Novelist Ken Follett

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Wales-born novelist talks about his new book, Fall of Giants, exec producing the feature film White Wedding and U.K. politics.

Starting with his '78 thriller, Eye of the Needle, novelist Ken Follett has written numerous best-selling books, many of which have been adapted for feature film and miniseries. Known for stories with strong women characters, suspense and intrigue, the Wales-born writer began a journalism career and later worked for a book publisher, all while writing novels on the side. Follett's latest, Fall of Giants, is the first in his Century Trilogy covering the journey of five families of different nationalities. He also exec produces the new film, White Wedding.


Tavis: Ken Follett is one of the most successful and widely read authors of our time, with notable books such as “Eye of the Needle,” “On Wings of Eagles,” and “The Pillars of the Earth.” The latter is currently an eight-part miniseries on the Starz network.
In addition to his forthcoming book, “Fall of Giants,” he’s also producing a new South African film called “White Wedding.” The movie opens in select cities on September 3rd, and so here now are some scenes from “White Wedding.”
Tavis: Ken Follett, nice to have you on the program.
Ken Follett: (Laughs) My pleasure, thank you.
Tavis: So much to talk to you about, because you are such a busy guy these days. Let me start with the movie. Tell me about “White Wedding.”
Follett: Well, my stepdaughter, Jann Turner, is a director, and she also writes with two South African actors, Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo. She said to me – so I know Kenny and Raps because every time I go to Johannesburg to see my stepdaughter we have dinner with Kenny and Raps, and they make me laugh all evening.
So one day she said, “I would really like to make a feature with Kenny and Raps in a kind of road movie,” and I said, “What a great idea, because you’d hardly have to write it. Those two guys are so funny they could almost improvise the movie.”
So she had this idea and I said, “How much would it cost?” And she told me – she told me a fib, actually. (Laughter) And I said, “Look, let me finance it. Who knows? We might even make some money. But if we don’t, it’ll be great fun to make a South African comedy.”
Tavis: Yeah. Beyond, of course, the obvious, knowing the two guys in the film, and that may be the only answer, and the fact that she’s your stepdaughter, you do realize that the movie business and movie-making and investing is pretty risky.
Follett: Well, I do realize that, but I just felt – and comedy is difficult. I don’t do comedy and I know it’s difficult, but I just knew that this team, I felt this team could do it wonderfully well.
So I thought, look, I’m going to finance it. Okay, I know it’s risky, but I just had such faith in the story and the idea. It’s a get-me-to-the-church-on-time story. Kenny has to be in Cape Town in time for his wedding, Raps is driving him, and everything goes wrong, including the fact that somebody – the grandmother – says this goat has to be sent to the wedding. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s how they do it, as a gift.
Follett: That’s it, it’s a gift. So I just thought it’s just – I know it’s going to be funny, and every time I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it three times now, everybody around me is laughing their socks off. So I think it’s a success.
Tavis: You used a phrase a moment ago, Ken Follett, “You have to have faith in the writing,” faith in the writing. I chuckled on the inside, because if you know – you don’t know filmmaking, necessarily, but you know writing and you know what it means to have faith in writing.
So I’m curious as to whether or not what you were looking for in the script for the movie was anything like what you look for in your own work, in terms of trying to find that thing to have faith in. Does that make sense?
Follett: I know exactly what you mean, and I did make – I wasn’t one of the writers because Jann and Kenny and Raps write together. But I did review the script, and I did make a few suggestions that strengthened the story, because I think comedy is great; there must be laughs, that’s the important thing; but there also needs to be a story that progresses, that makes you think, “Gosh, how are they going to get out of this tangle? Will he get to the church on time?”
There’s got to be some of that, so I did suggest adding elements that strengthened the story, but they basically – basically, Kenny and Raps came up with the laughs.
Tavis: Let me switch from the movie, because again, there’s so much to talk to you about and I want to start with that for obvious reasons. But speaking of movies, all around town, as I’m sure you’ve been seeing since you’ve been here, there are billboards everywhere promoting “Pillars of the Earth,” so welcome to Los Angeles.
Follett: (Laughs) Thank you.
Tavis: (Laughs) With your stuff splattered everywhere. So what’s it feel like when you’re riding around town and you see billboards with your project on Starz promoted everywhere?
Follett: Well, it almost feels as if I’m famous. (Laughter)
Tavis: What do you make of –
Follett: It’s great.
Tavis: I assume, since it’s airing now on Starz, I assume that you signed off on it, which makes me then further assume that you’re happy with it.
Follett: Yeah, I’m very happy with it. They sent me the script. Now, when they make a miniseries of one of my stories, they always send me the script, and in this case I read the script and I breathed a sign of relief – oh, it’s great. I just wrote back and said, “Thank you very much; I think this script is terrific.”
There have been occasions when I’ve written back to the producers and said, “Look, here are five things I think you could do to make this a better script,” and when I do that, I never hear from them again. That’s the end. That’s the end of the relationship. (Laughter) They don’t invite me to the set, nothing.
Tavis: To the premiere or anything else.
Follett: I become invisible and I disappear. But this was not one of those. This was one of those situations where I said, “I love it,” and because John Pielmeier, who wrote the script, of course you have to shorten it. It’s eight hours, but even so you have to shorten it, you have to make some new connections, and he did that so well and so maintained the strength of the story, which is what people love about the book, so I was really happy.
Tavis: Obviously in this town every deal is different, but I want to go back to what you said a moment ago about the fact that in the past you have written some notes, sent them to the producers and you didn’t hear from them again. How much control does Ken Follett insist on having, want to have, demand, when you allow your stuff to be turned into a miniseries?
I think everybody wants to see – not everybody, but a lot of folk want to see their work become a film or a miniseries, but nobody wants to see their stuff bastardized on the screen. So how do you make sure that that doesn’t happen, even if they don’t like the notes you sent back?
Follett: Well, the truth is that the writer of the original book really has no control. Very few people have control over a movie or a television series. People who put the money in may have some control, but basically the writer, most of the actors – there may be a star who has some control, there’s a director, obviously, who has a lot of control.
But the writer of the book has none. Really, the position the author is in is hoping for the best. Cross your fingers, that’s a good policy. You can’t have any control. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure how much I would want, because I tell a story in words, and they have to tell a story in pictures, and it is a different skill and I’m not sure – if I had control I wouldn’t be sure I was making the right decisions. It’s a tough thing.
Tavis: But you like this one, though.
Follett: This one I think is great. The result is good, yeah.
Tavis: Whew. (Laughs)
Follett: Good actors, too. We have Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland. Donald Sutherland, funnily enough, was in “Eye of the Needle,” gosh, 30 years ago.
Tavis: So he obviously likes your stuff.
Follett: (Laughs) Yes.
Tavis: I know there’s not a whole lot you might want to say about it now because the book isn’t out for another few weeks, but since I had you here I thought I would ask you about “Fall of Giants.” It’s the first in a trilogy?
Follett: Yes.
Tavis: Tell me about it.
Follett: Well, “World Without End,” my last book, got such a warm response from readers that I wanted to do something similar again, and I think one of – “World Without End” is a long book, like “The Pillars of the Earth,” set in the Middle Ages. You see the characters’ lives really from beginning to end.
In an ordinary novel like a thriller, it’s like a snapshot of the characters in the middle of their lives, but in a long book you see their whole lives, and that’s difficult to do for the author but it’s very satisfying for the reader.
So I wanted to do something that readers would find that satisfying, but I didn’t want to write another medieval story. I don’t want to become branded as the guy who writes about the Middle Ages. So I thought, so what –
Tavis: Although you do it well.
Follett: Thank you. I thought, well, the 20th century is first of all the most violent century in human history. It’s also very intriguing. Why did we have these wars? The changes in the 20th century are worth, like, a thousand years of previous changes, so why don’t I write about the 20th century? People will be interested.
Well, I try to give people, as well as a good story that they will really enjoy, I try to help people understand something – history, or it might be science. In “White Eyes,” I wrote (unintelligible) I wrote about viruses to help people understand that, because I think people want a little more than just a story.
People want the story, that’s the main thing, but they like a little more, so I thought if I could explain some of the 20th century as well as telling the story, it’s our lives. We’ve lived in the 20th century, our parents’ lives, our grandparents’ lives.
My grandfather, Granddad Follett, I have a photograph of him in a British army World War I uniform. He was 19, and he volunteered. My grandfather Evans, Grandpa Evans, at the age of 13 he was a coal miner. He went down the pit, as they say, and became an apprentice coal miner at the age of 13. So what happens in “Fall of Giants” happened to my family.
Tavis: To your point, though, Ken, since you have family members, to say nothing of the readers who have family members –
Follett: Exactly.
Tavis: – who have lived this, when you’re writing historical fiction, how do you know where the line is, when you’re taking too much liberty?
Follett: Well, you have to be careful. So when people speak, for example, I sometimes have real people, like President Woodrow Wilson is in this story, and if he says something in a conversation it really has to be either something he’d really – ideally, something he really did say, maybe in a speech or maybe something he wrote, but words that he actually said, or something very close to what he said, because it is important for me and I think for my readers that the history is accurate.
Even though that’s not the prime thing; the prime thing is the story; nevertheless the history must be accurate. They want to feel that they’re not reading something that violates history in any way, that it’s true to these real people, these great leaders, and to the ordinary people who live through these things.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier that you think that when you get a chance to write these long-form, these thick, dense books, you suggested earlier you think it’s good for the writer because it allows us to dig in, paraphrasing what you said earlier. But I can only imagine that this must be torturous at times for the author.
Follett: Well, it’s a lot to keep in your head, and one of the things I’ve taken to doing is making an Excel spreadsheet of the characters, because a long book has a lot of characters. So every time I introduce a new character I paste this character into the spreadsheet and whatever I’ve said about how he looks.
Because it’s so easy to give somebody blue eyes in chapter three and green eyes in chapter seven. (Laughter)
Tavis: Got to have that spreadsheet, yeah.
Follett: So you’ve got to – so I can check back and say what I said about them before, and also how old they are. That’s something that you easily get a little mixed up about. Ten years on you have to – and Excel will recalculate their age for me automatically, so I don’t have to do the arithmetic.
So that’s kind of a help, but the main thing is as these people move through these terrific historical dramas, the main thing is to focus on the person and his or her emotions, and what they’re feeling. Are they scared? Are they in love? Are they anxious? Are they brave? That’s the core of the story.
Tavis: I assume you never lose track of that part.
Follett: That’s right, exactly. That’s easy to keep track of.
Tavis: That’s what I figured.
Follett: Because I know who these people are, yeah. Color of eyes, I can forget.
Tavis: The color of your wife’s eyes are what?
Follett: They’re blue.
Tavis: They’re blue, okay.
Follett: Yeah.
Tavis: Okay. Don’t you ever forget that. (Laughter) I ask that because –
Follett: Whew.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. I ask that because your wife – you have lived and are living a fascinating life as has and is your wife. So your wife was in parliament for, what, 13 years?
Follett: Yeah. She’s been in politics all her life. She started out as a teenager in South Africa – that’s our connection in South Africa, in the antiapartheid movement. She had to leave, she had death threats. She had to leave South Africa and came to Britain and became a labor MP. She was elected in ’97, the same time as Tony Blair won the election, and she just retired, so she was 13 years a member of Parliament, and the last three years she was in the government.
Tavis: I raise that because I want to ask – you obviously are more than tangentially connected to politics in the UK. Your sense of Mr. Cameron and what’s happening in the UK right now?
Follett: Well, I belong to the other side, so I was disappointed that he won, that Cameron won. But we also – Barbara and I both liked Gordon Brown very much. The British electorate didn’t like him as much as we did, and in politics that’s what counts. We’re waiting to see what’s going to happen with the coalition now, David Cameron and Nick Clegg and the coalition.
It’s a little early to say. They’ve taken a different line on the economy. They’ve decided to pay back debt instead of stimulating the economy, and we don’t know –
Tavis: Good decision or bad decision.
Follett: I think it was the wrong decision.
Tavis: We’re having that debate here now, as you know.
Follett: I know, but none of us know. Nobody knows. We’re all guessing, right? So my guess is it was the wrong decision, but we’ll find out. We’re going to find out. It’s going to affect you and me and how much money we make.
Tavis: What’s your sense of – and I’m asking this specifically because your wife was there and she’s a part of it – what’s your sense of how history is going to regard the Tony Blair years?
Follett: Well, I feel – my big thing, my big enthusiasm in that period was the teaching of reading in schools. Because before the election there was a labor party task force, and I was a member of that, devised a crusade for literacy. Reading was being taught – was not being taught well enough in our schools, and that’s been a huge success in our country, the teaching of reading to five to seven-year-olds has been transformed.
I said this before the election – there’s nothing more important than that, actually, because that’s the next generation’s ability to do everything they need to do.
So I was very keen on that and that’s been a triumph, and some of the things the government did didn’t turn out so well. You win some, you lose some. But the one that I was really interested in was kind of a triumph.
Tavis: How is history going to regard Blair on the war question?
Follett: Barbara had to vote about the war in Iraq – had to vote on whether Britain should join in with the United States or not.
Tavis: “Coalition of the willing.”
Follett: She felt it was the most important vote she would ever have, and you can imagine we talked about nothing else for many days. It was absolutely the only thing that was happening, a very hard decision, and she decided to support the war in Iraq, and I agreed with her on that decision.
Now, it hasn’t turned out the way we thought it might, but we did think that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant – not just a tyrant, but a racist tyrant who had killed 100,000 Kurds, a different race, within his country, and we felt that made it a special thing.
Now, maybe we were wrong. These decisions are very difficult. But anyway, Barbara supported the war.
Tavis: Does she feel, does Ken Follett feel, as obviously many Britons do, many Americans do – if you look at the polls, surveys and studies, not because I said it – but feel that we were misled into that war? Even if we agree that Hussein, that Saddam was a tyrant, that we were, on the evidence or lack thereof, misled into that war?
Follett: We were misled, no question. No question. The British newspapers that said that Saddam could bomb London in 45 minutes. That came from the government, and it wasn’t true, so yes, we were misled.
Tavis: I want to go back to this reading, the literacy issue that you raised a moment ago. Why was that an issue that needed to be so aggressively addressed? I’m out of the loop on why literacy was so low on the totem pole in the UK.
Follett: Well, I think we had got complacent about our schools, particularly primary schools, the first school that you go to. We had got complacent. There had been an idea, which it sounds good, doesn’t it – the idea was that the teacher knows best how to teach reading in his or her classroom. That sounds like a good idea.
It’s not a good idea, because some teachers are wonderful and some teachers are not so good, and you’ve got to plan for the teachers who are not so good, otherwise their kids will fall behind.
The transformation that took place was really mainly about emphasis. Nowadays, in most of our schools, every child is tested on their reading, between 5 and 11, tested several times a year, and the children who are not making the expected progress are targeted and given extra help.
Now, you’ve got to do that, and we weren’t doing that. We just had the general okay, kids will learn to read. Some kids actually learn to read quickly regardless of how they’re taught, but most kids, it depends on good teaching, and with the group of kids who struggle, such as dyslexic kids, it’s crucial.
So we just needed to change our focus, and we need to change our emphasis, and the labor government policy was every school, every class, every day, at least one hour of literacy teaching. That was a good policy. That worked.
Tavis: I’ll close where I began. Ken Follett is an awfully busy guy. “White Wedding” is the film that he produces and will be in select cities September 3rd. “Fall of Giants” is the new book that will be out late September that we’re anxiously awaiting – the first in a trilogy about the 20th century.
What did I miss – “Pillars of the Earth,” on Starz, an eight-part series on the Starz network. Anything else, Mr. Follett, that I (laughter) should mention?
Follett: That’s enough for now, thank you.
Tavis: All right, well, then, we’re done, then. Glad to have you on.
Follett: My pleasure. (Laughter)
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm