Ken Follett, actually. At 63, the Welsh author is one of the last Mohicans of the form, having traded his highly successful thrillers (“Eye of the Needle,” “The Key to Rebecca”) for the multigenerational historical saga in 1989’s “The Pillars of the Earth” (adapted as a Starz miniseries in 2010) and its sequel, 2007’s “World Without End,” which premieres as a miniseries on Reelz next month.
Now Follett is amid his most audaciously ambitious project yet: the Century Trilogy, in which five interrelated families — American, Russian, German, English and Welsh — battle through the most dramatic events of the 20th century in a story that will sprawl over nearly 3,000 pages. The first volume, the bestselling “Fall of Giants” (2010), encompassed World War I, the Russian Revolution and the struggle for women’s suffrage. The second, a 940-page doorstop of a book called “Winter of the World” (Dutton, $36) — to be published Sept. 18 — takes on the rise of Nazi Germany, World War II, the dawn of the atomic age and the beginnings of the Cold War.
“Certainly it’s easier to write a 100,000-word thriller than it is to write one of these bigger novels, which are three times as long and 10 times as difficult,” Follett says in a phone interview from his home in London. “You have this group of characters and you write 100,000 words about them, but you haven’t finished; you have to keep making up more and more stuff about them. A regular novel is a snapshot of the major characters at some moment, probably some crisis, in their lives. In a novel like ‘The Pillars of the Earth,’ for example, you’ve got to tell their entire biographies, including conflicts and romances that can go on for 50 years or more. It’s damned hard, but readers adore it.”
So do publishers. “No one is really writing the kinds of stories he’s writing,” says his editor at Dutton, Leslie Gelbman. “Ken is a master storyteller, and he does it through his plots, great characters and his use of history, which really transports you to another time and place. Since Michener’s time, people maybe have wanted a different kind of book, but publishing is cyclical. Ken’s been bringing it back, and now we’re full circle again.”