Trailing history's footsteps in an epic trilogy
To complete his hugely ambitious trilogy of historical novels about the 20th century, Ken Follett has set himself a punishing writing schedule. Lucky for us. Because readers who compulsively turn all 985 pages of Fall of Giants, the gripping first book in the Century Trilogy, will not want to wait long for its sequel.
“If at all possible, I want to publish these books at two-year intervals,” Follett says. “So I work six days a week, and for the first draft I try to write six pages a day, which is 1,500 words a day.”
That means Follett hardly has time to enjoy his beach house in Antigua, where he is taking the call from BookPage, he says, in his library, “a white room with white bookshelves and very large open windows that look out onto the beach.”
“You get a different kind of understanding through your imagination, with the help of the author's imagination, of why people did the things they did."
Follett is there with his wife Barbara, who was for 13 years a member of Parliament and was also the minister for culture in the recently defeated Labour government of Gordon Brown. Back in England, the couple has a townhouse in London and a larger house, a converted rectory, 30 miles north of London, where they can host a tribe of children, stepchildren and grandchildren. Each of those houses also has a library where Follett writes.
“I do find it pleasant to be surrounded by books,” Follett says. “It’s very nice just to be able to reach out for the dictionary or the encyclopedia or something I use quite a lot—a reference book about costume at different periods of history so that I can describe people’s clothing. Books also remind me of the enormous culture to which I owe most of what I know and understand.”
The library in the country house, Follett says, pays special tribute to that cultural debt. In addition to books, its walls are lined with drawings and illustrations of well-known writers, among them a Picasso print of Balzac, which has pride of place over the fireplace. “I like the robustness of Balzac’s writing,” Follett says. “He’s not afraid to confront the dark sides of human nature. Obviously my work is not perceptibly affected by the Modernism of Joyce or Proust. However, I’m not unusual in this. Almost all the books you see on the bestseller list are basically novels in the Victorian tradition, stories with plot, character, and conflict and resolution.”
Perhaps. But not many of those bestsellers match the epic scale of conflict and resolution Follett deployed in his bestsellers about seminal events in England during the Middle Ages, The Pillars of the Earth (1989) and World Without End (2007). If anything, the Century Trilogy is even grander in conception than these fictional predecessors. The trilogy will follow the intertwined fates of five families—American, English, German, Russian and Welsh—through the tumult of the 20th century. Fall of Giants opens in June 1911 with the crowning of King George V of Britain. On that same day, 13-year-old Billy Williams, who along with his sister Ethel will become one of the most stirring characters in the book, begins his first day of work in a coal mine in Wales. The novel closes in 1924 after the reader has experienced World War I, the Russian Revolution, the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement and the collapse of an antiquated class system, not to mention the emotional, spiritual and political ups and downs of the book’s central characters. In fact, by page 985, Follett has brought the reader into contact—sometimes glancingly, but more often at some depth—with roughly 125 characters, more than 20 of whom are actual historical figures.
“The research and effort at authenticity is more difficult when you’re writing about history that is within living memory,” Follett says. “One of the features of writing about the Middle Ages is that from time to time you ask yourself or you ask your advisors a question and nobody knows the answer. So then of course, as an author, you’re entitled to make it up. But with the 20th century, if you want to put, say, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary at the outbreak of World War I, at a social event on a particular day in July 1914, you really have to find out where he was on that day. You can’t make it up. Because somebody somewhere knows where he was every day.”
For a book with the international reach of Fall of Giants, Follett, who takes pride in the accuracy of his historical fiction, hired eight historians to read the first draft. These included experts on America, Russia and Germany.
Initially, Follett says, history drove the conception of the book. But as the work progressed, he drew on other sources. A story he heard years ago from a friend whose mother had emigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1913 underlies Follett’s conception of the Vyalovs, a Russian émigré family in Buffalo whose rise to political power will be important in the trilogy’s second book. And Follett’s own boyhood in Wales informs his portrait of the fictional mining town of Aberowen and the boyhood of Billy Williams.
“My mother’s family lived in a town called Mountain Ash, which is very like Aberowen. We were there probably every other weekend when I was a little boy to visit my grandparents. . . . My descriptions of the steep streets and gray houses that snake along the hillsides and also the way people talk and the comic nicknames people have, that’s all Mountain Ash.”
Follett also credits his mother with his interest in stories and storytelling. “I think my mother was a very imaginative woman. She told me stories and nursery rhymes and sang me songs when I was a baby. I was the first child. First children always get a bit more attention, don’t they? I think my interest in the imaginative life comes from her.”
And it’s that interest in the imaginative life that makes Follett a historical novelist rather than a historian. “If you want to understand the Russian Revolution, one way to do it is to read the writings of Lenin and Trotsky and of analysts and so on,” he says. “But in a novel you try to imagine what it was like to be a factory worker in St. Petersburg, why he would want a revolution, why he would pick up a rifle and start shooting. That doesn’t happen in a history book. You get a different kind of understanding through your imagination, with the help of the author’s imagination, of why people did the things they did.”
Fall of Giants, Follett says, is about a period of history that “people find baffling. Most people don’t know why we had the First World War. They know that it started with an assassination in Sarajevo but they don’t know what caused the war. I want readers to understand it, but I didn’t want to give a history lesson. My mantra while writing Fall of Giants was ‘they don’t want a history lesson.’ So I had to find ways in which all of these developments were part of the lives of characters in the story. That was probably the major challenge of the book.”
It is a challenge Follett has met—and surpassed.