Oprah's Interview with Ken Follett
Go inside this medieval masterpiece.
Known for suspenseful spy thrillers, Ken has sold more than 90 million books and is one of the world's most popular novelists. Although Ken says writing was the only thing he was ever good at, he had other ambitions as a young man. "I wanted to be some kind of captain of industry. Then I wanted to be in advertising, and then I wanted to be a newspaper reporter," he says. "Actually, that's what I did become. [I] became a reporter, but I wasn't great as a reporter. I started writing stories in my spare time."
In a twist of fate, a broken-down car prompted Ken to write his first novel. "My car broke down, and it was going to cost 200 pounds to fix it, and I didn't have the money," he says. With a new baby and a big mortgage, Ken applied for a loan and was denied. "One of the reporters at the newspaper [had] written a thriller, and he got 200 pounds from the publisher, so I said to my first wife, Mary, 'I know how we'll get the car back. I'm going to write a thriller.' And she said, 'Oh yeah?'"
Ken successfully submitted his manuscript to the same publisher, who paid him enough to get his car back. "Then, I said, 'Well, maybe if I try harder, I could do something better,'" Ken says. "My second book wasn't much better, but I gradually improved."
Hear more from Ken about his early days of writing.
Even before his breakthrough novel, Ken was toying with the idea of an adventure tale surrounding one of his personal obsessions—cathedrals. "I gave it up because, instinctively, I felt like I couldn't do it. It was too ambitious," Ken says.
Still, Ken couldn't shake the idea. "It just kept building up, and when I told writer friends about it they said, 'What a great idea,'" Ken says. "Publishers weren't so keen. They said, 'Ken, you've had a lot of success with Nazis and secret agents and spies. And now this is a book…it's set in the Middle Ages, right Ken? And it's about building a church. Are you sure?'"
On a typical writing day, Ken says he likes to get an early start. "I wake up with the story in my head, so I really like to be at my desk about five minutes after I wake up," he says. "So I don't get dressed. I put on a bathrobe, I make tea and sit at my desk."
See what else Ken does during a typical day of writing.
While sipping his English breakfast tea, Ken always reads what he wrote the previous day first. "I always change it," he says. "I could always think of ways to improve it."
During the writing process, Ken says he went through several different titles. "My working title was Vaulting because of the vaulting in the church and because a lot of the people in the story are ambitious," he says. "The only problem with that was people thought it was going to be a novel about pole vaulting."
After scrapping that idea, Ken sought out divine inspiration. "[The title] is a phrase from the Bible," he says. "Phrases from the Bible often have a kind of resonance to them—they often make good titles. I just looked for a verse in the Bible that said something about pillars or columns, and I found the verse that said, 'The Lord hath set the Earth on its pillars.' I thought, 'Oh yeah, The Pillars of the Earth. That sounds good.'"
Watch Ken's after the show conversation with an audience full of Oprah's Book Club members.