With the release of the second book in his Century Trilogy, bestselling author Ken Follett opens up on why he chose to set this series in the 20th century.
In 1978, Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle became an instant bestseller, won him the Edgar Award and then went on to become an outstanding film. Since then, Follett has written several bestsellers.
With The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about building a cathedral in the Middle Ages, he changed gears in terms of genre. A master of historical fiction, Follett’s next big venture was the three-book series that kicked off with Fall of Giants that spanned the years from 1911 to 1924; a period of great change and upheaval in the world.
With the second instalment Winter of the World having been released recently, Follet talks about historical fiction, his writing and his latest series in particular.
In the first two books of the Century Trilogy — “Fall of Giants” and now “Winter of the World” — you cover monumental events that literally shook the world. Why did you pick this particular century?
I was very pleased with readers’ reaction to World Without End and I wanted to write another book on that scale. But I didn’t want to write another medieval book immediately.
So I thought: what subject can be given the same treatment? And I picked the 20th century. There were two reasons: It’s the most dramatic century in the history of the human race, and it’s the most recent page of history. It’s where we all come from.
In “World Without End”, you bring together numerous threads, creating characters of different nationalities, race, political ideologies and economic strata. What was it like to create people who would live through one of the most important periods of history?
It’s interesting to write about people who don’t just accept what’s happening around them. I wanted to create characters who would fight against this change, not just go along with it. You’ll notice that most characters in both books do this. They see the injustice and rebel against it. In Winter of the World the plot is basically about the second World War, and the rise of fascism in different parts of the world. And in different ways most of my characters fight against that and try to defeat it. This book is all about conflict. People in conflict with one another, Rivalry, enmity, competitions.
Along with the numerous fictional characters, both books are filled with real and historically important people. At several points, the fictional and the real come together in a seamless and believable way. How do you draw that almost indistinguishable line between fact and fiction?
I think it’s very important that I should never violate history. So, to the best of my ability, all history in my books is accurate. When I introduce a fictional character into a real historical situation, I ask myself: could this really have happened? Of course, the fine line is drawn when a fictional character meets a real historical character.
My rule is to make sure that the real character says and does things that he would actually have said and done should he have met someone like that fictional character. So I must never have somebody like Roosevelt or Churchill or Hitler do something out of character. I must never have them use words they wouldn’t have used. In fact, often I try and have them use words they did use in some different context.
“Winter of the World” deals with a war that left emotional scars and is still too close to people. What kind of research went into it?
It’s shocking to think of just how recent that period was. When I discovered the Nazis had a programme to kill handicapped children, I was shocked. It’s difficult to not let it get to you. In the case of the handicapped people programme, I read almost everything that historians have written about it; at least the books and information that was available in English.
Then there were parts where I had to be selective. There are hundreds of books about the different battles fought during World War II. While some were important with respect to the plot, I couldn’t put down all the details. So for events like the Pearl Harbour bombing, I selected details from several books; sifted through endless material looking for details that would be telling or dramatic or very striking and typical.
You’ve been very fair in dealings with the characters — both Nazi sympathisers as well as the Allies. How have you maintained the balance?
I think it’s part of my job as a novelist to see things from different angles. That doesn’t mean I don’t judge. But, as a writer, I have to understand why a young man would be so keen to join the Hitler youth. Like when Erik says all the boys in his class are joining and he doesn’t want to be left out. Most of us are not heroes at 13. As a novelist, I try to understand that.
Did the idea for “Winter of the World” come from “Fall of Giants” or did you have the entire trilogy planned from the beginning?
I did plan a trilogy though I didn’t have it all down to the details. It was a rough plan. My idea, from the start, was that the second book should feature children of characters from the first book and the third book should feature the grandchildren. When I was finishing Fall of Giants, I did rather hastily make most of the main characters have babies in the last few chapters. I needed them to produce the next generation to carry on the second book. Fortunately, I think that’s worked out rather well. I have started work on the third book. I’m still in the planning stage though.