Author Ken Follett Takes On The 20th Century
Author Ken Follett Takes On The 20th Century
The author who has dominated epic storytelling for three decades is back with another ambitious saga. Ken Follett's new novel is called Fall of Giants, and as the 985-page first installment of a trilogy covering the 20th century, it certainly qualifies as epic.
So does Follett's career. He made his name writing spy novels like Eye of the Needle and turned to historical fiction with works like Pillars of the Earth. His sales have topped the 100-million-copy mark.
Follett tells NPR's Guy Raz that this time, he "wanted to say to the reader right away, 'OK, this isn’t going to be a story all about kings and queens and prime ministers and presidents. It’s also going to be a story about ordinary people struggling to lead their lives.' "
Fall of Giants, Follett's 20th novel, spotlights five families from Wales, the United States, Russia and Germany as their countries hurtle toward World War I. Its subjects range from class warfare between labor and aristocrats, to the suffrage movement, to the horrific ways in which WWI was fought.
"I start with the history, and I ask myself, 'What are the great turning points? What are the big dramatic scenes that are essential to telling the story? " Follett says. "Then I thought of characters who would participate in some passionate way in those great events."
Creating those characters and the way they serve the story, he says, is like painting: "You would be sketching out an outline of a person and saying that person has to be top left. There are no eyes, no nose, no mouth, but you get the position and you’ve got the rough shape."
And that's when the writing gets really enjoyable. "You can start saying, ‘I wonder what they would’ve been like.’ That’s the fun part: inventing those characters and their pasts."
Writing Historical Fiction
"There's a lot of research, and I enjoy the research. I like reading history, and actually most authors enjoy the research part because it is, after all, easier than writing," Follett says when asked how he managed to capture with such vivid detail settings like a Russian factory or a Welsh coal mine.
In his research for the trilogy, Follett turned to historian Eric Hobsbawm's book The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 because, he says, "then I could see the shape of my trilogy. Hobsbawm gave me the notion that that is actually the period with a beginning and an end, which is what we as storytellers are always looking for."
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
"[Lloyd George] did something that's still remembered in folk songs in Great Britain. He introduced old-age pensions," Follett said when asked about the sense of betrayal of the working class by Lloyd George in the novel.
Follett, in offering up his assessment of the man in the middle of it all, says, "There are stories which are still told about old men who had been coal miners, steel workers, weeping as they came out of the post office with the first installment of their old-age pension, because they knew they would now never be destitute. That's really an emotional moment in British history."
And yet his time in office saw the rise of the Labour Party because of this sense of betrayal. "First of all, he did not end the first World War when he could have. Secondly, at the end of the war, he continued in coalition with the Conservatives," Follett said.
Follett is married to a former member of Parliament, Barbara Follett. Explaining his ability to write about high-level politics, he says: "For the last 13 years, Britain has been run by my friends ... Most of our friends -- the people we have dinner with, the people we go to the theater with, the people we go on holiday with -- have been ministers in the British government."
In a glimpse into his life as the husband of a former MP, Follett recounts a dinner conversation where his wife says, "You know, today I signed off 73 billion pounds." For Follett, "all that, and just talking to all these people about the daily responsibility of making decisions and working with civil servants and so on has been, frankly, a terrific help to me in writing."
And so, Follett, who finished Fall of Giants six months ago, says, "I've written the outline for the second book and just started writing it. I've got about a hundred pages." With Giants hitting bookstores Tuesday, it looks like the planned sequel about WWII won't be far behind.
Fall Of Giants
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Excerpt: Fall of Giants
Fall of Giants
By Ken Follett
Hardcover, 985 pages
List Price $36
June 22, 1911
On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales. The twenty-second of June, 1911, was Billy's thirteenth birthday. He was woken by his father. Da's
technique for waking people was more eff ective than it was kind. He patted Billy's cheek, in a regular rhythm, firmly and insistently. Billy was
in a deep sleep, and for a second he tried to ignore it, but the patting
went on relentlessly. Momentarily he felt angry; but then he remembered
that he had to get up, he even wanted to get up, and he opened his eyes
and sat upright with a jerk.
"Four o'clock," Da said, then he left the room, his boots banging on
the wooden staircase as he went down.
Today Billy would begin his working life by becoming an apprentice
collier, as most of the men in town had done at his age. He wished he felt
more like a miner. But he was determined not to make a fool of himself.
David Crampton had cried on his first day down the pit, and they still
called him Dai Crybaby, even though he was twenty-five and the star of
the town's rugby team.
It was the day after midsummer, and a bright early light came
through the small window. Billy looked at his grandfather, lying beside
him. Gramper's eyes were open. He was always awake, whenever Billy
got up; he said old people did not sleep much.
Billy got out of bed. He was wearing only his underdrawers. In cold weather he wore his shirt to bed, but Britain was enjoying a hot summer, and the nights were mild. He pulled the pot from under the bed and took off the lid.
There was no change in the size of his penis, which he called his
peter. It was still the childish stub it had always been. He had hoped it might have started to grow on the night before his birthday, or perhaps
that he might see just one black hair sprouting somewhere near it, but
he was disappointed. His best friend, Tommy Griffiths, who had been
born on the same day, was different: he had a cracked voice and a dark
fuzz on his upper lip, and his peter was like a man's. It was humiliating.
As Billy was using the pot, he looked out of the window. All he could
see was the slag heap, a slate-gray mountain of tailings, waste from the
coal mine, mostly shale and sandstone. This was how the world appeared
on the second day of Creation, Billy thought, before God said: "Let the
earth bring forth grass." A gentle breeze wafted fine black dust off the
slag onto the rows of houses.
Inside the room there was even less to look at. This was the back
bedroom, a narrow space just big enough for the single bed, a chest of
drawers, and Gramper's old trunk. On the wall was an embroidered
sampler that read:
BELIEVE ON THE
LORD JESUS CHRIST
AND THOU SHALT
There was no mirror.
One door led to the top of the stairs, the other to the front bedroom,
which could be accessed only through this one. It was larger and had
space for two beds. Da and Mam slept there, and Billy's sisters had too,
years ago. The eldest, Ethel, had now left home, and the other three
had died, one from measles, one from whooping cough, and one from
diphtheria. There had been an older brother, too, who had shared Billy's
bed before Gramper came. Wesley had been his name, and he had been
killed underground by a runaway dram, one of the wheeled tubs that
Billy pulled on his shirt. It was the one he had worn to school yesterday.
Today was Th ursday, and he changed his shirt only on Sunday. However,
he did have a new pair of trousers, his first long ones, made of the thick
water-repellent cotton called moleskin. They were the symbol of entry
into the world of men, and he pulled them on proudly, enjoying the
heavy masculine feel of the fabric. He put on a thick leather belt and the
boots he had inherited from Wesley, then he went downstairs.
Most of the ground floor was taken up by the living room, fi teen
feet square, with a table in the middle and a fireplace to one side, and a
homemade rug on the stone floor. Da was sitting at the table reading
an old copy of the Daily Mail, a pair of spectacles perched on the bridge
of his long, sharp nose. Mam was making tea. She put down the
steaming kettle, kissed Billy's forehead, and said: "How's my little man
on his birthday?"
Billy did not reply. The "little" was wounding, because he was little,
and the "man" was just as hurtful because he was not a man. He went
into the scullery at the back of the house. He dipped a tin bowl into
the water barrel, washed his face and hands, and poured the water away
in the shallow stone sink. The scullery had a copper with a fire grate
underneath, but it was used only on bath night, which was Saturday.
They had been promised running water soon, and some of the miners'
houses already had it. It seemed a miracle to Billy that people could get
a cup of cold clear water just by turning the tap, and not have to carry a
bucket to the standpipe out in the street. But indoor water had not yet
come to Wellington Row, where the Williamses lived.
He returned to the living room and sat at the table. Mam put a big
cup of milky tea in front of him, already sugared. She cut two thick slices
off a loaf of homemade bread and got a slab of dripping from the pantry
under the stairs. Billy put his hands together, closed his eyes, and said:
"Thank you Lord for this food amen." Then he drank some tea and
spread dripping on his bread.
Da's pale blue eyes looked over the top of the paper. "Put salt on your
bread," he said. "You'll sweat underground."
Billy's father was a miners' agent, employed by the South Wales
Miners' Federation, which was the strongest trade union in Britain, as
he said whenever he got the chance. He was known as Dai Union. A lot
of men were called Dai, pronounced "die," short for David, or Dafydd in
Welsh. Billy had learned in school that David was popular in Wales
because it was the name of the country's patron saint, like Patrick in
Ireland. All the Dais were distinguished one from another not by their
surnames—almost everyone in town was Jones, Williams, Evans, or
Morgan—but by a nickname. Real names were rarely used when there
was a humorous alternative. Billy was William Williams, so they called
him Billy Twice. Women were sometimes given their husband's nickname,
so that Mam was Mrs. Dai Union.
Gramper came down while Billy was eating his second slice. Despite
the warm weather he wore a jacket and waistcoat. When he had washed
his hands he sat opposite Billy. "Don't look so nervous," he said. "I went
down the pit when I was ten. And my father was carried to the pit on
his father's back at the age of five, and worked from six in the morning
until seven in the evening. He never saw daylight from October to
"I'm not nervous," Billy said. This was untrue. He was scared stiff.
However, Gramper was kindly, and he did not press the point. Billy
liked Gramper. Mam treated Billy like a baby, and Da was stern and
sarcastic, but Gramper was tolerant and talked to Billy as to an adult.
"Listen to this," said Da. He would never buy the Mail, a right-wing
rag, but he sometimes brought home someone else's copy and read the
paper aloud in a scornful voice, mocking the stupidity and dishonesty
of the ruling class. " 'Lady Diana Manners has been criticized for wearing
the same dress to two different balls. The younger daughter of the Duke
of Rutland won "best lady's costume" at the Savoy Ball for her off-the-
shoulder boned bodice with full hooped skirt, receiving a prize of two
hundred and fifty guineas.' " He lowered the paper and said: "That's at
least five years' wages for you, Billy boy." He resumed: " 'But she drew the
frowns of the cognoscenti by wearing the same dress to Lord Winterton
and F. E. Smith's party at Claridge's Hotel. One can have too much of a
good thing, people said.' " He looked up from the paper. "You'd better
change that frock, Mam," he said. "You don't want to draw the frowns
of the cognoscenti."
Mam was not amused. She was wearing an old brown wool dress
with patched elbows and stains under the armpits. "If I had two hundred
and fifty guineas I'd look better than Lady Diana Muck," she said, not
"It's true," Gramper said. "Cara was always the pretty one—just like
her mother." Mam's name was Cara. Gramper turned to Billy. "Your
grandmother was Italian. Her name was Maria Ferrone." Billy knew
this, but Gramper liked to retell familiar stories. "That's where your
mother gets her glossy black hair and lovely dark eyes—and your sister.
Your gran was the most beautiful girl in Cardiff —and I got her!"
Suddenly he looked sad. "Those were the days," he said quietly.
Da frowned with disapproval—such talk suggested the lusts of
the flesh—but Mam was cheered by her father's compliments, and she
smiled as she put his breakfast in front of him. "Oh, aye," she said. "Me
and my sisters were considered beauties. We'd show those dukes what
a pretty girl is, if we had the money for silk and lace."
Billy was surprised. He had never thought of his mother as beautiful
or otherwise, though when she dressed for the chapel social on Saturday
evening she did look striking, especially in a hat. He supposed she might
once have been a pretty girl, but it was hard to imagine.
"Mind you," said Gramper, "your gran's family were clever, too. My
brother-in-law was a miner, but he got out of the industry and opened
a café in Tenby. Now there's a life for you—sea breezes, and nothing to
do all day but make coffee and count your money."
Da read another item. " 'As part of the preparations for the coronation,
Buckingham Palace has produced a book of instructions two hundred
and twelve pages long.' " He looked over the paper. "Mention that down
the pit today, Billy. The men will be relieved to know that nothing has
been left to chance."
From Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett. Copyright 2010 by Ken Follett. Excerpted by permission of Dutton Adult, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.