IT IS POINTLESS asking Ken Follett to measure his success with any precision. He gave up counting sales when they topped 130m, and it takes too long to list his works, his many awards and accolades, and the many stars cast in the screen versions of his novels.
As for Follett’s finances, suffice it to say it is appropriate that his surname — as he answers in the frequently asked questions section of his abundant website — rhymes with wallet.
In the world of popular fiction, this otherwise dainty and dapper 63-year-old Welshman is, in a word, big.
The same is true of Follett’s novels, many of which are so large that if you read one on a bus you might have to buy a ticket for it.
His latest is no exception — 818 pages in hardback — and it’s also big on ambition. It is the second part of his Century Trilogy, which follows the lives of five interrelated families in England, Wales, Germany, Russia and the United States, from the build-up to World War I to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Winter Of The World follows the best-selling Fall Of Giants and covers the years 1933 to 1949, chronicling the families’ experiences through the rise of fascism, the horrors and heartache of World War II and the uneasy post-war period.
It’s a period Follett knows well: he made his breakthrough with war-time thrillers, prior to writing historical novels, the first of which, the medieval Pillars of the Earth, was an international bestseller, became a TV mini-series, inspired several board games and prompted the Spanish to erect a statue of the author.
But although the historical backdrop to Winter Of The World was familiar territory, Follett was fascinated by the research he carried out for the novel.
“I was always anti-communist, but I am even more anti-communist now. I really did not appreciate how violent and brutal and repressive and murderous Stalin’s regime was,” he says.
“I thought I knew everything about the Nazis, but I didn’t know about Aktion T4 (the policy of euthanasia for disabled and mentally-ill children and adults).
“I also found out that two million German women were raped by the Red Army. The scale of that is just extraordinary.”
Follett’s fact-finding for the Century Trilogy was so extensive that he had to knock down a bedroom wall to extend his library, simply to house the materials he gathered, but he has no complaints.
“Part of the fun of writing a book is doing the research and getting to understand these things, in order to make them clear for the reader. I enjoy that very much,” he says.
The result of his efforts is a novel jammed with factual detail for his fictional characters to navigate.
Critics might suggest the book has more than a touch of the Forrest Gump, with its characters’ uncanny, and unlikely, knack of witnessing first-hand the landmarks of the war, or being in the presence of the world leaders who shaped those events, but Follett says he’s a fiction writer, not an academic.
“I didn’t even take history for my O-Levels (the UK equivalent of the Junior Cert),” he says.
Besides, he’s only thinking of his readers.
“It was a little bit daunting starting the trilogy, because I was thinking, ‘am I going to be able to sustain people’s interest?’ It will be a million words and over seven years by the time it’s finished.
“If you are going to do something long, you have got to keep it moving and keep it lively. Otherwise, people will hate a long book. They will feel obliged to keep going with it, because they have committed to it — they’ve paid for it — but they will have a rotten time.”
To prevent any rot setting in, Follett lays on protective layers of love affairs, family secrets, personal rivalries, politicking of the social and parliamentary kind and, despite his upbringing, sex.
Follett was raised in a deeply conservative family that followed the Plymouth Brethren Christian movement and forbade television, radio, cinema and pop music.
“My mother read the Reader’s Digest condensed versions of my books, because they took out the sex and swearing,” he says.
Follett rejected the religious movement when he left home for a university philosophy degree, followed by an early career as a local newspaper reporter, dismissing it now as a “sect” but he says it, and memories of his mum, influence how he writes about sex.
“I don’t do James Bond — a different girl every night. I rarely do casual sex. I do sex in the context of relationships.” He laughs again: “Everyone has a mum at the back of their mind,” he says.
Luckily for Follett, his parents had no objection to folk music, so he was able to play Bob Dylan numbers when he took up the guitar in his teens, and he has long been a political leftie and supporter of the Labour Party in Britain.
Follett doesn’t hide his party allegiance, or his appetite for politics, in Winter Of The World , despite an uncomfortable spell under the media spotlight during the MPs’ expenses scandal a few years ago, when it emerged that his wife, Barbara Follett, who served for Labour for 13 years, was an expenses-claims offender.
“That still makes me angry,” he says of the criticism of Barbara. “The expenses did not cover the cost of doing business as an MP. I was spending a lot of money — never less than £100,000 a year — subsidising an MP for 13 years.
“I was subsidising the taxpayer, so it did sting a bit when they said we were taking money from the taxpayer.”
However, the experience didn’t dent his passion for politics. “It hasn’t soured me. It is a rough business. We knew what it was like when we went in for it. We were no wilting violets.”
Hollywood is no place for habitual wilters either, but Follett says it is nerve-wracking whenever a new screen version of his work appears
Despite the big names that are invariably attracted to the projects, they don’t always turn out how the author would have liked.
“I have had a couple of clunkers. On Wings Of Eagles was very poor — not true to the book at all — and Lie Down With Lions was so bad my own children left the room,” he says.
He’s much happier about the next production, the mini-series of World Without End, the sequel to Pillars Of The Earth, which airs in the United States soon and in Britain early next year.
The cast includes Cynthia Nixon, Miranda Richardson and Ben Chaplin, and the advance notices are highly excitable, proving you can survive a couple of clunkers if you’re big enough — as good a measure of success as any.