Spy thrillers. Historical fiction. Ken Follett explains how he has traversed genres with success in a conversation with Shonali Muthalaly.

Ken Follett really got started when his car stopped. “My daughter was born, I had a new mortgage and my Vauxhall Ventura broke down. I needed 200 pounds to fix it.” A colleague had written a thriller and got paid 200 pounds, so he decided to do the same.

His first 10 books made little impact, but Follett kept going. “I'd go into a bookstore, and there would be a 100 copies of Frederick Forsyth piled in front. At the back, I'd find two copies of my book. I kept thinking, ‘What is it that makes a book successful', and with ‘Eye of The Needle' (1978), I finally figured it out.”

First of a trilogy

Since then Follett's written a string of bestsellers. In India to promote his latest book “Fall of Giants”, (in association with Landmark), he discusses his success with thrillers and subsequent move towards sweeping historical novels.

“The thriller is a 20th Century phenomenon,” he says in an interview at the Taj Coromandel. These novels were most always about men, till Follett's signature headstrong, feisty women characters came along. “I did it for literary reasons. “Eye of The Needle” was supposed to be a battle between two men. I thought how much more interesting it would be if I turned one of them into a woman with a four-year-old child on her hip. Commercially, it appealed to more women too.”

He knew instantly that this book was going to be his ticket to the big league. “My first wife says she remembers me sitting at the typewriter and saying, ‘This one's very good'. I'm proud of the book — especially when I consider I was 28 when I wrote it. He chuckles, "I look back now and think, ‘Clever boy!'”

After five popular spy thrillers, Follett surprised everyone by plunging into medieval history with “The Pillars of the Earth.” “I just thought there was a great popular novel to be written about the building of a cathedral. I was 36: At that age, you think you can do anything.”

He adds, “I was fascinated by the way the building of a church draws together every element of medieval society either in support or conflict. People going to war, falling in love, hating each other — it all attaches itself to the story — like pages to the spine of a book… It's about a project that is greater than the people involved. Like putting a man on the moon.”

Intricate detailing

This was also the first of his doorstop novels. “It had to be a long book. I think people like long books — of course you have to do it right. A long book that is dull is purgatory.” Follett's signature style involves intricate detailing, conjuring rich pictures of the past. “It's a lot of research, but more selection. You don't want to put it all into the book.”

This includes a recipe for nitroglycerine explosives in “The Man from St. Petersburg”. “With my first draft you could make it in your kitchen sink. When I rewrote, I took some of the details out. If someone tries to make it now, they won't get very far.”

Recommended by teachers, his books have rekindled an interest in history. “After ‘The Pillars of The Earth', people wrote to say they now understand church architecture.” He also gets letters asking for a summary from students looking for easy ways to complete reading assignments. “I say, ‘no'. It's homework. Read it yourself.”

“I like writing about World War II. It's humankind's biggest drama. We still see it as a battle between good and evil. When you look back, most other wars in history were not always triggered by good intentions. We look back and are less than proud of what we did.”

As for delving into Indian history, he's keeping his options open. “You have very good writers, and they'll do it better than me.” He adds, however, “One of my sons married a girl from Chennai. So maybe in a few years, when I have Indian grandchildren, I'll feel entitled to write a book based in India.”

Fall of Giants

* I wanted to write a book with the same scope and sweep as “World Without End”. I looked about for something that has the same danger as the Middle Ages and thought about the 20th Century. It's the century of high ideals and terrible violence. Bombing, pogroms and democracy.

* I decided to write a trilogy. I spend 3 months reading — looking for the unexpected scenes. Like, in World War I, when the military government in Paris needed vehicles to send soldiers to the frontline they came up with a typically French solution and sent them in taxis!

* “Fall of Giants” sees events through the eyes of 5 families because I wanted different points of view, from different countries. When you're going to paint a large canvas it's better to start small. Sweeping histories and great events like revolutions are dependent on regular people.

* My trilogy will be the first time anyone has told the whole story of a century in one book. It's a little ambitious but I'm 61. If I don't do something ambitious now, where will I start?