It's a brick. You know the sort of book I'm referring to. And, as much as we love to read, when one of these doorstops hits our desks with a palpable ca-thunk, it can sometimes elicit a groan. Not so when it comes to a new novel by Ken Follett, however, and A Column of Fire is no exception. Continuing the Kingsbridge series which began with The Pillars of the Earth, Follett's latest historical epic addresses themes that are still very relevant today.
Erin Kodicek: A Column of Fire is about religious tolerance and extremism; It’s about freedom. And, despite the fact that the story begins in 1558, these are still issues we’re struggling with today. Given this, and as a student of history, how do you remain optimistic about the future?
Ken Follett: Let’s remember how far we’ve come. Protestants and Catholics no longer kill each other in Europe. Throughout much of the world, religious tolerance is the norm. For that we have to thank pioneering radicals like the heroes of A Column of Fire.
E.K.: Bill Sheehan at the Washington Post has called your historical novels “painlessly educational,” and I’ve heard many people say (I’ve said it myself): I wish that Ken Follett had been one of my history teachers. Is that a motivator for you when writing books like the Kingsbridge novels—not just to entertain, but to educate?
K.F.: No. My aim is to create an imaginary world and then draw the reader into it, until the reader cares about the fictional characters as if they were real. I call this process enchantment, and I believe it’s what most of us seek when we buy a book. That said, many readers also feel that learning a little history along the way is a welcome bonus.
E.K.: The history covered in A Column of Fire is vast but pretty well documented. How do you zero-in on the most helpful research without getting overwhelmed?
K.F.: The inspiration for this book was the surprise discovery that Queen Elizabeth I started the first British secret service. Research is burdensome, because there is such a lot of information to be digested; but usually I’m closely focussed on what I need—which is to identify historical moments of great drama, when my characters can become part of a crisis such as a revolution or a war, so that they say: “What the heck is going to happen now?”—and I hope my readers will have the same thought.
E.K.: What do you make of the evolution of espionage? With the Ned Willards of the world, there was actual skin in the game. Now all someone has to do is write a misleading Facebook post…
K.F.: It was fascinating to me, researching A Column of Fire, to realize how similar espionage was then to how it is now. My sixteenth-century spies and secret agents put people under surveillance, intercept messages, devise codes and decipher codes, interrogate suspects and keep extensive files—just like the CIA!
E.K.: I was surprised to see that The Pillars of the Earth has been developed into a video game! How did this come about?
K.F.: It’s the kind of video game in which the player takes the role of a character in a story. When the game creators approached me, I was fascinated by the idea of someone become Aliena or Jack or Prior Philip and entering into the drama of the novel. I also thought it might introduce my work to a new group, and perhaps get some of them reading.
E.K.: 2018 is on our doorstep. Any New Year’s resolutions you’re willing to share?
K.F.: By the end of 2018 I want to have the first draft of a new novel finished. Wish me luck.