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The Pillars of the Earth


This is the introduction I wrote for the 1999 edition.

Nothing happens the way you plan it.

A lot of people were surprised by The Pillars of the Earth, including me. I was known as a thriller writer. In the book business, when you have had a success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life. Clowns should not try to play Hamlet; pop stars should not write symphonies. I should not have risked my reputation by writing something out of character and overambitious.

What’s more, I don’t believe in God. I’m not what you would call a spiritual person. According to my agent, my greatest problem as a writer is that I’m not a tortured soul. The last thing anyone would have expected from me was a story about building a church.

So Pillars was an unlikely book for me to write - and I almost didn’t. I started it, then dropped it, and did not look at it again for ten years.

This is how it happened.

When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called the Plymouth Brethren. For us, a church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.

I started trying to write novels in my middle twenties, while working as a reporter on the London Evening News. I realized then that I had never taken much interest in the cityscape around me, and I had no vocabulary to describe the buildings in which my characters had their adventures. So I bought An Outline of European Architecture by Nikolaus Pevsner. That book gave me eyes with which to look at buildings in general and churches in particular. Pevsner got really passionate when he wrote about Gothic cathedrals. The invention of the pointed arch, he said, was a rare event in history, when the solution to a technical problem – how to build a taller church – was also sublimely beautiful.

Soon after I read Pevsner’s book, my newspaper sent me to the East Anglian city of Peterborough. I have long forgotten what story I was covering, but I shall always remember what I did after filing it. I had to wait an hour for a train back to London so, remembering Pevsner’s fascinating and passionate descriptions of medieval architecture, I went to see Peterborough Cathedral.

It was one of those moments.

The west front of Peterborough has three huge Gothic arches like doorways for giants. The inside is older than the façade, with arcades of regular round Norman arches in stately procession up the aisle. Like all great churches, it is both tranquil and beautiful. But it was more than that. Because of Pevsner’s book, I had some inkling of the labour that had gone into this. I knew the story of humankind’s efforts to build ever-taller and more beautiful churches. I understood the place of this building in history, my history.

I was enraptured by Peterborough Cathedral.

Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me. Every few months I would drive to one of England’s old cities, check into a hotel and study the church. This way I saw Canterbury, Salisbury, Winchester, Gloucester and Lincoln, each one unique, each with an intriguing story to tell. Most people take an hour or two to “do” a cathedral, but I like to have a couple of days.

The stones themselves reveal the construction history: stops and starts, damage and reconstruction, extensions in times of prosperity, and stained-glass tributes to the wealthy men who generally paid the bills. Another story is told by the way the church is sited in the town. Lincoln faces across the street to the castle, religious and military power nose to nose. Winchester has a neat grid of streets, laid out by a medieval bishop who fancied himself a town planner. Salisbury moved, in the thirteenth century, from a defensive hilltop site – where the ruins of the old cathedral are still visible – to an open meadow, showing that permanent peace had arrived.

But all the while a question nagged at me: why were these churches built?

There are simple answers - for the glory of God, the vanity of bishops, and so on – but those were not enough for me. The building of the medieval cathedrals is an astonishing European phenomenon. The builders had no power tools, they did not understand the mathematics of structural engineering, and they were poor: the richest of princes did not live as well as, say, a prisoner in a modern jail. Yet they put up the most beautiful buildings that have ever existed, and they built them so well that they are still here, hundreds of years later, for us to study and marvel at.

I began to read about these churches, but I found the books unsatisfactory. There was a great deal of aesthetic guff about elevations, but not much about the living buildings. Then I came across The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel. Gimpel, the black sheep of a family of French art dealers, was as impatient as I with discussions about whether a clerestory “worked” aesthetically. His book was about the dirt-poor hovel-dwellers who actually put up these fabulous buildings. He read the payroll records of French monasteries, and took an interest in who the builders were and how much money they made. He was the first person to notice, for example, that a significant minority of the names were female. The medieval church was sexist, but women as well as men built the cathedrals.

Another work of Gimpel’s, The Medieval Machine, taught me that the Middle Ages were a time of rapid high-tech innovation, during which the power of watermills was harnessed for a wide variety of industrial applications. Soon I was taking an interest in medieval life in general. I began to get a picture of how the building of the great cathedrals must have seemed like the right thing to do for medieval people.

The explanation is not simple. It is a little like trying to understand why twentieth-century people spent so much money exploring outer space. In both cases, a whole network of influences operated: scientific curiosity, commercial interests, political rivalries, and the spiritual aspirations of earthbound people. It seemed to me there was only one way to map that network: by writing a novel.

Sometime in 1976 I wrote an outline and about four chapters. I sent it to my agent, AI Zuckerman, who wrote: “You have created a tapestry. What you need is a series of linked melodramas.”

Looking back, I can see that at the age of twenty-seven I was not capable of writing such a novel. I was like an apprentice watercolour painter planning a vast canvas in oils. To do justice to its subject, the book would have to be very long, cover a period of several decades and bring alive the great sweep of medieval Europe. I was writing much less ambitious books, and even so I had not yet mastered the craft.

I dropped the cathedral book and came up with another idea, a thriller about a German spy in wartime England. Happily, that was within my powers, and under the title Eye of the Needle it became my first best-seller.

For the next decade I wrote thrillers, but I continued to visit cathedrals, and the idea of my cathedral novel never went away. I resurrected it in January of 1986, having finished my sixth thriller, Lie Down with Lions.

My publishers were nervous. They wanted another spy story. My friends were also apprehensive. They know that I enjoy success. I'm not the kind of writer who would deal with a failure by saying that the book was good but the readers were inadequate. I write to entertain, and I’m happy doing so. A failure would make me miserable. No one tried to talk me out of it, but lots of people expressed anxious reservations.

However, I did not intend to write a “difficult” book. I would write an adventure story, full of colourful characters who were ambitious, wicked, sexy, heroic and smart. I wanted ordinary readers to be as enraptured as I was by the romance of the medieval cathedrals.

By then I had developed the method of working that I continue to use to this day. I begin by writing an outline of the story, saying what happens in each chapter and giving thumbnail sketches of the characters. But this book was not like my others. The beginning came easily but, as the story unwound over the decades, and the people grew from youth to maturity, I found it more and more difficult to invent new twists and turns in their lives. I realized that one long book is much more of a challenge than three short ones.

The hero of the story had to be some kind of man of God. This was difficult for me. I would find it hard to get interested in a character who was focused on the afterlife (and so would many readers). To make Prior Philip more sympathetic, I gave him a very practical, down-to-earth religious belief, a concern for people’s souls here on earth, not just in heaven.

Philip’s sexuality was also a problem. All monks and priests were supposed to be celibate in the Middle Ages. The obvious drama would be that of a man fighting a terrible battle with his lusts. But I could not work up any enthusiasm for that theme. I grew up in the 1960s, and my heart is always with those who deal with temptation by giving in to it. In the end I made him one of that minority of people for whom sex really is no big deal. He is the only cheerfully celibate character I have ever created.

I got in contact with Jean Gimpel, who had inspired me a decade earlier, and was astonished to learn that not only did he live in London but in my street. I hired him as a consultant, and we became friends and table-tennis opponents until his death.

By March of the following year, 1987, I had outlined only the first two-thirds of the book. I decided that would have to be sufficient. I began to write.

By December I had a couple of hundred pages.

This was pretty disastrous. I had been working on the story for two years, and all I had was an incomplete outline and a few chapters. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life on this book. But what was to be done? Well, I could drop it and write another thriller. Or I could work harder. In those days I used to write Monday to Friday, then deal with my business correspondence on Saturday morning. From around January 1988 I began to write Monday through Saturday and do letters on Sunday. My output increased dramatically, partly because of the extra day, but mainly because of the intensity I was bringing to my work. The problem of the end of the book, which I had not outlined, was solved by a flash of inspiration, when I thought of involving the principal characters in the notorious real-life murder of Thomas Becket.

As I recall, I finished a first draft around the middle of that year. A combination of excitement and impatience impelled me to work even harder on the rewrite, and I began to work seven days a week. My business correspondence was neglected, but I finished the book in March 1989, three years and three months after starting it.

I was exhausted but happy. I felt I had written something special, not just another best-seller but maybe a great popular novel.

Not many people agreed.

My American hardcover publisher, William Morrow & Co, printed around the same number of copies as they had of Lie Down with Lions, and when they sold the same number they were content. My London publishers were more excited, and Pillars sold better there than any of my previous books. But the initial reaction, among publishers worldwide, was a sigh of relief that Follett had completed his crazy project and got away with it. The book won no prizes – it was not even nominated. A few critics adored it, but most were unimpressed. It was a No. 1 best-seller in Italy, where readers have always been kind to me. The paperback was No. 1 for one week in Britain.

I began to think I had been wrong. Maybe the book was just another page-tumer, good but not great.

However, one person believed passionately that this book was special. My German editor, Walter Fritzsche at Gustav Lübbe Verlag, had long dreamed of publishing a novel about the building of a cathedral. He had even spoken to some of his German authors about the idea, but nothing ever came of it. So he was very excited about what I was writing, and when the typescript came in he felt his hopes had been fulfilled.

Until this point, my work had been only modestly successful in Germany. (The villains in my books were often Germans, so I could hardly complain.) Fritzsche was so enthusiastic, he thought Pillars could be a breakthrough book, one that would make me the single most popular writer in Germany.

Even I didn’t believe that.

But he was right.

Lübbe published the book brilliantly. They hired a young artist, Achim Kiel, to do the cover, but he insisted on designing the whole book, treating it as an art object, and Lübbe had the courage to go with his concept. He was expensive, but he succeeded in communicating to the buyer Fritzsche’s feeling that there was something special about this book. (He went on to design all my German editions for many years, creating a look that Lübbe used again and again.)

The first intimation I had that readers saw the book as something special came when Lübbe took an advertisement to celebrate the sale of 100 000 copies. I had never sold that many hardcovers in any country other than the USA (which has three times as many people as Germany).

After a couple of years, Pillars began to appear on the list of longest-selling books, having made some eighty appearances on the German best-seller list. As time went by, it just stayed on the list. (To date it has made more than 300 weekly appearances.)

One day I was checking my royalty statement from New American Library, my US paperback publisher. These statements are carefully designed to prevent the author knowing what is really happening to his book, but after decades of persistence I have learned to read them. And I noticed that Pillars was selling around 50 000 copies every six months. By comparison, Eye of the Needle was selling around 25 000, as were most of my other books.

I checked my UK sales and found the same pattern: Pillars sold about double.

I began to notice that Pillars was mentioned more than any other book in my fan mail. Signing in bookshops, I found that more and more readers told me Pillars was their favourite. Many people asked me to write a sequel. Some said it was the best book they had ever read, a compliment I had not received for any other work. A British travel company approached me about creating a Pillars of the Earth holiday. This was beginning to look like a cult hit.

Eventually I figured out what was happening. This was a word-of-mouth book. It’s a truism of the book business that the best advertising is the kind you can’t buy: the personal recommendation of one reader to another. That was what was selling Pillars. You did it, dear reader. Publishers, agents, critics and the people who give out literary prizes generally overlooked this book, but you did not. You noticed that it was different and special, and you told your friends; and in the end the word got around.

And so it happened. It seemed like the wrong book. I seemed like the wrong writer; and I almost didn’t do it. But it is my best book, and you honoured it.

I appreciate that. Thank you.

Ken Follett
Stevenage, Hertfordshire, January 1999.