A rare Welsh bit

Author Ken Follett—an executive producer of new movie Paradise Stop—is in South Africa for the premiere.

Nechama Brodie met with him to talk about writing and other hobbies.

I knew I would like Ken Follett even before I met him—not just because he’s one of the few Authors you can spell with a capital letter (he’s sold in the region of 130-million books worldwide) or because I’ve actually read and enjoyed his work, but because his success is something he’s clearly worked for. Like many writers, Follett was no overnight sensation: he had a day job and wrote novels in his spare time.
He wrote a lot of novels before he became an Author with a capital A.

His first success, he explains on his website, was his 11th book (Eye of the Needle, 1978). Three decades and a number one New York Times best seller later, Follett hasn’t rested on his laurels. His latest book Fall of Giants (part one of a planned trilogy) was released late in 2010, and he’s already hard at work on the second installment. The Century Trilogy, as it’s called, will “tell the entire history of the 20th century, seen through the eyes of five linked families”. The first book focused on the World War I and the Russian Revolution. The next will cover the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the dawning of the nuclear age.

“Nothing else engages me like this, like writing,” Follett says. “Apart from, obviously, family. Right from a very young age I engaged with literature. And in those days, it was not uncommon for the older generation to worry we were reading too much—they’d ask: ‘Do you get out in the fresh air enough?’”

Follett says he is a “great planner. I spend six months to a year writing the outline of a story. I go over it dozens of times, on the principle that it is much easier to fiddle with a plot in the outline stage.

“My current project is a bit challenging in this regard,” Follett explains, “because almost every chapter has to be researched”. When I ask whether he does his historical research online, in academic journals, or in old-fashioned print, Follet replies: “20th century books are my best resource. It’s not difficult to discover the lead book or books on a particular topic—the Spanish Civil War, for example. One or two books will stand out. I read personal memoirs, letters home ... They tell me what I want to know as a novelist.

“Then I write a first draft—Jann [Turner, Follett’s stepdaughter, with whom he has just produced Paradise Stop] is one of the people who gets to read the draft and give me notes.”

For The Century Trilogy, Follett has imposed a gruelling schedule: he wants to publish the second book two years after the first, and the third and final installment two years after that. To do this, he writes six pages a day, every day. “These books are a little over 300 000 words each. They’re like three regular novels.”

Follett also plays in a band. “I like playing guitar,” he says, “because my work is so cerebral, so heavily plotted. I spend all day figuring out who’s telling what lies to whom. Playing in a band is the opposite of that. There’s no time to think. You have to listen to the rest of the band and follow their cues.”

Follett’s band rehearses most Mondays, in a soundproof studio they rent in London. “Our next gig is in Italy in June,” he says. “My publishers are having a kind of sales conference—a weekend jamboree. We’re the Sunday night show. We’ll be playing in the village square to about 5 000 people. The largest audience we’ve played to before that was at the Hollywood Palladium. It was a fundraiser to benefit literacy projects. We were the support act for Stephen King’s band.”

Like most self-employed people, Follett draws a clear distinction between work and leisure time. “It’s a great luxury,” he says, “when my first draft is done, to actually go out to lunch. To spend a long time eating, drinking wine. Usually I have to go to bed after that. If I go out on my own, I go to the Athenaeum [Club] and sit at the club table—that’s where people sit when they’re on their own. It’s an intellectuals’ club. At one point you had to have published a book in order to become a member. Many members were scientists. There were also quite a lot of bishops, don’t ask me why. Ian McEwan just joined.”

I ask Follett what it is like, meeting with other prominent authors. “A couple of weeks ago I was with Philip Pullman,” he says. “We were both inducted as fellows of the Welsh Academy. I really enjoyed talking with him, and he gave a wonderful speech—it was so much better than mine. He was a teenager in Wales, and he talked about those years and played the music he’d listened to. He started with Last Train to San Fernando. His musical memory is a bit older than mine, but it was so evocative and so clever.

“The difficult relationship is between published writers and unpublished writers. One wants to be helpful, but it doesn’t always work out. Some people can do this, some people can’t. Some who can’t are very clever. There are quite a lot of people who can nearly do it.

“I think the bottom line is a reader’s emotional engagement with a story. It’s the miracle: we read a story and react to it as if it’s real. Anxiety, indignation, anger, fear ... we experience all these emotions in reaction to something we know only exists in the imagination. That’s what engages people. The same is true for non-fiction. Biographies can be very intelligent and well-researched, but if it doesn’t have that sense of narrative it doesn’t work. A book can engage emotionally without being intelligent, well-written or clever. And vice-versa. Books can be clever, amusing ... but you nod off after 100 pages.

“Mostly, you learn about writing by reading. We learn nearly everything we know about literature from reading. And from writing and failing. Like writing a story and showing it to someone who says, yes, alright, that’s not bad. And you go: ‘Not bad? I thought it was brilliant. What do I have to do to be brilliant?’ And that’s when you begin to learn.”

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