Publisher’s Questions --


Robert Harris was born in Nottingham in 1957 and grew up in the city and Leicestershire. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Already a highly regarded non-fiction writer, in 1993 Robert Harris's debut novel Fatherland made a huge impact - a massive bestseller accompanied with critical acclaim. All his novels have reached No.1 in the Sunday Times Bestseller list.
In addition he has worked extensively as a journalist - as a reporter on the BBC's Newsnight and Panorama programmes, as political editor of the Observer and as a columnist on The Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph. In 2003 he was named Columnist of the Year in the annual British Press Awards. He lives in Berkshire with his wife, Gill Hornby, and four children.
Graham Greene, John le Carré and George Orwell are amongst his favourite authors and influences.

The Bookseller by Benedicte Page, 23 May 2003
Robert Harris says it was a news report in the Telegraph three years ago which prompted the idea for Pompeii. Challenging the usual version which supposes that everyone in Pompeiidied instantly when Vesuvius exploded, new findings proved that the story was much more complex and extended. The new scenario offered material for Harris, who until this point had been hoping to write a novel set in modern day America.
"Because it didn't all end instantly, there were choices to be made - people could stay in the city, or leave and then come back because they thought the worst was over."
Pompeii's water system was part of an amazing engineering project. It also offered Harris a way into his story since he knew that the water had failed a few days before the volcano went up - the land around Vesuvius was swelling, rupturing the pipe. 
"So I saw the way I might be able to tell the story - that this man is sent from Rome to repair it."
Harris is also alert to a broader political theme - Roman water supplies were a symbol of empire. He found that the workings of ancient Rome kept bringing him back to the modern day parallel superpower - America.
"The Romans learned how to move water long distances. It meant they could build cities anywhere. In the first century AD the citizens of Rome had more water per head than the citizens of New York do today. I had the idea of a dominant world power in the back of my mind, and of how long it might last, and of hubris, because in the end all empires and civilisations pass away. And it suddenly struck me that Rome might be the best way to write about America - because they thought they were the last word, the Romans, and that nothing would ever come along that would be better."
There were other resonances: the incredible luxury that existed on the Bay of Naples in the Roman era, "very like Palm Beach or Malibu" or the dynamic society in which, as in America, there was the idea that people could rise up by their own efforts. The character of Ampliatus - the freed slave who has made his money from shady property deals - displays his wealth with all the ostentation of the nouveaux riche.
"We tend to forget this, but a lot of the very richest people in the Roman Empire were freed slaves. Pompeii was a sort of boom town, there was a lot of new money and reconstruction."
Ampliatus gave me the opportunity to write about the drive and dynamic that kept Roman society alive. The Romans kept a regular injection of new blood but not to the extent that the society could destabilise. He also has to live through his son because he can't vote, much in the way that an immigrant in the US can't vote but his child can."

  1. 'It struck me that Rome might be a way to write about America' Robert Harris
    Robert Harris had initially set out to write about a utopia gone wrong, set in the future and created by a giant American corporation, he even originally researched the Walt Disney 'empire'. Do you think the Roman Empire is an interesting way to write about a modern day superpower? What are the similarities with current global events? 
  2. There is a current vogue in film (Gladiator, Troy, Alexander the Great) as well as books for classical themes - why do you think this is? What are the parallels with our society? 
  3. Harris has referred to 'toga resistance' because so much about the Romans - their habits, assumptions, they way they speak, even their names - can be alienating to a contemporary audience. Do you feel he succeeds in being readable and authentic? 
  4. The ability to disguise the outcome is held to be a vital part of the thriller writer's art. Pompeii is a 'known-ending story' - how successful do you think the author has been in building tension despite this? Where does the suspense lie? Does he use the reader's foreknowledge to good effect? 
  5. 'I was interested in power and those who seek power' Robert Harris
    Discuss the theme of power, corruption and greed within the novel - particularly in light of the apocalyptic ending. Also, the forces of nature versus civilisation and town versus countryside. 
  6. The epigraphs to the chapters are extracts from volcanology texts - what purpose do you think these serve? Do they work, along with the four-day structure, as a narrative device? If so, how?
  7. Harris has an accessible but informed style of writing. He spent three years researching Pompeii. Has he convincingly blurred fact with the pace of fiction for you? Are plot twists chosen over nuances of character and does this matter to you? 
  8. Attilius is an aquarius, the structure of the novel moves from water to fire - discuss the theme of water within the novel. 
  9. The story of Attilius and his unfulfilled love for Corelia adds a very human dimension to the novel. Do you feel this is an effective subplot?