Sitting in his central London home, Ken Follett tells t2 why he loves to write long books, read James Bond novels and drink champagne.
Let’s start by talking about your new book, Winter of the World [Pan Macmillan India, Rs 399]…
Winter of the World is about the Second World War and events leading up to the war and the events after it. The characters in Winter of the World are the children of the main characters in Book I of my Century trilogy, Fall of Giants.
Why did you decide to write a trilogy? Was it because World Without an End, the sequel to your hugely successful Pillars of the Earth, was so well-received?
Yes, yes it did have to do with that. I wanted to write another looong book, with a large cast of characters and a story that took place over several decades. But I didn’t want to write another medieval story... at least not immediately. So, I tried to think what else could I write about in the same way as I had written about the Black Death in World Without an End. And I thought, why not the 20th century?! It’s the century that I was born in, it is the most dramatic century in the history of the human race... there were two terrible wars in which millions of people were killed. And it’s also the story of where we all came from. But I realised that it couldn’t be done in one book, it had to be three.
You started off with thrillers and spy novels and moved on to historical fiction. What drew you to this genre?
First of all, I wanted to write the story of the building of a cathedral in the middle ages. That was The Pillars of the Earth. I wrote that book because I was very interested in cathedral building. And somewhat to everybody’s surprise that novel became the most popular novel I had ever written! So, after that I began to think well, may be I don’t need to write just thrillers or spy stories, may be I could write other kinds of stories as well.
Have you ever thought of writing a contemporary novel?
I haven’t got any plans to write a contemporary novel but I’ve got an open mind and I’m only 63, I have many more years of writing left, so who knows what’ll happen (laughs).
Is there any present-day personality you would like to fictionalise?
Well, let’s see… let’s see… Wouldn’t it be interesting to write about a man like President [Barack] Obama? Now there’s an interesting character… and what a story he has to tell!
We’ve read how you became a writer because your car broke down and you needed money to fix it. Tell us a bit about your first few years as a writer…
Well, I wrote a lot of novels, I wrote 10 unsuccessful novels. They weren’t bestsellers but I was encouraged by the publisher to try again. I would write a novel, a publisher would publish it, it wouldn’t sell that many copies and I’d be very disappointed. But I would think, well, it wasn’t that bad, may be if I tried again, I could write a better one. It was a long period, I was writing for four years before I managed to write anything really good, which was Eye of the Needle. My first success. So, I was learning in all that time and I guess I’m thankful that people encouraged me, people didn’t say you’re a failure, forget it.
You are known for your strong women protagonists…. Lucy in Eye of the Needle, Jane in Lie Down with Lions, Aliena in The Pillars of the Earth and now Ethel and Maud in the Century trilogy. Were these conscious decisions?
I think it’s because of the time when I was born and the time I’ve lived through…. I was a teenager when the feminist movement began its revival in the late ’60s. And I remember suddenly, women saying ‘why should we be the ones who always make the tea? Or type out men’s letters?’ And I remember, as a young man thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s a good question!’
So, are you a feminist?
Well, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for a man to say that (chuckles)… You can ask my wife, let’s see what she says (laughs out loud)… It’s been a draaaama that happened in my life that women have stood up and said we need to be treated fairly. And men of my generation, who were young when this started, most of us have said, oh yes, that’s true!
Your books have been adapted for film and television series. How do you feel about someone else working on your stories? How involved are you with the adaptation process?
I don’t work on the screenplay, no. And the reason for that is that screenwriting is a different skill. A screenwriter has to tell the story in pictures and I tell the story in words. But, of course, it’s very exciting when somebody makes a film or a television series out of one of my books. It’s a big thrill to see actors on the screen play the characters that I invented.
You love writing long books. Do you love reading them too?
Yes I do! Like all readers, if I like a book, I want it to go on for a long time. If I’m bored, I want it to finish quickly. So the aim is to write books which are so interesting that people would want for them to go on.
And someone’s written on your Facebook page that you are the only author who can make a 1,000 pages seem less!
You are quite right... I was very pleased with that compliment. I thought it was wonderful.
If someone were to start reading Ken Follett, which title would you suggest?
Umm... I would probably say The Pillars of the Earth. It’s my most popular book and it’s a book that people remember and love.
You were a journalist and publisher before you took to writing. How much has publishing changed in these years?
Over the years, publishing has become more professional, books are more beautiful now than they used to be. But of course, in the last few years, the huge changes in our business have been technical. Now we have e-books, which are a big change and they are a big part of the market. Plus we have audio books. A lot of people listen to books while they are driving. Also, we can buy books online in the UK — and I believe in India as well — and have them delivered to your door the next day. And that is a big change. So our business is changing really very quickly now. Nobody quite knows where it’s going to end up. But it’s all very exciting.
How involved are you in politics today?
Not so much now. I’m a Labour Party supporter and we have a Conservative government at the moment. So my friends are all in the Opposition. I still have a lot of friends in politics but my wife Barbara is not a Member of Parliament anymore. So we’re not as closely involved as we used to be.
You used to be called a “champagne socialist”. How did you react to that?
I’ve always been very happy being called a champagne socialist. Because it’s true. I’m a socialist and I love champagne (laughs heartily).
It’s rumoured that you based one of your novels near a vineyard in France just so that you could keep having champagne!
Ha ha ha ha! Yes, I know what you are talking about. You are talking about a book called Jackdaws. It is true... I was thinking which French town should I set this story in, and I thought I’ll set it in Rheims, where champagne comes from, so that when I’m researching the book I can go and have the champagne! So, that is true (laughs).
And how did it feel to see your statue in Vitoria in Spain?
Well, it feels very weird! You know, in Britain, statues are usually of dead people. In Spain they like to put up statues of people who are still alive. It’s a great honour and I’m very, very pleased because I have many Spanish readers.
Do you read contemporary popular fiction, like say The Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games?
Yes, I’ve read The Hunger Games and seen the movie. And I quite enjoyed it. But it is mainly aimed at younger readers and I’m not planning to read the second book in the series. Game of Thrones is the same kind of thing, but for older people. I’ve read two of the novels and watched the first season of the television show. And I do like that very much. What a wonderful thing you can do with your imagination! George R.R. Martin has created a terrific imaginary world, I think.
Your advice for aspiring writers?
When I started, I had to learn to be a perfectionist. I started with the idea that there were some aspects of the novel that I didn’t have to worry too much about. I was very interested in writing action and I wasn’t that interested in describing places or characters. And I had to learn that I had to do everything to the very best of my ability. There was no aspect about which I could say it doesn’t matter much. It all matters.
Favourite authors: I’m a big fan of Stephen King. And the best thriller writer at the moment is, I think, Lee Child. Amongst literary authors, I’ve always enjoyed the American writer Philip Roth.
The books on your bedside: Let’s see… I’m reading a book about King James’s Bible. Then I’ve got some short stories by a Chinese writer called Lu Xun and ghost stories by M.R. James.
Favourite Indian authors: I love [R.K.] Narayan. The Financial Expert, The English Teacher… all his novels I enjoyed very much. And, of course, there are several very good British authors of Indian origin, Salman Rushdie being the most famous… then Hanif Kureishi is a favourite of mine [Kureishi is actually of Pakistani descent].
Inspirations: I was always a big fan of Ian Flemming, who wrote the James Bond stories. I read those as a teenager and they were just the most exciting thing that happened to me. And when I started to write, I wanted to give my readers the same kind of excitement that I had felt while reading James Bond.
What about the 007 films? No, I don’t like them (laughs). The early films were good but the James Bond films now really have nothing to do with the books. And I really like the books.
A book that you read recently and loved: I read a Chinese novel called The Story of the Stone (Cao Xueqin and Gao E). It’s a family saga set in Peking in the 18th century.
A book you wish you had written: The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris)
An overrated book/film: I just read Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s one of the most famous American novels ever, it won the Pulitzer Prize (1988). But I have to say I didn’t enjoy it.
Which is your favourite Ken Follett novel? Tell [email protected]