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Author interview: Ken Follett stokes the flames of emotions and intrigue

In A Column of Fire, author Ken Follett has captured what is arguably the most significant political period of England. He tells us why ancient history fascinates him, though his works have also spanned modern wars and the space race.

books Updated: Feb 27, 2018 17:36 IST
Sanchita Guha
Sanchita Guha
Hindustan Times
Ken Follett,Eye of the Needle,Author
Author Ken Follett has, through his novels, been able to straddle different times and spaces. (Photo: Olivier Favre)

Enid Blyton, with her young truth-seekers. Shakespeare, with his flaming drama and bloodbath and satire. Ian Fleming, with his suave agent 007. These authors “enchanted” Ken Follett, and gave him “the urge to write books which would enchant my readers in turn”.

Once we learn about these early influences on Follett, it’s not hard to see why he has been able to straddle different times and spaces, and created stories with a common thread of heightened emotions and extreme intrigue. A Column of Fire, the third book in Follett’s Kingsbridge Series, is set in arguably the most significant historical period of England — the start of the Elizabethan era, the last half-a-century of the Middle Ages, and the terrible end of Mary Queen of Scots. Young Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge, eager to see his mother, impatient to meet the girl he loves. But his simple pleasures stand no chance in the face of sweeping political changes. The book heaves with events.

Some of Follett’s books have the backdrop of recent history — war in Europe, the space race, and so on. Some others are set in a world that existed centuries ago — in the time of royal intrigues and a crippling fear of God among the public. We ask which of these two eras he finds more fascinating. “A difficult choice,” he says, “but on the whole, I prefer ancient history. In some ways, it is more revealing. Circumstances were so very different — but the people were the same as us.”

In the mind of readers in India, the name “Ken Follett” is still followed immediately by “Eye of the Needle”. The 1978 book, Follett’s first bestseller, set in the time of WWII, has as much power today as it had forty years ago. Asked if it annoys him that this book can still dominate conversations around his literary works, the author says, “On the contrary, I’m very pleased that a book I wrote [so long ago] is still selling and giving people pleasure. Few books last that long!”

A Column of Fire is the third book in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series, which started in 1989.

Since that book, which was equal parts thriller and drama, Follett has moved on to a bigger canvas. In 1989, The Pillars of the Earth was published, starting the Kingsbridge trilogy. In 2010, Fall of Giants was out, starting the Centuries trilogy.

Writing The Pillars of the Earth was one of the author’s “more difficult” projects, for the sheer size of it. It took 18 years for the second Kingsbridge book, World Without End, to be published — and the sequel hadn’t been planned. “The project grew because people loved reading the books and I loved writing them,” says Follett.

“Pillars was difficult,” he adds, “because I had never before written such a long and complex book. However, I learned a lot from the experience and now I am comfortable dealing with a large canvas and a big cast of characters. Also, the readers love long novels (provided they are exciting, of course).” Asked if the series may go further, he says yes.

A day in the life of Ken Follett
  • “All the writers I know are disciplined,” says the author. “You have to be, otherwise you would never finish a novel. I write all day, 7am to 4pm, Monday to Friday. My inspiration [for writing] comes from everywhere. Authors have antennae. Something I read, something I see on TV, something someone says to me, makes my antennae quiver and I think: I could make a story of that.”

Every author is, in a sense, a parent to the characters they create. And like most parents, they have a favourite. Follett’s favourite character is Prior Philip in Pillars. Because? He says, “I’m an atheist, and I was reluctant to create a hero who was a devout worshipper, but given the subject matter, I really had no choice. Philip is about as different from me as a character could get. Perhaps that’s why, he is the best character I’ve ever created.”

Female characters, temporarily subdued but with a strong will, have been central to several of Follett’s stories. In light of that, his opinion on the gender equality issue would be interesting. “Total equality is the only policy that makes sense,” he says. “Attempts to argue that women should be treated specially are rubbish.”

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First Published: Feb 27, 2018 17:36 IST