Ken Follett is one of the world’s best-loved novelists. His latest book, A Column of Fire – the third novel in his Kingsbridge Series – went straight to the No.1 position on bestseller lists in the USA, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.
He burst into the book world in 1978 with Eye of the Needle, a taut and original thriller with a memorable woman character in the central role. The book won the Edgar award and became an outstanding film starring Kate Nelligan and Donald Sutherland.
He went on to write four more best-selling thrillers: Triple; The Key to Rebecca; The Man from St Petersburg; and Lie Down with Lions. Cliff Robertson and David Soul starred in the miniseries of The Key to Rebecca. In 1994 Timothy Dalton, Omar Sharif and Marg Helgenberger starred in the miniseries of Lie Down with Lions.
He also wrote On Wings of Eagles, the true story of how two employees of Ross Perot were rescued from Iran during the revolution of 1979. This book was made into a miniseries with Richard Crenna as Ross Perot and Burt Lancaster as Colonel ‘Bull’ Simons.
He then surprised readers by radically changing course with The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about building a cathedral in the Middle Ages. Published in September 1989 to rave reviews, it was on The New York Times bestseller list for eighteen weeks. It also reached the No. 1 position on lists in Canada, Great Britain and Italy, and was on the German bestseller list for six years.
It was voted the third greatest book ever written by 250 000 viewers of the German television station ZDF in 2004, beaten only by The Lord of the Rings and the Bible. When The Times of London asked its readers to vote for the 60 greatest novels of the last 60 years, The Pillars of the Earth was placed at No.2, after To Kill a Mockingbird. (The sequel, World Without End, was No. 23 on the same list.) In November 2007 ‘Pillars’ became the most popular ever choice of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, returning to No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. The miniseries, produced by Ridley Scott and starring Ian McShane and Matthew Macfadyen, was broadcast in 2010.
For a while he abandoned the straightforward spy genre, but his stories still had powerful narrative drive, strong women characters, and elements of suspense and intrigue. He followed Pillars with Night Over Water, A Dangerous Fortune, and A Place Called Freedom.
Then he returned to the thriller. The Third Twin is a scorching suspense novel about a young woman scientist who stumbles over a secret experiment in genetic engineering. Miniseries rights were sold to CBS for $1,400,000, a record price for four hours of television. The series, starring Kelly McGillis and Larry Hagman (and with Ken appearing briefly as the butler), was broadcast in the USA in November 1997. In Publishing Trends’ annual survey of international fiction bestsellers for 1997, The Third Twin was ranked No. 2 in the world, beaten only by John Grisham’s The Partner.
The Hammer of Eden, another nail-biting contemporary suspense story, came in 1998. Code to Zero (2000), about brainwashing and rocket science in the Fifties, went to No. 1 on bestseller lists in the USA, German and Italy, and film rights were snapped up by Doug Wick, producer of Gladiator, in a seven-figure deal.
Ken returned to the WWII era with his next two novels: Jackdaws (2001), a World War II thriller about a group of women parachuted into France to destroy a vital telephone exchange – which won the Corine Prize for 2003 – and Hornet Flight (2002), about a daring young Danish couple who escape to Britain from occupied Denmark in a rebuilt Hornet Moth biplane with vital information about German radar.
Whiteout, a contemporary thriller about the theft of a dangerous virus from a laboratory, was published in 2004, and made into a miniseries in 2009. Set in the remote Scottish Highlands over a stormy, snow-bound Christmas, Whiteout crackles with jealousies, distrust, sexual attraction, rivalries, hidden traitors and unexpected heroes.
World Without End, the long-awaited sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, was published in October 2008. It is set in Kingsbridge, the fictional location of the cathedral in Pillars, and features the descendants of the original characters at the time of the Black Death. It was a No. 1 bestseller in Italy, the USA, the UK, Germany, France and Spain, where it was the fastest-selling book ever published in the Spanish language, outstripping the last Harry Potter book.
A board game based on The Pillars of the Earth was released worldwide in 2007-2008 and won the following prizes: Deutscher Spielepreis 2007; Game of the year 2007 in the USA (GAMES 100); Jeu d’annee 2007 (Canada); Juego del ano 2007 (Spain); Japan Boardgame Prize 2007; Arets Spill 2007 (Norway); Spiele Hit 2007 (Austria). It was a nominee in Finland, France and the Netherlands and got a recommendation in Germany by the Jury “Spiel des Jahres”.
In 2008 Ken was awarded the Olaguibel Prize by the Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos Vasco-Navarro for contributing to the promotion and awareness of architecture. A statue of him by the distinguished Spanish sculptor Casto Solano was unveiled in January 2008 outside the cathedral of Santa Maria in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz in northern Spain.
He then embarked on his most ambitious project yet. The Century Trilogy tell the entire history of the twentieth century, seen through the eyes of five linked families: one American, one English, one German, one Russian, and one Welsh. The first book, Fall of Giants, focusing on the First World War and the Russian Revolution, was published worldwide in September 2010. The second book, Winter of the World, about the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the development of nuclear weapons, was published in September 2012. The third novel, set during the Cold War and the later half of the century and titled Edge of Eternity was published in September 2014.
Ken is completing the third novel in the 'Kingsbridge' series, A Column of Fire. Beginning in 1558, it charts the star-crossed romance between Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald, while Europe turns against England when Elizabeth Tudor becomes queen and finds herself beset by plots to dethrone her. It will be published in September 2017.
Ken is married to Barbara Follett, a political activist who was the Member of Parliament for Stevenage in Hertfordshire for thirteen years and Minister for Culture in the government of Gordon Brown. They live in a rambling rectory in Stevenage and also have an eighteenth-century town house in London and a beach house in Antigua.
Ken is a lover of Shakespeare, and is often to be seen at London productions of the Bard’s plays. An enthusiastic amateur musician, he plays bass guitar in a band called Damn Right I Got the Blues, and appears occasionally with the folk group Clog Iron playing a bass balalaika.
He was Chair of the National Year of Reading 1998-99, a British government initiative to raise literacy levels. He was president of the charity Dyslexia Action for ten years. He is a Fellow of The Welsh Academy, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a board director of the National Academy of Writing. In 2007 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Literature (D.Litt.) by the University of Glamorgan, and similar degrees by Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan, where his papers are kept in the Ken Follett Archive; and (in 2008) by the University of Exeter. He is active in numerous Stevenage charities and was a governor of Roebuck Primary School for ten years, serving as Chair of Governors for four of those years.
Ken was born on 5 June 1949 in Cardiff, Wales, the son of a tax inspector. He was educated at state schools and graduated from University College, London, with an Honours degree in philosophy. He was made a Fellow of the college in 1995.
He became a reporter, first with his home-town newspaper the South Wales Echo and later with the London Evening News. While working on the Evening News he wrote his first novel, which was published but did not become a bestseller. He then went to work for a small London publishing house, Everest Books, eventually becoming Deputy Managing Director. He continued to write novels in his spare time. Eye of the Needle was his eleventh book, and his first success. Around 160 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide.
Listen to Ken on writing, his characters and his career…