Ken Follett’s history lesson

The bestselling author shares his thoughts on Oprah and epics

Interview, The Knowledge
Interview, The Knowledge

Fall of Giants is the first novel of your first trilogy, focusing on 20th-century history. What appealed to you about writing such an expansive set of books on such an expansive topic?
The response to [the last book] World Without End was so warm, I wanted to write another book that had similar historical sweep. So I looked for another topic that would enthuse readers the way World Without End had, and I thought the 20th century would [do this] because it’s the most dramatic and violent period in the history of the human race. And unlike the Middle Ages, for example, the 20th century is our story. I lived through half of the 20th century, my readers lived through part of it, and our parents and grandparents were born in it. It’s the story of where we come from.

The novel entwines political intrigue, romance, class issues, the horror of war… Do you ever worry about over-stretching yourself?
This trilogy is undoubtedly a challenge; when I started out on it I didn’t know whether I would be up to it. The thing you always have to remember is that you can’t take readers for granted – they don’t have to read this book, so you have to give them a reason to turn the page. You mustn’t get lost in your own conception of what the story is or what the history is – you have to keep them fascinated. If you can do that, you have a successful book.

In terms of your writing process, how much of the novel is event-driven and how much is character-driven?
I read a lot of history books from the period, and identified what I thought would be great scenes for the reader. I then tried to create some characters who would be participants in those scenes. Of course, once you’ve done that, then there’s still more work to do because you have to find a way to bring the characters and their personal lives to the forefront and put the history in the background. My readers don’t want a history book, they want an exciting novel – they don’t want to know that you know everything about the battle of the Somme, they want to know what happened to Billy. The history is still there, but as well as seeing a battle between the British and French forces on one side and the German forces on the other, you see it as a trial for a very young man who is going into battle for the first time and is scared and doesn’t know how he’s going to do.

Some of your work has been adapted for films and TV. How do you feel about your work being altered or adapted by other people?
It makes you very anxious as a writer. I’ve gone to enormous trouble to make sure the plot makes sense, it’s logical, there are no boring bits, and then I hand it over to someone who’s going to dissemble it. I know they have to do this because a book is different to a film – a book tells a story in pictures, whereas I tell a story in words and that makes a huge difference. So I know when they hand it over to them, they have to change it, but of course I worry. However, the latest miniseries adaptation of [Follett’s 1989 novel] The Pillars of the Earth is just terrific.

Speaking of The Pillars of the Earth, it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club more than 20 years ago. Some titles have increased sales by up to a million copies after being featured on the show – is this a sad reflection of modern society, or a good thing for the publishing industry?
We in the book business say thank goodness for Oprah! People who watch that show are essentially television viewers and she makes them read books – what are we going to say except for thank you, Oprah? She promotes our products because she believes in books and literature. In the six weeks The Pillars of the Earth was Oprah’s choice, we sold one million copies!

So finally, is Fall of Giants your greatest work to date?
You’re always most fond of the book you’ve just finished, and this is certainly an ambitious project. If it works, it will entertain a lot of people, and I’ll be very happy if it does.
Fall of Giants is published by Macmillan.

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