Looking back, I can see that at the age of 27 I was not capable of writing such a novel. I was like an apprentice watercolor painter planning a vast canvas in oils. To do justice to its subject, the book would have to be very long, cover a period of several decades, and bring alive the great sweep of medieval Europe. I was writing much less ambitious books, and even so, I had not yet mastered the craft.
I dropped the cathedral book and came up with another idea, a thriller about a German spy in wartime England. Happily, that was within my powers, and under the title Eye of the Needle, it became my first best-seller.
For the next decade I wrote thrillers, but I continued to visit cathedrals, and the idea of my cathedral novel never went away. I resurrected it in January 1986, having finished my sixth thriller, Lie Down with Lions.
My publishers were nervous. They wanted another spy story. My friends were also apprehensive. They know that I enjoy success. I'm not the kind of writer who would deal with a failure by saying that the book was good but the readers were inadequate. I write to entertain, and I'm happy doing so. A failure would make me miserable. No one tried to talk me out of it, but lots of people expressed anxious reservations.
However, I did not plan a "difficult" book. I would write an adventure story, full of colorful characters who were ambitious, wicked, sexy, heroic and smart. I wanted ordinary readers to be as enraptured as I was by the romance of the medieval cathedrals.
Try out this excerpt of The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.
More from the complete reader's guide to The Pillars of the Earth.