Ken Follett was born on June 5, 1949, in Cardiff, Wales, the son of a tax inspector. He was educated at state schools and graduated from University College, London, with an honors degree in philosophy. (He was made a fellow of the college in 1995.)
Follett became a reporter, first with his hometown newspaper, the South Wales Echo, and later with the London Evening News. While with the Evening News, he published his first novel, which was not a best-seller. He then went to work for a small publishing house in London, Everest Books, eventually becoming deputy managing director while continuing to write novels in his spare time.
Follett first hit the best-seller lists in 1978 with Eye of the Needle, a taut and original thriller with a memorable woman character in the central role. It was his 11th book, and his first success. The book won the Edgar award and was made into an outstanding film starring Kate Nelligan and Donald Sutherland.
Ken Follett also wrote On Wings of Eagles, the true story of how two employees of Ross Perot were rescued from Iran during the revolution of 1979. It was made into a miniseries with Richard Crenna as Ross Perot and Burt Lancaster as Colonel "Bull" Simons.
Follett then surprised readers by radically changing course with The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the building of a cathedral during the Middle Ages. Published to rave reviews in September 1989, it was on the New York Times best-seller list for 18 weeks. It also reached the number one position on lists in Canada, Great Britain and Italy, and was on the German best-seller list for an amazing six years. Pillars, in fact, was voted the third-greatest book ever written by some 250,000 viewers of the German television station ZDF in 2004, beaten only by The Lord of the Rings and the Bible. A similar poll conducted by the BBC ranked it 33 on a list of the 100 greatest novels.
Follett returned to the thriller with The Third Twin, a scorching suspense novel about a young woman scientist who stumbles across a secret genetic-engineering experiment. Miniseries rights were sold to CBS for $1,400,000, a record for four hours of television. It starred Kelly McGillis and Larry Hagman, and was broadcast in November 1997. (Ken Follett appeared briefly as the butler.) In Publishing Trends' annual survey of international fiction best-sellers for 1997, The Third Twin was ranked number two in the world, beaten only by John Grisham's The Partner.
The Hammer of Eden, another nail-biting contemporary suspense story, came in 1998. Code to Zero (2000), about brainwashing and rocket science in the 50s, went to number one on best-seller lists in the United States, German and Italy, with film rights snapped up by Gladiator producer Doug Wick in a seven-figure deal. Jackdaws (2001), a World War II spy thriller in the tradition of Eye of the Needle, won the Corine Prize for 2003, film rights were sold to Dino De Laurentiis. Hornet Flight, published in December 2002, about two young people who escape German-occupied Denmark in a Hornet Moth biplane, is loosely based on a true story. White Out, a contemporary thriller about the theft of a dangerous virus from a laboratory, was published in 2004.
More from the complete reading guide to The Pillars of the Earth.
Ken Follett is one of the world's most popular novelists. He has sold approximately 90 million books. His wife, Barbara, is a member of Parliament representing Stevenage, in Hertfordshire. They live in a rambling rectory with two Labrador retrievers, Custard and Bess. They also have an 18th-century town house in London and a beach house in Antigua. Ken Follett is a lover of Shakespeare, and is often seen attending the Globe Theatre in London. An enthusiastic amateur musician, he plays bass guitar in the band Damn Right I Got the Blues, and he appears occasionally with the folk group Clog Iron, playing a bass balalaika.
Follett served as chair of the National Year of Reading in 1998–1999, an initiative by the British government to raise literacy levels. He is president of the Dyslexia Institute, chair of the advisory committee of Reading Is Fundamental (UK), a trustee of the National Literacy Trust, a member of the Welsh Academy, a board director of the National Academy of Writing, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is active in numerous Stevenage charities and is a governor of Roebuck Primary School.
World Without End, the long-awaited sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, was published in October 2007. It is set in Kingsbridge, the fictional location of the cathedral in Pillars, at the time of the Black Death, and features the descendants of the original characters.