Never author Ken Follett: The last time I felt so full of ideas was when I was writing Eye of the Needle
For author Ken Follett, it’s not the genre that counts; it’s the story that compels him. And the cautionary tale of political one-upmanship that is at the heart of his latest book, Never, was one that he found necessary to write in the current times. His new release is a high-tension tale about a World War, albeit about one that has not happened and one that Follett, like his readers, hopes never comes to pass.
“The inspiration came from the general atmosphere of danger and tension in the world which is much greater than I have ever known it,” says the author known for best-sellers such as the Kingsbridge series and the Century trilogy. Rich in details, Never makes for a fast-paced read, picking up momentum as the seemingly regular events in the book snowball towards a terrifying catastrophe.
In an email interview, Follett talks to us about the process of writing the book, the impact of the pandemic on his work, dealing with the weight of expectations, and more.
Tell us about your research process for Never. Anything that you did differently from your other books?
The research process for Never wasn’t that different from that of one of my historical novels, because the story is based on real situations. The difference was that modern situations can change rather quickly whereas we know how historical situations ended. For Never, I interviewed numerous people who have been in positions of power in the world of international affairs, including a prime minister, two ambassadors and a general. I planned several trips, but the virus intervened. Fortunately I had already visited Beijing, the Sahara Desert and the White House. I studied aircraft carriers, missile launchers, and nuclear bunkers. I read The Economist every week and the Financial Times every day, plus Foreign Affairs magazine, The China Quarterly, and The Journal of Strategic Studies. But the most important part was talking to the people on the front line in global politics.
Why did you choose Never as the title of your book?
When I was thinking about this, I kept thinking, ‘I hope it never happens’. Eventually, I realised that the word ‘never’ sort of summed up the fear that I felt and that I believe readers will feel when they read it.
What brought about your return to contemporary fiction after a decade?
For me, it’s not really the genre that counts, it’s the story. If I think of a really good story, then that’s what I want to write. If I’d have thought of another great story set in the 18th century, then I would have written that. But the idea that came to me and made me say ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got to do that, that could be terrific’, was the idea for Never.
Did the pandemic and the lockdowns affect your process with this book in any way?
I got a lot more writing done during lockdown simply because there was nothing else to do. I couldn’t go to the theatre or to the movies or to restaurants. I also couldn’t see my family. But the pandemic did afford me more time to write, and Never came very fast. I wrote the outline and the first draft in about a year, and the rewrite in three months, which is warp speed for me. The last time I felt so full of ideas was when I was writing Eye of the Needle, almost half a century ago.
Your lockdown reads?
I’ve been reading a lot of Greg Iles books recently. He’s a terrific American thriller writer. His books are largely set in Mississippi, and there’s often a back story which goes back to the 1950s and the days of civil rights. He writes thrillers but they’re set in a very real world.
Often an author’s own experiences bleed into their works. Did any part of this book find inspiration in any of your experiences?
The inspiration for Never didn’t come from a particular set of events. It came from the general atmosphere of danger and tension in the world, which is much greater than I have ever known it. The last time it was like this was during the Cuban Missile Crisis and I was too young then to understand it. I was 13. My wife, Barbara, who is a little older than I am, remembers it better than I do. She would go to bed not knowing if she would ever wake up. Today’s dangers strike me as very formidable and that was the inspiration for writing a book about how the worst might happen or almost happen.
How do you keep reinventing yourself after decades as a best-selling author? How much does the weight of your reputation impact your project choices or process? And what’s your mantra for dealing with the stress of expectations?
I think, in the end, you’ve got to have faith in your readers. If people think it’s good, then they’ll read it. You can’t be nervous and say, ‘I’m going to do exactly the same as I did before because that’s what people like’, otherwise you stagnate. You’ve got to be developing and changing. I think for creative artists in general, it’s good to be guided not by some concept of what people expect from you, but just what you think you could do really well.
Thoughts about penning a memoir?
I’m not going to write my autobiography because it would be too dull. All the excitement is in my imagination and in my stories. My life is sitting here, in my study, at a keyboard. There’s very little drama in it.
With physical book tours hit amid the pandemic, what are your thoughts about virtual events?
I think virtual tours have been great. They allow us, as authors, to reach so many people all over the world without ever having to get on a plane. I’ve been able to speak to readers in places I wouldn’t usually be able to travel to.
Tell us about three of your ‘nevers’ in writing.·
1. Never start with a fight. A fight is boring if you don’t care about the characters. The same goes for a love scene.·
2. Never write a sentence that people might have to read twice before understanding it. It’s our duty as writers to make the meaning clear. We mustn’t expect the readers to do the work.
3. Never use a formal word when there is a homely alternative. The English language often has two words for the same thing, and usually one of the words is Latin-based and cold, while the other is Anglo-Saxon and earthy. Some examples: Say curse, not malediction; Motherly, not maternal; Home, not residence; Tuneful, not melodic.
Author tweets at @TheMissCurious