The first alarm bell rang when I watched one of two DVDs included in the lavish press pack for Ken Follett’s latest novel.
This 850-page tome, Fall of Giants, is set against the backdrop of the First World War and Follett is filmed solemnly declaring: “Although we know that the Russian Revolution happened and there was a First World War, we don’t know why these things happened.”
Fear not though readers, his book will reveal all, like no one ever attempted that before. Then I read previous interviews. One journalist claims: “you are made to feel as if you are wasting his time.” Another quotes Follett comparing himself to Charles Dickens.
Arguably, Follett, 61, has good reason to be pleased with himself. He doesn’t exactly fulfil the stereotype of the struggling writer, having sold an estimated 116 million books worldwide. Fall of Giants, the first novel in a trilogy spanning the 20th century, is his most ambitious novel yet.
“It’s the most dramatic and violent period of human history,” he says, “and it’s the story of where we came from. When I thought of that, I thought: ‘Clever Ken’.”
Follett, in a well-cut tweed waistcoat and flamboyant tie, is chuckling. There is a knowing quality to his slight air of pomposity; a sense that he can’t quite believe his own luck.
He started out writing thrillers, his first big success being 1978’s Eye of the Needle. A decade and seven novels later, he was ready to gamble on more challenging material and his 1,100 pages on the building of a medieval cathedral was a page-turner. The Pillars of the Earth went on to sell 14 million copies and is still considered by Ken to be his greatest achievement “artistically and professionally”.
While he denies that he ever compared himself to Dickens (“I should be so lucky!”) he can’t help but add that no one can predict which contemporary authors will stand the test of time. “I think it’s just possible that people will read The Pillars of the Earth in 100 years,” he muses. “There are not that many books that bring the Middle Ages to life. I think I’ve got a chance but I don’t care if in 100 years professors of literature aren’t writing about me.”
Follett is defiantly anti-literary, to the point where you wonder if he doth protest too much but he prides himself on his populist approach, on penning pacey, unpretentious books. He is far more interested in being clear and readable than undertaking an endless quest for perfection but doesn’t it annoy him that he”d never make a Booker shortlist? Because I don’t think the Booker is about being clear and readable, it’s rather literary.
“It doesn’t really because, let’s face it, I’m awfully well rewarded for what I do. It would be awfully churlish of me to complain.”
Although former journalist Follett reads his reviews, he convincingly insists he couldn’t care less what the critics think, it’s his fans’ reactions he’s worried about. “It’s a very anxious moment. I’m terrified of disappointing them. I’m trying to write stories that millions of people can get lost in.”
Why millions? After all, it’s decades since he needed the money. “I don’t know!” he says thoughtfully. “It might be part of my fundamental character.”
Follett plays in a band called Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues; it’s just for fun but he’s always the one anxious to entertain the crowd, to keep them dancing, while his bandmates would rather just please themselves: “A part of me really wants to keep that audience happy.” He laughs. “I don’t think my family would say I’m a people pleaser but in my work I am.”
After the first flush of success, Follett feared Eye of the Needle’s success was a one-off. When the next novel, Triple (1979), was a hit, he thought people were buying it only because they liked Eye of the Needle. It wasn’t until The Key To Rebecca (1980) also sold by the bucket-load that he finally started to believe he could “do this” and writing remains a joy. Indeed, he is already 100 pages into Fall of Giants’ sequel. “It’s what I want to do when I get up in the morning.”
While his critics argue that his lengthy books would benefit from a judicious edit, he believes big themes demand big books. “Long books are much harder to write,” he insists, “you’ve got to keep on making up more and more stuff about the same people.”
He’s pulled it off once again with Fall of Giants: it’s classic Follett, with the brewing cataclysm of war given a human angle. Among the five families caught up in the conflict are the wealthy Fitzherberts: Maud, madly in love with German spy Walter; her brother Fitz and his brutal Russian wife Bea; their bright, beautiful servant Ethel and her coalminer brother Billy.
Away from writing on weekends he unwinds by rustling up roast beef (he’s very proud of his Yorkshire puddings) or Jamie Oliver’s fish pie for whichever members of the Follett clan are staying at the Stevenage pile he shares with second wife Barbara, the former Labour MP. He is endlessly lambasted for his champagne socialism but there’s something refreshingly honest about how much he enjoys the trappings of success (he once retorted to a critic: “At least my Bentley’s red.”).
When Eye of the Needle started selling by the million in the US his first extravagance was a Jaguar but he still baulked at spending £200 on a coveted jacket. “Then I thought: ‘Oh f***, I’m a millionaire!’ So I bought it.”
His other great joy is luxurious holidays shared with his children, grandchildren and stepchildren. How would he cope without wealth now? “After 30 years of living like a king? I think I’d find it very difficult actually.”
He needn’t worry. When he tells me: “I love to see my book at number one on the bestseller list,” he can be confident that’s exactly where Fall of Giants is heading.
— Charlotte Heathcote, The Sunday Express, 3 October 2010