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Fall of Giants

‘High ideals, and terrible slaughter’

Interview on Rediff.com by Savera Someshwar

Ken Follett photographed by Eduardo Marco

By the time you read this, Ken Follett will be back in England, hard at work on his next magnum opus, The Winter Of The World. The second part of his century-spanning trilogy is due in 2012, and it’s a deadline the master raconteur plans to keep.

His writing routine would have quickly come back on track after a mammoth, three-month global tour to promote his last book, the massive Fall Of Giants.

He ‘likes to start early’ and is at his laptop, reviewing his previous day’s work by 7 am. He stops at 5 pm, “cocktail hour”, he says with a smile. He gives himself an off on Sundays; Monday evenings he practices with his band, Damn Right I Got The Blues.

Follett believes that any good writer must have the discipline to write every day; waiting for inspiration to strike is not necessarily the mantra for success.

And success, for Follett, has been hard-won.

It was a new born baby girl, a broken down car and a desperate need for 200 pounds that led to the literary birth of this gripping story teller. His first book – The Big Needle, written under the pseudonym Simon Myles in 1974 – got him the much needed finance to repair his Vauxhall Ventura; “I was a reporter those days and got the idea from a colleague who was paid 200 pounds for writing a book,” he says.

But that fair handmaiden was still elusive and it was only nine books and four years later, with Eye of The Needle, that he finally found both wealth and success. To dig out an old cliché, he’s never looked back since.

For those of you who’ve never read a Follett page-turner, here’s a bit of background info:

His latest book, Fall Of Giants, repeated the success of his earlier book, World Without End, to debut at No 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Fall Of Giants was No 1 in Spain, Italy, Germany and France as well.

Follett has written 31 books; the 20 that were published after Eye Of The Needle have also become bestsellers, ranking high on The New York Times bestseller list; a number of them have been adapted for the small screen. His books have sold over 116 million copies and have been translated in over 30 languages.

Readers of The Times, London, voted Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth as the second greatest novel of the last 60 years, just after Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird

A statue has been dedicated to him in Spain.

He has two homes in Britain and one in South Africa. He’s been ranked No 5 on Forbes’s magazine list of The Ten Highest Paid Authors. He made $20 million last year, which puts him ahead of John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks and J K Rowling.

Even Bollywood could not ignore Follett; the Aamir Khan-Kajol starrer, Fanaa, found inspiration from Eye Of The Needle.

He spoke to Savera Someshwar:

At about 1,000 pages, Fall Of Giants is a massive read. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, where the attention span of the reader is increasingly reducing, what inspired you to pen such a huge story?

You know, people like long stories. The idea that people have a short attention span is wrong in my opinion. Of course, people are very busy. They want quick messages, e-mails or tweets. But when they have a moment to relax, they love to read a long story, or even watch a series on television or DVD that they really can lose themselves in. You can’t lose yourself in a tweet.

World Without End is the longest book I have written. At 425,000 words, it was four times the length of a normal novel. And it was my biggest success. I’ve actually proved that people haven’t got a short attention span.

If a story’s exciting and draws you into its imaginary world, people want it to be longer.

I get e-mails from people saying I’m coming to the end of the book and I don’t know what I’m going to do. Why didn’t you make it longer (laughs)?

What does it feel like when your book goes straight to the number 1 position on the bestseller lists in multiple countries?

It feels great! I love it. That what I want to do. I always wanted to write books that would enchant millions of people. And when the books finish, I am a little nervous because I always think – Will they like this one? I’ve done everything I can to make sure that the story will draw people in, but you never know until they actually read it.

It’s no good listening to editors and journalists because they are not customers. They get the book free. You have to wait until the people who actually pay money read the book. Then they send me e-mails and tweets and say I’ve just finished the book and I love it. Thank you for writing it. Then I know it’s okay (laughs).

You asked eight historians to check your first draft of Fall Of The Giants. Have you done this for your other books as well?

I normally have my first draft read by experts to check my research. Sometimes, it might be police officers, for example, or scientists. In the case of Fall Of Giants, it was historians.

And the reason there are so many is that Fall Of Giants touches on several different areas of specialty in history – the Russian Revolution, the First World War, American politics, British politics, German politics.

Although I have a historian who is my overall consultant, he felt that his own expertise might not extend into the specialist areas. And so we hired these other experts as well. We’ll do the same for the next book in the series.

Can you tell us a bit about the challenge writing a trilogy that spans a century?

For me, the 20th century is the most dramatic and violent century in the history of the human race. We killed each other at a terrible rate. There were the pogroms in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the wars, the bombings – Berlin, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But it was also a century of ideals and democracy and freedom. And that contrast – the high ideals and terrible slaughter – that kind of irony, is very attractive to an author. At the beginning of the 20th century there were only five or six democratic countries, by the end of the 20th century it was the norm.

I spent six months reading 20th century history and thinking about the overall scope of the trilogy. I divided it into three wars and so on and I got a rough picture. At that point, I started concentrating on Fall Of Giants.

Now, I have a detailed outline for the book The Winter Of The World, and I’ve started writing it. It begins in 1933, with Hitler’s rise to power. The characters are the children of the characters in Fall Of Giants, so we see the next generation coping with a new set of problems and a terrible new war.

It will end in 1949 with the end of the Second World War and the explosion of the first Soviet nuclear bomb because that was the event that made superpowers equal and so set the stage for the Cold War.

I have only a vague picture of book three still. It will deal with the Cold War. The grandchildren of the characters in Fall Of Giants will be the characters in book three.

Why is Ken Follett so passionate about history?

I get inspiration from history. I read history books and think, well, I could tell a story about that. I suppose that’s because I am curious about people whose lives are different from my own; particularly people whose lives are harsh. And I think readers are too.

I believe people don’t change much over 100 years of history or from one country to another. I believe people are pretty much the same. But their circumstances are different.

So, when we read a story about the Middle Ages, we can imagine ourselves living in that time. And we say to ourselves, how would I have managed?

Take me, for example. How would I have really managed in a time when the only thing men were supposed to do was fight? I would have been useless as a soldier, terrible. The only other thing I could do was to be a priest. And I would have been even worse as a priest.

So you think about those things. You think about the hunger, the disease, the violence of those times and you think how would I have managed? And there is something quite attractive about that fantasy, especially since you can come back to your comfortable life in the 21st century at the end of it.

What do you plan to write after the trilogy?

I think I’ll write another medieval story. Lots of people want me to. Readers love them. I enjoy writing them.

I’ve created this imaginary town of Kingsbridge (Pillars Of The Earth, World Without End) and I’ve done two novels set 200 years apart, so it’s quite interesting to think what Kingsbridge would be like after another 100 years or maybe 200 years. I could easily write another novel about it. Maybe I could write more than one. By the time I’ve done that, I would be pushing 70. And who knows what I’d want to do then.

The Indian subcontinent has an intense and dramatic history. Do you see any of your novels being set here?

I doubt it. I don’t live here, so it would clearly be more difficult for me to delve into the heart of an Indian character. Besides, there so many fantastic Indian writers who know India so well; it would be foolish of me to try and compete with them. This is their territory. There’s Jhumpa Lahiri, who’s one of my favourite American authors, and Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days is one of my favourite reads. I’ve also read a short version of the Mahabharata. I read it partly to understand a little bit of Indian culture before I came to India for the first time.

How has the country changed between your first and second visits?

I was here about five years ago and it’s changed a lot. It’s more prosperous. It’s growing. There are loads of new freeways, new airports, new hotels. But it still has the same kind of combination of the sense of a very old culture and the sense of a very young, very vibrant, very aggressive culture.

Five years ago, I came here as a tourist with some friends and did the usual touristy things. I saw the Taj Mahal and those wonderfully erotic sculptures at Khajuraho. It was a completely different experience. Then, there were these five lane roads where you would have the latest of cars, and you would also see these oxen pulling carts. You see a lot less of that now.

Indians have been reading, and loving, your books for decades now. Yet, this is your first time in India to promote a book.

Well, that’s a call that my publishers have taken. The number of books that are being sold in India are increasing; there are apparently 89 million people here for whom English is the first language and that’s a huge, huge market.

Did you know that Eye Of The Needle inspired a film called Fanaa, featuring top Bollywood actors, that turned out to be a hit?

Oh yes, I did. And I’ve watched the film and quite liked it. It would have been nice if they gave me credit; I would have made some money as well (laughs).

Romance is one of the key threads in your book. Have you watched Bollywood romances?

I am aware of Indian films; but if you mean do I go and watch it in the cinema hall, no I don’t. I do catch bits of them though and I think they are rather entertaining though the songs and dances get some getting used to. One of the movies I liked is Bride And Prejudice; quite nice.

Of all the characters you have created, who is your favourite and why?

I think it would have to be Prior Philip (from The Pillars of the Earth). His values are similar to mine. He’s very practical, very hands-on. I am not a religious person, but I do admire certain kinds of religious people and that’s who Prior Philip is based on.

He’s concerned about saving people in this world, and not their souls for the next. He does not offer a good afterlife as a salve to the suffering that it’s all right because you will have a good afterlife. He tries to solve the problems here and now.

You’ve always had strong women characters from Lucy in Eye Of The Needle to the suffragette movement in Fall Of Giants.

I have, haven’t I? It started with Eye Of The Needle. I originally thought of a climax where the two men would fight. But then I thought, I have read so many thrillers where two men have to fight at the end; it’s really kind of boring.

Then I thought of having a fight between the dangerous spy and the woman on the island, and that made the book so much more interesting. It was very fresh, it was new, it was different to see a woman in that role. She had to save the world.

That was partly the time – I wrote that book in 1977 – when women were demanding equal opportunities at work; equal pay. As a young man, I was very conscious of that. Of course, it was not really a conscious decision to write a feminist book. But what was happening around me just filtered through to me and as a writer I absorbed all that. It came to seem like a very good idea to make a woman the hero instead of a man. It was a success from a literary point of view. It was also a commercial success. A lot of women bought the book and enjoyed it.

And since then, I’ve often had a female hero. There always have been one or two strong women in the story. I do that because it reflects the life around me.

There are strong women all around me. I have a wife and an ex-wife and a daughter and two step-daughters and four grand-daughters and they are all strong women. I never meet any weak ones.

I think, in that sense, my stories reflect the social changes I’ve lived through, they reflect my own family, and it’s also the fact that I write about the kind of women I like. If a woman’s going to be the hero of the story, she is going be the kind of woman I would fall for.

Your daughter-in-law is from Chennai, isn’t she?

She’s a lovely girl. I’m terribly fond of her. Her name is Rajini. And I’m hoping one day she’s going to give me Indian grand-children. But not yet. Not yet.

This interview, by Savera Someshwar, appeared on Rediff.com, on Wednesday 19 January, 2011.