Tuesday, October 28, 2008 12:00 PM
In 1989, Ken Follett, author of blockbuster thriller novels like Eye of the Needle, surprised his readers with The Pillars of the Earth, a work of historical fiction about the building of an English cathedral. It went on to become an international bestseller and was even selected as an Oprah's Book Club pick. Last year, Follett published a sequel, World Without End, which is set two hundred years later in and around the same cathedral, during the Black Death plague of the 14th century. The novel was also a bestseller and is now available in paperback.
In a Book World review, novelist Diana Gabaldon wrote: "The novel's greatest strength lies in its well-researched, beautifully detailed portrait of the late Middle Ages. Society at every level is here, mingling in an altogether convincing way. Follett shows the workings of politicians in all their corrupt glory, in both religious and temporal spheres."
Ken Follett was online Tuesday, October 28 to discuss his novels.
A transcript follows.
Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.
Ken Follett: Hello, everyone. I'm Ken Follett and I'm here to answer questions about "World Without End", my latest book--or about any other topic, within reason...
I look forward to your questions.
Washington, DC: I love your books. I have read all of them. I prefer your historical novels rather than the ones set in our time.
In World Without End, how did you do your historical research?
Ken Follett: Most of what I need to know is available in books. I must have read hundreds of books about the Middle Ages. The second major resource is medieval buildings, of which there are plenty in Europe. While writing World Without End I went to York Minster, the Cathedral of Santa Maria in Vitoria, Spain, and the monastery of Mont St Michel in France. I also studied medieval bridges in Exeter and Stratford, and visited the battlefield of Crecy.
Sarasota, Florida: No attempt was made to use, or even hint at, the colour of the language of the times. Would it not have added something to the splendid tales?
Ken Follett: The language spoken in England at the time of World Without End was Middle English, which may be familiar to students as the language of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales--a language not quite comprehensible to us today. Some historical novels indicate the language of the times by using a kind of archaic Shakespearean English for dialogue. I dislike this convention. Medieval people thought they were using contemporary slang, complete with swear words and jargon. So I decided to have my characters use more or less modern dialogue.
Alexandria, Va.: Ken, I'm a big fan of your work. When writing, do you isolate yourself or take measures not to be exposed to other works or outlets? Or are you able to work and not be influenced by the things you're exposed to in "everyday life"?
Ken Follett: No, I don't isolate myself. I started my career as a newspaper reporter, and in a busy newsroom you can't ask people to keep quiet while you're writing! I find I can write more or less anywhere, including on planes. As for being influenced, I really don't mind. Like most authors I take aspects of my own experience and transform them into fictional events.
OK, I have to ask...:... were you surprised when Oprah chose Pillars of the Earth for her book club? I have to imagine that's like winning the lottery for any author. Tell us how you found out and what the experience was like going on her show.
Ken Follett: Of course I was thrilled when Oprah picked "The Pillars of the Earth". She has introduced my work to millions of Americans who might not otherwise have picked up one of my books. In person she is warm, friendly, and very smart, and I really enjoyed meeting her. When I appeared on the show, I was a little concerned at having to go on immediately after a dog that could walk upstairs balancing a glass of water on its nose. I can't balance a glass of water on my nose. Seriously, it was a great thrill for me and I will always be grateful to Oprah.
Everett, Washington: Do you find it useful to live for a while in the locations you are describing, or is it all made up?
Ken Follett: I visit most of the locations I write about--although just for a day or two. I don't live there. I find it helps me to imagine events in the fictional story if I can visualize the real-life landscape.
Freising, Germany: When I read that you liked "The Namesake" because Jhumpa Lahiri engages the reader totally even though not much happens, I was reminded of what Woody Allen once wrote about Ingmar Bergman: "[He] has allowed wars to rage inside characters that are as acutely visual as the movement of armies".
You're known most for your suspenseful thrillers. In "World Without End", did you try to look more into the wars that rage inside characters?
Also, was there actually a real cathedral that you based "The Pillars of the Earth" on?
Ken Follett: Sometimes my characters are conflicted, but mostly their conflicts are external: they fight with their enemies or their family or their neighbours. I understand the appeal of internal conflicts, and I have seen Hamlet forty or fifty times, but that's not the kind of thing I like to write.
A great beach read: I read World Without End during a one week beach vacation. Getting through the 900 page book made me a little anti-social with my family, but it was a terrific read. Were the characters made up from whole cloth, or were you able to base it however loosely on real people from the time?
Ken Follett: In my kind of fiction, the story is paramount, so the characters have to be created to fit the story. I never take people from real life, but sometimes I use aspects of characters I know, like features of their appearance, or sometimes gestures or habits. My family sometimes recognise bits of themselves!
Washington, DC: Do you do all of your historical research yourself, or do you employ professional researchers to help find all of the details that appear in your novels?
Ken Follett: I use a professional researcher, Dan Starer of Research for Writers in New York City. He finds old maps, out-of-print books, and other resources including people for me to interview.
I also hire experts to read my first draft and check for errors. World Without End was read by three professional historians: Sam Cohn, an expert on the Black Death; Marilyn Livingstone, who has written the best book on the Battle of Crecy; and Geoffrey Hindley, who has written many books about the Middle Ages. I pay these experts and they write me long reports. By the time the book is in your hands, there should be no mistakes.
Germantown, MD: What fun it was to read your meticulously researched and well-written books Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. I have English ancestors and was fascinated to read about how they might have lived. Will you continue this "series?" Please say yes!!
Ken Follett: Yes, one day I would like to write a third novel set in the town of Kingsbridge. I enjoy it and so do you, so why not? I haven't yet done any work on it, so I don't know what the theme might be or the time period, but I'm already looking forward to it.
Worcester, NY: Please tell me that you're working on more historical fiction! If so, how soon will we see it in stores?
Ken Follett: I'm working on a trilogy called The Century, which will follow three families through the twentieth century, from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The first novel in the series is called Fall of Giants, and I have 700 pages of the first draft written. I'm hoping it will be published in the year 2010.
I want this trilogy to combine some of the things readers enjoyed in "Pillars" and "World Without End", such as the historical sweep and the family saga, with some aspects of my thrillers, especially the focus on espionage and secret intelligence in wartime.
Smyrna, Delaware: Good Afternoon Ken,
I want to say that "Pillars of the Earth" is one of my all time favorite novels. I'm now reading "World without End" and am enjoying it just as much. I recently visited Bayeux, France and had a greater appreciation for the Cathedral there after reading Pillars.
My question to you is; how long does it take you to research for these books and what were your main resources?
Ken Follett: World Without End took me three years to write. The first year was spent researching the period and planning the story. These two activities are linked, because many of my story ideas come from actual events. Writing the first draft took up the second year. In this stage I have to look at my outline and turn those brief notes into vivid scenes that will stir the reader's emotions. The third year was spent rewriting, based on criticisms from my editors and factual corrections proposed by my historical experts.
Baltimore, Md.: Why are so many of your books set in or around the World War II era? Just curious. Does this era have the inherent conflict that might be helpful to a book's plotting? More generally, why do you think so many writers/moviemakers tend to be drawn to the the early 40s? Thanks for taking questions.
Ken Follett: The Second World War is the greatest drama in the history of the human race. It was the biggest ever war, with more people killed, wounded, bombed and displaced than in any other war. Also, it is unusual in that we still think of it as a battle between good and evil. We don't think of the First World War that way, for example. So I think it will always have great appeal for novelists and for readers too.
Richmond, VA: Love your writing and your books. I'm very surprised that Hollywood hasn't sunk their claws into you. Have you been resistant to making your works into movies or miniseries, or has the right offer just not come around?
Ken Follett: They can sink their claws into me any time they like. I've had one movie and four miniseries made of my books, and several more are under option.
However, I notice that many movies are about loners such as James Bond and Bourne. By contrast, the people in my stories usually have families. I wonder whether Hollywood prefers heroes without families.
Arlington, Va.: There was quite a gap between the writing of Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Had you always planned to write more about the cathedral but it took longer than expected to get there? Or did you decide after several years to revisit it?
Ken Follett: It took me a long time to figure out what the sequel to Pillars would be. Usually, a sequel is another story about the same characters, but that was not possible, because at the end of Pillars all the principal characters were very old, or dead. So I decided to write another story about the same town. Then the question was what should be the theme of the story. It took me a while to think of something as grand as the building of a cathedral. Eventually I came up with the idea of the Black Death, a terrible plague that killed at least a third of the population of Europe.
I guess also I was a little worried about the danger of disappointing the readers who loved Pillars so much. So I wasn't willing to begin the sequel until I was sure I had something just as good.
Richmond, VA: Although you center two of your greatest novels around a cathedral, you seem to have a very negative opinion of Christianity. Have you always been this skeptical of religion or was that influenced by your research for these two novels?
Thank you for writing Pillars of The Earth and World Without End, they are two of the best books I have ever read.
Ken Follett: I have tried to paint a realistic picture of the medieval church in both Pillars and World Without End. The hero of Pillars is Prior Philip, a sincere and devout Christian. His is a very practical kind of Christianity--he wants to save people in this world, not fob them off with promises of a happier life in the next world--and that's the kind of religious person I admire. On the other hand, it would not be honest to pretend that the church has no sinners in it, so I have also shown monks and priests who are wicked and corrupt.
I was brought up as a born-again Christian, but ceased to believe at about age 16.
Cumberland, Md.: Do you have a favorite character? I have to say that I've always really enjoyed the German spy in Eye of the Needle and probably the main female character in that novel, too. She's conflicted, I'd say.
Ken Follett: I like Gwenda in World Without End. She's not a pretty girl, but she falls for the most attractive boy in the village, and she won't take No for an answer. I like her determination and grit. She suffers more than most characters in the book but she never gives up hope.
Cooper City, Florida: If you could rewrite the end of "Pillars" to find a better crafted resolution for William -- rather than have him simply and without foreshadowing become a moron prior to execution -- would you do it? Were you running out of gas when it came time to wind up his story?
Ken Follett: Did William Hamleigh become a moron? He was never very bright in the first place.
In the first draft of Pillars he died a fairly natural death, but my editor said that was not satisying. She felt he had done so many cruel and vicious things that he had to die unpleasantly. So I made his death worse. But I certainly wasn't running out of gas.
Ashburn, VA: Hello,
Thank you for taking the time to answer questions. You're one of my dad's favorite authors. I really enjoyed the plot of Pillars of the Earth, but found the number of scenes with sexual violence very difficult to read. I bought World Without End but that is what holds me back from reading it.
Obviously as such a great and successful writer, you believe the detail in those scenes is necessary. Can you explain why?
Ken Follett: In novels, emotional tension usually has a physical climax. For example, Anna Karenina is a novel about a conventional, respectable woman who leaves her husband for a handsome young officer. All through the story she is in an agony of conflict about this, and in the end she throws herself under a train. The emotional conflict has a physical resolution. When two men are enemies throughout the story, they usually have to have a fist fight at the end.
So yes, I do believe that physical action such as violence is essential in fiction. I'm also aware that some of my readers flinch from such scenes. So I never write one without asking myself why I need it. However, I have to tell you that in World Without End you will come across such scenes. Although gruesome, they are part of the story.
Baltimore, Md.: Hi, Mr. Follett. Who were the writers who made you want to write books?
Ken Follett: When I was twelve years old I read "Live and Let Die" by Ian Fleming. I thought James Bond was the greatest character I had ever come across. In fact I wanted to be James Bond. A few years later, I realised I was never going to be six feet tall, nor would I ever have ice-blue eyes and a rather cruel mouth...
But what I could do was write stories, and when I began I wanted to give my readers the kind of excitement I had experienced reading the James Bond stories.
Anonymous: The first book of yours that drew me to read the next 8 was Night over Water. These two books on the priory of Kingsbridge were a gift. Thanks. I hope Century brings more tall tales with some interesting background like the churches and the plague. It must take a while to get the story and drop the details where you want to. Also, Countdown to Zero was an unexpectedly good book that I didn't think I'd like as much but I was hooked again. Part of me hopes these books will not be movies.
Ken Follett: Authors are ambivalent about movies. On the one hand, it's a kick to see my characters on the big screen played by good actors. On the other hand, it's nerve-wracking, because I know the film-makers are going to change the story, and I'm terrified they will spoil it.
But, in the end, we authors always take the money.
Falls Church, VA: Hi Ken! I read "Pillars" and am about 1/2 way through "World", both excellent reads and I am eager to keep going in "World!" What type of research did you do to capture the historical aspects of both novels, and was the research more or less fun than you expected? Thanks!
Ken Follett: The research is always fun. Authors like doing research because it's so much easier than writing.
Altoona, Pa.: Any specific eras of American history (or any other place) that you feel might make for a particularly compelling backdrop? I'd imagine you look at history a little differently than the average guy on the street, looking for what might make for good stories.
Ken Follett: "A Place Called Freedom" is about American history, though it begins in a Scottish coal mine.
With any kind of novel, not just historical, I'm looking for an idea that will generate fifty to one hundred dramatic scenes. (Almost all novels consist of a story told in 50-100 dramatic scenes.) There are lots of ideas that might give you six or seven scenes, but you need something much more powerful.
Ken Follett: Thanks, everyone, for your interesting questions, and I hope you enjoyed the answers. It's been a pleasure! Good bye for now--
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