In the world of books, Ken Follett is the stuff of legends. His writing is rooted in real events, be it the 1978 novel Eye of the Needle, a taut thriller about World War II espionage or Pillars of the Earth about the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. He weaves stories that imitate life. His latest project in the Century Trilogy, a collection of historical novels chronicling life around the world wars, is another set piece in his literary game.
On September 16, the book Edge of Eternity was released in India by Pan Macmillan and Amazon India. Continuing the story in Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, the book traces lives of five families through the Cold war and civil-rights movements. In an email interaction, Ken Follett remarks about the premise of the book, “The terrible thing about the Cold War was that it could have been the end of the human race. If there was a nuclear holocaust, with the Americans bombing all the communist countries and the Russians bombing all the capitalist countries, we would all be dead. So although it never came to that, there was the constant fear during this period that nuclear war would break out and the human race would end.”
Moving from thrillers to historical fiction
‘Pillars of the Earth’ emerged from his profound interest and fascination with medieval cathedrals and the people who built them. To his surprise and everybody else’s, the book became even more popular than his thrillers. “It seemed that readers would enjoy historical novels from me as well as enjoy thrillers from me. So that’s how the switch came about and eventually I decided that historical novels were more fun to write and more pleasing to the readers too,” he tells us.
Then, after completing World Without End, Follett admits that he thought to himself, ‘I must do something like this again because people like it so much.’ He thought he should write another long historical novel but he didn’t want to write another medieval story; he wanted to write about a historical period that was dramatic. “That’s when I thought, why not write about the 20th century because it’s the most violent era in human history. We had two world wars and we had the threat of nuclear war. And also, it is the century that tells us where we come from.” And soon, as he was thinking about it, he realized it would be much better to write three books instead of one, a book for each of the great wars of the century.
His predilection for strong female characters
Ken Follett was one of the first writers to use strong women characters in his novels like Lucy Rose, the hero of Eye of the needle who kills the German spy at the end of the story. Ken notes, “That was very unusual in the 1970s when I wrote that book. It was unheard of. But nowadays it isn’t so unusual.”
He attributes this change to the difference in attitudes to women and the evolving role that women play in society. He opines, “Fifty years ago women were considered subordinate. So in the novels the men were more important. But during my lifetime, I have seen women question, ‘Wait a minute. Why should women be secondary to men?” This change was reflected in literature too.
The television world came knocking
His book, On Wings of Eagles, a true story about two employees who were rescued from Iran during the revolution of 1979, was turned into a miniseries and The Pillars of the Earth became an eight hour television show. And the Century Trilogy will also soon be made into a television series. But as an author, he finds the process of adapting books into television shows “thrilling but also a little nerve–wrecking.” He adds, “It makes me very nervous because I have been very careful writing the book to make sure that it all makes sense. There are no boring bits, the plot is logical and the characters are interesting. And then I give this book to somebody else, a television producer and he takes it apart. He has a script written which is different from my book. Well, he has to because he has to tell a story in pictures not words. I worry that when they change it they won’t be as careful as I was and they won’t do it very well. But, to be honest, in the end if the television series is well made, I get to look at the screen and see the characters I invented played by very good actors.”
Evolving as a writer
The bestselling author has been writing for over four decades now, having taken to writing when he realised he didn’t love newspapers. He recalls, “I wasn’t a terrible journalist but I wasn’t a great journalist either. Fiction was what I really liked. And it took me a few years to realize that my destiny was not in newspapers, it was in books.”
He went to work with a publisher soon after. And although his first books were not very successful — in fact he wrote ten books before he had a bestseller — he managed to carve out success for himself in the literary world.
Recently on a Reddit AMA (Ask me anything), he remarked, “What does writing represent? It’s my life! It’s what I do all day, every day.” And his wonderfully crafted, genre bending and ambitious stories, that emerge from his knowledge of the world and life, has delighted many a fan around the world.
The book is available for purchase on Amazon
A version of this was published in The New Indian Express on September 18, 2014