by Elise Coop­er

Robert Harris’s lat­est book, An Offi­cer and A Spy, is a fic­tion­al account of the Drey­fus Affair. This is a thrilling his­tor­i­cal nov­el that delves into the world of espi­onage, con­spir­a­cy, and cor­rup­tion sur­round­ing the per­se­cu­tion of an army offi­cer sim­ply because he was Jew­ish. Although most peo­ple know of this his­tor­i­cal trag­ic event, read­ers will be inter­est­ed­to find out how Har­ris has the sto­ry unfold. The focus is not so much on Drey­fus as it is on Colonel Georges Pic­quart. After becom­ing the head of the coun­teres­pi­onage agency, Pic­quart stum­bles upon infor­ma­tion that leads him to change his mind from con­sid­er­ing Drey­fus guilty to believ­ing him inno­cent. He is com­pelled to ques­tion not only the case against Drey­fus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his coun­try and himself.

Elise Coop­er: Why did you decide to write about this subject?

Robert Har­ris: It grew out of a con­ver­sa­tion with Roman Polan­s­ki when I made a film with him, The Ghost Writer, a cou­ple of years ago. We talked about doing anoth­er project togeth­er. I thought about Drey­fus because he had a lot of books about this sub­ject in his office. He told me he had always want­ed to make a movie about this. After I wrote the nov­el we wrote the screen­play togeth­er, which we fin­ished a few weeks ago.

EC: Why write it from Picquart’s point of view?

RH: The Drey­fus Affair is so com­pli­cat­ed and huge, with so many peo­ple and events, that I need­ed to put a focus to the sto­ry. Since Drey­fus did not even know who the real spy was, there was no point in going at this from his point of view. This is the largest book I have ever writ­ten. The only way I could turn this into a sto­ry, a work of the imag­i­na­tion, was to pick one char­ac­ter. I told the sto­ry through his eyes. I told the sto­ry as if Pic­quart had writ­ten his secret mem­oir and had locked it away in a vault.

EC: It seems in the book that Drey­fus was a con­cept, not a per­son. Did you do that intentionally?

RH: Yes. Although Drey­fus was extreme­ly hero­ic and was able to sur­vive such an ordeal he was unable to do very much. I wrote it from Pic­quart’s reflec­tion on and what he thought of Drey­fus. I used Drey­fus’ s let­ters, which Pic­quart saw, to try and affect the sto­ry. Since Drey­fus did not find out any­thing for him­self, but depend­ed on oth­ers, he had in the book a pow­er­ful ghost­ly and haunt­ing pres­ence. Remem­ber Drey­fus was seized, locked up, and shipped to Devil’s Island.

EC: Can you talk a lit­tle about Picquart?

RH: There would not have been a Drey­fus Affair with­out Pic­quart. He was the one who did the detec­tive work and had to face the moral di­lemma: Should he go along with his com­rades for the sake of an institu­tion he loved — the army — or should he say to hell with that and tell the truth? The char­ac­ter who was very dynam­ic and changed every­thing was Pic­quart.

EC: You write in the book about many instances of French soci­ety scream­ing out Jew­ish trai­tor.” Did you do it to show the anti-Semi­tism of the French?

RH: I think French soci­ety anti-Semi­tism start­ed after the Ger­mans beat them in 1870. This nation­al­is­tic soul-search­ing began when the Ger­mans beat Napoleon. They start­ed to look for scape­goats that cor­rupted French soci­ety. This led them to anti-Semi­tism, which became the focus of the Drey­fus Affair. Peo­ple were killed, there were riots, and the nation became con­vulsed by it.

EC: Was Pic­quart guilty of anti-Semi­tism and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the conspiracy?

RH: He did not know Drey­fus very well, but from what he knew, he did not like him very much. He had attend­ed the tri­al and approved of the idea of using secret intel­li­gence against Drey­fus to con­vict him. Ear­ly on I think he was anti-Semit­ic. How­ev­er, I want to qual­i­fy that by say­ing that it was social­ly accept­ed at that time, espe­cial­ly among the Catholics. I think that as Pic­quart found more and more evi­dence prov­ing Drey­fus inno­cent he became con­scious of his own anti-Semi­tism and fought against it in his own head. I real­ly believe that an anti-Semi­te would not have done what he did, includ­ing befriend­ing Drey­fus’ broth­er Matthew.

EC: Were all the events realistic?

RH: The sui­cides, court-mar­tials, tri­als, duels, assas­si­na­tion attempts, and pub­lic out­cries are all true I real­ly did not make up very much. I obvi­ous­ly had to get into Picquart’s head. Even the scene where the army tells Picquart’s mistress’s hus­band about the affair was true. Pauline and he con­tin­ued the rela­tion­ship all his life. Of course, I had to invent a lot of their rela­tion­ship. None of the fig­ures in the book are fic­tion­al. Even the door­keep­ers and the concierge are all real. 

EC: What type of research did you do?

RH: I did exten­sive research. I found only one let­ter between Pauline and Pic­quart, which I put in the book. I read doc­u­ments, all the tri­al tran­scripts, news­pa­per accounts of the time, the secret dossier, and all the pub­lished books I could find on this issue.

EC: There is a pow­er­ful quote in the book, So this is what the Army of France has sunk to. Either they are the great­est fools in Europe or the great­est vil­lains: for the sake of my coun­try I am not sure which is worse. But some instinct for self-preser­va­tion warns me not to fight them now.” Can you explain?

RH: Pic­quart did not want to destroy the army and smash up his career. He did not want to bring down the insti­tu­tion he worked for and loved, the army. This is why he decid­ed not to go imme­di­ate­ly to the politi­cians and news­pa­pers. He accept­ed the dis­ci­pline of being sent away to Africa. Only when he real­ized he was nev­er going to be brought back to France and noth­ing would hap­pen unless he spoke up, he decid­ed to act. There was a peri­od of six months where he just sweats it out, hop­ing that the Drey­fus fam­i­ly will get a break­through or his supe­ri­ors will be con­vinced to do some­thing. When he real­ized that would not hap­pen, he act­ed. What is inter­est­ing to me is how peo­ple closed ranks and jus­ti­fied to them­selves that lying was for the greater good. I think this is the biggest con­spir­a­cy cov­er-up ever.

EC: What do you want read­ers to get out of the book?

RH: This is a sto­ry of anti-Semi­tism and the cov­er-up that occurred because there was no desire to take the army apart piece by piece. It was seen as the only insti­tu­tion in France that real­ly worked and the one thing that held the nation togeth­er. There was no desire to cre­ate a nation­al night­mare. I hope that read­ers will see every­thing that trans­pired, from the cor­rup­tion, the per­se­cu­tion of a minor­i­ty, the use of na­tional secu­ri­ty to sti­fle debate, and the use of intel­li­gence, all of which speaks to our mod­ern age. I also hope the read­ers will see Pic­quart as some­one who believed in hon­or, truth, and a per­son who would be able to look him­self in the mirror.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

Relat­ed Content:

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.