The Current

Robert Harris goes behind the scenes of Papal politics in Conclave

If you think the U.S. presidential election has been a nail biter, wait till you hear about what happens behind the scenes in Rome when electing a new pope. Writer Robert Harris explains the peculiar politics of picking a pope in his novel, Conclave.
Robert Harris' new novel, Conclave looks at the skulduggery in picking a new Pope. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

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"For me, an election is a living narrative," says Robert Harris.

The historian and journalists' new novel, Conclave looks at the one of the most secret ballots in the world, the election of a Pope in the seclusion of the Sistine Chapel.
White smoke rises from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel meaning that cardinals elected a new pope. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

"I came to have a lot of respect for the Catholic Church," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

After thorough research for this book, he says "it's a clever way to pick a leader."

"They know each other's strengths and weaknesses. I can see why it's served the Church well."

Harris has always grounded his fiction in fact but says "all my writing has to have some link to reality."

"I either take a real event, or real people, or a real life ritual, such as this and I try to get it as accurate as I can."

When asked whether he sees parallels between his historical novels of the past and the U.S. election, Harris says "reality is unimprovable."  

"I mean who could come up with a character like Trump, or come up with a woman like Hillary Clinton who just seems to be surrounded by these errant males." 

Novelist Robert Harris says from an historical standpoint the U.S. election and world politics reflects a 1930s vibe. (Getty Images)

Harris tells Tremonti that world politics at the moment reflects a 1930's vibe — "in Europe with Brexit, and the rise of the far right, and in America with this extraordinary election." 

"For the first time in my adult life, I feel the ground shifting under me."

Harris even sees potential similarities with the U.S. election and the end of the Roman Republic.  

"We've grown up in an era where someone is pronounced a winner, the loser graciously concedes, and society goes on," he says.

"That didn't happen in the Roman Republic towards the end, and one starts to wonder whether that will happen in the American Republic."

Listen the the full conversation.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.