Interview with Ken Follett

Posted by Goodreads on October 3, 2010
Welsh writer Ken Follett keeps his storytelling rooted in real-life events. Since 1974, he's covered World War II espionage in the historical spy novel Eye of the Needle, explored CIA ops in 1980s Afghanistan in the thriller Lie Down with Lions, and charted the workings of a medieval cathedral from its construction through the Black Plague in The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel, World Without End.

Follett's latest foray returns to the recent past with the Century Trilogy, an ambitious project that will chronicle the major events of the last 100 years. The first book, Fall of Giants, opens in 1911 and follows five families—Welsh, English, American, Russian, and German—and a gargantuan cast of characters who witness the carnage of World War I and the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Follett shared with Goodreads his love of James Bond and his prediction that he will write a million words by the time his epic trilogy reaches the Cold War.

Goodreads: After spending so much time in the Middle Ages for The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, what about the 20th century emboldened you to start fresh in a very different time period?

Ken Follett: I wanted to write another story that would have the sweep and impact of World Without End, but I needed a break from the Middle Ages. The 20th century is the most dramatic and violent era in human history, and it's also recent enough for us to connect with: It's the story of us and our parents and grandparents.

GR: In Fall of Giants, World War I is examined by characters on both sides of the conflict. As the spouse of a former Member of Parliament, you have an insider's view of British government and have often been politically active. When writing about historical events, is it necessary—or even possible—for a writer to shed the filter of his or her national or political allegiances?

KF: It helps that I'm not English. I'm Welsh, so I come from a country that was conquered by the English. I find it easy to distance myself from the kind of gung-ho patriotism that says my country is always right. And in a novel you have to understand all sides.

GR: Goodreads member Darlene would like to know "where he traveled while researching Fall of Giants and if any one place stands out in his mind."

KF: I was already familiar with most of the locations: St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington. I was born in South Wales, where the Williams family live. I drew on the two times I went down a coal mine, which I did for A Place Called Freedom. There is nothing quite like that realization that you have half a mile of earth over your head, held up by a roof prop that suddenly looks terribly flimsy.

GR: Readers who have long noted your predilection for strong, interesting female characters will be pleased to meet Maud and Ethel and see that the cause of women's suffrage is an important component of Fall of Giants. With so many historical themes to consider, what inspired you to include this critical piece of women's history?

KF: The greatest social change of the last hundred years is the change in the role of women. Victorian women believed they were inferior to men; my daughters take it for granted that they are equal. This did not happen by accident: Women fought a tough political battle and won.

GR: More than 120 characters are helpfully listed at the beginning of Fall of Giants, including historical figures such as Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson. How do you map out the character arcs of such a large cast, giving each major player enough time and space to develop?

KF: The main characters have to have an emotional stake in just about every scene. That's what keeps us turning the pages. Secondary characters need to have some vivid traits to help the reader remember them. I make a spreadsheet of my characters and refer back every time I bring someone onstage.

GR: Goodreads member Rosechimera writes, "Your depiction of characters is complex and realistic. In Hammer of Eden, for example, Priest is somewhat of a sociopath, but he can also show a degree of concern, like when his daughter is arrested. What informs your understanding of different personality traits and the composite of behaviors that your characters have?"

KF: Authors don't have special knowledge, or at any rate not much; what we have is imagination, and we use that to try to get inside the skin of characters and understand why the things they do seem right to them.

GR: First published in 1974, you've been writing for nearly four decades. Goodreads member Rob Boone asks, "How does your current writing process differ from that of your earlier years?"

KF: The technology has changed, from typewriter to computer, but my methods are the same: I make a detailed plan, write the first draft, then rewrite it. The turning points were Eye of the Needle, my first success, and The Pillars of the Earth, which took me to a whole new audience.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

KF: I like to start early, usually at 7 a.m., and with breaks for the usual chores, such as shaving and lunch, I work until about 5 p.m. I do e-mails and phone calls for an hour. Then I like to have a glass of champagne.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

KF: When I was 12, I read Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming. It blew me away. Ten years later, when I started to write fiction, my aim was to give readers the kind of excitement I had got from James Bond.

GR: Do you have any favorite books or authors? And what are you reading now?

KF: My favorite author is Edith Wharton, who writes about uptight people whose lives are upset by sexual passion. Right now I'm reading Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende. It's about slaves in Haiti, perfect material for a writer who is so good at the sensual side of life: smells, food, vegetation, sultry heat.

GR: What are you working on now? What can readers expect in Book Two and Book Three of the Century Trilogy?

KF: I've written about 100 pages of the second book, which is called The Winter of the World. Book Three will be about the Cold War. The whole trilogy will end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. By then I will have written about a million words.

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by Marcy (new)

Marcy I am so looking forward to reading any and all of Ken Follett's books!

message 2: by Hypatia (new)

Hypatia So am I!

message 3: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Follett has written some marvelous books (my faves: The Key to Rebecca and Pillars of the Earth) and some not so good. This one definitely appeals to me. My only complaint is that the kindle edition costs more than the hardcover!

message 4: by Marcy (new)

Marcy I never read The Key to Rebecca! I'll have to read that one.

message 5: by Diamondsteinsq (new)

Diamondsteinsq I love how he gets you into different times in history, and gives you a feel of understanding of the times. I have read all his books, my favorites are the the Pillars of the earth and World without end.
Keep writing,

message 6: by Landb (new)

Landb Baughan I just started reading Fall of Giants. Fasinating! I couldn't put down World Without End and Pillars. I was so excited when Fall of Giants finally came out.

message 7: by Marcy (new)

Marcy Good to know! Many thanks! And yes, reading Folletts' is like being part of the history he describes! I could feel the Middle Ages like no other books I have ever read!

message 8: by M (new)

M adding this to my to read list!!! I loved the Middle Ages books, Pillars and World Without End...I look forward to losing myself in this trilogy also

message 9: by Anni (new)

Anni Great book I'm in the middle, can't wait till the other two come out.

message 10: by Lee (new)

Lee Gimenez Great interview.

Lee Gimenez

message 11: by Peggy (new)

Peggy Sweeney I have been a fan of Ken's for many, many years. Although it has taken me a while to "get into" Fall of Giants I am really enjoying it.

Great interview!

message 12: by Yvonne (new)

Yvonne Hebiert In a hurry to read. Follett is always a great read.

message 13: by Jonah (new)

Jonah Thankful for the interview! I just noticed that Kindle finally knocked down the book to $9.99 which makes me far more likely to buy it.

I just discovered Ken when I finished Pillars of the Earth. I'm just now churning through World Without End.

message 14: by Brian (new)

Brian Joyce I like Ken Follet's books; I first heard of him when listening to his "Earth Search" books acted on Radio, with Angels I & II and the mourneful Tidy (particularly when trying to bury an elephant on the beach). Very good stuff indeed, humour and excitement.

message 15: by Dustin (new)

Dustin I am really looking forward to reading Ken Follet, particularly The Pillars of The Earth, World Without End, and The Eye of The Needle.

message 16: by Mary M (last edited Oct 16, 2010 07:52AM) (new)

Mary M "...made the Middle Ages come to life"? I have to say, not for me. Three hundred pages in to Pillars, I had to stop. I thought it was a total snoozefest despite the inherent interest of the subject matter. And I really wanted to like it. I certainly enjoyed his introduction in the Oprah edition of the tome wherein he discusses his motivation for writing the book. I plan to have a look at Giants. Overall, I have a feeling his earlier spy thrillers are the Follett books to read.

message 17: by Annette (new)

Annette Been looking forward to a new Ken Follett book for ages always a great read :)

message 18: by Marcy (new)

Marcy The Fall of Giants is being shipped from as I am writing this now! Can't wait!

message 19: by Lynn (new)

Lynn I love Ken Follett's writing. As I started Fall of Giants, I discovered chapter 1 is a great stand alone short story, which I read to a group of seniors in a retirement center. They LOVED it, and wanted me to continue with the book. Not possible. But what a wonderful chapter. And the rest of the book is engaging as well.

message 20: by Marcy (new)

Marcy Interesting, Lynn!

message 21: by Dustin (new)

Dustin Thank you, Lynn!

message 22: by Michael (new)

Michael Ballesteros I would appreciate hearing Mr. Follett's thoughts on writing fiction novels using real people from history. I am an amateur short story writer about to start my first 100 page novel.
More power to you sir..and keep them coming.

message 23: by Penny (new)

Penny I have always enjoyed Mr. Follett's books. I loved Pillars of the earth, I was absolutely blown away by it. It is my favorite book of all times and I have recommended it to everyone who will listen over the years. Thanks for the great interview.

message 24: by Karen (new)

Karen Another great book by Follett. I have not read 'The Key to Rebecca' - will add that one to my 'to read' list. Good interview.

message 25: by Dustin (new)

Dustin Penny wrote: "I have always enjoyed Mr. Follett's books. I loved Pillars of the earth, I was absolutely blown away by it. It is my favorite book of all times and I have recommended it to everyone who will list..."

I loved The Pillars of The earth, as well, Penny!

message 26: by G.W. (new)

G.W. Eccles I note that your series will finish in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is that because you feel that Russia ceased to be a fruitful source for a thriller writer after that? In my newly-published novel THE OLIGARCH: A THRILLER, I use the present battle between the Russian President and the oligarchs as the basis of the plot. I am sure there are many other things going on within Russia that could provide the inspiration for a new thriller.

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