GUY RAZ, host:
On the day George V was crowned king in London in 1911, a 13-year-old boy named Billy Williams went into a Welsh coal mine to start his first day on the job.
That morning, he climbed into the caged elevator that would take him deep underground.
Unidentified Man: The cage fell into empty space. Billy knew that it went into freefall then braked in time for a soft landing, but no theoretical foreknowledge could have prepared him for the sensation of dropping unhindered into the bowels of the earth. His feet left the floor. He screamed in terror. He could not help himself.
RAZ: Billy Williams would go on to fight in the First World War and later to become a member of Parliament. The story is fiction, but the backdrop is very real, and it's told by a master of historical fiction, a writer who has sold more books than almost any living author.
His name is Ken Follett. And his new book is called "Fall of Giants."
Ken Follett, welcome to the program.
Mr. KEN FOLLETT (Author, "Fall of Giants"): Thanks, it's great to be on the show.
RAZ: This book is the first in a three-part series that you're planning. And this trilogy will span the entire 20th century. Now, you've dipped in and out of the 20th century in past novels. What do you want to say about the century that you haven't quite been able to do yet?
Mr. FOLLETT: Right at the start, that prologue is about a 13-year-old boy who begins his working life going down the pit at the age of 13.
RAZ: With no choice. He had to do it.
Mr. FOLLETT: No other industry in town. Part of the point of doing that scene is I wanted to say to the reader right away, okay, 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 ordinary lives.
RAZ: So this book, "Fall of Giants," it sort of follows the path of five families, two British, one German, one American and one Russian. Can you describe the basic story you tell?
Mr. FOLLETT: Well, I started with the history, and I asked myself what are the great turning points? What are the big dramatic scenes that are essential to telling the story?
Then I thought of characters who would participate in some passionate way in those great events. Once I had done all that work, then the history had to go into the background because, of course, this is not a history book. Readers will identify with the hopes and fears and the passions and concerns of the characters in a very personal way and will see their lives played out against a backdrop.
So actually, having started from the history, I then had to put it in the background.
RAZ: What I found so amazing was how evocative and vivid the descriptions are in the book, whether it's the stables and the lighting and the safety lamps inside the coal mines or the working conditions in a Russian factory in pre-revolutionary Russia.
You churn out a new book every two or three years, but presumably you have to read a ton of history just to start writing this book.
Mr. FOLLETT: Yeah. There's a lot of research. I enjoy the research. I like reading history and because it is, after all, easier than writing. So...
RAZ: Well, what were you reading?
Mr. FOLLETT: Well, I started with Eric Hobsbawm's book "The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century," and that - and the subtitle is "1914-1991."
And when I saw that, 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 storytellers are always looking for.
RAZ: I'm wondering how you come up with sort of the archetype for each person you want to have in the book.
Mr. FOLLETT: Well, some of it comes from history, because I decided at an early stage that one of the great themes of the 20th century is women struggling for their rights.
So, clearly, in a book set at the beginning of the 20th century, we have to have at least one suffragette. You have to have certain people in certain positions in the big picture.
And then once you've done that, you can start saying, well, I wonder what would they have been like. That's the fun part, inventing those characters and their pasts, and that's one of the most enjoyable things about writing a novel.
RAZ: One of the themes that seems to run through this book is a kind of betrayal felt by some of the characters toward the British prime minister at the time, David Lloyd George. He was supposed to be a hero of the working classes, but many of them turned on him in part because he led the country into the First World War.
Mr. FOLLETT: Yes, it's interesting. I mean, he did something that's still remembered in Great Britain. He introduced old age pensions. And then, 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. It looked as if he would do anything to remain prime minister, and of course, people can't respect that.
RAZ: I hope I'm not reading too deeply into the book, but you're a well-known supporter of the British Labour Party.
Mr. FOLLETT: Yeah.
RAZ: I mean, you were a pretty strong critic of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his decision to go to war in Iraq. It's hard not to see parallels between that and David Lloyd George, the way he is portrayed in this book.
Mr. FOLLETT: Well, it certainly has my familiarity with modern British politics.
RAZ: And your wife was a member of Parliament.
Mr. FOLLETT: My wife was a member of Parliament for 13 years. She was a minister for three years. But more importantly, 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.
And I was able to write the political parts of this book much more easily because I've just...
RAZ: Oh, well.
Mr. FOLLETT: ...every day, I've - you know, Barbara has come home in the evening...
RAZ: It's dinnertime conversation.
Mr. FOLLETT: This is what I had to do today. One day, she came home and she said, you know, today I signed off 73 billion pounds.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FOLLETT: So 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, has been a terrific help to me in writing the book.
RAZ: I want to ask about your career, because you were long known as a thriller writer. And then in 1989, you took this huge risk by writing historical fiction, a book about the building of a cathedral in medieval England, "Pillars of the Earth," of course, which has gone to become a hugely successful book and miniseries. Why did you make that turn?
Mr. FOLLETT: I just felt absolutely sure that the story of the building of a cathedral could be a great popular novel.
RAZ: And I can imagine you went to your publisher, and you said, I've got a story to write about the building of a cathedral in medieval England. And they said, oh, great, a blockbuster.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FOLLETT: No, you're right. They did not say that. They said, look, Ken. You've had a lot of success with spies and Nazis and the KGB. Are you sure that you really want to write a book about building a church in the middle ages?
I could understand why they had that fear. And I said to them, trust me, it's going to be a popular novel. It's not going to boring. It's not going to be tedious. It's not going to be worthy. It's going to be exciting and thrilling.
RAEBURN: This new novel, "Fall of Giants," it ends with Germany sort of struggling with runaway inflation. We hear about a young orator named Adolf Hitler. Have you written most of the next installment of this trilogy?
Mr. FOLLETT: I began with only the vaguest outline of all three books because I decided that if I'd made a detailed outline, it would take me years, and people would forget who I was.
Once I had a broad outline, then I decided to work on it book by book. So I finished "Fall of Giants" six months ago, and in that time, I've written the outline for the second book, and I just started writing it. I've got about 100 pages.
RAZ: But presumably, it will cover the Second World War?
Mr. FOLLETT: It covers the second war. Yeah, the chapter I've written in, I set in 1933 in Berlin. And I think it will end in 1949 with the explosion of the first Soviet atom bomb. Once the Soviets had the bomb, the two superpowers were equal, and the stage was set for the Cold War.
RAZ: Well, we hope you come back to talk about that one.
Mr. FOLLETT: Thank you.
RAZ: That's bestselling author Ken Follett. His new novel is called "Fall of Giants."
Thank you so much for coming in.
Mr. FOLLETT: It was a pleasure.
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