Ken Follett was once an ink-stained wretch at the South Wales Echo; now he lives in a 17-room house in Surrey and has 1,200 bottles of wine in his cellar. You might, too, if you were an international thriller writer with a genius for threading the eye of the literary needle. Well, at least the best-seller needle. But don't worry about calling him "popular." You can say it to his face. It's not an epithet this natty, mega-rich, 34-year-old Welshman looks askance on.

"No, not at all, and, by the way, I do constantly compare myself to great classical writers. Why compare yourself to John le Carre' when you might just as well compare yourself to, say, Jane Austen? I compare myself all the time with great English writers like Dickens and Thomas Hardy and George Eliot--and wonder why I can't do better." This is said in wonderfully assured British cadences, just tossed off.

"I was a great liver in fantasy worlds from an early age," says the author of the just-released "On Wings of Eagles." This one is not a novel but a nonfiction, real-life thriller, full of blood and money, set in Texas and Iran. Of course, it's already landed high on the country's best-seller lists.

"I wanted to write best sellers, yes. And if I had made a reasonable--oh, I don't mean reasonable, I mean realistic--guess about seven years ago, before I happened, as to what my chances were, I would have said, 'Well, you're a No. 10 best seller, not a No. 1.' But then being a daydreamer and a fantasist, I thought of the various things I could do with that million."

This is a man who comes to the point, in his prose, and in his life. Not a lot of twiddle-twaddle in him, nor in novels like "The Man from St. Petersburg" or "The Key to Rebecca" or "Eye of the Needle." This last, you recall, unless you were sick or in New Guinea, concerns one Heinrich Rudolph Hans von Mu ller-Gu der, code name Die Nadel--so called because of the lethal instrument concealed on his left arm. Mr. Needle is an ice-blooded kind of guy working for the Germans and living in London as Henry Faber. The first person he gives it to is his Highgate landlady. That's on Page 9:

"Faber missed her heart with the first jab of the weapon, and he had to thrust his fingers down her throat to stop her crying out. He jabbed again, but she moved again and the blade stuck a rib and merely slashed her superficially. Then the blood was spurting and he knew it would not be a clean kill; it never was when you missed with the first stroke."

The new work offers the by now tried-and-true Follett Formula of espionage and secret penetrations See FOLLETT, B3, Col. 1 into enemy territories and high-wire escapes. It is the story of two American businessmen rescued in early 1979 from an Iranian prison. They are rescued by a Green Beret colonel named Bull Simons and his unlikely crew of Texas commandos. The businessmen's names are Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord, and they were in the employ of legendary Dallas electronics tycoon, H. Ross Perot. It's a fast read, but not all the critics think it's a great write.

Who cares what they think? They're just frustrated English majors anyway. "Actually, I think I'm one of the best in the world at what I do," says Ken Follett, and that is that.

At the Pentagon Metro stop there are glass doors, three escalators, a pillar with 21 bus stop routes on it. If you ride up the escalator you'll emerge into a vast, dimly lit, '50s-flavored, underground shopping mall--dry cleaning establishments and bakeries. You see the damndest sights: a female soldier in fatigues and combat boots, picking out chocolates at Fannie Mae. She has just bought two copies of "On Wings of Eagles."

Follett sits at a table in the Pentagon bookstore, scribbling his name on flyleafs for wave after wave of Follett-freaks. He's in a slick gray suit and has creamy-colored socks on. Who knows what's going on upstairs in all those steel-gray war rooms? Down here there's only the sweet happy smell of fame and money.

"I'm delighted. Oh, shoot away, shoot away," says the author, not to a military firing squad, but to a sergeant with a Kodak Disc 4000. "And what is your fiance''s name, sir? I'll just go and put a note in to her." His steel-colored hair is brushed straight up. He could show people to seats in a fancy restaurant.

This is just a pit stop in a seven-week global publicity tour that began in Mexico City and ends in Frankfurt. Will his autographing hand ever be the same? "He loves it," says the Morrow sales rep. Morrow is Follett's American publisher and gives new light to the word "delirious."

Repairing to a back room, sipping on a Coke after his labors, Follett talks on Texas. He went there cold on a plane to meet Ross Perot. His agent and Perot's lawyers had set up the meeting. Perot wanted the story of the rescue told and he had said to his people: Get Follett.

One doesn't think right off of a jaunty Englishman stepping off at Brobdingnagian DFW airport, bent on doing Dallas. But he did it just fine. In fact, he's just come from there again--a week's worth of publicity. It was sort of like old home week. He and Perot are still ducky.

"I gave a dinner to all the people from Electronics Data Systems Perot's company who cooperated on the book. I presented each of them with a leatherbound edition. Well, it is kind of curious, isn't it? In the beginning Perot and I had the advantage of considering ourselves total aliens. I think we were both surprised at how well we got along. Texas just reeks of prosperity, doesn't it? And that's very intriguing, certainly these days, and kind of nice, too."

You mean something to be said for capitalism?

He strikes his knee: By Jove, you've got it.

"I was sort of in the care of Perot down there, and you get the feeling the man can arrange anything. One day I mentioned how it was rather ironic that, here I write all these shoot-bang thrillers, and I've never fired a gun. So the next day I found myself on a firing range with some Uzi submachine gun and an AK-17 and I think what you call a Walther PPK."

How did you do?

"Oh, I'm sort of lousy. No good at hand-eye. My instructor said, 'Well, you didn't get his heart.' "

Some papers around the country, among them The Washington Post, have had the cheek to be unkind to "Wings." Generally, Follett's fiction gets reviewed well, and deservedly, at least over here; Europe is sometimes another story.

"The bloody book went through four drafts. Now a book of Ken Follett's that goes through four drafts doesn't get intensely supenseful by accident. I mean!"

One of the things the book has been criticized for is Follett's depiction of Perot, who can jerk strings aplenty. In a word, the portrait seems too . . . adoring. Ken Follett doesn't think so at all. He says he shows the side of H. Ross Perot that can grind under subordinates. No, Perot did not demand right of approval of the manuscript, he says. In fact, Perot's only stipulation was that the book be generous to the memory of Bull Simons, who died several months after the rescue.

"I have to admit, I like him a lot. I think he's a great man. I don't think I saw him through rose-colored glasses. The striking thing about him is his sense of humor. He's very short, you know. And not very handsome. We asked him who was going to play him in the movie and he said immediately, 'Mickey Rooney.' A-ha ha-ha."

Follett wrote the book "in rather less than two years." He must be intense at his work.

"Well, I don't feel that way. I wrote 'Eye' in three months and feel I've been slowing down ever since. I've been working on an outline for my new book for six months." The new book, he says, a novel again, is about a KGB plot to bring about the collapse of the Western banking world.

Curiously, Follett is not the No. 1 man in his homeland. He's just a contender. In paperback, "The Man from St. Petersburg" went only to the No. 8 slot in Britain, whereas here it was No. 1, at least on most lists. "I typically sell a quarter of a million or 300,000 paperbacks in Britain, which is a handy profit for the publisher and quite a lot for me. No, I don't know why it's not more. In Italy I do phenomenally well, in Germany not so well, in France disappointingly."

Oh, let's not be greedy.

Besides, this rather small down-sell puts him in something of a tradition. "Yes, yes," he says, brightening. "Some rather better writers than me have had that experience--such as D.M. Thomas. I kind of am amused by that. I mean, this is the man who may turn out to be the most outstanding writer of his generation. The English had him right in their midst, and they didn't even know it."

Would he go back to a nonfiction work? "Yes, if a like story came along."

Ken Follett is a rather "cerebral" writer, says Ken Follett. But then: "Cerebral is rather too high-flown a word, and contrived is too pejorative. What I mean is I work for my effects."

Did "Wings" teach him anything new about his craft? "I can't think of anything particular I learned, although I must have learned something."

Pause. "I suppose I learned how hard it is to nail down the truth."