Fall of Giants
Rs 350 pp 850
Best-selling writer Ken Follett is delighted with the special Indian price for his latest book Fall of Giants. At R350, he reckons that it’s “under four quids; that’s even less than bargain price back home!” Is this the delight of the multi-millionaire author who smells a new market (“My early thrillers [with World War II backdrops] really sold well in Poland and other eastern European countries during the Cold War years”)? Or is this the happiness of one of the biggest donors to the British Labour Party, reaching out to more ‘real’ people?
“Well, I always wanted to write popular books. So in a way when my 1978 novel Eye of the Needle took off, I wasn’t really surprised. I just realised that I’ve finally got the hang of things after a few false starts,” Follett says, leaning back to cross his rings-bedecked hands and give some air to his crop of white Teddy Boy-style hair.
While thrillers were what put Follett up with the mega-brisk-sellers, since 1989, he has turned his hand to historical fiction with The Pillars of the Earth. “I felt there was a popular novel somewhere on the making of a medieval English cathedral.” But it’s the vast canvas that history provides that drew Follett to the genre in which he could inject fictional characters and make them rub shoulders with real events and personalities.
Fall of Giants is set in the backdrop of the unfolding 20th century. The first of an intended trilogy, the book starts with the coronation of King George V and a 13-year-old Welsh lad on his first day at work in a coal mine. The 850 pages-long novel not only deals with World War I and the Russian Revolution but also with the women’s voting rights movement. “It’s one of the greatest changes in history. I wanted to ask myself, ‘What was it for women to be angry enough to go to jails?’ It’s also about little frissons of history. We have read about Trotsky; we know how he looked. But what would he have said in such and such moment? My novels don’t violate history. I just expand on contexts mentioned in letters or speeches when it comes to real historical figures.”
Treading carefully this all-men’s zone of fact and fiction, Follett has one rule while writing historical fiction that he states in an afterword in the book: “Either the scene did happen, or it might have; either these words were used, or they might have been. And if I find some reason why the scene could not have taken place in real life, or the words would not really have been said — if, for example, the character was in another country at the time — I leave it out.”
Does he get nervous about getting facts ‘wrong’ despite all the research. He pats his shirt front down and says, “It’s an issue. Someone wrote to me pointing out that in Fall of Giants, the historical character of Joseph Daniels, the American secretary of navy, was actually Josephus Daniels. If that’s the extent of damage, then I’m quite happy.” And how does he keep track of all those characters flitting in and out of his books (125 characters are listed in the dramatis personae of Fall of Giants)?
“I paste the characters on a spreadsheet,” he says, sounding like a ‘people’s writer’. Which, one supposes, is what Ken Follett, Labour Party card-holder and thick-as-a-brick novels-writer, is.