British novelist Ken Follett’s life, career, and brand new novel, Fall Of Giants
HH: Special edition of the Hugh Hewitt Show, and one you’re going to love. A long conversation with Ken Follett, author of so many books that you know and love, more than 100 million copies of them in print, and a brand new wonderful book, in bookstores now, Fall Of Giants, the first of a three-part trilogy, novels of the entire 20th Century. Ken Follett, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s great to have you.
KF: Thanks, Hugh, it’s great to be on the show.
HH: This is a magnificent book. I don’t know how many people have had a chance to read it yet. I had to tear it from my wife to bring it in, because she is a just engrossed in it.
KF: (laughing) Great.
HH: What’s your early reaction to Fall Of Giants?
KF: It’s been terrific. It’s, as you say, not many people have read it yet, but those that have read it have been enthusiastic, which is actually a great relief to me, because I’ve never really tried anything quite like this before. And I’m very, very pleased that people love it.
HH: Well, I’m going to come back around to Fall Of Giants repeatedly throughout the program. I’m going to try to alert people when it may be a spoiler, because I hate to have books spoiled for me.
KF: Sure, sure.
HH: But there are come characters I want to follow with you. But when you sat down to take on the 20th Century, did an ambition form in your mind that this was, I mean, after Pillars Of The Earth and World Without End, it’s not like you need to accomplish anything more. What was your ambition when you said okay, I’m going to do the 20th Century?
KF: Well, you know, I’ve had great success with two novels about the Middle Ages, the Pillars Of The Earth and World Without End. And they’re long novels. They’re not thrillers, which is the kind of book I started writing. They’re long, very dramatic novels set in a period of history. And I wanted to do something like that, but not for the Middle Ages again, because you know, you spend three years writing a book set in the Middle Ages, you’ve had enough Middle Ages. It’s okay for the reader who only spends, you know, a few weeks with it. So I wanted to do the same kind of thing that I’d done with the Pillars Of The Earth, but for a different period. And I thought wow, what is the most dramatic and intriguing and violent period of history? Actually, the period just passed, the 20th Century, was the age of terrible wars, huge dramas, great ideological conflicts between two people. And that is also the period that I’ve lived through, I was born in 1949, and my parents and my grandparents. So it’s set in history, but it’s such recent history that it really, we can really connect with it. I have a picture of my grandfather in a World War I British army uniform when he was 19. And so we have a direct connection.
HH: Did he fight with a Welsh regiment?
KF: No, he, my grandfather volunteered, but he had very poor eyesight, never drove a car, couldn’t see well enough to drive a car. So his military career was not very distinguished. I don’t think, I don’t think…he certainly didn’t go to France, thank God, because I probably wouldn’t be here if he had been sent to fight in the trenches.
KF: But no, Granddad had such poor eyesight that I don’t think they let him shoot at anybody, because he would have probably shot at the wrong people.
HH: Well, one of the many compliments I’ll pay you about Fall Of Giants is that revolutions are hard to get straight. Before 1789, I don’t know what’s going on, after 1815, I’ve got it down. And the Russian revolution, even though I’ve read Three Who Made A Revolution and all the standard texts, it’s still very confusing for an American.
HH: You are making it understandable, which I think is very important for people who just don’t quite understand what happened between the start of World War I and the assassination of the czar, and then the reds and the whites fighting it out. I mean, it’s very well done.
KF: Thank you very much. Well, that was part of my motivation, because although this is part of all of our history. There are a lot of things we don’t understand. You know, why was there a first world war? Nobody really understands why there was a first world war. So I thought that obviously, my first priority is for people to enjoy the story, for it to be a dramatic story about families that people get into, about people in danger, people falling in love, et cetera. But I also wanted people that when they put Fall Of Giants down, I want them to think that was great, and I understand a couple of things that I didn’t understand before.
HH: And I can’t wait for part two to come out.
KF: Well, thank you (laughing).
HH: What is your schedule? I will ask you this a little bit later. When do you expect part two to arrive?
KF: Well, I’m hoping that it’ll be published in two years’ time.
KF: And part three, two years after that.
HH: All right.
KF: That’s my ideal plan. It’s a little difficult, because they’re long books, and they need to be long, because that’s the kind of meaty story that I’m trying to write. But it does mean that I just have to work a little harder. I have to work Saturdays (laughing).
HH: I’m going to come to that, about the craft, in a little bit. A little biography first for people who have been reading your books for years. You were born June 5th, 1949 in Cardiff. You moved to London at ten.
HH: Why? Why did your family up and leave Wales?
KF: Well, all sensible Welsh people move to London sooner or later. And in those days, men like…my father was a tax inspector, and people like that were always moved around. And you know, he was moved from one city to another to kind of broaden his experience, just as corporations used to do with their executives, move them around. But also, actually, there is this kind of historical migration of Welsh people to London. It’s been going on for a couple of centuries.
HH: Do you still have ties back to Cardiff?
KF: Yeah, I have a few relatives left. I have an elderly aunt who’s still in Cardiff. And of course, all the stuff that you’ve read, all the Welsh scenes that you’ve read, that all comes, you know, I didn’t have to research all that. That really comes from my childhood. I remember those people who talked like that, and those coal miners. My mother remembered, lying as a girl, lying in bed in the morning and hearing when the night shift came off, came up out of the pit, the coal pit. The men would sing as they walked home through the town, and my mother remembers lying in bed as a little girl about Six o’clock in the morning and hearing the men singing as they came off the night shift.
HH: You see, that’s a remarkable opening to the book. Thirteen year old Billy Williams, Billy twice, Billy with Jesus. There are lots of Billy’s in this book, establishes right away what his life is like as sort of a plumb line for the beginning of the century. I appreciated, my great-grandfather was a coal miner in, after he left Ulster and came to Pennsylvania. I had no idea, so you’ve captured that. What about people who have worked in coal mines. Have they had a chance to see it yet and respond to it?
KF: Well, I had, of course, there are no coal mines left in the U.K. now. That whole coal industry has shut down. So that whole world is rapidly disappearing. But I did have those chapters read by an expert in the history of coal mining in South Wales. I actually had, I’ve got to tell you, I feel slightly embarrassed, I hired eight historians to read the first draft of Fall Of Giants, just because I needed specialists in each area – Russian revolution, First World War, suffragettes, American history. I needed a specialist in each area to make sure that I hadn’t made any areas.
HH: How did you pick your historians?
KF: Well, I basically picked the best in each field. You know, I have an overall advisor, Richard Overy, who’s a historian of the 20th Century, and I talked to him, and we say who’s the best person on the Russian revolution? And we get in touch with him and we say would you read this book in print?
HH: You know, that’s not unlike Churchill’s History Of The English Speaking People project. It wasn’t Churchill so much as it was his committee of dons who assembled to tell him what was right and what was wrong. That’s very interesting. Before me leave on, Billy establishes one thing early on, which is he’s got courage. He’s down in the mines, and they play the trick on him. Later on, you’ve got another character by the name of Owen Bevan. He’s a 16 year old, and he does not have courage. And that seems to me to be the central element of many of your characters, is whether or not they have courage. But they’ve got it at age 13. Where does it come from? Where do you think it comes from in people?
KF: I think that’s a very tough question. I think it’s probably, you know, you may inherit it, or it might be, it might be that people grow up in a secure family have it, and people who grow up in an insecure environment in which they’re always worried about what might happen, what might go wrong, will daddy ever come home, that kind of thing, it may be that it’s more difficult for those people to have courage. I don’t know, but I think you’re right. Certainly, some people have it. And in a dramatic situation, I think all young men, all young men think will I be brave? If I, you know, if something bad happens, will I be brave, or will I be a coward? Will I fall down and weep and beg for mercy, or will I stand tall like a man? All, I think we all had that question in our minds when we were, I don’t know, sixteen, didn’t we? And so when, in those situations, I think that for realism, that always occurs to the young man, how am I going to cope with this. And some people do it well, and some people do it badly.
HH: Is it part of your craft that you have to establish that virtue early in your heroes? And Billy is the hero of this book. Is it something you’ve just got to get done early?
KF: I think so. I think so. You can’t write a thrilling story about a guy who’s timid. In fact, characters in novels generally tend to be a little bit the other way. They generally tend to be a little bit too brave and impulsive, because if they weren’t, they would never get into trouble, and there wouldn’t be a story. So you have to, the heroes particularly, of this kind of dramatic story, have to be kind of, have to be a little too ready to meet conflict.
HH: The book I’m talking about is Fall Of Giants. The author, Ken Follett, author of more than thirty novels, international bestsellers all. The new book is out in bookstores now. It’s available at Amazon.com. We’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. Throughout today’s program, I’m going to be talking about Fall Of Giants, so I’ll try not to give too much away in the course of doing that. But be forewarned, there may be some spoilers in there, and I’ll be talking of course about the rest of Ken Follett’s work.
– – – –
HH: Ken Follett, not long ago, I interviewed Christopher Hitchens at length about his memoir, and he held up How Green Was My Valley as a book that profoundly and deeply influenced him as a young person. Is there such a book for you?
KF: Yes. When I was twelve years old, I read Live And Let Die, which is the second James Bond, meaty stuff for a twelve year old, but it just blew me away. I was, it was the best thing that had ever happened to me, that book. I was thrilled. It was so exciting, and the character was so admirable. And of course, as a young teenager, one of the things you admire and envy is a man who’s knowledgeable, who seems to know the world. And of course, James Bond knows everything about a lot of things that are very fascinating to a teenager. He knew about drinks, cocktails. You know, when I was twelve years old, I had never met anyone who’d ever drunk a martini (laughing). You know, and all that stuff was…so I just loved that. And when I started to write myself, what I wanted to do was create for my readers the kind of excitement that I had felt as a young man, as a boy, really, reading those James Bond stories.
HH: Did you ever meet Ian Fleming?
KF: No, no I never did.
HH: Quite an extraordinary life he lived.
HH: And so out of interesting lives comes interesting novels. How about teachers? Did you have any great teachers?
KF: Yeah, well I had the usual mixture of good and bad. And quite a lot of my school days, I was just bored out of my mind. But then I had one or two interesting ones, and I had an English teacher who gave me insight into poetry. And that’s really quite important, because poets use words terribly carefully. And I still read poetry, partly because I enjoy, but partly to remind me of how important it is just to pick the right word.
HH: Okay, in terms of when you decided you were going to work with words, how old were you when it said this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to be a writer of some sort?
KF: While I finished college, I got a job as a journalist, newspaper reporter. And so I guess I knew then that writing was going to be, probably going to be my career. But I wasn’t, but the newspapers were not my métier. And after I had been working in newspapers a little while, I started to, well, I wrote my first novel when I was working on a newspaper. And I began to realize that it was, books were my world rather than newspapers. And it’s the kind of, because I had imaginative writing. I had always got top marks for a story. I remember one occasion when I was called into the head teacher’s office and accused of plagiarizing a story, because they just didn’t believe that I could have made it up. And I had made it up. I had made it up. And I guess I was, well, I must have been nine, I think. And I had written this story, and it started with a plane crash. And I guess they thought that was too sophisticated for a nine year old who’d never been inside an airplane. But I had just made it up. So I…but it takes you a long time, I think, to learn the most obvious things about yourself. And it took me a few years to realize that my future, that the one thing I could do well was imaginative writing.
HH: You’ve written thirty, is it thirty novels?
KF: It’s actually twenty-seven.
HH: Okay, twenty-seven. I guess I’m counting the next two.
KF: Right (laughing).
HH: …in the trilogy, so it gets me up to twenty-nine when I was doing it. So that’s a remarkable output. And I read somewhere in preparing for this that you began in order to pay for a car repair. Is that just Ken Follett myth? Or is that true?
KF: No, that’s true. That’s true.
KF: My car broke down radically, as they say in California, and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed. And I had just moved to London, I had a new job, my daughter had just been born, so we had a new baby, a new mortgage, and I didn’t have two hundred pounds. And I went to the bank, and said will you lend me two hundred pounds to get my car fixed, and they said no. And there was another reporter on the Evening News, the paper I was working on, called Patrick Long, and he’d written a thriller, and a publisher had agreed to publish it, and he got an advance of two hundred pounds. So after I learned this, I went home and said to my wife, I know how we’re going to get the car back. I’m going to write a thriller. And she was like, oh yeah. But anyway, that’s what I did. I wrote it very quickly, it wasn’t very good, but it was good enough to be published, and I got two hundred pounds, and I got the car fixed. And then I thought if I tried a bit harder, maybe I could write a better book (laughing).
HH: And you used a pseudonym originally, did you not?
KF: That’s right. Yes, I was Simon Miles for that book. Well, I had an agent in those days who suggested a pseudonym, and I said why. And she said because one day, you might want to write something better.
HH: (laughing) And she was right, huh?
KF: She was right (laughing).
HH: An aside on agents. I’ve talked to a lot of novelists, a lot of thrillers, and they have love/hate relationships. Some love their agents, some hate them. What’s your overarching advice to young writers, and they always listen to these interviews, I’ve done a number of them, about agency and your starting out stuff?
KF: Well, the first thing is that you need an agent. You must have an agent, now, really, even more than when I was starting out, because now, very few publishers read typescripts that just come in the mail. Publishers just, if you’ve enclosed a stamped addressed envelope, they’ll send it back. If you haven’t, they’ll throw it away. But the one thing publishers don’t do anymore is read unsolicited typescripts. But agents do. So if you’re starting out, you’ve got a much better chance sending your typescript off to an agent. That’s kind of a really important thing nowadays. I have an agent, he’s semi-retired now, Al Zuckerman of Writer’s House. And we started out together in the 70s. He was trying to make it as an agent, and I was trying to make it as a bestselling author. And he really, he’s one of the few people in the world who can help me make my book better. That’s a rare talent, I mean, even among, you know, professional editors. They can give you some help. But Al is really, Al is really able to focus on, he’ll make criticisms that nobody else will make.
HH: All right, now tell me a little bit about when do you write, and are you writing just one book at a time.
KF: It’s always one at a time, and I write all day. You know, I like to start early. I’m kind of a lark. So I, quite often, I get up, and of course I make tea, because British people can’t do anything without tea. But otherwise, I go straight to my desk. I don’t get dressed. And I like to work for an hour or two before breakfast. And then, you know, with the usual breaks for getting dressed and having lunch, I work until about Five o’clock in the afternoon. And I do that six days a week. It’s kind of, it’s because I’m writing these long books.
HH: Do you start at the beginning and finish at the end? Or do you cycle back…
KF: Not really, no. Occasionally, I’ll realize that something I’m going in Chapter 12 really needs to be set up in Chapter 6. So in those circumstances, I might go back. Generally speaking, it’s start at the beginning, and go through to the end.
HH: More on the craft with Ken Follett. Don’t go anywhere.
– – – –
HH: By the way, Ken Follett, we were talking about the craft before the break. Do you know how this is going to end? You’ve got one-third of it here, all 979 pages of it. Do you know where you’re going?
KF: Well, I have a rough idea. I have a rough idea. The third book will be about the Cold War. And so the end of that book will be 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
HH: So I was going to ask when it ends.
HH: It ends there.
KF: Yeah, because I think that is the, although it’s not the end of the 20th Century, it’s so clearly the end of a period in our history, it’s the end of the Cold War, it’s the end of the whole, the dream and the nightmare of communism ended when that wall came down. And so I think that’s, in its way, that is really the end of the 20th Century. And then after that, it’s a new era.
HH: And why are you promoting a book? I’ve got to ask. You don’t have to promote anything. You’re Ken Follett, your books will sell. You don’t have to go out and do this sort of thing. Why are you doing it?
KF: Well, you know, you’re right I don’t have to, but you don’t have to do anything. And I always wanted to write books that millions of people would enjoy. And by the way, it took me a long time to get there. I wrote ten unsuccessful books. I told you earlier in the show about writing my first book to get my car fixed. My second book wasn’t a big bestseller, either. It was my eleventh book. So I spent years wanting that. And okay, now I’m in a different position, but I still, when I’ve written the book, I want to go out there and tell people. I want to say to people I’ve got a new book, I really hope you like it (laughing).
HH: Well, that’s fascinating to me. Now I, to prepare for the interview, I read Needle, Rebecca, reread these, Needle Rebecca, Wings Of Eagles, Pillars, World Without End, Man From St. Petersburg, and of course Fall Of Giants. Is there one you wish I had read that I didn’t to prepare for this, someone, a favorite child that I overlooked?
KF: I don’t think so. I mean, you’re a fast reader, because you’ve read a lot. I suppose before Fall Of Giants, my big favorite would be the Pillars Of The Earth, and that’s partly because quite a lot of people didn’t want me to write it. And you know, some of my publishers said look, you’ve had a lot of success with secret agents and the KGB and the CIA and Nazis, and so now, Ken, you’re going to write a book set in the Middle Ages? And it’s about building a church? Are you sure?
HH: You know, I often ask people at dinners and restaurants, and around my table, the book that’s had the most impact on them. And very often, Pillars Of The Earth is named. I’m sure you get that reaction from people. Of all your books, which one do they want to discuss with you the most?
KF: That’s the one that they most often name, is The Pillars Of The Earth. And so I’m fond of it for that reason, but also because I had a certain amount of resistance to it in the first place.
HH: Now it’s in the third hour of today’s interview, if I stick anywhere near to my outline. But I’ll put forward my own theory of why it’s such a grabbing book for people, and that’s because Prior Phillip is a genuinely good man, the charisma of maybe one of the best characters in fiction. Why do you think people just love that book so deeply?
KF: Well, I think you’re right about Prior Phillip. He has the force of moral authority. He does what he think is right, and he’s got the guts to do what he think is right, even when it’s risky, when it’s physically dangerous, or when he’s endangering his position as prior and so on. He’s got the guts to do what he think is right. He’s also smart. He’s not dumb. He doesn’t jump off the cliff. He’s clever, and he often comes up with a clever solution to a problem or a threat. But I think you’re right. That shines through. And in the mini-series, he was played by Matthew MacFadyen.
HH: Yeah, I haven’t seen the mini-series.
KF: It’s great, and I imagined Prior Phillip as a rather small, slight man. Not a big physical presence, a big moral presence. Matthew MacFadyen, great actor, but he’s six foot five, and of course, very good looking. People on television usually are good looking. But he played Prior Phillip very well indeed, because although he’s a big man, he managed to have the combination of humility and irresistible stubborn moral courage.
HH: And deep faith. I think there’s something about that as well. I’ve got to go to the break. Very quickly, why did you pick Buffalo as the hook for the United States in Fall Of Giants?
KF: Well, I wanted to have a Russian family in the United States, and I looked to see where the first Russian orthodox church was built, and it was built in Buffalo.
HH: How fascinating. We’ll be right back. Ken Follett is my guest.
– – – –
HH: You will love this book, and don’t take my word for it. Take that of my wife, who was so engrossed in it, well, another story, another day. I want to go back to something I missed, by the way, Ken Follett. To whom do you hope to be compared, the work that you’ve done, the work that you intend to do?
KF: You know, that is a very difficult question. And I really don’t know. And also, to some extent, I don’t really think like that, because authors are not competitive. It’s not a zero sum game. You know, if six authors write really great books, then the stores will sell six times as many books. It’s not…so I don’t really feel, in that way, competitive. What I think, I don’t think about other authors. I think about the reader. And I think about somebody who’s opening this book and reading a few lines, and getting lost in it. That’s what I think about it.
HH: Do you want to be read two hundred years from now?
KF: Well, I won’t be around to know, so I kind of, I won’t get any satisfaction out of it. I do think that’s a measure of quality. You know, in the, I like to mention two friends who were Victorian novelists together, Charles Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton. They were both huge bestsellers, both very popular in their time, and they were friends. They talked a lot. In fact, Bulwer-Lytton convinced Dickens to change the end of Great Expectations. That’s how close they were. Now? Dickens is everywhere. We read Dickens, we see movies, the musical Oliver is on in London right now. Bulwer-Lytton is forgotten. So history, you know, the future will judge who’s good. But the thing about being an author is we won’t be there to know.
HH: It’s the sieve that it is. Now back to the president in Fall of Giants. Wilson plays a role in this. Have you read, by chance, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism?
KF: Oh, no. I don’t think I’ve read that book.
HH: All right. It’s a very different view of Wilson. Do you admire Wilson?
KF: Yeah, I came to. I came to when I studied his presidency during this period. I like his idealism. He was one of the people who said there must never be another war like this. He didn’t want to take America into the first world war. He kind of was pushed by circumstances into doing so. And afterwards, he said there must never be, and he had a plan to prevent it. Now the plan didn’t work, and there was another war. But nevertheless, I like his idealism.
HH: Wilson is featured prominently in Fall of Giants, America. We’ll come back and talk about that, as is the fictional character, Gus Dewar, who set out of Buffalo, the son of a senator, a young advisor to Wilson, wonderful character. Before we go back to that, though, I want to talk to you a little bit about you. You are a man of the left.
HH: You’re a supporter of the Labour Party.
HH: And I’m a man of the right, and that’s fine. But I’m fascinated by this. You’re supporting Ed Balls in the Labour leadership?
KF: That’s right, yeah.
HH: Now that will be voted on what, September 22nd or thereabouts?
KF: That’s right.
HH: So we’re taping this interview before that. Why Ed Balls?
KF: Well, I know him very well, so I’m intimately familiar, so I have enormous confidence. He’s been a friend of mine for twenty years. We’ve gone on holiday together. He’s been a guest at my house many times. So I know the man.
HH: Smart guy?
KF: And he is, he’s probably the smartest man I’ve ever met. He is very, very smart. But he’s also a very good practical politician. And during the period of the Blair, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments, my main interest was in education. And towards the end of that period, Ed was secretary of state for education, and I liked what he did. I’ve been very interested, for example, in teaching children to read. It was something that in the 90s, we were very bad at in Britain, and we’ve improved enormously. It’s the, for me, it’s the most important achievement of the Blair/Brown government. And Ed was part of that.
HH: Why are you a member of the Labour Party? Why your politics?
KF: Well, I suppose if, I suppose if you passionately believe in making the world a better place for your grandchildren, then you want things to change. And taking it down to the absolutely bottom line, I think the left, the Labour Party in my country, the Democrats in this country, are the people who want to change things. And I see conservatism, I hope this won’t offend you, I see conservatism as being, conservatives say we’ve got to hold on, at all costs, we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got. And I say no, that’s not the important thing. The important thing is to make it better. And I think that’s, for me, that’s the left-right difference. You’ll have a different definition.
HH: Well, what’s fascinating to me is having read all these books of yours from start to finish in a period of maybe two months, you have a very sophisticated view of the aristocracy, and of the Conservative Party. And on the one hand, you’ve got Fitzherbert, who is a very interesting, complicated character who has got courage, but maybe as stupid as this desk, and then you’ve got Lord Walden, who’s a very enlightened aristocrat in Man From St. Petersburg. So you’re not, you’re not an anti-aristo in the way that Orlov is, or some of these other people. But at the same time, you clearly are siding with the working man. I was wondering if it was something you were born into, if your Labour politics are part of Ken Follett’s genetic DNA.
KF: Well, that may well be so, because I come from Wales, and Wales is left wing in politics. And it’s also non-conformist in religion. Not many Welsh people go to the church of, the established church or the Catholic church. Welsh people have, they all have their own little chapels. In fact, there’s a joke about a Welshman cast away on a desert island, and he builds two chapels. And when they rescue him ten years later, they say why did you build two, and he said, he points at one of them, and he says that’s the one I don’t go to (laughing).
HH: Well that is, that comes through in Fall of Giants when Billy Twice and his whole family are going off to this, and then they have the terrible accident, and they’ve all got to go to one chapel, and which one do they go to. So that was really, I had no idea, and I kind of know my church history a little bit. So anyway, back to this. What’s your idea of Fitzherbert? He’s the key to Fall of Giants in many ways. Do you admire him in any respect? He’s a bounder, but he’s got physical courage. And the last speech of Billy in the Parliament is against him in many respects. But what you do think?
KF: Well, I think it’s kind of, it would be boring if Fitzherbert was a cliché, you know, if he was a walking, if he was a sort of pompous, strutting, foolish aristocrat. You can’t write novels, a left winger or a right winger, you can’t write novels in which one side is all good, and one side is all bad. You have to write them as believable people who are interesting. And so Fitzherbert is a very attractive man, even though his ideas, his ideas are kind of dumb. But you also have to take into account where he comes from. You know, he has been brought up in an aristocratic family. How would he ever find out that the world is not quite as it’s been painted?
HH: I’ll be right back with Ken Follett. How would he find out indeed. He’d have to read novels. That’s the point of novels. Lots still ahead. Don’t go anywhere.
– – – –
HH: A short segment, Ken Follett, a couple of quick questions. Pinsky is a sinister character in Fall Of Giants. Is he Beria? Is he Stalin springing to life? And you just talked about one-dimensional, he’s one-dimensionally evil. What’s his role going to be?
KF: Well, he represents…but he’s a secondary character. Now there are some people in the world who are just bad.
KF: They’re not very interesting. But in a novel like this, I’ve got, there are people, there are Russian Bolsheviks who are sophisticated and clever, and are interesting in that way. But there were also people who did the shooting and torturing, and they were brutes. And so you do, in a novel, you do need to have some real brutes. Not everybody can be intriguing and complex. And that’s Pinsky. He represents the brutal reality of Bolshevism.
HH: He’s sinister, he’s a great character, even though he’s minor. Now to close this hour, I’ve done these long interviews with Daniel Silva, Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Piers Paul Read, Steven Pressfield, Alex Berenson, Robert Ferrigno, C.J. Box. I like doing these. Is there someone you read that you would be fascinated to hear an in-depth interview with? Is there anyone out there that you just compulsively read in this genre of both thriller and historical novel?
KF: Well, the name that came into my mind as you were saying that was Edith Wharton. She’s no longer alive, so tragically, nobody can interview her. But I reread her. I read and reread her books. She generally writes about moral dilemmas. And she’s so, her plotting is just perfect. She, you know, she gets her characters kind of gradually into a situation where they have to make a real difficult moral decision. And she just paints the picture so accurately of what they’re going through, that I, she’s one of the authors that I read, and I think I wish I could do that. I wish I was more like that.
HH: Who else besides Edith Wharton?
KF: Well, let’s think. I suppose, then, I suppose George Eliot, who in some ways would be a similar author. She also makes me think that. Why can’t I do that?
HH: And where do you get your current information from? Which newspapers, and do you read bloggers?
KF: Not very much. I use the internet a lot. I used to, twenty years ago, I used to look at the Encyclopedia Britannica about once a day. Now, I haven’t looked at it for years. Google has taken its place. Of course, you have to be careful with Google. You also have to double-check, but nevertheless, that has completely changed the way I work.
HH: Are your newspapers dying, the ones that you love? Are you a Guardian guy?
KF: No, the, one of the things I love about coming to the United States is to read the New York Times. It’s one of the few newspapers left that really has a commitment to telling the truth.
HH: Well, we’ll agree with you so far as John Burns is concerned. But beyond that, we won’t go there.
– – – –
HH: Ken Follett, I want to go back to Eye Of The Needle. Is that your first major, supernova bestseller?
KF: Yeah, it was my first success. It was actually the first good book I wrote. And I had this, I was reading in those days about deception during World War II, and the enormously elaborate plan that the Allies had to make the Germans think that we were going to invade France at Calais rather than Normandy. And I thought if they would only, if there had been only one German spy in England, on the ground, who could have seen the things they did, they constructed, for example, fields full of aircraft which were not real aircraft. They were made of cardboard. All this was done by movie people. They had inflatable rubber tanks. They had barracks for an army in the east of England, where there was no army. And so the German reconnaissance planes would come across, see all this activity, and they would think it was going to be Calais, whereas as we all know, it was actually Normandy. And I just thought there’s an example where a spy could have changed the course of history. And in spy stories, you’re often looking for that. But maybe in novels in general, you’re looking for where one person, one man or woman, can make a big difference to the way everything turns out. So that was the idea for, and it was probably one of the best ideas I ever had.
HH: I was, as I reread it, and I probably read it in ’78 or ’79 when it came out, the year I graduated from college, I was struck that it has endured. Does it continue to sell very well? It ought to.
KF: It does. It does, yeah.
HH: Yeah, I’m not surprised.
HH: Here’s an excerpt I want to talk to you a little bit about. On Page 438, you write, “General Guderian was exactly the kind of aristocratic Prussian officer Rommel hated. He’d known him for some time. They had both, in their early days, commanded the Goslar Jager Battalion. And they had met again during the Polish campaign. When Rommel left Africa, he had recommended Guderian to succeed him, knowing the battle was lost. The maneuver was a failure, because at that time, Guderian had been out of favor with Hitler, and the recommendation was rejected out of hand.” Now in that paragraph, there’s more history than most college students will get in four years at university. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it really worked. When you start at the beginning of a novel, whether Eye of the Needle of Fall Of Giants thirty years later, do you want to teach at the same time that you’re entertaining?
KF: Well, yes, but the teaching has to be secondary. You don’t, people don’t want to be lectured. And it was very important to me in Eye Of The Needle, and it’s very important in Fall Of Giants that it’s not a history book. It’s a novel. It’s an exciting story. But yeah, that’s quite a nice little paragraph about Rommel and Guderian.
HH: It is. It’s a wonderful paragraph.
KF: I’m pleased. I had forgotten it.
HH: There’s also a fascinating thing. Again, you can only do this if you’re reading backwards. Your villain, is it Faber? Do you pronounce it…
KF: Yeah, Faber, yes.
HH: Faber, and Godliman, who is your hero, they meet before this chase begins. They meet in a cathedral.
HH: Now this is years before you wrote Pillars Of The Earth. And I stopped and I said you write the choir was Romanesque, the nave, Gothic, but in one choir was one Gothic arch. And the two of them have this conversation. This is years before Pillars Of The Earth that you’re writing about cathedrals in Eye Of The Needle.
HH: So I gather your interest in them preceded…
KF: Yeah, yes. In fact, in 1976, I had the idea for the Pillars Of The Earth.
HH: Okay, so it does…
KF: And I actually wrote a few chapters, and an outline, and I showed it to my agent, Al Zuckerman, who I was talking about earlier in the show, and he said it really wasn’t very good, and he was right. And I set it aside. And I think the truth is that at that point in my career, I couldn’t have done the Pillars Of The Earth. It was too ambitious for me when I was 27. And I came back to the idea ten years later, having been a professional writer for ten years, and I had acquired some more skills and some more craft. And I think at 37, I was able to write a novel that I had not been able to write at 27.
HH: And at 57, you started this, Fall Of Giants?
KF: That’s, yeah, that’s about right, 58, yeah.
HH: Are you at the top of your game? Are you writing better now than you have ever written before?
KF: Well, I feel that. It’s a very immodest thing to say, but I feel that. I feel I’m writing better than ever.
HH: Okay, because that, I won’t compare it with Pillars, other people will. It compares very, very well with both of them. Small details, back to Eye Of The Needle, Old Tom the shepherd shoots an eagle on Storm Island. And you have a little aside about shepherds shooting eagles. Is that true? Did you research that? Or did you just make that up?
KF: You know, it’s, I couldn’t be sure, because it’s a hell of a long time ago. But it’s not the kind of thing I would have made up. I probably knew about that.
HH: And there are a couple of old spinsters who are critical to this, and they’re using their gas rationing coupons. Again, where do you, is that something that you’d read deeply in the life of World War II Britain and decided that you wanted to borrow into that?
KF: Yeah, I had to do that, because I was born in 1949, so I have no memories of the war. But I was aware that life in wartime England was very different from just ten years later. My earliest memories are in the early 50s. So first of all, I had to research it, and then, that was then I started something that I’ve done ever since, which is when I finished the first draft, show it to somebody who knows more than I do about the subject, and say would you read this, and make a note of any errors. And I had a couple of people reading Eye Of The Needle. I had a friend who was a television dramatist who was reading it chapter by chapter, and he, a man older than myself, and he remembered the war. And he was able to say you know, that you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t buy bacon, or you can buy eggs, or whatever it was. And he was able to correct me.
HH: Oh, it’s great detail. Now the sex scenes. I want to get there. They’re all throughout your books. You have a lot of sex in all of your books, and some people find it off-putting. Some people buy it for that reason. Did you set out to sell books by including sex? Or is it just part of life that you feel a novelist has to include in the detail in which you include it?
KF: Yeah, by the time I started writing novels, it was no longer possible to sell a book just because it was sexy. I think maybe ten years earlier in the 60s, the fact that there was explicit sex in a book, I remember as a teenager, you know, thirteen or fourteen, somebody brought a copy of the Carpetbaggers to school by Harold Robbins. And we all read with great fascination at some of those sex scenes. It was educational for us. Heck.
KF: But by the time I started, you couldn’t do that, so it was no longer a commercial thing. So no editor has ever said to me you need more sex. Or, indeed, they’ve never said you need less sex. That basically, it’s about the story. And it’s been like that all through my career. But I think, I always have a love story. And of course, most love stories are Romeo and Juliet. Two people love each other, but they can’t be together for some reason. And so for a couple of hundred pages, they’re yearning for one another. They look at one another across a crowded room, or they wish they could be together, or they write letters. And then, after a long period of this happening, you bring them together. And maybe at the end of the book, or maybe halfway through, they come together. And I think modern readers want to know okay, what happened then. So I tell them. I think it’s part of the story.
HH: Well, it’s very interesting. In World Without End and Pillars Of The Earth, the sex there is actually part of the education of how medieval times existed – the Great Hall sex, and the necessity of breeding, and blessing marriages later.
HH: It’s just part of the fabric of life. Have you lost readers because of it?
KF: Oh, I think so, because I do occasionally get letters from readers who say I was enjoying your book enormously, and then I was very disappointed to find that there was this explicit sex scene. Or sometimes, it’s what people perceive as bad language. It’s curse words and so on. And there are a few people, and I very much regret losing them. But I don’t think it would be right to change my style for them. I think this is the right way to write in the era that we live in.
HH: And now that the internet has made it possible, how much do you communicate with your readers? Or do you try and stay away from their criticisms? And how much do you care about critics, generally?
KF: Well, first of all, I care much more about the readers than about critics. Readers write to me all the time. On my website, you can leave a message for me. And I see a lot of those. If somebody, I get a lot of the same questions. So if somebody says what’s your next book, everybody gets the same answer to that, because there’s only one answer to it. But if somebody asks a question that isn’t standard, then it comes to me, and I answer it myself. So I see a lot of my emails. And sometimes, people say I didn’t like your latest book. Sometimes, I write back to them and say could you tell me a bit more about it, which takes people by surprise a little. But if people really, if somebody was really unhappy and didn’t enjoy the book, I would like to know a bit more about why, so I do ask them.
HH: Do you think the quality of reviewing has declined over the last twenty years as newspapers have lost the ability to spend much on book reviews?
KF: I think that’s certainly true, but you have to remember that a book reviewer is not reading the book for the same reason. A book reviewer always has in the back of his mind that he has to write an article about this. And that gives him a different slant. So really, I take much more notice of ordinary readers who say I loved it, or now and again, I hated it. And that’s really, that’s good information for me. The people who don’t like the sex scenes, for example, are quite interesting. Sometimes, women ask me about violent scenes, and say that was too violent.
HH: I’ll be right back with Ken Follett. The brand new book is Fall Of Giants.
– – – –
HH: To prepare, if you’re just joining us, I went back and reread a number of Follett books before Fall Of Giants. And I return to one of those now, Key To Rebecca. This is fascinating, Ken. You wrote about Egypt during the war, but in so doing, you have a quasi-Muslim terrorist. He’s a spy, but he’s a terrorist, and he’s a bad man, Wolf. And before that was a common feature of fiction, have you reread it since 9/11, and since the war with the jihadists began?
KF: No, no. I haven’t reread it. I very rarely reread my books, actually, after they’ve been published. Of course, I read them many times before publication, because you have to check the proofs, and you have to check the copy-edited typescript. But I very rarely reread. But I obviously remember the character played in the mini-series, interestingly, by David Soul.
HH: Oh, I didn’t even see the mini-series. I didn’t know there was one. Okay. So in terms of, does this continue to sell, because I think it remains a fascinating look into Egypt and the world of Arabs, vis-à-vis Europeans.
KF: Yes, it certainly does continue to sell. And you’re right. Of course, at this time, during the Second World War, Egypt was basically run by the British. And British people thought it was outrageous that Egyptian politicians wanted to be independent, a situation that will be familiar to students of American history. The same thing happened. People thought that the Egyptians didn’t have any right to rule themselves. So that situation is in the Key To Rebecca, and that’s part of the dynamic.
HH: You’ve also got a Jewish character, Abigail Asnani, who is Elene, and you’ve got Jews throughout your books, the ones that I’ve reread. Bernie is the key Jewish figure in Fall Of Giants. Is that part of just the nature of storytelling? Or is it, there’s a thread through the 20th Century that you’ve got to deal with, which is the Jews’ quest for a homeland, and how it came to be?
KF: I think it’s part of the, just part of the world that I live in. And at one stage, interesting thing happened to me in a book shop on 5th Avenue in New York. It was just like twenty years ago. Two women came in to get their book signed, two very well-dressed black women came in, and they were having a good time. I guess they were out shopping, and they had bought the book, and they came to get it signed. And they were having fun, and they said we love your books, but there’s not enough color in your books. There should be more color in your books. And I though, you know, I though most of the people in my stories are white. And these women were right. I don’t live in a world of white people. I live in London, an enormously multicultural city. Hell, my family isn’t all white, either. You know, we have different races in my family. Why would I write about white people all the time? And after that, I realized that if I was going to represent the modern world, I should have characters of all races in my stories.
HH: Oh, interesting. And you’ve got in Fall Of Giants homosexuals. It’s very interesting that that would enter in, and you’ve got them, of course, in Pillars Of The Earth, the Monkish life and…was that part of the outgrowth of that as well?
KF: Yeah. It’s part of painting the world as it really is. And once again, I’ve had a little negative reaction to that, and I’ve had a few letters that say I like your stories, but I don’t want to read about lesbians, or I don’t want to read about homosexual men. And there, I have to say to people look, I’m really sorry if I’m going to lose you as a reader, but I write about the world the way it is.
HH: Going back to Key To Rebecca, there’s another young Billy here, like there’s a young Billy in Fall Of Giants.
KF: Is there really? I’d forgotten that.
HH: Well, Billy’s the son of Vandam.
KF: Of course he is, yeah.
HH: And so you’ve got young Billies all over. But you’ve got father and son issues throughout many of your novels. And I’m just curious, is that intentional? Or is that just a good storyline to develop?
KF: I think it’s, that comes from my life. I was 19 when my son, my first son was born, quite young. So right from the start, that whole father/son thing, of course, all of us men are sons also, so we know that relationship. But also, the relationship, there’s a small, there’s a four year old boy in Eye Of The Needle, and you know, that was written in, what, ’77? My son was a bit older then. My son was nine then. So there’s often a child in the story, and that’s because from really an unusually young age, nineteen’s quite young to have your first child. That was such an important part of my life. And then I have, then later on, I married a second time, and I acquired a lot of step-children. And so the Pillars Of The Earth is the first book in which I have that kind of family, just because it had happened to me, and I understood those issues by then.
HH: Oh, how fascinating. And in this one, I’m just trying to think off the fly, you’ve got Grigori, who’s got the strange relationship with his brother’s son, who becomes his son. And so you’re doing it again.
KF: That’s right. Yes, we’ve got Grigori and Lev, who are very different brothers in this story. That’s actually based on a true story, you know. A friend of mine told me about his mother. His mother had two brothers, and the three of them were in St. Petersburg in 1913, saving up to go to America. They got enough money to send one of them, and the brothers sent their kid sister, and she came to the United States. Then the war broke out, and the brothers were conscripted into the army, became part of the revolution, and never went to America. And so that, and that story, he must have told me that story twenty years ago. And that story just stayed in my mind. And that’s where I got the idea to have Grigori and Lev, one of whom, they both want to go to America. One gets there, one stays behind.
HH: And I won’t, a foreshadowing here, I won’t tell you how that works out, but you’re going to have to, we’re going to see them a lot coming back. Last question about the writing, in Rebecca, you’ve got a villain who’s insane, and progressively going insane. And you write in longer and longer paragraphs, and more and more disjointed stuff. Is it hard to write inside the mind of an insane person? Did you have any guide to that like Faulkner in Sound And The Fury or something like that?
KF: Well, it’s, I don’t recall whether I had a guide. What’s difficult about it is that you, the reader still has to understand what’s going on. So if you’re going to do some, if you’ve got a villain who is going crazy, you don’t want to get to the point where the reader thinks it’s a waste of time reading this because it’s all crazy stuff. So that’s the trick, is to actually make it make sense, even though he’s a crazy man.
HH: Of all your villains, do you have a favorite villain?
KF: Well, I really like, well of course, there’s William Hamleigh in the Pillars Of The Earth.
HH: I read in one of your interviews that he often comes up.
KF: Yes. Yeah, and people say to me, halfway through the book, they say I was thinking why doesn’t he kill this man off?
HH: It’s like Ralph in World Without End. Why don’t you kill him off, too? But you know, they’re necessary evils. They’re both great warriors, aren’t they?
KF: There wouldn’t be so much of a story if these villains weren’t in the story. So yeah.
HH: But they endure. All right, back to Fall Of Giants. You’ve got some sweeping things here. Billy goes from a 13 year old miner to a sergeant in the trenches, to Parliament. And you know, he’s got a big speech. And is that Ken Follett’s political theory, that speech at the end of Fall Of Giants, Volume 1?
KF: It’s, yeah, I would endorse a lot of what Billy says in his politics. But the important thing about Billy is that what happened to him, and what happens to his family, that is they go from being at the very bottom of society, they’re coal miners, very hard, brutal industry. And through the 20th Century, they become completely different people. And they progress, and that is the story of so many of us. It’s the story of my family, my grandfather, when he was 13 years old, the other one, not the one who joined the army. The other grandfather went down a coal mine at the age of 13.
HH: Wow. Hold that thought. We’ll be right back with Ken Follett.
– – – –
HH: Back to Fall Of Giants. You were saying the sweep of this book is about people rising. It’s also about people falling.
HH: Walter and Otto fall from the heights of Junker kind of Prussian nobility to a role of Gompers, really. There’s a Gompers in Wales, and he ends up, Otto, this aristocrat, ends up being a Gompers at the end. Are you going to reverse these flows again and again in the next two books in this sequence?
KF: No, I think because the story of the 20th Century is that a lot of that is the story of ordinary people who made their own lives better, not just in Great Britain, but in the United States and in other European countries. The progress that was made in the 20th Century, this was done by ordinary people who said I’m going to make life better for my children and grandchildren, and so they started political parties, they started trade unions to fight for things like better safety in mines, and this kind of thing. They did it themselves, and that’s what I find admirable about those people, and that’s why I’ve written several people like this. It’s true of the women, also. At the beginning of the 20th Century, it’s widely acknowledged that women should, women are inferior, and they must be kept in their place. And so I have women in Fall Of Giants who don’t believe this, refuse to believe this, and fight for a better deal for women. And I, that’s…so I write about this, because I find that very admirable.
HH: You write a lot about women.
HH: And you write a lot about the suffragettes. And in fact, you’ve got, I’m trying to remember her name in Man From St. Petersburg, the famous suffragette who gives a long speech, Mrs. Panker?
KF: Yeah, the Pankhurst women were great suffragettes, yeah.
HH: Yeah, Pankhurst. And so when did you become, it’s in Fall Of Giants, it’s in Man From St. Petersburg. When did you become interested in the suffragette movement, which gets more treatment in your books than I’ve ever seen in any other book?
KF: Well, when I was at university in the 60s, we were all very political, and we were all very democratic. And I remember the moment when somebody said if we all believe in equality, how come it’s always the girls who do the typing and make the tea? And I remember thinking my goodness, that’s true. I never thought of that. And that was the moment when the second wave of feminism started. And I was so struck by that, and then of course I married my second wife, Barbara, who’s a famous feminist.
KF: And needless to say, I’ve been highly influenced by her, too.
HH: But you’ve also got, very interesting, Lady Maude, in Fall Of Giants, is an aristocratic suffragette, and Ethel is a working-class suffragette. And they have a falling out, because class divides the suffragettes. That was subtle. That can’t sit too well with the feminist left, does it?
KF: Well, you know, that’s what happened. There was a big division. When the British Parliament decided to give the vote to women, but only women over thirty instead of, it was men over 21, but it only women over 30. The suffragettes were terribly split. Some said we should take what we can get. Some said look, that still discriminates against women. We must say no to it. And there was a political split, and that’s reflected in the quarrel between Maude and Ethel.
HH: You see, I didn’t know that until I read Fall Of Giants. Was that something that wrote itself in? Or did you intend, as you began to write a trilogy of the century, to include that particular moment?
KF: Well, I think the challenge with this kind of story is to make the history part of the destinies of these characters. So you tell, I tell what actually happened, but it must be a drama for the individuals, not just a historical drama, because that’s what a novel is. A novel is about the individuals. So that was one of the moments where I took something that really happened, and fitted it into a personal relationship.
HH: It’s very well done. Now you’ve got, again, rich people in here, the Dewars in Buffalo, and all the aristocrats, etc. You’ve achieved quite significant wealth now. You’ve sold 100 million books. Has your view of wealth changed in the course of that?
KF: I guess it has. I guess when I was a young man, I thought it was, I kind of imagined that rich people had it easy. And actually, I now find that the rich people I know work much harder than the poor people I know. And that was something that I didn’t realize when I was a kid. So yeah, it of course changes you. It’s hard to disentangle that from the changes that come over you as you get older. And you mellow, and you tend to take a broader view of things. When you’re young, good thing that young people are, angry about injustice. I mean, that’s a good thing. I don’t criticize that at all. It’s often young people who change the world and make it a better place. But when you’re young, you see things fairly simply, and you’re angry, and you want change, and you want it now.
HH: We’ll be right back to continue that conversation with Ken Follett.
– – – –
HH: It’s a magnificent read. You will really enjoy it, but I’m hoping that you also may find the exercise I went through very useful to you, which is to go back and reread a number of the other books I’ve been mentioning. One of them, which I haven’t until now, Wings Of Eagles. Now 131 employees of EDS, 220 dependents when the Iranian revolution breaks out, Ken Follett, when I reread this, it reminded me of how utterly incompetent the Carter administration was, I mean, just utterly incompetent. Given your politics, it must have been painful to write. But how did you come to write this book, which is so not everything else you did?
KF: Well, the rescue team were a little worried, because a number of writers were kind of sniffing around this story, and thinking of writing a book about it. and they talked about it with Ross Perot, and they decided that if there was probably going to be a book anyway, and they would like it to be a good book. So they agreed that they would cooperate with a writer. And then, the way Ross tells the story, Ross Perot and Margot were in bed one evening, and Ross said to Margot, who do you think should write the book about the rescue? And Margot said well, this guy’s good, and she was reading Eye Of The Needle. And I don’t think Ross even, I don’t think they knew that I was British. You know, Ross Perot’s a very patriotic American, and I think he might have, if he’d known I was British, he might have said no, we’ll have an American write it. But anyway, they contacted me, and I thought this is intriguing. Texas, Iran, computer businessman from Dallas? This is a world that I don’t know anything about. Wouldn’t it be good for my education to get to know some of these people? And I got to know, and I’m still pals with Perot. He had his 80th birthday a few weeks ago, and I went to his birthday party in Bermuda. He’s such an interesting guy. Politics very different from mine, he’s very conservative. But I love the guy. He’s so smart, and so funny, and I had a great time writing that book.
HH: Did you stay in touch with Bull Simons, who I assume has gone on to his reward at this point?
KF: Yeah, in fact, Bull Simons had died by the time I came to write the book.
KF: He died relatively young.
HH: How about the other…Keane Taylor is a fascinating character in here, because he’s the brunt of all the jokes, but he’s very, very good at what he does. The rest of the team, have you touched base with them occasionally?
KF: I’m out of touch now with most of them. I still talk to Merv Stauffer occasionally, and I see Jay Coburn occasionally. Jay Coburn, of course, really the hero of the story.
HH: It’s an amazing book. Again, it must continue to sell. You’ve been very blessed…
KF: It does.
HH: …in doing this. Now what happened to Dadgar? This is the, who’s the character in Les Miserables? The inspector, Javert?
KF: Yeah, that’s right.
HH: He’s just this crazy, crazy…
KF: Yeah, bad guy. The prosecutor, yeah.
HH: Yeah. What happens to him?
KF: Yeah, well you know, believe it or not, he showed up in Dallas when there was eventually a trial. But he kept his head down. He was a little, I think he was a little worried about what might happen to him in an unofficial sense. But nothing did, of course. But there was that trial in Dallas which exonerated the EDS people, and Dadgar was actually here for that. And then, he just disappeared into obscurity.
HH: And into the revolution.
KF: And whatever’s happening now.
HH: You’ve written a lot about revolutions.
HH: And the Iranian revolution, you have Bull Simons saying all revolutions follow the same pattern. And I was thinking about that in light of Fall Of Giants, and Man From St. Petersburg. Do you agree with that?
KF: I think so, yeah. A.J.P. Taylor, the historian, said every revolution is the beating down of a rotten door. And I think the thing about revolutions is that they happen when there’s nothing there to, there’s no good government structure there to resist them. And that was certainly true in Fall Of Giants in the Russian revolution. One of the things that’s so striking, as you read step by step in Fall Of Giants, is how relatively easy some of these things were – taking of the Winter Palace, which has been portrayed as a great battle. It was not a great battle. It was taken fairly easily. The abdication of the czar – it wasn’t a big struggle. He just finally gave up. And I think that’s probably true in Iran. There was nothing in Iran that made people think we want to keep this, this is good for us, we want to keep it. And when people feel like that, then there’s room for a revolution.
HH: Now in terms of there’s some kind words, or at least an emerging portrait of Trotsky, which is somewhat more sympathetic than the portrait that is there of Lenin, which is ruthless, and I think accurately conveyed. And a lot of people on the left, and I’m not attributing this to you, though, retain a nostalgia for Trotsky. Are you one of them?
KF: Absolutely not.
HH: Good, good. Because he was a killer, too.
KF: And there is, yeah, well there’s a line, I think there’s a line in Fall Of Giants where Grigori says to himself, Trotsky was almost as brutal as Lenin, but he had more charm.
HH: I just was in St. Petersburg three weeks ago, and I made the observation which is not new, that no one goes to St. Petersburg to see anything that the Soviets built or did, nothing. They all go there to see what the czars left behind. And you write extremely well about the whites versus the reds. Would history have been better had the whites won?
KF: Isn’t that a tough question, but it’s an interesting question. I think that Russia could not go on the way it was going on. And here’s why. The successful countries at the beginning of the 20th Century had, well, the United States, France, and Britain, they had political systems which could cope with change. In Britain, for example, the British ruling class, in the end, they always gave into the working class, in the end. They might resist, Fitzherbert resists like hell, but in the end, they say all right. And that’s a political system that can accommodate change. And the United States had it, and France had a political system that could adjust. And the countries that had terrible revolutions were the countries that didn’t have that. And Russia was one of those. There was no way the Russian political system under the czars could accommodate the changes, industrialization and the demands of the new working class. It couldn’t cope, and so they had a revolution. I think that’s the difference.
HH: Do you see that happening in Egypt right now? I mean, there are, these Arab states have no ability, they’re like the czars, they have no ability to evolve, except in Iraq where we broke the china.
KF: I think that’s probably true, and I think that’s true…at the beginning, one of the great empires in 1913, was the Ottoman Empire. And that was an empire that was run by a priesthood. And priesthoods are always ultraconservative. And that’s really why the Ottoman Empire failed, because it was, because the priesthood ran it, and they couldn’t cope with change.
– – – –
HH: It’s a short segment, Ken Follett. One of the most memorable characters of everything that I reread is Felix, the revolutionary in Man From St. Petersburg, hard to both love and hate someone. Very hard. Is that difficult to write, someone that you both, your reader will both love and loathe?
KF: No, it’s not actually that difficult. It’s not actually that difficult. The point is that when you have a villain who is moving the story along, as the reader, you’re going to spend a lot of time with him, or her. And so he has to have, he has to be attractive. He has to have some charm, some nice things. Because if he’s completely black-hearted, I worry, at any rate, that the reader will get to a point and think I don’t want to read about this guy anymore. So sometimes, it’s important to create, to have a villain who although wicked, it likeable. And actually, it’s not that hard to do. Actually, literature is full of lovable rogues, and black-hearted people who have charm and sex appeal and so on. So it’s not that difficult. You make him do bad things. You can make him selfish and ruthless and brutal. But you can make him charming and sexy, amusing, intelligent.
HH: And who do you think is the most interesting character in Fall Of Giants? You know, you haven’t had public reaction yet to this. We’re taping this before it’s really out there. Who do you think the public is going to be most attracted to and fascinated by?
KF: Well, I think Ethel Williams is probably the most attractive character. She’s pretty and sexy and sparky, but she’s very determined, and she just won’t take it. She’s a woman in a world where men rule, and she just won’t accept that. and that’s very attractive. I’m kind of fond of Gus Dewar, who is kind of an awkward guy. He’s not socially very good. He’s very tall, he’s not particularly good looking, he’s not very good with women.
HH: He’s stood up at the altar.
KF: Yeah, that’s right. He has some bad luck in his romantic life, but he turns out to be courageous, and he’s determined, and he’s smart, and he ends up with a very interesting and attractive woman.
HH: I’ll be right back with Ken Follett. A quick exit question, would you rather, Ken Follett, have been in a medieval town besieged by the Plague, or in the trenches of World War One?
KF: Oh, my goodness. I think, you know, I’d go for the Medieval Plague.
HH: You would? (laughing)
KF: I think it just wouldn’t be quite as bad as the trenches.
HH: It’s pretty much that. We’ll come back and talk about the Medieval Plague, because the book is, Pillars and World Without End. It’s really two books about one period, the Medieval Ages, even though it’s two hundred fifty years of history.
– – – –
HH: This hour, though, I’m going to primarily devote to the two novels, Pillars Of The Earth and World Without End, that Ken Follett devoted to the period 1100-1350, somewhat of a mad project, actually. And he said earlier that his agent originally told him no, no, don’t do this. First, a very small question. What happened to the Weeping Virgin?
KF: (laughing) Geez, I sure don’t remember.
HH: Well, she vanished in World Without End. She was so important in Pillars Of The Earth, and then she’s gone. And so I thought maybe I missed it.
KF: No, it was, I think it was I who missed something. I think I probably just forgot about her.
HH: She’s in a storeroom somewhere in the cathedral.
HH: All right, give people a sense of why you were drawn to these two hundred and fifty years. They’re fascinating, they make so much inaccessible history accessible, and I’ve talked a little bit about why Prior Phillip is such a fascinating character. But why did you decide to dive in and spend, I don’t know, a couple of years of your life in these two hundred and fifty years?
KF: Well, I stood in front of a cathedral. It was Peterborough Cathedral, actually. And the question that occurred to me is the question I think that occurs to most people when they go to Europe, and they stand in front of Notre Dame de Paris, or any of the great European cathedrals. The question is why is this here? It’s huge. It was terribly difficult to build in an age where they really just had hammer and chisel. It was expensive, hugely expensive, and the people who paid for it lived in wooden huts and slept on the floor. So why is this here? And that question fascinated me. I became interested in the architecture of cathedrals. I became interested in how they were built. But most of all, I became interested in why they were built. Why did people want one of these? And here in California, on this visit, I’ve taken my grandchildren to Disneyland. And you know, there’s a parallel. People, pilgrims in the Middle Ages would look at those statues on the cathedrals, and they would know, they would say that’s St. Peter. He’s the one holding the key. And we know the story of St. Peter, and how the cock crew three times. And that one over there holding the tablets of stone, that’s Moses. We know that story. He went up on the mountain, and God gave him the Commandments. And I go to Disneyland with my grandchildren, and they say that’s Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh. And that’s Donald Duck. We know now, we all know those Disney characters, and we know the stories that they’re in. And in the Middle Ages, people knew the Bible stories, and they recognized, when they went to the cathedral and saw a sculpture or a painting, they recognized those characters. And I guess you know, Disneyland is a kind of pilgrimage. Anyway, that was the Medieval culture. The cathedral epitomized everything in the Medieval culture. It told people the story of the universe from Creation to the day of judgment. And so I became fascinated by it. I began to see that in a Medieval town, everybody would have an interest in building this cathedral, and everybody would want it built. And in fact, in the Pillars Of The Earth, the people who are against it, the enemies, are generally people who want it built somewhere else. They’re not people who don’t want it built at all. So I began to see that this tremendous project would first of all, be a very dramatic story. And secondly, if you just focused on the building of the cathedral, you could understand almost everything about the Middle Ages.
HH: Are you surprised at how deep the reaction is, how widespread the affection is for Pillars Of The Earth?
KF: Well, I certainly never anticipated this. I did think when I’d finished it, that I’d written something special. And initially, the world reacted in a rather understated way to the Pillars Of The Earth. I was a little disappointed. Some people said this is great, this is unique, this is special. But the world, the publishing world, my publishers printed about the same number of copies as they had printed of my previous novel. And it took a while before I began to get this kind of reaction that you’ve talked about. It took a couple of years. I began to get emails from people, I guess in those days, it was not emails, it was letters from people saying this is the best book I’ve ever read. They never said that about my other books, and I thought that’s significant. Year by year, we would sell about double the number of paperbacks of Pillars Of The Earth as we did of all my other books. Most importantly, I would give a talk in a book shop or a library, and sure enough, somebody would stand up and say I love your books, but the one I really like best is the Pillars Of The Earth, and then the audience would clap. So it became clear to me that this was very special. But that, that did not, that reaction didn’t come until a few years after publication.
HH: So why is it that so many people stand up at a Ken Follett speech and say Pillars Of The Earth is my favorite book ever? What is it?
KF: It’s partly because it’s a very long book. And the significance of that is you don’t, you see the entire life story of the major characters. When we start the Pillars Of The Earth, they are maybe children or teenagers, or they’re just born, and at the end of the book, they’re mature or elderly. And so you get a sense of their entire life. Now in a regular novel of a hundred thousand words, like a thriller or something, it’s like a snapshot of the characters, at some moment in the middle of their life, usually some great crisis. Nevertheless, it’s a snapshot. There’s something very satisfying about a story that tells you the whole life of the major characters. I think that’s one of the things. Of course, people do like to learn something from a book as well as enjoying the story. And I always thing, I always say to myself if I’m thinking of an idea, what is there about this that they can’t get on television? You know, because television is great. Television drama is fascinating. I admire television writers. They’re so disciplined about the way they interweave their storylines and so on. But if you, if we want people to turn that TV off and pick up a book, we’ve got to give them something they can’t get on television. And I think that is learning something as well as enjoying a dramatic story, learning something about history or science, or whatever it is.
HH: Do the monks that remain credit you, or fault you for the book?
KF: Interesting question, because I portray the monks as very human. You know, they’re not, they take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but they don’t always keep them. And I was at a book fair in Basel, in Switzerland, and a monk came up to me, and he said my brothers and I really love your book, the Pillars Of The Earth. And I said well I’m very pleased to hear that, although in Prior Phillip, I created a character who’s not really very spiritual. I feel that his Christianity is very practical. And this monk said, he was German, and Basel is a German-speaking…he said to me that’s why we like it. (laughing)
HH: Well, I like, you know, part of this, Remigius, am I saying that correctly?
KF: Remigius, yeah.
HH: Remigius comes back to the faith. He’s such a human character. But I also think it’s a vindication of Christianity. As a Christian, I am glad to see the faith taken very, very seriously throughout the book, and there is redemption in the book, and it’s a story of fall, and it’s a story of evil, dealing with evil all over the place. But I just thought all the monks, all of them, Thomas in World Without End, they’re all very, very real people.
KF: Yeah, well and Prior Phillip is the kind of Christian that I admire, because of his practicality. He doesn’t, when people are, when bad things happen to people, he doesn’t say well, you’re suffering now, but it’ll all be okay, because you’ll go to Heaven. He tries to solve the problem now.
HH: So how did you, when I was in law school at the University of Michigan, which by the way is a gothic law school, modeled on cathedrals, there was a professor that lived up in the tower, and he taught Medieval Law. And no one would take his class. We all thought God, that’s so boring, it’s horrible. And I’ll come back to that. But there is a lot to learn. How did you learn this? How did you learn how the bailiffs disposed of property, or how serfdom was both freed and not free. There’s a key moment in World Without End. How did you learn that?
KF: Well, I was, for about, for at least ten years before I started writing the Pillars Of The Earth, I was interested in that period of history kind of as a hobby, and I just read a lot, so that by the time I came to start writing, I already knew a lot about the Middle Ages. And then I just had to do a lot more research for these individual dramas, the details of serfdom, and the different powers of the city guild, and the sheriff, and the earl, and all these different people. But I just read it up, you know. I mean, that’s what you have to do, because you have to, these things have to be accurate. Nobody wants to read an inaccurate historical novel.
HH: Well, when you’re sitting there at your desk eight hours a day, six days a week, and you come up on something, do you then stop and say I’m just going to go have to read now? Or do you write around it and come back and fill it in?
KF: No, I pretty much always check immediately, because the drama will be wrong if I get the facts, if I haven’t checked the facts. The drama will be wrong. I’ll focus on the wrong point. In any scene, in one scene in a book, there’s a point of drama. And if it’s connected with something, some historical fact, you’ve got to get it right. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to rewrite the whole thing.
HH: How many books are in your house?
KF: Oh, (laughing), thousands.
HH: I’ll be right back with Ken Follett.
– – – –
HH: World Without End, my guess is some people don’t like it as much as Pillars Of The Earth because it’s a sequel. I was fascinated by it because of the elaborate effort you put into introducing me to, I mentioned it already, where did the bailiffs come from, because a bailiff shows up in Man From St. Petersburg, and you know, he’s disposing of property issues with the laborers, and that’s the key phrase, or how you go from wool to cloth to Fuller’s technology creeping in. But mostly, the Plague, and I had never, I knew that the Plague killed a lot of people, and there was a shortage of labor. But what an amazing, devastating but also progress-enhancing blight upon the land. It was…
KF: Well, you’ve analyzed precisely why I decided to write about the Black Death, because it was a huge drama. It killed at least a third of the population of Europe and North Africa and the Middle East, and maybe half. Some people say half. Now that’s, imagine the street where you live, and one house in three is empty because they all died of the same disease. It’s devastating. But on top of that, that’s not enough. Okay, that’s a drama. But what’s so great about it is that it’s a moment in intellectual history. Because of the devastation, it forced people to reconsider some of the things they believed. It discredited traditional medicine, and it brought to the fore the kind of experimental, evidence-based medicine that we have today.
HH: Caris, your nun, this is also a history of medicine in many respects.
HH: And did you, was it, is that true that it was the nuns who pushed through the resistance to the old school and the bleeding? Or was it in fact more organic than that?
KF: The nuns certainly were leaders in this, because they weren’t attached to the old system of medicine. To be, to study medicine at a university in the 14th Century, like Paris or Oxford, you had to be a priest. And to be a priest, you had to be a man. So women could not study medicine. But in practice, women did a lot of it. And naturally, because they had not had…in universities, the way of teaching medicine was that they would take a passage from one of the old Greek medical textbooks, and have an argument, have a debate about it. They didn’t see patients. People training priests at universities, training to be doctors, never saw patients. And the nuns, of course, saw patients every day. So just by the nature of their work, they were more practical. So they were, and also, if they, the heroic ones believed that it was their duty to care for the sick, even though they might die. A lot of the doctors, it happens in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a lot of the doctors fled for the hills.
KF: …in the Plague. And most of the nuns did not. So in that way, they, because of their beliefs, they stayed where the patients were.
HH: Interesting, Matthew the Barber, who is also quite useful, has learned his trade on a battlefield. I’m reminded of some of the histories of Caesar, where he had seen every wound known to man on a battlefield, had learned his medicine from that. You did a few battles. You do Crecy, you do a couple of other thing. And I’ve read a lot of people like Bernard Cornwell and other people who I very much enjoy their books, and they have to do war over and over again. But you don’t do many battles, but you did Crecy, the crossing of the river, very, very well.
KF: Thank you.
HH: How did you figure that out?
KF: Well, I figure, I think one battle is great, I think. And in the Pillars Of The Earth, it’s the Battle of Lincoln.
KF: And in World Without End, it’s the Battle of Crecy. And I think, I feel that my readers don’t want a lot of battles, but they could get interested and fascinated by one big battle in which the characters have some personal stake. So that’s the big thing, I think. Everything that happens in the battle has to mean something emotionally to some of the characters.
KF: Because you don’t want, you don’t just want details. That’s a little dry. So that’s my first principle, is everything that happens should be part of the emotional life of the characters in the story. And then, see that now there is an easy to do battles that I don’t like. You can do a battle from the point of view of a soldier who’s bewildered and confused, and doesn’t know what’s going on. Now that’s realistic. But it means the reader doesn’t know what’s going on, and that’s what I don’t like about it. And I think the readers want to understand what’s going on.
KF: You can have a character who’s thinking what’s happening, why are those people over there, why are these people moving. But you need a character who is maybe standing on the hill, and can see it all happening.
KF: Yeah, exactly. And so for me, it’s important that the story of the battle is told in a way that’s easy to understand, and that matters.
HH: I also have to, as a lawyer, and still practicing, I’m indebted to you for actually, I think, a very, even so some of the lawyers in World Without End are not very admirable, the evolution of the law towards the common law, and towards justice, is accurately retold. I don’t know that it’s ever been done before, but what is your opinion of lawyers?
KF: Well, see, I think they get a lot of stick that they don’t always deserve, because the law is made of words. And you have to go by the book. It’s the only way we can operate. And sometimes, that leads to paradoxical things. Sometimes, that leads to decisions, and we all say that’s a crazy decision. That’s crazy, and we tend to blame the lawyers. But it’s a, listen, as you see from reading Medieval novels, our system is a lot better for the fact that we stick to the letter of the law.
HH: It’s fascinating, and I’m going to recommend it to my law students. Let me ask you as well, Ken Follett, about periods of history you haven’t yet tackled. Is there an era out there like the English civil war, you know, the 1600s…
KF: Oh, it’s funny you should mention that. That’s a fascinating…because we were talking earlier in the show about revolutions, and saying how some countries had to have a revolution, because they didn’t have an adjustable, a flexible political system. But of course, if you go far enough back in history, and you find that Great Britain had a revolution and you know, mass murder. People burned at the stake. Protestants killing Catholics, Catholics killing Protestants, and democrats killing aristocrats, and the people who supported the monarchy killing the democrats, and so we’ve been through it all, just further back in time. And I must say that period kind of fascinates me, and I might, one of these days, I might write something about that.
HH: Because I’m wondering, you’ve got two of these to go, which is a four year project.
HH: And you’re a young man for a writer. Do you intend to just keep writing and writing and writing?
KF: I think so. What I notice about older writers is that they, right about 75 or 80, they slow down. They never really stop. And I can’t imagine stopping. I can’t imagine what I’d do, what…the idea of getting up in the morning and going and playing golf just, that’s hell (laughing).
HH: Are any of your children writers?
KF: I have a daughter, a step-daughter, Jan Turner, who’s a writer/director. She’s in the movie business. She lives in Johannesburg, although her first feature is just right about now opening in the United States. It’s called White Wedding. It’s a comedy.
HH: And do any of your, is there an age at which you’ll allow your grandchildren to read your books? Or is there an age at which you will not allow them to read your books?
KF: You know, I never made a rule about that. I figured look, if they, if they’re things they don’t understand, either they’ll just skip over them, or if they’re ready to, they’ll ask me. Now I never impose. I never imposed a rule about that. I don’t know what the right decision is, but that’s the decision I made.
– – – –
HH: Now we’re going to get close to home, because Fall Of Giants is the first of a trilogy, and America is kind of a stand, it’s on the side. Wilson’s there, we come in late to World War I. Gus Dewar is a character. We’re going to have to figure a lot more in the next two books. I’m just curious at the, you just mentioned Walt Disney. You just mentioned Disneyland. What do you think of Walt, we do a show from Disneyland every year, because he’s such an amazing character. It’s always a great show. What do you think of Disney and his impact on culture? And what do you think of America generally in its impact on culture through the century that you’re now chronicling?
KF: Well see, I’m a great lover of popular culture. I’m not an exclusively high-brow person. I’m not the kind of person who says that Proust is a great writer, and Geoffrey Archer is a lousy writer. I don’t think that way. I think popular culture can be absolutely wonderful, so I love Disney. I loved those movies particularly as a kid, and I admire them enormously. And I’m the same with, you know, I love rock and roll as well as classical music. So…and if you look at the history of the 20th Century, actually, something that I’m not going to be able to cover in my trilogy, but that music of the 20th Century comes from a very specific part of American culture. The music of the 20th Century is black American music. And it’s all over the world, you know, in Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East. People have their own pop music. There’s Egyptian pop music, for example. But Egyptian kids also listen to American pop music. Nobody else listens to Egyptian pop music except for Middle Eastern people. But everybody all over the world listens to black American music. It’s a huge achievement. And it also happens to be my favorite music. I play bass in a blues band.
HH: Oh, you do? Okay, so you’re not going to put music into this?
KF: Well, I don’t see how to do it. I don’t see how to do it.
HH: Oh, I thought because you had Walter playing the piano, and Maude singing at the end, that there might be…
KF: Well of course, yeah, there’s a little about ragtime in Fall Of Giants, because Maude can play ragtime, and Walter can’t, which is a kind of a little joke about Germans being a little stiff and so on.
HH: Okay, but going back to America, what role, how much of these next two books are going to be about America?
KF: Well obviously, in the Second World War, it’s huge, and the American character very big, and things like…I’m only just starting on this book, but things like Pearl Harbor, you know, the great dramatic moments of the second book, will include Pearl Harbor and D-Day, and that kind of thing. So it becomes…and really, this just reflects what happens in the 20th Century. The Beginning of the 20th Century, a lot of Americans felt that what happened in the rest of the world didn’t really affect them. And they really didn’t want to get involved. And I guess the moment when that kind of idea was destroyed was Pearl Harbor. That was kind of the end of what used to be called isolationism. And that was the tragic moment when most Americans realized that they couldn’t be separate from the rest of the world.
HH: And so if we’re looking ahead at the next two books, and you’ve left us before the rise of Nazis, say we’re one-third through the century which you’re going to end in 1989 with the fall of the Wall…
HH: Is it going to be a celebration of the American energy and opportunity society? Or is it going to be a ‘boy, those bumbling kind of young people on the international stage’?
KF: Well, either of those points of view would be too simplistic for a novel. And I think…the 20th Century is full of huge clashes. And they’re not just military clashes. They’re ideological. There were these great schemes for better government – communism, fascism. People believed in this stuff. What we’ve…at the end of the 20th Century, we can see that the countries that are free and prosperous have a kind of compromise. So they have capitalism, but it’s regulated. They have welfare. All the successful free countries have some degree of welfare. They have some degree of public health care. They have education paid for by the state. The kind of, we make a joke about liberals going into battle carrying a banner that reads on the one hand, on the other hand. But that’s the truth. What turned out to be the successful way to run a country is a kind of awkward compromise that we’re still adjusting between extremes.
HH: But now W., and I don’t know what your politics are about this, so I suspect you’re critical of W., was Woodrow Wilson. They’re the…we’ll come back from break. The music’s in my ear. They’re the same internationalist, liberating character. You like Wilson. I’ll be interested when we come back to ask Ken Follett when Fall Of Giants comes back around, what’s he going to think about the American imperialist effort.
– – – –
HH: Now we’re looking forward to the successor volumes to Fall Of Giants. And I’m wondering, as I left, Wilson comes off very well in Fall Of Giants, Woodrow Wilson. What do you think of the parallels between W. and Wilson?
KF: Well you know, there’s almost a century, there is a century between them. And presidents should have learned something in those hundred years. So I don’t think, I’m not sure the comparison is quite right. But obviously, you’re thinking about the war in Iraq. And when that war began, my wife, Barbara, was a Member of Parliament. She’s only recently retired, three months ago. And so she had a vote on whether or not Britain would be part of this war. And indeed, it was the most important and difficult vote of her entire political career, because she’s been in politics ever since she was a teenager. And as you can imagine, she and I talked about nothing else for many days. But in the end, she voted for the war. And I agreed with her. We felt that Saddam Hussein was not just a tyrant, but a tyrant who had killed a hundred thousand people in his country, people of a particular ethnic group, the Kurds. And that made us think it’s not, we felt it wasn’t just a matter of going into some country and trying to make it okay. It was, that racist element made us feel it was special. Now if she had her time over again, I’m not sure she would vote the same way. But you can’t think like that. You go on the information you’ve got at the time. So things have turned out very badly, as we know, but I can’t, I might like to criticize George W. Bush, but I supported that decision.
HH: You know, this is fascinating. I hadn’t thought about this until right now. You write quite knowingly about political people. Is that because you’ve lived so long with, and know political people?
KF: Absolutely. You know, for the last thirteen years, Britain has been governed by my friends. I’ve known Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and most of the British cabinet for the past thirteen years, have been friends of mine and Barbara’s. We were, you know, that was the group of people that we had dinner with, went to restaurants with, and so on.
HH: You know, it’s because of my life in politics, I’ve always laughed at conspiracy theorists, because there couldn’t possibly be a conspiracy, because it’s so damned disorganized.
KF: No (laughing)
HH: But it does, that gives you…does it give you some sympathy even for the new government coming in, and for the people that you have to write about, the Fitzherberts and the other people who are not of your political agenda, but have to be understood as real people trying to make up real decisions?
KF: Yeah, I think you have to, when you write about these political dramas, there are times when…I mean, there may be right and wrong. Let’s take, for example, votes for women, a big issue during World War One, and my characters are passionate about it. Some of them hate the idea of votes for women, some of them…and to some extent, and I believe there’s right and wrong. Of course, I think most people now would say well of course women should vote. Don’t be silly. Then, you have to realize that quite reasonable people didn’t like the idea. So even though I think they’re wrong, the political process by which the argument was won can be fascinating and dramatic. And of course, for Maude and Ethel, it’s a big thing.
HH: Now I want to make sure I get to this before we end this, and we only have a couple of minutes here and the last segment. What’s your belief in God now, Ken Follett’s?
KF: I am…I don’t believe in God. I was brought up in a fundamentalist family, Evangelical Christians. Both my parents, all my grandparents, all my uncles and aunts and cousins, were all in a little sect called the Plymouth Brethren. And that basically put me off the whole thing for the rest of my life. So although I have a great deal of empathy with Christians, because you know, I speak the language. I know all of that stuff. I don’t actually believe in it myself. I like, paradoxically, I enjoy going to church. I love the architecture, as you know. I couldn’t have written Pillars Of The Earth if I didn’t love…I love the words of the Bible, which I read twice as a teenager. I read the whole Bible twice. And by the way, I didn’t skip through it. I had to answer questions on every book before I could go on to the next book. It was a course that I did. So I’m familiar with all that stuff. But you know, having thought very hard and long about religion, and having been under intense pressure from my parents to believe, I eventually decided no, I don’t believe in that.
HH: When did you stop?
KF: About 17, yeah.
HH: Okay, and now what has been the biggest crisis of your life?
KF: Well, it seemed like a big crisis at the time. When I was an 18 year old and I got my girlfriend pregnant…
HH: Fallen with a baby, as you say in Fall Of Giants.
KF: Yeah, fell for a baby, yeah. And it seemed like a terrible crisis. I was about to go to university. Getting married at that point wasn’t in my plans. Of course, then the baby comes, and he was adorable. And we loved him. And we had such a good time looking after him. And he’s now 41, and the apple of my eye. So it was actually a good thing. But when I was 18, it seemed like a crisis.
HH: And so how did you cope with it? Did you go through the agony of considering an abortion? Did you go through, did you go to your mom and dad and ask for help? What did you do?
KF: Well, we talked with Mary, my first wife. Obviously, we weren’t married. We talked about all the options, and we decided that what we wanted to do is get married and raise our baby, and that’s what we did.
HH: When we come back, final segment coming up with Ken Follett, author of Fall Of Giants and many, many other novels. Is there a character based on any of your children in any of your books?
KF: No, I don’t think my children. In Lie Down With Lions, the hero, Jane, is very much like Barbara, my second wife. In fact, Barbara’s ex-husband said Jane is the girl Ken thought he was marrying.
HH: And is your wife your first critic? Does she read everything before it goes out?
KF: She reads everything, yes, and she’s quite a good critic, yeah.
HH: And is she a writer herself?
KF: No, Barbara? No, Barbara spent her life in politics.
HH: But she doesn’t have any ambition to now do this?
KF: Well, now that she’s retired, she may write a memoir.
HH: And do you have any interest yourself in going into Parliament?
KF: Absolutely not, and I’ll tell you why. Everything Barbara does in politics, the first thing she has to do is find six people who want to do it with her. Everything is done by consensus in politics. Nobody has real power, whereas I have gotten used to being the ultimate authority. If I want this character to be bad, I just decide.
– – – –
HH: Thank you, Ken Follett, for spending this much time with me.
KF: A pleasure.
HH: Last couple of questions. One, there’s…the nature and prevalence of ingratitude in the world is a very big theme in your books.
HH: Is that the reality of what you’ve experienced as well?
KF: Well, I certainly think in politics, anybody who expects gratitude has got a shock coming. In my experience, the people I know who are in politics, dedicated, many of them are people who could earn a lot more money in some other field. And they work very hard, and they do their best for people. And most people read the papers and think politics, politicians are all on the make somehow. And that’s kind of, yeah, that’s ingratitude. But listen, I was never under any illusions.
HH: Okay, last question, of all your books, you know, thirty of them, do you have a favorite child?
KF: Yeah, the Pillars Of The Earth is a big favorite, and also Eye Of The Needle. Eye Of The Needle because it was my breakthrough. You know, it was the first good book I wrote, and I can remember, I can remember writing it, and sitting at the typewriter, and saying to my wife then, Mary, my first wife, saying to her, you know, this is really terrific. I knew.
HH: And is there one review that you remember as being…
KF: Oh, yes. The Pillars Of The Earth was reviewed in the New York Times, and it was a stinker. An absolute stinker of a review. I was so cross about it. And it said oh, the plot grinds on, and on and on and on like that. And of course, the New York Times, pretty important. And when they came out with a bad review, that was bad news for the book. So I will never forget that.
HH: Who wrote it?
KF: I’m trying to remember the name. I can’t remember the name.
HH: Well, that’s justice. I like that.
HH: I like that. On that note, Ken Follett, thank you, and I want to close by telling everyone Fall Of Giants is in bookstores now. It’s by Dutton. It’s available on September 28th, if not before. And is it already been signed for any kind of a movie series, or anything like that?
KF: No, it hasn’t yet.
HH: Are you happy with the adaptations of the books that you’ve seen on screen?
KF: The Pillars Of The Earth is great. I’m so happy about that.
HH: Now about the movies, like Donald Sutherland in Eye Of The Needle.
KF: Eye Of The Needle was good, too. I’ve had some clunkers. Lie Down With Lions was made into quite a bad mini-series. I ran into Timothy Dalton shortly after it had been screened. I saw him across the room at a party. I thought what am I going to say? Am I going to say darling, you were marvelous, which is what you’re supposed to say to actors. And he came over to me, and he said you’re Ken Follett, aren’t you? Wasn’t that mini-series terrible?
HH: (laughing) Oh, it was dreadful. So do you hope this gets there, Fall Of Giants?
KF: I would love it if Fall Of Giants became a mini-series.
HH: I hope so, too. Ken Follett, thank you.
End of interview.