I have vivid memories of my dad loaning me his copy of Ken Follett's 1978 break-out bestseller, Eye of the Needle. I was in eighth grade and it was my first stab at a fat, hardcover grown-up book, which triggered a lifelong taste for literary spy thrillers. (Trevanian's Shibumi and The Eiger Sanction were other teenaged discoveries). Not content to remain a contemporary thriller writer, however, Follett has explored other genres and eras in his varied and ambitious career, most notably the wildly successful Middle Ages stories of Pillars of the Earth and its sequel, World Without End.
Based on the success of World Without End, Follett began planning another long historical story that would mix real and fictional characters, "something with the same kind of scale and sweep," he told me. The result is The Century Trilogy, an epic exploration of the wars and turmoil of the Twentieth Century. Winter of the World, the second book in the trilogy (the sequel to Fall of Giants), goes on sale today. I recently spoke with Follett by phone about the origins of the trilogy, how he brings his concepts and characters to life, about re-reading Dickens, and clipping photographs from magazines.
Why the Twentieth Century?
It struck me that this is actually the most dramatic century in the history of the human race. We had most of the terrible wars that we've ever had, we had revolutions, and we had enormous change, on a scale that's never been seen before. And yet, of course, most of my readers were born in the Twentieth Century "“ so it's where we all come from.
Once you get to the point where you've decided what the period is going to be, what's next for you as far as creating the characters and the story?
It occurred to me almost immediately that this wasn't one book, and it occurred to me to split it into three, and for each book to be based around a war "“ so it's the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. So that gave me the structure. And then I worked for about six months on the overall concept "“ reading and research "“ and loosely planning the whole trilogy. And then I focused on the first book, Fall of Giants, and read in much more detail about the period, and began to block out the story.
[For research, Follett relied heavily on The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, by Erik Hobsbawm; History of the First World War and History of the Second World War, by Basil Liddel Hart; and the works of Orlando Figes works about the Soviet Union. "He includes a great deal of colorful detail, which of course is exactly the kind of ting that the novelist wants to get hold of."]
Separate from the research books, along the way are there things you're reading, maybe something to take you away from your writing, just as an escape, or for inspiration?
Well, yes, I read all the time. I do a lot of re-reading these days. I quite often have five new novels on my book table, and I pass them over and pick up a Dickens or a Jane Austen. And I find that reading these books in my 60s is a completely different experience from reading them as a teenager or in my 20s. That period of literature--Victorian novels with a structured plot, with distinctive characters, characters whose choices change the course of the story--that is the kind of novel that I write. It's a nineteenth century tradition, and I write in that tradition, as indeed do most people on the bestseller list.
So, that process of re-reading. How does that affect your writing? Is it motivational? Does it keep you true to form? Or is it just a good diversion?
Well, I think it's all of those things. But I think all the time about the structure of stories. And if they're successful, I ask: What is this author doing right here? He's got my attention, he's got me completely riveted, and I ask: How's he done that? And If my attention wanders and I get a bit bored I ask: Okay, what's this guy done wrong? Do I not care enough about the characters? Is the story moving too slowly? Has the whole thing become a bit too abstract? I analyze novels all the time. And if I find a fault in a novel I sometimes look at a book I'm writing and ask: Well, have I made that mistake?
On that stack of novels on your nightstand, is there anyone you've particularly enjoyed?
I just read a novel that actually isn't out yet--but I checked and it's available for pre-order, on Amazon.com--by an English writer called Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong). His new book is called A Possible Life (to be published in December) and it's very unusual and very intriguing, though I'm not sure what he's trying to do. I recommended it to my wife, Barbara, and she's reading it with the same sense of rather pleasant bafflement.
Do you prefer British writers?
Not especially. I'm a geat admirer of Stephen King, who has probably been the most popular writer in the world for most of the time that I've been an author. And I know why... Just a terrific, terrific artist. So I read just about everything he does. And the literary novelist who never fails to excite me is Philip Roth, another American.
Your writing space... With a book like this, and a trilogy like this, I'm envisioning a lot of stuff around you, either maps or photographs. Describe your work space as it relates to this book.
Well, you're quite right, I'm surrounded by books about the history of the Twentieth Century. And maps. Maps are quite important, and very difficult to get. (e.g. maps of Berlin during wartime weren't widely produced).
I also have an easel, an artists' easel that I have in my library, that has a white board on it. And early in the process of writing a novel, I cut out photographs from magazine and books of people who resemble my characters. And I stick them on this board so I can look up and see the faces of the people I'm writing about. And I find that very helpful, especially in the early stages... Looking at their photos reminds me of the concept of their character, and their impression on the world around them. Beautiful, ugly, sexy, bald, fat, thin"¦
We finished our chat by discussing his daily routine and typical work day, which begins at 7 a.m. and lasts until 5 p.m., with short breaks for breakfast and lunch, six days a week. Winter of the World took about two years, a third of that time on research and planning, a third on writing the first draft (about 1,500 words a day), and a third on rewriting. He saves phone calls for the end of the day, but doesn't mind interruptions from his grandkids or dogs, who wander in to "make sure I'm working." He doesn't listen to music, and is able to tune out distractions as he gets lost in the imaginary worlds he's creating. "Very little of what's going on in the real world around me actually impinges on me," he said.
Discipline, sitting and concentrating, has never been a problem. "For me the difficulty is not doing it. For me the difficulty is to take Sunday off," he said. "When I finish the trilogy I'm hoping to slow down a little."
>Watch a video about Winter of the World.
>Learn more about all of Follett's books.