Thank goodness Ken Follett is not making a living as a fortune teller. The best-selling author and long-time Labour Party member is explaining why he has just given £100,000 to the campaign to elect Ed Balls as the new Labour leader. “All three leading candidate – Ed Miliband, David Miliband and Ed Balls – are very smart, very clever, very intelligent”, he says, “but I think Ed Balls has a better sense of judgement. There’s intelligence and then there’s wisdom, which are slightly different things, and I think Ed Balls is the wisest.” And, he adds, “He’ll be Prime Minister one day.”
Middle Ages spread
It was Ed Miliband who won the leadership contest at the end of September, so history sadly went against Follett’s view, which is ironic considering it is history that has made the one-time journalist a household name around the world. Indeed, you can barely hop on the Metro without seeing somebody nose-deep in his most famous work, The Pillars of the Earth, which has become a writing phenomenon. The story, about the construction of the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral during England’s Middle Ages, has sold in its millions since publication in 1989, and has also spawned award-winning board games and a TV series starring Ian McShane, Matthew Macfadyen and Donald Sutherland, which recently debuted on Cuatro.
It’s follow-up, World Without End, cemented Follett’s reputation as a first-class historical novelist, and now he has another worldwide success on his hands with Fall of Giants. The English language version of this latest weighty tome boasts more than 800 pages, includes a list of characters, and follows the lives of five families in the early 20th century, touching on major events such as World War One, the Russian Revolution and the fight for female suffrage. What’s more, it’s merely the start of a trilogy named Century, which will tell these families’ stories from 1900 to 1989.
It is the scale of the piece that attracted Follett. “I wanted a huge topic”, he reveals. “It was a dramatic and violent century. I lived through half of it, most of my readers lived through half of it, and their grandfathers and grandmothers lived through it – it’s our story.” Whilst some stereotypes exist in the book – the plucky house-keeper deflowered by the evil aristocrat, the upper-class lady fighting for working women, the jack-the-lad who always gets in (and out) of scrapes – these do not prevent it from being a page-turner.
“I make up characters to fit the plot; the plot comes first,” Follett admits. His talent is to find the human level of any subject, be it building a cathedral or leading a futile charge across No Man’s Land, and exploit that to the full, putting flesh and blood on the bare bones of history and bringing them to life. The major characters have real substance.
The timeframe is a world away from his Middle Ages classics, but the main theme of Follett’s sagas is the same: the family. “All the best stories are about family,” he says. “We all live in one and we all understand the tensions and the conflicts.” In fact, family is looming large for Follett at the moment. His second wife, Barbara, for many years Labour MP for Stevenage, left Parliament at the last election and has now joined the author on his campaign trail to promote Fall of Giants.
“It’s a mixed blessing,” he laughs about working so closely with her, before adding, “It’s kind of fortuitous that Barbara has retired from politics, because the admin of my business has become a very large task. World Without End doubled my readership and doubled the number of requests for interviews, for contracts, all that sort of thing, so she’s helping me run the business.”
A great cast
Not that Follett’s best-sellers have only brought him an increased workload. In 2008, the 61-year-old found himself the subject of a highly unusual gesture for a popular writer when the Basque city of Vitoria unveiled a bronze statue of him. It’s located in the Plaza do las Brullerîas, near the city’s cathedral. Follett followed the cathedral’s restoration closely, and it became a great source of inspiration for World Without End.
“It’s the only time someone’s ever wanted to put up a statue of me and I must say I was very flattered indeed,” he says. His children found the idea very amusing, to the point of asking if the statue would show him seated on a horse. “It’s a very good likeness, just a bit taller and handsomer, but that’s all right.”
Spain will feature in the second book of the Century trilogy, by virtue of its bloody Civil War. “It was a very important international event and it’s an episode that has a long chapter in the book,” says Follett. “Several of my characters play different roles in the conflict.”
Stress and success
After writing the much-loved The Pillars of the Earth tale, some authors might feel the weight heavy on their shoulders. For Follett, success spurs him on. “I do feel a pressure but I don’t find it overwhelming. It’s a good pressure because if I write a page and I think that’s not very good but it’ll do, then I think about all those millions of people who enjoyed reading my past books and are looking forward to the next. I can’t give them a page that’s just okay – it’s got to be what they’re hoping for. That makes me tear it up and start again.”
Nor has his thirst for life in Kingsbridge diminished. “When I’ve done this trilogy I will probably go back there. I’ll be ready for it then,” he continues, “I didn’t want to do another medieval novel immediately after World Without End, but in another four year’s time (when the final part of the trilogy is published), I’m sure I’ll be very happy for it.”
In recent years, historical fiction has become über-chic. Will its success be its downfall? Not in the eyes of Follett. “There’s a future for all sorts of stories – it just depends on how well they’re done. They used to say, in publishing circles, that there’s a market for historical novels except for the Middle Ages. All these things about fashions and trends – it’s more to do with the quality of writing in the book. The Da Vinci Code was a success because the suspense was done so brilliantly. All this about whether Jesus had an affair with Mary Magdalene, I don’t think that’s what made it a success and I think it’s a mistake to try and imitate that. If people want to write a successful thriller, they should try to imitate Dan Brown’s suspense. It’s brilliant.”
Perhaps surprisingly for someone so at home writing about the past, Follett is very much a 21st century man. “I’m very fond of comforts – hot baths and cashmere sweaters. If I were transported back to the Middle Ages I think I’d have a terrible time. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for one thing: itchy blankets. I’m quite fond of living in modern times with all the modern comforts.”
Labour of love
It was his love of luxury that saw him being branded a “champagne socialist”. For a while, he and his wife, whom he met at a Labour Party meeting, were leading figures in New Labour. Barbara, who was embroiled in the recent expenses scandal, is credited with teaching several party members the importance of image while Follett organised the so-called “luvvies for Labour”, a list of celebrity party members who were encouraged to attend £500-a-head fundraisers.
However, the love affair ended quickly after Tony Blair’s election success in 1997, with Follett, in 2000, writing a scathing newspaper article in which he said the then Prime Minister risked being remembered as the man who made “malicious gossip an everyday tool of modern British government.”
The beginning of Century deals with the rise of the Labour Party, but will it conclude with the triumph of New Labour? “The third book will end in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I don’t think ‘New Labour’ as a phrase had been invented then,” comments Follett, “but I think I’ll maybe sneak in a little one line reference, just to amuse everyone.” And with that, no doubt he’ll have another bestseller on his hands.
— Elizabeth Ellis, In Madrid, November 2010