(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 19th December, 2010)
The audio of the interview, complete with my rather loud giggles, is here. But then, it could be a spoiler for those of you who haven't read the book. For the non-spoiler version, see the transcript below. But he did say a few things I haven't transcribed, and was very kind when I told him how the book should have ended:
He’s sold over 160 million copies of his books worldwide. Twenty of his books have been bestsellers for decades, and several have been made into films and TV series. In India on a book tour, Ken Follett chats with Nandini Krishnan about his latest novel Fall of Giants, The Century Trilogy, his penchant for making fun of the British through German eyes, and his passion for writing. Excerpts:
The majority of your bestsellers have had to do with wars, or history or both. When did your fascination with history begin?
Well, I suppose it really came out of my wanting to write novels. Because, in a novel, you’re interested in the character’s personal conflicts – his or her hopes and fears, the people they love, the people they hate. But it enlarges those characters, it makes them more admirable if they’re not just fighting for themselves, but fighting for some cause. So if they’re fighting against the Nazis or against the Communists, or they’re trying to build a cathedral, it makes the book much more engaging because the characters are related to what’s going on in their time. I’m interested in politics and current affairs and history anyway, but I started to get deeply into it because I started writing.
One thing that’s particularly striking about your books is that as you switch perspectives, irrespective of whether the character is good or bad, one feels sympathetic to him or her. Are you impartial to them or do you take sides?
Well, you want to identify with the characters at the forefront of the scene, and I just think it’s interesting to see different points of view. You know, a lot of novels are written from the point of view of one country. So a novel about the war would be written from an English point of view, and the Germans are all terrible, bad guys, and the English are all great. I don’t like to do that, partly because I’m not English! And I don’t think the English are great at everything; my country was conquered by the English. Particularly with Fall of Giants, writing about the First World War, I wanted to see it from both sides, because there are no good guys in this war anyway. It wasn’t a war for some great cause. So, I felt it was really quite important to see it from all points of view, and that enriches a novel.
Do you let a story tell itself, or do you plan it out?
I never let the story tell itself. I spend a long time making the plan, at least six months, maybe a year. And the point of that is to make sure the story is always developing and changing, so that the reader is always thinking ‘wow, I wonder what’ll happen next!’ I know most writers say I know the beginning and the end, and the middle is kind of an arc of discovery. It’s never been like that for me.
Which character came to you first in Fall of Giants?
(Thinks) I suppose it was Ethel. You know, she’s the link between the coalmining family and the aristocratic family, and she also gets to know Walter, she meets Gus. So, she’s quite central, and she’s also a version of a character who appears in most of my books – the feisty, sexy woman who is smart and gets things done.
But these women don’t always defy societal norms. They’re feminine and strong, without being radically feminist. Are there any women whom you would say inspired these?
Well, certainly my wife Barbara is just like that. I don’t know if she inspired these characters, or that’s just the kind of woman that I like, and I write about that kind of woman, and I fall for that kind of woman. (Laughs) So I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg, but these women are good characters to have in a novel, and I enjoy women like that in my life, and I’m married to that kind of woman.
In Fall of Giants, Billy Williams’ family attends a chapel exactly like the one you describe from your childhood in the preface to Pillars of the Earth. Do aspects of Billy’s character draw from yours?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of my experience in Billy’s life, especially with religion. Of course, I never worked in a coal mine! But, I was brought up going to chapel just like that, and the arguments Billy has with his father about religion were exactly the same as the arguments I had with my father.
The conflict is not so much between religion and science, as between religion and philosophy, both in Fall of Giants and Pillars of the Earth.
Ah, that’s an interesting point. Well, I suppose that’s right. Of course, it really was science that undermined Christian belief in the nineteenth century. But in my own experience, it’s the illogicality of my parents’ version of Christianity – the idea that everything in the Bible is infallibly true. So I argued, initially, within the Church. It wasn’t like I discovered science, and thought ‘Oh, my God, there’s contradiction between science and religion!’ I looked at the religion they taught me, and I said this is self-contradictory. So Billy’s like that. As for Pillars of the Earth, atheism was barely conceivable in the Middle Ages. And it’s the story of the building of a church, so there had to be a sincere, devout Christian who believes in doing this for the glory of God. But I made Prior Philip a Christian unlike any of the people I grew up with; he’s a very practical Christian. He never says to people ‘you’re suffering now, but it will be all right in heaven’. He tries to solve the problem now. And I admire that kind of Christian.
In the Century Trilogy, you’ve said you’ll go as far as the Cold War. But are you also going to go further, to the wars in the Middle East?
I don’t think so, because it’s so huge, material for another trilogy. So, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to handle it, because I certainly can’t write the story of the twentieth century without reference to the Middle East. In Fall of Giants, I have marked the moment when Jerusalem was conquered by the British army, and there are a few lines about the Balfour Declaration. So obviously I’m not going to ignore it, but I’m afraid that if I went into it too deeply, it would take over my whole book. So I think it will be something that happens off stage, and centre stage will be the Cold War.
You write about current events, non-fiction, history, and ancient history. Which is the hardest? And does any limit your scope for imagination?
Well, I suppose the thing about the twentieth century is the history is more constraining because we know more. In the Middle Ages, we don’t know where the king was everyday of the year. So if I want to say he was in Gloucester, nobody’s going to contradict me, whereas for someone like Sir Edward Grey, I can’t just say he went to Gloucester, because maybe he didn’t go to Gloucester on that day, maybe he never went to Gloucester, and somebody would know whether he ever went to Gloucester. So I have to be much more careful. On the other hand, it’s easier to find stuff out. So it has advantages and disadvantages, and I’m equally happy in either period.
And you’re a stickler for historic accuracy – you did remark that people in ancient Rome speak of guilds in Julius Caesar.
Well, that’s right. Shakespeare had no sense of history. In Julius Caesar, they have guilds, which was a mediaeval invention. They have clocks, and I think even a monastery! Now, there was barely a Christian religion at the time of Julius Caesar. And I think it’s quite interesting that Shakespeare, in that sense, had no sense of history, because he was probably a great reader for his time. But he probably hadn’t read as many books as the average nineteen-year-old today. Mediaeval people didn’t realise that people’s lives could be so different from their own, in other periods of history or other countries. And that leads you to ask where we get our sense of history, how do we know? It’s because we read. In Mediaeval times, were no novels, there were very few books. And most people couldn’t read anyway. So that tells us what literature does for us. Literature gives us a sense of the lives of other people.
You feel strongly about reading. Do you read other books while you’re writing, apart from the ones you use for research?
Oh, absolutely, all the time! My life would be a misery if I didn’t. It’s one of my greatest pleasures, and I wouldn’t dream of stopping. And some people often imagine that I would be worried that I might accidentally plagiarise something. In fact, that doesn’t worry me at all. Because if I did come across something in another novel that I really liked, and I decided to do the same thing in my novel, by the time I’m finished with it, it would be completely different anyway, because I’d just automatically transform it. So it doesn’t matter.
Back to Fall of Giants, do you believe that in the early nineteenth twentieth century, lords and ladies did take advantage of the privacy of an opera box seat or a trip to the library?
Ah! Yes, and I’ll tell you how I know. While I was living in a house in Chelsea, the diary was published of a young woman who had lived in my house in the 1890s. Now, they would have dinner in their dining room, which, by the time I lived there, was the kitchen. And there were a couple of steps down from the kitchen, which we used as a laundry, but which had been their library. This lady says in her diary that she was engaged to this man, but they were never allowed to be alone. So, when he came to dinner with the family, she and her fiancé would deliberately start an argument about something silly, like what is the capital of Bulgaria, and then they would say ‘we’ll go look it up in the encyclopaedia’, and they would go next door into the library, leaving the door open, of course, and that’s when they would kiss passionately for a minute – just a kiss, nothing else – and they would come back and say ‘Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria!’ (laughs). So there we are, they really did do it! I don’t know about the opera, I made that up.
Do you always end your books the way you want to, or tailor it to what the audience would want?
Well, the readers want a resolution. I hate books that have unresolved endings. I know it’s kind of fashionable and tricksy and ‘literary’ to have an unresolved ending, or even worse, two alternative endings as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Silly idea! I think the reader wants a resolution, the satisfaction of a resolution, I think that’s part of the fun of literature. Life, of course, often doesn’t have a resolution, but literature is supposed to be better than life. So, I wouldn’t mess about too much with the ending. You can have a sad ending, or you can have a sad element in the ending, and I think Fall of Giants has a sad element in the ending.
Do you have trouble saying goodbye your characters at the end of a book?
No, no, I don’t mind that. I know some writers do, but when I’m finished, I feel very satisfied. I usually feel the book is good, though I’m very anxious about the readers. I wait till they tell me it’s good. But I think it’s the best I can do, and I feel I’ve paid the rent for a couple of years, so I don’t regret it at all!
As someone who has broken out and explored genres, do you think the gap between literary and popular fiction can be bridged, or do you think it shouldn’t exist at all?
Well, I think it’s not as important to the readers as it is to the critics. Most readers move from popular fiction to literary fiction relatively easily. And if a literary novel is engaging, then they’ll cheerfully read that, and then read another Jeffrey Archer. Literary novels like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Remains of the Day, and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth were enjoyed by millions of people. So my readers and Jeffrey Archer’s pick up these books, enjoy them, and then go back to reading me and Jeffrey. So it is a division, but it’s not one that matters that much.
What are your views on imperialism, since that’s such a big feature of this trilogy?
Well, I think it’s easy to come to a facile conclusion about imperialism. We know imperialism has always been terribly cruel and ruthless. You know this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where John Cleese says ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ And people say ‘the viaduct! Education! Wine!’ Now, it’s a great scene because it’s hilarious, and it make a quite interesting political point. You know, the fact of the matter is, the Romans did a lot for the people they conquered, and they were brutal, they killed people, they crucified people, they stole their land, but imperialism brought great benefits as well as great cruelty. So I don’t think you can look at imperialism and have a simple answer.
Having written for so long, do you like your earliest books?
Oh, when look at my first ten books, I’m so pleased that I improved. But Eye of the Needle... you know, Paul McCartney was asked this question recently, in an interview that I read, and he said ‘you know, I listen to the early Beatles songs, and I think “clever boy!”’ And I think about Eye of the Needle, and I think, ‘you know, I was only twenty-seven, I was a clever boy, wasn’t I?’ (laughs)
You found success early – so money was not a problem. But what are the other vagaries that a writer’s family has to live with?
Well, I suppose book tours. You know, I’m away from my family for a week or two at a time; nobody likes that. What else? Writers tend to live in their imagination, of course, and this can be irritating for their families. The family sometimes want them to come back to the real world, dad, you’re not here anymore! (Laughs) Well, and newspapers are sometimes unkind. I don’t mind them being unkind to me, but it would affect the kids.
So many of your books have been adapted to film and television, and you’ve even played a guest role. Is it hard to give the directors a free hand, or do you enjoy seeing your books interpreted differently?
Mixed feelings. I’m very anxious about how well they’ll do the job, and I’ve had some bad ones. But also, it’s a big thrill, to see a good actor on the screen, doing things that I wrote, saying lines that I wrote. By and large, the thrill overcomes the anxiety, and it’s pretty much a positive experience for me.