Ken Follett was in Dublin promoting his new book and it seemed somehow fitting to be meeting him on the day the Chilean miners were rescued. His latest blockbuster, Fall of Giants, begins in June 1911, with 13-year-old Billy going down the Welsh mines for the first time.
Billy is based on Follett’s own grandfather but Follett told me he had just discovered that his great-grandfather, Tom Evans, was only nine when he went down the mines – 10 years younger than Jimmy Sanchez, who at 19 was the youngest miner to be rescued.
Handsome and silver-haired, Follett is himself something of a giant in the publishing world. Yet when we meet in the opulent surroundings of the Merrion Hotel, he comes across as an affable, self-deprecating family man despite his millionaire lifestyle (he has three homes, one in Antigua).
He looks remarkably young and fit for his 61 years. “I have a swimming pool in my home in Stevenage and I try to swim at least twice a week” he says.
He also walks the dogs in nearby Knebworth Park, famed for its rock concerts.
Follett was on dinner-party terms with the last British government – counting many former cabinet ministers as friends. His second wife, Barbara, retired last May after 13 years as a Labour MP.
Now she is travelling with her husband as his manager on the publicity tour for this book – a gruelling schedule which began in America last August and takes in all of Europe before ending in India at Christmas.
A prolific author, Follett has sold more than 116 million books worldwide. He had his first big success in 1978 with Eye of the Needle, but is probably best known for his historical novel, The Pillars of the Earth, an epic set in Medieval England in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge and currently a TV series starring Ian McShane and Donald Sutherland (with Follet himself in a cameo role).
It still sells about 100,000 copies a year in the US alone. In the UK and Italy, it reached number one and in Germany, where it stayed on the best-seller list for six years, there is even a board game based on the novel.
Published in 1989, readers had to wait until 2006 for the sequel, World Without End. A big fan of Alexander Fleming, Follett spent the intervening years producing numerous bestsellers, mostly thrillers including Hammer of Eden, Whiteout, Code to Zero and The Key to Rebecca.
His latest work is the start of a trilogy called ‘Century’. “I wanted something with a big scope and not the Middle Ages again, so I thought about the 20th century.”
“It was one of the most dramatic and violent times in history. Huge changes in society came about with the fall of empires, the Chinese dynasties, the Tsars and people began grouping and demanding rights and freedom, Suffragettes among them.”
“It is also our time. My parents lived through it and I was born in the middle of it. In Fall of Giants, Part I of the ‘Century’ trilogy, I follow the destinies of five interrelated families – American, Russian, German, English and Welsh – through the earth-shaking events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.”
At 850 pages, Fall of Giants is a massive tome, weighing more than a kilo. Follett laughingly refers to it as a “cat-squasher”. It’s already number one in America.
With his inside track on politics, does he think that politicians learn from history?
“In some ways, though we do look for lessons, we repeat our mistakes. For instance, George Bush in Iraq didn’t learn from Vietnam. When you start a war, you never know what the outcome will be.”
Follett re-read War and Peace and The Winds of War to prepare for the trilogy. He is diplomatic about the recent popular versus literary fiction debate (Sheila O’Flanagan’s remarks on Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Jodi Picoult’s attack on Jonathan Franzen).
“I really enjoyed Franzen. It wasn’t necessarily the Great American Novel, but it was a great novel on a dysfunctional family torturing each other but who can’t break away because they love each other.”
Follett’s face lights up when it comes to his own family, especially his grandchildren.
“They are one of life’s enormous pleasures. I started young, so the eldest is 17 but we had an infection of babies recently,” he smiles, “and now there are four little ones under three.”
“When they come to visit, I stop work and play with them, sing to them, even change nappies – well sometimes! I never would have done that when my own children were young.”
“When your children are small, you are struggling financially and trying to make a career, but when you hit your 50s you are more secure, you know who you are.”
Fall of Giants ends in January 1924, with Hitler imprisoned for an attempted revolution. Follett has already started writing Part II, which will deal with Hitler’s rise and fall and he was working on chapter three in the plane on his way to Dublin.
The final book, Part III, will deal with the Cold War and end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He hopes to have the trilogy completed by 2014. But the good news for “Pillars” fans is that he promises to return to the legendary Kingsbridge for his next opus.
— The Independent (Ireland), 23 October 2010