Ken Follett discusses his new novel A Column of Fire
PUBLISHED: 09:58 11 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:58 11 September 2017
Ken Follett's third novel in the bestselling Kingsbridge series is out next month. It's 1558, and Elizabeth is about to become queen at Hatfield House. Sandra Deeble talks to the Knebworth author about female politicians, his daily word count and the pubs of Stevenage
‘I’m not very interested in the royal family.’ I’ve just asked Ken Follett if he watched the recent Elizabeth II biopic, The Crown, and he whispers his reply. It’s probably wise, given that we’re on hallowed ground – we’re in the Banqueting Hall of The Old Palace at Hatfield House. It’s where scenes from the Netflix series were filmed, and it’s the room where our queen’s Tudor predecessor and namesake held her first Council of State with William Cecil and other advisors after being told Mary was dead and she was queen of England.
Hatfield House is also one of the locations Ken chose for his latest novel, A Column of Fire, published this month. The main location is Kingsbridge, the fictional town that came to life through the story of the building of its cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth, first published in 1989. This was followed – not exactly swiftly – by World Without End in 2007. Ken has described how friends and his publishers initially questioned the logic of transferring his skills from writing war stories and thrillers to medieval tales. The Pillars of the Earth has sold 26 million copies in 30 languages and still sells 100,000 copies a year. The rest, as they say, is history.
So why Elizabeth I, and why now?
‘Well, you see, Elizabeth is interesting in the way that somebody like Angela Merkel is interesting – a powerful woman who struggled to win that power and to hold on to it.’ Ken’s enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. I’m already gripped. ‘Our royal family no longer lives in that world and so isn’t, for me, dramatic,’ he says. ‘Whereas in the 16th century, you’ve got somebody who is taking government decisions that cause half the people in Europe to want to kill her. That’s drama. That’s the real thing. So Elizabeth is interesting because she’s a female leader in a world that’s very male dominated.’
We pause for a second to take in our surroundings.
‘It’s really marvellous to be able to sit in a room where she sat,’ he says. ‘What that does is it frees the author’s imagination because once you know the place then you can fill it up with whatever you like. You can put your servants in, and the barrel of cider in the corner if you want.’
Listening to Ken, he starts to bring a story to life. The hall has ancient, original timbers and the walls are covered with tapestries. We’re not alone – Ken’s publicist from Macmillan is here, and someone from his team at Follett Towers. His base is actually called The Follett Office, and is a stone’s throw from the Hertfordshire Life HQ in Stevenage Old Town. Richard, the Hertfordshire Life editor, is here. And in the gardens of The Old Palace, Spanish journalists are waiting to interview Ken. His books are hugely popular in Spain. In the 16th century, Spain was the most powerful country in the world.
Ken says he went to Seville twice to research his latest work.
‘There’s a tower, the Torre del Oro, that was there in the 16th century,’ he explains. ‘So I was able to climb to the top of that, and look over. And because I’d seen pictures of Seville in the 16th century I knew that where there is now a six-lane highway there was a beach, and that was where ships from all over the world would tie up and where business was done, with carts coming and going. It’s useful for me to look at the real place and how the river turns and then just put the people and buildings in there in my imagination, I love to do that.’
I say that while reading the book I was struck by how truly international people were – speaking many languages and travelling all over the world for business. Seville and Antwerp were hugely influential. What about England?
‘A poor country on the margins of Europe,’ he says. ‘This is the period when England started to trade internationally on a significant scale and it’s also a period when England started to become prosperous. Before this we had nothing. We had a million sheep and we didn’t even have a textile industry. We just sold all the wool to the French and the Dutch and they then sold fabrics back to rich English people.’ He pauses. ‘Globalisation really started in the 16th century.’
How does he feel about European links today, following the Brexit referendum?
‘I think it’s a catastrophe for our country. I was definitely remain. It seems madness to me that we’re taking this step which will make it more difficult for us to trade internationally.’
I question whether writing historical fiction inevitably shines a light on what is happening now, no matter which period you choose. And is this a good recipe for success? ‘Some of the issues in A Column of Fire are current news. Religious hatred is obviously current news, but it’s not about what’s hip or in the zeitgeist. Sometimes people think a bestselling author must have his eye on the market and it’s the opposite of the truth. What it’s about is what will grab people’s attention emotionally, not just because it’s in the news but because they identify with the character and suddenly they’re interested in his or her destiny.’
I say that I found myself thinking about two of the characters, Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald, at odd moments, such as while doing the washing up.
‘That’s great,’ he says with warm resonance.
When I ask about the language in the book and say that it felt accessible and almost contemporary, he says that was a decision he made when he started to write The Pillars of the Earth.
‘I find it boring in historical novels when people call each other “Thou” and say things like “I know not”. Although I do avoid startlingly modern things – I wouldn’t say “Everyone was electrified by the news.”’
Is it easy to move between writing fiction and real life? In other words, is he good at switching off?
‘Very good. It’s no problem at all for me to just stop and do something else. If some of my kids show up, I drop everything and go down and have a cup of tea with them.’
His home is in Knebworth, where he writes in his library, overlooking the garden.
I live in what used to be Knebworth Rectory – a big rambling house. I love it dearly, but actually the environment doesn’t matter much to me when I’m writing.’
So how does he do it? His books have sold over 160 million copies worldwide and he shows no signs of losing momentum.
‘Early morning is good for me. I’m full of energy and full of ideas. Late afternoon, as the Americans say: “Not so much”. I do sort of run out of energy at about four o’clock.
What about planning his books? A Column of Fire is an epic tale with a humdinger of a plot. It’s jam packed with religion, sex, duplicity and politics, not to forget a large cast, including spies and secret agents. It must get complicated. Does he use bits of string, a method favoured by Agatha Christie?
‘I use different coloured pens to insert things. I start longhand. Mostly when I’m planning I just write the story in abbreviated form, chapter by chapter so it ends up being 50 typed pages. The way I work is that I go over it again and again and it gets longer every time. I rewrite. I don’t edit. I find that if I key it in each time I do see ways to improve the sentences.
His wife, Barbara Follett, the former Labour MP for Stevenage, who now works with him, is one of his early readers.
‘Barbara reads it and some of my kids. I’ve got one daughter who is a director of television drama and her comments are very good. And I’ve got friends who are really good editors in terms of talking about the story.’
Does he have a target for the number of words to complete each day?
‘Generally something like five pages a day which is about 1,200 to 1,300 words.’
I ask him if he still enjoys it.
‘It’s the most interesting thing that I do and it’s still difficult. It’s still a challenge.’
When it comes to historical facts, he might ask a freelance researcher to assemble a package of maps, books and articles for him but he reads everything himself because he says he alone knows what he’s looking for.
‘But then when I’ve written something I show it to a group of experts. I pay them and I pay them pretty well because I want them to take it seriously. But the truth is that things slip through. Perfection is what we aim for but never quite reach.’
Ken Follett has been called all kinds of names, from ‘Labour’s answer to Jeffrey Archer’ to a ‘champagne socialist’. The thing that strikes me about him is that he is balanced. He seems to have achieved what many writers dream of – yes, the phenomenal sales – but I’m thinking more about that much sought and increasingly rare thing – work life harmony.
So it’s possible to write all those words and still do other things? Well yes, and in the case of Ken Follett, he does many other things. He clearly enjoys family life. He plays bass guitar and sings rock and roll in a band. He’s an atheist who loves church services. ‘I call myself a lapsed atheist,’ he jokes. ‘I do like going to church. It soothes my soul. It’s the whole experience of the architecture and the words.’
He’s been to most of the churches in Stevenage, likes going to St Albans Cathedral with Barbara, and visits cathedrals whenever he is travelling.
A big part of his social life is still with the Labour Party. I ask him where he and Barbara like to hang out.
‘There is a terrific restaurant at Luton Hoo (near Harpenden). We were very pleased when that place opened. It’s the kind of place we can take visitors from overseas. Barbara and I quite often eat in the Italian restaurants in Stevenage High Street. There’s a chain of restaurants called Côte that has just opened in Welwyn which we’re very happy about. Stevenage High Street has the most marvellous collection of pubs. Before we had a house in Stevenage, Barbara and I used to stay at the Cromwell. I used to enjoy the bar there. We don’t really need to go to Knebworth Park for the concerts because we can hear them from home.’
He’s at home in Hertfordshire at the moment, but of course he will soon be going on a book tour. I have been reading my proof copy of A Column of Fire in public places – in cafes and on the train. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been approached and asked how I’ve got hold of it. Are his readers waiting for the next book as if it were a new Harry Potter?
‘I’m happy to say I think many of them do,’ Ken says with a smile.
A Column of Fire by Ken Follett is available from September 21.