Ken Follett and Oprah

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is an epic so big, so sweeping, it takes 973 pages to tell the tale—and still leaves us wanting more! Set in medieval England, the saga centers on the construction of the greatest Gothic cathedral in the world. But the road to Kingsbridge is not an easy one, fraught with fire, famine, sabotage, violent attacks and bloody wars.

Go inside this medieval masterpiece.  Watch

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."
Ken Follett

After 10 books, Ken finally had a hit. Eye of the Needle was Ken's 11th book and his first success. Although Ken was thrilled with the best-seller, he wasn't satisfied. "The thought that crossed my mind immediately was, 'Okay, a lot of people write one great book, and am I going to be one of those people?'" he says. "I was immediately thinking, 'Now I'm concerned about the next book.'"

Hear more from Ken about his early days of writing.  Watch

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?'"
Ken Follett and Oprah

Ken's books—especially The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End —are known for their plot twists and turns. How does he keep all these storylines straight? "I'm a great planner, so before I ever write chapter 1, I work out what happens in every chapter and who the characters are," he says. "I usually spend a year on the outline."

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.  Watch

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."
Ken Follett

Although Ken had the plot of The Pillars of the Earth outlined years before it was published, the title posed more of a challenge.

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.'"

Ken Follett and Oprah

Oprah says this book will stay with anyone who reads it. "Nobody who reads it ever looks at a church or a cathedral the same," she says. "It made me think about my own life differently. … What a treasure you have given all of us."

Watch Ken's after the show conversation with an audience full of Oprah's Book Club members.  Watch


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