Harris spent his childhood in a small rented house on a Nottingham council estate. His ambition to become a writer arose at an early age, from visits to the local printing plant where his father worked. Harris went to Belvoir High School in Bottesford, and then King Edward VII School, Melton Mowbray, where a hall is now named after him. There he wrote plays and edited the school magazine. Harris read English literature at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity.
On coming down from Cambridge, Harris joined the BBC and worked on news and current affairs programes such as Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987, at the age of thirty, he became political editor of The Observer. He later wrote regular columns for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph.
Harris's first book appeared in 1982. A Higher Form Of Killing, a study of chemical and biological warfare, was written with fellow BBC journalist and close friend Jeremy Paxman. Other non-fiction works followed: Gotcha, the Media, the Government and the Falklands Crisis (1983), The Making of Neil Kinnock (1984), Selling Hitler (1986), an investigation of the Hitler Diaries scandal, and Good and Faithful Servant (1990), a study of Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary.
First historical fiction (1992—99)
Harris's million-selling first novel Fatherland in 1992, an alternate history set in a world where Germany has won World War II, enabled him to become a novelist full-time. The novel was filmed by HBO in 1994. His second novel Enigma in 1995, was about the breaking of the Nazi Enigma code. It, too, was filmed with Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet starring and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. Archangel (1998) was another international best seller. It was made into a BBC mini-series in 2005, starring future James Bond actor Daniel Craig.
Roman fiction (2003 onwards)
In 2003 Harris turned his attention to ancient Rome with his acclaimed Pompeii, yet another international best-seller. He followed this in 2006 with Imperium, the first novel in a trilogy centred on the life of the great Roman orator Cicero. The second novel, Lustrum, was published in October, 2009. It was released in February 2010 in the US under the alternate title of Conspirata. The third and final novel is scheduled to be released in 2011.
Contemporary political fiction
Harris was an early and enthusiastic backer of British Prime Minister Tony Blair (a personal acquaintance) and a donor to New Labour, but the war in Iraq blunted his enthusiasm. "We had our ups and downs, but we didn't really fall out until the invasion of Iraq, which made no sense to me," Harris has said.
In 2007, after Blair resigned, Harris dropped his other work to write The Ghost. The title refers both to a professional ghostwriter, whose lengthy memorandum forms the novel, and to his immediate predecessor who, as the action opens, has just drowned in gruesome and mysterious circumstances.
The dead man has been ghosting the autobiography of a recently unseated British prime minister called Adam Lang, a thinly veiled version of Blair. The fictional counterpart of Cherie Blair is depicted as a sinister manipulator of her husband. Harris told The Guardian before publication: "The day this appears a writ might come through the door. But I would doubt it, knowing him."
Harris said in a US National Public Radio interview that politicians like Lang and Blair, particularly when they have been in office for a long time, become divorced from everyday reality, read little and end up with a pretty limited overall outlook. When it comes to writing their memoirs, they therefore tend to have all the more need of a ghostwriter.
Harris hinted at a third, far less obvious, allusion hidden in the novel's title, and, more significantly, at a possible motive for having written the book in the first place. Blair, he said, had himself been ghostwriter, in effect, to President Bush when giving public reasons for invading Iraq: he had argued the case better than had the President himself.
The New York Observer, headlining its otherwise hostile review The Blair Snitch Project, commented that the book’s "shock-horror revelation" was "so shocking it simply can’t be true, though if it were it would certainly explain pretty much everything about the recent history of Great Britain."
Work with Roman Polanski
Harris wrote a screenplay of his novel Pompeii for director Roman Polanski. The film, to be produced by Summit Entertainment, was announced at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 as potentially the most expensive European film ever made, set to be shot in Spain. Media reports suggested Polanski wanted Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson to play the two leads. The film was cancelled as a result of the looming actor's strike that fall.
Polanski and Harris then turned to Harris's current bestseller, The Ghost. They co-wrote a script and Polanski announced filming for early 2008, with Nicolas Cage, Pierce Brosnan, Tilda Swinton, and Kim Cattrall starring. The film was then postponed by a year, with Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams replacing Cage and Swinton.
The film, retitled The Ghost Writer, was shot in early 2009 in Berlin and on the island of Sylt in the North Sea, which stood in for London and Martha's Vineyard due to Polanski's inability to legally travel to those places. In spite of his incarceration, he oversaw post-production from his house arrest and the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2010, with Polanski winning the Silver Bear for Best Director award.
Harris has appeared on the BBC satirical panel game Have I Got News for You in episode three of the first series in 1990, and in episode four of the second series a year later. In the first he appeared as a last-minute replacement for the politician Roy Hattersley. He made a third appearance on the programme on 12 October 2007, seventeen years, to the day, after his first appearance. Since the gap between his second and third appearance was nearly 16 years, Harris enjoys the distinction of the longest gap between two successive appearances in the show's history.