Friday, October 1, 2010

Ken Follett on His Latest Historical Fiction Masterpiece, Fall of Giants

Ken Follett will be at Town Hall tonight to speak about his latest historical epic novel, Fall of Giants, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5.

If there is one book, overall, that we could recommend to read this fall, it would hands down be Ken Follett's ambitious new novel, Fall of Giants. Granted, we are a total sucker for historical fiction AND the early 20th century just happens to be our favorite time period... But regardless, this first volume of the Century Trilogy is absolutely outstanding.

Many first fell in love with Follett while reading his international bestselling novel The Pillars of the Earth, now also a television miniseries. Pillars spent twenty-six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; London's The Times asked readers to vote for the 60 greatest novels of the last 60 years and Pillars came in at number two, right behind To Kill a Mockingbird; and in Germany, Pillars was voted the third most popular book ever written, trailing only behind Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and the Bible. After finishing the Pillars sequel, World Without End, nobody could have imagined the astonishing masterpiece that Follett would take on next; it seemed he had already conquered the unbelievable.

Fall of Giants, the first volume of the Century Trilogy that will cover all of the 20th century's greatest events ending with the Cold War, weaves together five families as their lives are uprooted and transformed by the Russian Revolution, the women's suffrage movement and WWI. Described as "on a scale that is at once, panoramic and intimate," we could not agree more. By choosing to include families from each of the countries primarily affected by the events surrounding WWI, Follett expertly details all perspectives and lifestyles of the time with an impressive ease. Fall of Giants is an extremely epic read, but we promise it is also one that you will be staying up late just to finish. As Fall of Giants covers WWI and the early 20th century, stay tuned for Book Two (2012), which will follow the five families' descendants and cover WWII, and Book Three (2014), which will cover the Cold War.

Early on in your career, you were primarily known as a thriller writer and then you made a dramatic transition to historical fiction in 1989 with your international bestseller, The Pillars of the Earth. What inspired you to take on the Century Trilogy and the ambitious task of covering the entire twentieth century?

After writing World Without End I wanted to write another book of the same sweep and length--but I didn't want to do another medieval story. It occurred to me that the twentieth century is the most dramatic and violent period in human history, and it is also the history of my readers and me, our parents and grandparents. So it's about where we all come from.

The amount of research and detail that you have put into Fall of Giants and that we're sure will follow with the second and third novels is absolutely incredible--in fact, it leaves us speechless just thinking about it. How long did your research take and how did you go about finding all of the correct facts and information that you needed?

Most of the work is reading. I also like to visit places, look at old film and photographs, and study maps. All of this takes time, though it is highly enjoyable. I also have my first drafts read by experts who save me from factual errors. Fall of Giants was checked by eight historians.

Fall of Giants includes many real historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Sir Edward Grey, Woodrow Wilson, and Lenin. How blurred are the lines between fact and fiction when it comes to portraying these well-known individuals?

I do not violate history. Where real people appear in my story, the things they do and say are usually things they really did do or say, or something very similar. For example, the fictional Fitz meets the real-life Lloyd George, and they argue about whether Zinoviev and Kamenev should be deported from Great Britain. In that scene Lloyd George uses words that are taken almost verbatim from a memo he wrote on the subject at the time.

Fall of Giants weaves together five families--one Welsh, one German, one Russian, one American and one British--as they are launched into the turbulent events surrounding the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the women's suffrage movement. We were extremely happy to see the suffrage movement included, as it is often overlooked or downplayed while standing next to World War I or the Revolution. What inspired you to make women's suffrage a primary concern in the novel?

The biggest social change of the twentieth century was the change in the role of women. My mother grew up in a world where the inferiority of women was generally accepted; my daughter takes for granted that she is the equal of any man. That did not happen by accident--women fought a long political battle, and won.

You spent your childhood in Cardiff, Wales--close to the fictional town of Aberowen, where much of Fall of Giants is set. Is Aberowen based on an actual town in the Rhondda Valleys?

Aberowen is very like the town of Mountain Ash where my mother grew up. As a boy I visited my grandparents there frequently.

After returning home from London, Ethel notices that Aberowen is all the same color. "Everything was gray: the houses, the streets, the slag heap, and the low rain clouds drifting disconsolately along the ridge of the mountain." In the beginning of the book Ty Gwyn (Welsh for White House) is also spoken of as: "Like everything else in this part of the world, the building was covered with a layer of coal dust..." Was this a typical observation from your childhood while living near large-scale coal mining communities?

Absolutely. If you lay down on the grass in my grandfather's garden, when you got up your shirt would be black with coal dust.

Ken Follett at the unveiling of his look-alike statue at the Catedral Santa MarĂ­a in Vitoria, Spain. (2008)
Your wife, Barbara, was a Member of Parliament for thirteen years and has long been a political activist. Would you say that Barbara was the inspiration for Ethel Williams' character?

The story of the twentieth century is full of brave, strong women who fought for justice, and my wife Barbara is one of them. Ethel is based on her and many others.

Did Barbara's political influence help you with your research or understanding of the period while working on the novel?

Yes. For the last thirteen years, Britain has been ruled by my friends. That gave me an insight into how government works that I could not have found any other way.

You have been quoted as saying that The Pillars of the Earth is your own personal favorite out of all of your novels. Do you think that that will still be the case once the Century Trilogy is complete?

Tough question. I hope so.

Did your feelings or beliefs on the early 20th century and WWI change while researching Fall of Giants?

Completely. I had all sorts of half-formed ideas that turned out to be wrong. For example, I vaguely believed that at the battle of the Somme the British soldiers were brave men commanded by fools. The truth is more complicated than that.

Throughout Europe and the United States, many are happy for the Russian people and their feats during the Revolution. We were genuinely surprised to see that even as "enemies," the characters were toasting them, clapping, and drinking to their success. Were you surprised as well to learn just exactly how sympathetic other countries were, even in a time of war?

The Russian revolution was a beacon of false hope to oppressed people all over the world. Studying in detail how the Bolsheviks betrayed those people has made me rather more anti-Communist than I was before.

There are many "giants who fall" in small and large fashions throughout Fall of the Giants. Can you tell us more about what in particular the title refers to since it can be considered in so many different ways?

I was thinking of three great empires that ceased to exist during the course of the war: the Austrian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the empire of the Czars.

Were there any particular authors that you read while researching Fall of Giants that gave you inspiration for your characters or the storyline?

The idea of treating the period 1914 to 1989 as a unit came from Eric Hobsbawn, the historian who wrote The Age of Violence: the Short Twentieth Century.

Who are your favorite authors that you read for enjoyment?

Lately I've been rereading Edith Wharton, whom I enjoy and admire more and more.

We can't wait for the second and third books to come out! Can you give us any general details on what to expect in the next two installments and as to when the books will most likely be published?

Book Two is about the Second World War, and I'm writing it now. Book Three will be about the Cold War. If I live so long.

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