LONDON - Struggling to write a story set in
Celebration, the Disney-planned city in Florida, Robert
Harris read about research that shed new light on the
volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii.
"I wanted to write about a utopia within a superpower
… trouble in paradise," says Harris. "I suddenly
thought, 'Maybe I should transport my superpower back
2000 years and make it Pompeii rather than Florida or
"Pompeii" (Random House, $24.95), published this
week, is a departure for the British
journalist-turned-novelist whose previous books -
including "Fatherland," imagining a world in which
Germany won World War II, and "Enigma," about wartime
code-breaking - were set in the 20th century.
But "Pompeii," Harris believes, has a peculiarly
modern resonance. "Anyone who has ever been to Pompeii
cannot be but haunted by it in the sense that this busy
civilization was making money and having a very good
time, and then, suddenly, bang. It's a very eloquent
statement about the fragility of human life."
The novel is the story of a water engineer, Marcus
Attilius, who is sent to beautiful and wealthy Pompeii
in A.D. 79 to find out why the aqueduct isn't delivering
water. The problem, it turns out, proves to be a warning
sign of a far greater disaster that looms from Vesuvius,
the volcano towering over the Bay of Naples that had not
erupted in 1,500 years.
"We now know it's a lethal volcano, perhaps the most
dangerous in the world. It will blow again, it's not a
question of if but when," says Harris, who visited
Pompeii and saw the remnant of the Aqua Augusta
aqueduct. He decided to begin his story two days before
"I would have a ticking clock because everyone of
course would know the end of the book, that Vesuvius
blows up. I did a classic countdown to disaster, so that
the reader knows what's going to happen but the
Close to the subject
Two years of research preceded the writing of the
thriller, much of it enjoyable. "There were a lot of
trips to Italy, a lot of pasta consumed, a lot of
Chianti drunk in the interests of accuracy," says
Harris. He also decided to include a real historical
figure - the scholar-admiral Pliny the Elder, whose
famous descriptions survived the eruption of Vesuvius,
though Pliny himself was killed.
"It was a bit of a shock to my publishers when you
tell them you're writing a thriller about Pliny the
Elder - not even Pliny the Younger," he quips.
To his surprise, the "lava saga" has been his biggest
hit yet in Britain, topping the best-seller list for a
Harris, 46, began writing fiction in the late 1980s.
He works at home - an old vicarage in Berkshire, outside
of London, where he lives with his wife, Gill Hornby
(sister of novelist Nick Hornby), and their four
children. Hornby is his only friend who is a writer; he
finds the literary world "poisonous."
Instead, Harris says, he socializes with journalists
and politicians, including Prime Minister Tony Blair,
who invited him to lunch a decade ago when he was a
rising politician and later allowed him unparalleled
access during his first election campaign.
"We've kept up contact, with periods of coolness.
We're in a warmer patch at the moment," says Harris.
While Harris has voiced criticism of Blair's Iraq
policy, he stresses that despite parallels in his book
between ancient Rome and modern America, he is not
"It's a book really about any sophisticated,
civilized society and the hidden dangers that lurk
around the corner," he says. "It's whenever your fortune
seems incredibly good that Nemesis comes around the
corner to punish you."
on November 16, 2003