The Baillie Gifford Marquee at Phyllis Court was packed to the rafters on Sunday 2nd October to hear Daniel Hahn interview Robert Harris about his latest book, Act of Oblivion. (Passed in 1660, the Act of Oblivion was a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English Civil War and the subsequent Commonwealth period with the exception of certain people, such as those involved in the regicide of Charles I.)
Daniel asked about the moment that inspires one of Robert’s books. Robert said it could be anything – a character, a phrase or, as in the case of Act of Oblivion, a tweet about the ‘greatest manhunt of the 17th century’. As he read more about it he thought, ‘This is fantastic’, because it was such an interesting situation with so many possibilities and of course it involves that classic element, a chase. Although more than fifty men involved in the execution of Charles I fled overseas, he decided to focus on just two who fled to Amerrca: Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe, each very different characters. Given there was a manhunt there must have been a manhunter, although Robert was obliged to invent one – Richard Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council.
Daniel asked about the writing process. Robert explained, for him, the characters are the most important. The reader needs to care about them, empathise with them. They need not be virtuous, but they need to be human. Everything about them needs to be plausible so Robert asks himself what would someone do in a particular situation. For instance, in the case of the two characters in Act of Oblivion, how would they travel, what would this have been like, where did they stay? All this detail provides an immersive experience for the reader.
Daniel asked if this was more difficult with characters from a different age. Robert acknowledged it is a tough proposition but thinking of his two characters as the Puritan equivalents of Butch Cassidy and the Sunshine Kid helped! Puritan colonels may not seem the most engaging of characters but there were aspects of the two men he thought helped humanise them such as the fact Goffe had to leave his wife and five children behind. And he felt Whalley, the more moderate of the two, might have started to have doubts about his actions.
Daniel observed that the manhunter, Richard Naylor, is a zealot but he is given a personal reason for his involvement which perhaps makes it easier for the reader to understand him. Robert said while reading the diary of John Evelyn, the 17th century writer and gardener, he came across an account of a secret (and at the time, illegal) Mass held in a private chapel at Christmas in 1657. It was Goffe and Whalley who interrogated the participants so Robert put Richard in the scene providing the personal motivation referred to and posing the question, what happens when you become obsessed with revenge.
At this point Robert read an excerpt from the closing part of the first chapter which describes Goffe and Whalley’s arrival in America.
Daniel noted there are two events that take place on the same date and ventured this is more than coincidence. Robert said he feels the day of the week on which something takes place is important because each day has a different routine. It’s something he researches as he believes it’s this sort of detail that provides a connection with the past. For the same reason, he also likes to include the weather. He said he likes to write ‘novels of sensation’ – what something feels like, smells like, whether a journey is uphill or downhill. He believes his job as a writer is to take the reader there and these sort of details are not superficial. However, when it comes to history, there are always gaps in our knowledge but those gaps are great things. After all, he observed, if we knew everything there wouldn’t be any point in writing historical fiction!
Daniel asked how the relationship between Goffe and Whalley changes as the book progresses. Although it involved an agonising end (described in a paragraph that Robert advised skipping if you’re squeamish), most of the regicides faced death bravely convinced that it was ‘a fast ticket to heaven’ and actually looked down on those who fled. Whalley is a ‘pragmatic survivor’ but Goffe comes to regret he will not suffer a martyr’s death. Many believed 1666 was to be the year of the ‘Second Coming’ and it was important to think what this would mean to them.
Daniel asked about the inclusion of events in London happening at the same time, including those involving Goffe’s wife, Frances. Robert said Frances was a daunting character in a way because she is left behind, forced to live in the houses of Puritan sympathisers. He wondered what this would have been like for her, resolving ‘I must put her in the book’, and in fact she becomes an important figure and helps drive the plot.
Having mentioned that at times when writing Act of Oblivion he hated it, Daniel asked if he was currently hating a new one. Robert said he was at the best stage of a new book when you have ‘delightful possibilities’ starting to evolve in your head. He admits he makes it hard for himself because he aims to complete a book in six months (which means 800 pages a day), confessing he needs the adrenaline of a deadline.
Audience questions included Robert’s approach to research, such whether he visited places that appear in the book. Robert explained sometimes there was little point in this as they would have changed so much over the centuries. He also observed that it was important to know when to stop your research. ‘Just because it’s true doesn’t make it interesting’, he remarked. He was also asked about his involvement in the film adaptations of his novels. Although he wrote the screenplays for some of them he said in general he was a fan of Kingsley Amis’s advice to ‘take the money and run’. Finally, Robert was asked why the Act of Oblivion and its consquences is so little known about. (Confession: I had never heard of it before learning about this book.) He thought the divisive nature of the English Civil War is perhaps a national trauma we still shy away from addressing and there has been much more focus in fiction on the Tudor period.
I know I’m not alone in having thoroughly enjoyed hearing Robert talk about his book. One advantage of attending the event in person was leaving clutching your very own copy of the book. The line to get your book signed was long but Robert was still thanking people for coming until the very end of the queue.
This review is based on notes I took during the event and my own recollections. Any errors in recording views expressed during the discussion are my own.
About the Book
‘From what is it they flee?’
He took a while to reply. By the time he spoke the men had gone inside. He said quietly, ‘They killed the King.’
1660. Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe, cross the Atlantic. They are on the run and wanted for the murder of Charles I. Under the provisions of the Act of Oblivion, they have been found guilty in absentia of high treason.
In London, Richard Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council, is tasked with tracking down the fugitives. He’ll stop at nothing until the two men are brought to justice. A reward hangs over their heads – for their capture, dead or alive.
Act of Oblivion is an epic journey across continents, and a chase like no other.
About the Author
Robert Harris is the author of fourteen bestselling novels: the Cicero Trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator – Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, The Ghost, The Fear Index, An Officer and a Spy which won four prizes including the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, Conclave, Munich, The Second Sleep and V2. His work has been translated into forty languages and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in West Berkshire with his wife, Gill Hornby.