Author Q&A: Ken Follett
Your spy novels have made you hugely popular and you’ve sold over 30 million books in Germany alone. What’s the difference between your spies and James Bond, who has a similar number of fans?
Well, I wanted my spies to be on a really impressive mission, so I started studying what spies really do. In real life, spies look for information which could influence the outcome of a battle, so I started studying the stories of battles and wars to find out how spies might manage to influence the outcome. That’s how my first book, a thriller about a spy in England who spies for the D-Day invasion, came about. In recent years, I’ve been writing about people who fought for their freedom, because I’m struck by the fact that freedom is still unusual today, the exception to the rule. That’s why I wrote my great historical novels about the suffragettes who demanded the right to vote and also about African Americans who demanded their human rights. My latest story is about the religious turbulence in the 16th century.
Given what technology allows spies to do nowadays, and given Snowden and Wikileaks, do you sometimes have the feeling that reality is more outlandish than anything you ever could have made up?
Well, I could have made it up too, most likely! The problem with the secret services is that they can’t be monitored. There are some very dangerous, unmonitorable secret services that are this way because they are secret. That’s why we keep finding out what these people have really done, usually after the event, but now in the present as well – thanks to Snowden.
When you write, it’s not just you writing, is it? You are said to have a large team. How does that work?
I have an office at home, of course. My team don’t do research, but they organise lots of things for me. I try to make enquiries myself as far as possible. Of course, people help me when I’m looking for a particular map or I need a date for an interview with someone. But I do the interviews myself. And I also have several history professors who read my books and ideas and check the historical background is correct. That’s no secret. I pay them for it and you can find them in the acknowledgements in the book.
In A Column of Fire, you write about religion, which had a big influence on you when you were a child. What does religion mean for you today?
When I was about 18 years old, I stopped believing in my parents’ religion. Nowadays I’m an atheist. But I sometimes describe myself as a relapsed atheist because I like going to church and to the services. That sounds a bit mad, but I love the architecture of churches. I like the music when it’s good; I can recommend the service on Saturday evenings in particular. When the choir sings the mass, it’s breathtaking. That keeps bringing me to church. It’s spiritual. I wish there could be a belief system based on the spiritual.
When we last met, we spoke about your books being recorded as audiobooks, and now there’s a video game of your new book. Have you played it?
I haven’t been able to play the computer game, unfortunately. But I definitely will do! The reason I agreed to these games being developed, particularly the video games, is because I hope some of the people who play the video games might realise it’s quite interesting and perhaps think about reading the book. I see it as an opportunity to bring my books to a new group of readers. It was exciting – there were 50 people working on this video game at the computer animation company in Hamburg. It took three years to do: the drawings, the story and all the software. That was very interesting for me and a nice experience. Is it really going to generate new readers? We will see.
In a parallel world to today, would your characters from Kingsbridge be Brexiteers or Remainers?
The citizens of Kingsbridge would definitely have stayed in Europe. They would hate the idea of Brexit. Kingsbridge is a trading city – they trade with the whole of Europe. The families have outposts in Seville, Calais and Antwerp. It would be the end of their business. They are consciously international – they try, in the book, to learn at least a little bit of the language of the countries they are trading with. They would definitely have stayed in the federation. I’m also a Remainer, an opponent of Brexit – that’s well known. It’s no secret. I believe Brexit is an absolute disaster.
You once said in an interview that you wanted to get rich with your books. Has it worked out how you wanted?
If it had, then I’d have had to relax and learn to play golf years ago! The quote must have come from when I was young – I was a bit more careless in what I said then! Today it’s always the story that drives me – the desire to make the reader turn the page.
Translated from German by Holly Bickerton