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The Independent Culture
If you watched the account on Omnibus (BBC1) of the writing of a bestseller in the hope of picking up some advice, there was an exciting moment half-way through. To write a bestseller, it seems, what you really need is a full-size snooker table on which you can lay out the index cards which chart your plot, while also leaving room for the 1929 Ordnance Survey maps that will guarantee the authenticity of your creation. At which point, unfortunately, it occurred to you that to afford the snooker table - and a study big enough to contain it - you would first of all have to write a bestseller.

Robert Harris had prudently taken this preparatory step with Fatherland, a Germans-won-the-war thriller, which, a few years ago, did to the international bestseller lists what the Nazis did to Poland. As a result, he was offered a three-novel contract by Random House, and Roy Ackerman's film "Enigma: the Making of a Hardback Hero" was about the attempt to fulfil the first part of that lucrative indenture. The odd paradox the film offered was of a massive and complex piece of machinery designed to replicate an effect already achieved without that machinery.

For the deal has transformed the happy surprise of Fatherland's huge sales into an urgent commercial necessity. "You're a brand-name now Robert," observed one of his publishers in admonitory tones. Another noted that "He must now produce three international bestsellers by the year 2000," a phrase which would put a pucker in most writers' intimate parts and which moderated initial scepticism about the "pressure" of success ("Victorian rectories? Massive advances?" you thought. "Try me. I can handle it"). Harris offered a number of analogies for the experience of writing a novel, including a thought about the uncertainty of your destination when you first set out. "It's more like a voyage in the 16th century," he said, "than a modern package tour." But it struck you that this would be truer of a writer's first novel than of the second, even more so if the first had been a massive hit.

Enigma was already being touted as next season's big book before a word had been written and Harris's writing schedule was occasionally interrupted so that he could stiffen the morale of the sales teams, waiting to hit heavily defended bookshops with a book that was by now way past deadline. So you felt he was closer to the general mood of rising tension when he described the experience as being like "sitting on a capsule on top of a smouldering Saturn rocket", the last description presumably a coded reference to Gail Rebuck, the volatile Chief Executive of Random House. I don't know whether she actually ignited at any point in the long wait for Enigma, but if so you didn't see it - she sat elegantly upright, the odd wisp of liquid oxygen the only clue to her formidable explosive potential.

As for the trick of it, the elusive, longed-for "How to", Harris couldn't tell you - though you were offered some clues in the sequences in which he was shown researching the new book. The novel is set in Bletchley Park, the code-breaking centre which managed to crack the German Enigma code, and at one point Harris was filmed sniffing around the abandoned huts for atmosphere. It didn't look very promising material for a romance, this dingy municipal vision of rotting wood and eczematous paint, but Harris could see the hidden message. "Look around you," he said, "you can imagine what it must have been like at two in the morning - two or three thousand people struggling in and out of these huts, the roar of the motorcycle despatch riders, the clacking of the decoding machines, the rumbling of those enormous computers." But the truth is most people couldn't imagine it without someone to help them - which is what finally makes the difference, not snooker tables or marketing blitzkriegs.

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