I don’t show him a book I’m writing until it’s finished, nor would he show one to me. He’s more nowadays concentrating on screenplays than novels, but he published his first book, "Fever Pitch," the year that I published my first novel "Fatherland." Our careers have run in parallel that way.
We always exchange books, we read one another’s books with pleasure and enjoyment. Not least because they’re not necessarily the sort of books I’d ever sort of pick up. I’m not interested particularly in football (soccer) or music or some of the things he writes about, but I really enjoy his books. I don’t think he would be reading necessarily about hedge funds or ancient Rome. We broaden one another’s mind.
On shifting from journalism and non-fiction to novels with "Fatherland" in 1992: Well, my last big non-fiction book was a story on the Hitler diaries called "Selling Hitler." And in the course of researching that book I read Hitler’s table talk and came across all the grandiose plans he had for what the world would look like if the Germans won the war. And I thought this would make a good subject for a non-fiction book. As I tried to write it, I found increasingly I was moving into so much speculation as to what the world would have been like that in the end I had to invent characters and a story.