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How Ken Follet Continues to Hit the Best Seller Lists


How Ken Follet Continues to Hit the Best Seller Lists

Ken Follett, born in Cardiff, Wales, is, by all accounts, a very successful author. After all, his books have sold over 160 million copies! He writes thrillers and historical novels. He wrote The Eye of the Needle in 1978, which was turned into a major motion picture, starring Donald Sutherland.

He broke from the thriller genre when he published a book called The Pillars of the Earth, about a building in the Middle Ages. He followed it up with World Without End and then A Column of Fire, the two sequels to it. From a marketing standpoint, he has found that trilogies work well for him. He calls this particular trilogy, “Kingsbridge.”

Other books he has penned include Fall of Giants, The Man from St. Petersburg, Edge of Eternity, Lie Down with Lions and The Key to Rebecca. His books have been translated into 30 languages. World Without End was a bestseller in Italy, the U.S., Germany, the UK, France and Spain.

The Process

He said that he usually wakes up with an idea of where he wants to go in the story. He’ll write in his bathrobe, after he makes himself a cup of tea. Other than taking a break to shave or walk the dog, he pretty much writes from 7 am until 5 pm. One of the tricks he employs is he’ll cut out pictures from a magazine that he thinks resemble his characters and hang them on a board. So, while he’s writing, he’ll look at the board to get ideas. He also uses an Excel spreadsheet where he lists all the characters and their traits and age. After work, he enjoys a glass or two of champagne.

He shows his first draft to people, telling them to look for mistakes. He listens to them all the time, he said, but doesn’t always take their advice. But, if they find a certain section boring, he’ll want to know why. Sometimes it will need to “go through the typewriter again.” He said one of the best pieces of writing advice he got was early in his career when his editor told him that, regarding his characters – none of them seemed to have had a past. He realized then that he and his readers have to imagine they have a life outside of the story.

As an alternative to writing, he plays bass guitar in a band called Damn Right I Got the Blues. In addition, he plays the balalaika. His son Emanuele also plays in the band. He started off in the publishing world as a rock ‘n roll critic. He studied philosophy in college and says that he likes music because it is sensory, as opposed to writing, which is entirely cerebral.

A Master Storyteller

Follett has written about secret agents, Nazis and the KGB. He has written about World War I, World War II and the Cold War. He was born in 1946 so he lived in half of the Twentieth Century. He takes two years to write each book – although, he said, Pillars of the Earth took him three years and three months to write. He offers advice to writers on his website. One of his suggestions is to form an outline, something we have all heard about since grade school.  

His stories often deal with the theme of good versus evil. His parents were devout, born-again Christians that didn’t allow him to watch TV while he was growing up. So he embraced books. He insists that writers must have a voracious appetite for reading. He said his most important asset was that he read thousands and thousands of novels in his youth. He learned to read when he was four years old. One of his influences was Jane Austen.

If you are looking for inspiration, keep in mind that his breakthrough book, The Eye of the Needle, was Follett’s 11th novel. The original title was Storm Island. How’s that for perseverance?

Related: Making Sense of the Consolidation of the Publishing Industry

His books often feature strong women characters. He employs researchers and subject matter experts (such as history professors) to check his facts. He’ll also peruse diaries and memoirs of everyday people who lived in the era that he is writing about. He gets enjoyment out of doing things like researching failed banks, perhaps because his father was a tax inspector (his mother was a housewife).

Personal Life

He was married to Mary Emma Ruth Elson, but they divorced and he married Barbara Daphne Hubbard, a political activist who became a member of British Parliament’s Labor Party. He and his first wife once owned a home in the South of France. He and Barbara own two properties in London and a place in Antigua called Bananaquit, named after a local bird (it was up for sale for a cool $25 million two years ago, but I can’t find evidence that it sold). He’s 68 and loves Shakespeare. He also acts and has been in some motion pictures where he wrote the storyline.

He says he wants to give the reader the excitement he had when he read James Bond’s Live and Let Die. The main “trick” (if there is one) is to engage the reader. You have to get them emotionally involved, he insists. “We have to accept that there are terrifically attractive rival forms of entertainment.”

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