Welsh author Ken Follett on how his popular thrillers stem from deep research

More than three decades later and 150 million copies of his books sold, the novelist has well and truly achieved his aim

British author Ken Follett takes his seat prior to a press conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2017 in Frankfurt am Main, central Germany, on October 11, 2017
The Frankfurt book fair is the world's largest publishing event, bringing together over 7,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries.  / AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL

When a young Ken Follett was once asked in an interview what his motivation was in being a writer, he replied that it was about the money.

More than three decades later and 150 million copies of his books sold, the Welsh novelist has well and truly achieved his aim. Yet the 68-year-old laughs it off with some embarrassment.

“If that was my real motivation then I would have stopped years ago, retired and played golf,” he says, speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair yesterday.

“But ever since I became successful I kept working because I want to write stories that entertain millions of people. I still want to do to that, because every day I wake up in the morning I think about the story that I am working on and what am I going to do next.”

Follett has returned to the book fair to launch the German edition of his latest novel, A Column of Fire. Released last month, the historical novel is the third instalment of his sagas based in the English city of Kingsbridge.

This time around, the action takes place in 1558. With Europe in flux, the young English queen, Elizabeth Tudor – Elizabeth I – establishes the country’s first spy agency to flush out potential assassination plots.


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While admitting his work teems with action, Follett says the cloak and dagger adventures of A Column of Fire are far removed from what is expected from a popular spy novel. "The misgivings that I have about reading thrillers is [that] the mission of the spy is perfunctory," he says.

“It was a pretext for a character like a James Bond to fight his way out of. I wanted my spies to have an important mission and in order to do that I had to study what they did.”

With Follett’s novels spanning periods of history ranging from 12th century England to the Second World War, he states that his work goes through a rigorous research process.

“I sometimes use the services of a researcher to find me old books and maps and people to interview, but I conduct all the interviews myself,” he says.

“I also speak to various history professors, which I acknowledge in my books, because if I make a slip or write something that didn’t happen in the 16th century because I never thought to question it, then these historians will let me know.”

While pleased that his books are based on fact, Follett expresses caution at the notion that his work is viewed as anything but entertainment. 

“My main aim in writing is to draw my reader into an imaginary world and make them prefer that world than the real one. I use real history because it heightens the drama of the story,” he says.

“While it is also true that my readers like the fact that they learned something from my books, I consider that a bonus. I don’t think of myself as an educator.

“I back off from that because if I say yes to that question then people will think my book as worthy. And a lot of the times, people think of worthy books as boring.”

With the Middle East full of its own colourful history and evocative real-life characters, Follett told The National it would be an ideal setting for a future book.

“It is a region that has everything you need for a dramatic story,” he says. “It had terrible wars, rival powers and extraordinary romantic landscapes. So I can easily imagine a history based on the history of the Middle East.”

A Column of Fire (published by Pan Macmillan) by Ken Follett is out now