Ken Follett Says Readers Still Like Epic Books

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ken Follett’s latest novel, “The Armor of Light,” concludes a wildly successful eight-volume series spanning 1,000 years of human civilization. Yet when he first switched to historical fiction decades ago, after years of writing bestselling thrillers, it was against the advice of his publisher.

Few would have predicted that the first book in the series, “Pillars of the Earth,” about building a medieval cathedral, would have wide appeal. But Follett, 74, got the last laugh. Published in 1989, it remains his most popular book. Despite its epic length—a trait of most of his novels—it still sells 100,000 copies a year in the U.S. “When a book is good, readers don’t want it to stop,” he insists. “The evidence is in my bank account.”

With his new book, out next week, Follett returns once again to the site of his cathedral, the fictional English town of Kingsbridge. “Readers like the familiarity and so do I,” he says. Set hundreds of years later, “The Armor of Light” traces the dawn of the industrial revolution in Great Britain in the 18th century, when machines began to enhance the work done by people in manufacturing and then to displace them. “The new machines created social conflict, and social conflict is dramatic,” he says over video from his country house in Hertfordshire, north of London, where he lives with his wife, Barbara. “I like dramas in my stories to arise not merely from my imagination but from historical change.”

Most of his books brim with war, sex, intrigue and battles of will. Yet Follett, who has sold around 190 million copies of his 36 novels in over 80 countries, says the trick for riveting readers is ensuring they care about his characters. “A book may be beautifully written, it may be clever, but if it doesn’t grab the reader emotionally it won’t sell,” he says.

“The Armor of Light” has clear resonances with the current moment. Its characters struggle with rising food prices, disruptive industries, variable weather, exploitative monopolies and an intractable war—in this case with France, to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas to othermonarchies. Follett says it’s “inevitable” that contemporary concerns drive his stories, but he strives to keep his books apolitical: “Look, readers would know if I was skewing the facts to suit a particular point of view.”

Despite his own lavish good fortune—“I do know that money and success sometimes makes people unhappy, but not me, I really like it,” he says—Follett still plainly sympathizes with economic underdogs. “Perhaps it’s because my roots are in a coal-mining community in South Wales,” he explains. His own grandfather was an apprentice coal miner at 13—an experience Follett imagines at the start of “Fall of Giants” (2010), the first volume of his Century trilogy, which chronicled major conflicts of the 20th century through the interrelated lives of five families.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal