Zibby Owens: I was so honored to interview Ken Follett who is one of the world’s best-loved authors, selling more than 170 million copies of his 32 books. Follett’s first best seller was Eye of the Needle, a spy story set in the second world war. In 1989, The Pillars of the Earth was published and has since become Follett’s most popular novel. It reached number one on best-seller lists around the world and was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Its sequels, World Without End and A Column of Fire, proved equally popular. The Kingsbridge series has sold more than forty million copies worldwide. Follet lives in Hertfordshire, England, with his wife Barbara. Between them they have five children, six grandchildren, and two Labradors. His new book is called The Evening and the Morning.

Ken Follett: Hello, Zibby.

Zibby: Hi, how are you?

Ken: I’m good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Ken: It’s a pleasure.

Zibby: I have to tell you that I grew up with your books all over my house. I called my dad. I was like, “Dad, guess who I’m interviewing?” He was like, “Those are amazing.” He read almost all your books and thought they were fast paced and thrilling and amazing. Now that I have your new one, I can’t wait to give it to him. I’m thrilled.

Ken: That’s great.

Zibby: How do you do it? How do you keep creating these new worlds and writing for decade after decade in such a powerful way? How do you come up with all these ideas?

Ken: Well, I don’t have to do anything else. I sit here all day and come up with ideas. It’s not like I’m trying to fit this in. It’s been my job for forty-five years. Of course, like all authors, I was born with a vivid imagination. Nobody becomes an author without that. It’s sometimes hard for people to understand. You asked me the question that we’re always asked. Where do you get your ideas? It’s hard. The point is that they come to us all the time. When I was a boy, I was never myself. I was always a pirate or a cowboy or the captain of a spaceship. I spent my childhood pretending to be somebody else. Now I’ve spent most of my working life imagining stuff. It comes. These ideas come sometimes when you don’t want them. You’re having a nice conversation with somebody and you think to yourself, what would happen if there was an earthquake now? What would we do? Where would we go? The answer is, they come easily. Of course, the trick is, the more difficult thing is to share them with people. That’s important. That’s the craft. That’s the skill of what we do, to write things down in such a way that when people are reading them, they can enter into what we’ve imagined and it will be vivid for them and they’ll care about it.

Zibby: Wow. How do you do that? How did you hone your craft? When you started at the very beginning of your career and you tried doing this, did it come out like this? Do you feel yourself getting better over time? Did it all come naturally, or did you have other tricks and tools in your toolbox that made it what it is today?

Ken: I think for all authors, you learn nearly everything that you need to know by reading. All of us, I never met an author who wasn’t a voracious reader from a very young age. I learned to read when I was four years old. I made my mother teach me to read because I loved stories. I was always pestering people to read to me. I can remember this. It’s my earliest memory, actually. Both of my parents, all four grandparents would read to me. Both my parents come from big families. I had lots of uncles and aunts. There were loads of people to read to me, and it was never enough. I’d say, “Read me another one.” They’d say, “No, that’s enough for today, Ken.” I’d say, “Please, please.” You can imagine, can’t you? I desperately, desperately wanted to learn to read. I learned to read young. I’ve been doing it ever since. By the time you get to your early twenties and you sit down to try and write some fiction, you know a heck of a lot. You know what a sentence is and a paragraph and a chapter. You know about dialogue. You know about describing landscape and describing people because you read so much of that. Of course, it’s not enough, but it’s most of what you need to know.

If anybody ever says to me, “I’d really like to be a writer. What advice can you give me?” I always say, “Do you read much?” If they say, “No, not really,” I say, “I’m sorry.” If you want to be a concert violinist, you cannot start at the age of twenty-one. Something similar is true of being an author. If you haven’t read a few hundred novels by the time you get to your early twenties, it’s too late. That’s a big thing. On top of that, I could do action. I could do dialogue. There were some things I had to learn. When I started, I wrote ten unsuccessful books, by the way, before Eye of the Needle. Even though I knew a lot, I clearly did not know enough at that point in my life. I had to learn to emphasize the emotion. I could do two people having an argument, a quarrel. I could write their dialogue, but I wasn’t good at saying how they were feeling about it. That was something that I had to consciously concentrate on. Don’t just tell the reader what happened. Tell the reader how it feels.

Are they angry, indignant, scared, resentful, all of these emotions? Of course, I now know, but I had to learn it, for the book to be successful, the reader has to share the emotions of the characters in the story. When a character is scared, the reader is like this. Something sad happens in the story, there’s a tear in the reader’s eye. This is a miracle, of course, because the reader knows that this story was made up. Follett made it up sitting in this chair in this room, but it doesn’t make any difference, does it? If the scene is well-written, the fact that you know it never happened makes no difference. If somebody’s bullied in the story, you feel indignant. You want to bang the table and say, hey, that’s not fair. The reader’s emotional reaction to the story is paramount. If you can do that, you’ve got a successful book. If you can’t do that, it won’t be a best seller. It might still be a good book. It might be clever. It might be witty. It might be brilliantly well-written. It might be informative. But it won’t be a best-selling novel if readers aren’t moved emotionally by it.

Zibby: Interesting. Here’s the whole secret. This is great.

Ken: I think so. I think that’s the basic secret.

Zibby: I’m a little discouraged because only one of my four kids seems to be really into reading. Now I feel like I have no shot at having perhaps one author among them. That’s it.

Ken: It’s like that, though, isn’t it? I’ve got some grandchildren who are absolutely, as I was, fascinated by stories from a very young age, and others who would rather watch TV. I’ve got a son actually, a stepson, who never read at all as a boy. He is a very successful film editor. All that time he spent in front of the TV, I thought he was wasting his time. I thought he should be reading a book. I was wrong. He got to the age of twenty-one and he understood the grammar of television the way I understood the grammar of language. It’s the joy of genetics, I suppose, that your kids aren’t necessarily like you.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel that way when my kids say they want to watch TV, this and that. I hear about people like Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnast, who would watch hour after hour of gymnastics on TV. That’s really how she was teaching herself. Then I’m like, oh, no, thirty minutes today. What if? What if they could be Simone Biles if I just let them watch more gymnastics or something? You never know. My husband is stepdad to my four kids. I know he’s always looking for advice or a friendly ear for other stepdads. Since you referenced your stepchildren, I was wondering what you think some of the hallmarks of success of being a good stepdad might be so I can give him some pointers?

Ken: My philosophy was, you don’t need your stepchildren to like you, but you want them to trust you. You want them to see you as the person they can go to and say, “I’ve got a problem.” You don’t want to be their friend. Of course, they become hugely important in your life and you love them and they love you, but you don’t try to be their friend. You don’t say, “We’re going to be pals, son, aren’t we?” That’s crap. You need to have the Advil. “Ken, I’ve got a headache.” “Try taking a couple of these. Then if it doesn’t go away in about half an hour, we’ll think again.” That’s the kind of thing you’ve got to — you’ve got to have the cold remedy. You’ve got to have the tampons, actually. When they’re teenage girls, things happen suddenly or they’ve forgot to bring any. “What am I going to –” “Okay, I happen to have some in my suitcase.” All of that, condoms, I’m afraid. You’ve got to be the go-to person when mom isn’t there. Of course, they’ll go to mom. You’ve got to be the go-to person for a problem. You’ve got to be equipped for that. Anticipate. Make sure that anything that’s likely to go wrong and they come to you with a problem, you’re going to be able to help. Without even thinking about you, that’s how you sort of grow into the parental role with your stepchildren, which isn’t about being liked. It’s about being trusted.

Zibby: Who knew? Wow. I feel like as a mom I’m a total failure. I don’t always have all those things on hand. Well, certainly not the latter. I guess it’s good to defer that to somebody else’s responsibility tree, if you will. I had a question, actually, about the beginning. It’s not even technically the book. In the beginning of The Evening and the Morning, you say, “In memoriam: EF.” I was just wondering, who is EF? Why dedicate this book to this person?

Ken: He was my son. He died. He died two years ago at the age of forty-nine. He had leukemia. This is the first book that I’ve published since his death. That’s why it’s dedicated to him. It is the worst thing that can happen to you, to have a child die. You know your parents are going to die. You expect that. It’s sad when it happens, but it’s not a shock. When a child dies, it’s an absolutely terrible thing. I didn’t want to make a big fuss about it, but I did want to dedicate the book to his memory.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. That’s terrible. I’m so sorry. Did you find it hard to get back into writing? Is it more that you’re so used to doing it, this is just what you do? Was it an escape for you? Did it help?

Ken: Work is an escape for me. It’s always been like that. If anything is going wrong in my life, then I can lose myself in the imaginary world. It’s some kind of relief and consolation. Of course, you never get over the death of a child. It’s with you. It’s always with you. I was nineteen when my son was born. I was a very young father. He’s still in my life. I think about him every day. I hear a pop song on the radio and I think, he’d like that. He and I would talk about what the chords were, that kind of thing. All the time, that happens. He’s still in my life even though he’s passed.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I recently lost — not to compare in any way, but just grief in general. From COVID, I recently lost my mother-law-in and grandmother-in-law both this summer. My husband, whose mother it is, and his sister, they keep reaching for their phones and trying to call her. It’s only been a couple weeks for us. Everything he thinks of, he wants to tell her. That’s the most frustrating, maybe not, but it’s not high on the list of frustrations for him, the not being able to reach her anymore and just thinking of her constantly. Losing a child, I’m sorry. Do you feel like your personal things going on in your personal life, do you have that seep into your characters in some way? Do you channel those emotions? You said that was something you struggled with earlier. Obviously as life has progressed, you’ve developed more and more experiences and emotions yourself. Do you feel like you now infuse your characters with even more of that just because of life experience in a way?

Ken: I think that does happen. I don’t do it consciously. I don’t consciously use things that have happened to me. I find that almost without my noticing it, parts of my life do creep into the story. For example, when I first married Barbara, which is now thirty-five years ago, I had never before been in what we now call a blended family. I married Barbara and she brought along with her, three children: two teenage girls and a little boy. This was a new experience for me. Soon afterwards, I wrote The Pillars of the Earth. Tom Builder has a blended family. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do that earlier until it had happened to me. I suppose I could’ve made it up, but it just didn’t cross my mind that that would be an interesting thing to do and an interesting kind of family to have at the heart of a story. Once that had happened and I knew about some of the challenges and joys and disappointments of that kind of family, then I could put one in a book. Yes, they do. These things creep in. Eventually, every major thing that happens to you will end up in some form in a book, maybe heavily disguised and quite possibly in a form that nobody else will recognize. As the author, you’ll think to yourself, I know why that occurred to me. It’s because something similar happened to me.

Zibby: I know that there are a lot of authors who have a lot of success at the beginning of their careers and then feel this pressure to continue churning out just as great product as in the start. Sometimes that anxiety, I feel like, gets in the way, even from a big successful first book to a second book. How do you manage all of that? Do you ever have a morning where you’re like, that’s it, my talent has run out, this book’s going to be terrible? Do you ever have that self-doubt inside?

Ken: Touch wood, not yet. Certainly after Eye of the Needle, my first success, I thought about that a lot. I really wanted to have another success. I was aware, of course, that quite a lot of people write one good book. I knew that Eye of the Needle might have been my one good book. I really didn’t want it to be the one. I wanted to spend my life doing this. I liked it so much. I was aware of that danger. Then Triple was a best seller, but I thought, yeah, but people bought that because they liked Eye of the Needle. I thought, I’ll believe it if the third book is a best seller. The Key to Rebecca was very successful. At that point, I said, okay, I am going to be a writer now for the rest of my life. That’s going to be my career. It’s going to be my life. I was very glad because that was what I wanted. There is a certain amount of pressure. I don’t mind it. It’s good pressure. It’s the thought that occurs to me if I’m tempted ever to be a bit of a slacker, to say, that seems not really very good, but it’s good enough, if I’m tempted to think that, then I think of all the people who really liked my last book and are looking forward to the next one.

I think, am I going to risk disappointing them? No. It makes me be more of a perfectionist than I might otherwise be. I’m never oppressed by it. It takes a lot to discourage me. I’m an optimist. My inclination, always, is to say, oh, let’s not worry about that. That’ll be okay. Don’t worry. With my stepchildren, they soon learned. They came to me and said, “I don’t feel good. I think I should go to the doctor.” I would say, “You’ll feel better in the morning.” Of course, they would then go to Barbara and she would say, “I’ll take you to the doctor.” My inclination was always to say, no, it can’t be that bad, it can’t be that bad. The idea that I’ve got this responsibility, which I do have, all those readers looking forward to the book, all those people in the publishing houses all over the world in all the different countries, all of those people, all those booksellers who are thinking, great, we’ve got a Ken Follett to sell this Autumn, that’ll help, all of those people, to let them down would indeed be terrible. What I think is, yes, that would be absolutely terrible, so I must make sure that this is a good story.

Zibby: Wow. What would you have done, do you think, if the books hadn’t taken off? What career might you have had? What was your fallback?

Ken: Before Eye of the Needle was published, for a while I was a sort of jobbing writer. For example, I turned a movie script into a novel for a publisher. It was quite well-paid. I think I got two thousand pounds for turning Capricorn One into a novel. That would pay the bills for three or four months. I knew I could do that and I could do it well. I thought I may have to go back to that having taken my shot and written one best seller and unable to do it anymore. Then I could probably still make a living as a writer, I thought. That was plan B anyway, which fortunately never got tested by reality.

Zibby: I know The Pillars of the Earth became this eight-part miniseries and everything. How involved are you in adapting your work? How much would you like to be doing that in the future?

Ken: I’m not very closely involved. They invite me to the set, which I enjoy. It’s wonderful, meet the actors. Of course, Pillars of the Earth, I arrived in Budapest, this lot, and there is this medieval English village with a half-built cathedral in the middle of it and all these guys with hammer and chisel pretending to build a cathedral. It was marvelous. It was absolutely marvelous. I loved it. It was a thrill. It was a real thrill. It is that. It’s a thrill. You’re also very nervous. I’ve had some bad shows made out of my books, but not many, mostly good. I think there are good authors and not-so-good authors. There are good filmmakers and not-so-good filmmakers. I’ve got to trust these people because one thing’s for sure, I don’t know as much about making a television drama as they do, so I shouldn’t try and tell them what to do. I should let them do their best and I should just cross my fingers. I tell stories in words. They tell stories in pictures. It is a different skill. That’s been my practice, is to say, great, over to you. I’ll come and see how you’re doing, but it’ll just be a social visit. I won’t say, no, you can’t do it that way. By and large, that has worked for me.

Zibby: That’s great. Are you already at work on your next book? How long do these take to write? This is almost a thousand pages. How long does each book take you?

Ken: Three years is the norm. Actually, The Evening and the Morning was a little bit shorter than that. I spend a year planning, a year on the first draft, and a year on the rewrite. That’s my normal timetable. People think it’s a long time. It seems a bit short to me. It’s a lot of work to get into three years.

Zibby: Are you at the beginning stage of the next one?

Ken: Yes. Well, more past that. I finished The Evening and the Morning about a year ago. I’ve been working on a new story since then. I don’t stop. I’m not ready to talk about the new book yet. That’s partly because it may well change. The story I think it is now may be something different in a year’s time.

Zibby: Have you ever thought about writing some sort of life advice book? You have such great advice and such a wit about you and all that. Maybe you should do a little advice to graduates or to parents, I don’t know, something.

Ken: I don’t think that’s my talent, I must tell you.

Zibby: I think it’s a hidden talent. You never know. When you’re procrastinating from your main work.

Ken: If the novels ever become unpopular and I can’t sell them, then I may think about your advice.

Zibby: If you need a backup plan in the next two decades or something. Thank you. Thank you so much for talking to me on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing more about The Evening and the Morning which, I know, I’m sorry, we barely even talked about, but readers of yours who are huge fans will undoubtedly enjoy just as much as every other, especially because it’s the prequel to one of your most popular books ever, The Pillars of the Earth. Thank you. Thanks for all the advice, even if you don’t write a book about it.

Ken: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for having me on the podcast. I hope I’ll see you again.

Zibby: Sounds great. Thank you, Ken.

Ken: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.