Ken Follett on the inspiration for The Pillars of the Earth
Ken Follett has made a career of keeping readers at the edge of their seats, engrossed in his suspenseful spy thrillers. So what made him write about cathedrals in the Middle Ages? Follett sheds some light on the little book that could.
Nothing happens the way you plan it.

A lot of people were surprised by The Pillars of the Earth, including me. I was known as a thriller writer. In the book business, when you have had a success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life. Clowns should not try to play Hamlet; pop stars should not write symphonies. I should not have risked my reputation by writing something out of character and overambitious.

What's more, I don't believe in God. I'm not what you would call a spiritual person. According to my agent, my greatest problem as a writer is that I'm not a tortured soul. The last thing anyone would have expected from me was a story about building a church.

So Pillars was an unlikely book for me to write—and I almost didn't. I started it, then dropped it, and did not look at it again for ten years.

This is how it happened.

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When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called the Plymouth Brethren. For us, a church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe's wealth of gorgeous church architecture.

I started trying to write novels in my middle 20s, while working as a reporter on London's Evening News. I realized then that I had never taken much interest in the cityscape around me, and I had no vocabulary to describe the buildings in which my characters had their adventures. So I bought An Outline of European Architecture by Nikolaus Pevsner. That book gave me eyes with which to look at buildings in general and churches in particular. Pevsner got really passionate when he wrote about Gothic cathedrals. The invention of the pointed arch, he wrote, was a rare event in history, when the solution to a technical problem—how to build a taller church—was also sublimely beautiful.

Use this floor plan and glossary to gain a better understanding of cathedrals.

Soon after I read Pevsner's book, my newspaper sent me to the East Anglican city of Peterborough. I have long forgotten what story I was covering, but I shall always remember what I did after filing it. I had to wait an hour for a train back to London, so, remembering Pevsner's fascinating and passionate descriptions of medieval architecture, I went to see Peterborough Cathedral.

It was one of those moments.

The west front of Peterborough has three huge Gothic arches, like doorways for giants. The inside is older than the façade, with arcades of regular round Norman arches in stately procession up the aisle. Like all great churches, it is both tranquil and beautiful. But it was more than that. Because of Pevsner's book, I had some inkling of the effort that had gone into this. I knew the story of humankind's attempts to build ever taller and more beautiful churches. I understood the place of this building in history, my history.

I was enraptured by the Peterborough Cathedral…

Read Ken Follett's biography to find out more his European upbringing and experience a reporter.

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Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me. Every few months I would drive to one of England's old cities, check into a hotel and study the church. This way I saw Canterbury, Salisbury, Winchester, Gloucester and Lincoln, each one unique, each with an intriguing story to tell. Most people take an hour or two to "do" a cathedral, but I like to have a couple of days.

The stones themselves reveal the construction history: stops and starts, damage and rebuilding, extensions in times of prosperity, and stained-glass tributes to the wealthy men who generally paid the bills. Another story is told by the way the church is sited in the town. Lincoln faces the castle across the street, religious and military power nose to nose. Winchester stands amid a neat grid of streets, laid out by a medieval bishop who fancied himself a town planner. Salisbury moved, in the 13th century, from a defensive hilltop site—where the ruins of the old cathedral are still visible—to an open meadow, showing that permanent peace had arrived.

But all the while a question nagged at me: Why were these churches built?

There are simple answers—for the glory of God, the vanity of bishops and so on—but those were not enough for me. The building of the medieval cathedrals is an astonishing European phenomenon. The builders had no power tools, they did not understand the mathematics of structural engineering, and they were poor: The richest of princes did not live as well as, say, a prisoner in a modern jail. Yet they put up the most beautiful buildings that have ever existed, and they built them so well that they are still here, hundreds of years later, for us to study and marvel at.

I began to read about these churches, but I found the books unsatisfactory. There was a great deal of aesthetic guff about elevations, but not much about the living buildings. Then I came across The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel. Gimpel, the black sheep of a family of French art dealers, was as impatient as I with discussions about whether a clerestory "worked" aesthetically. His book was about the dirt-poor hovel dwellers who actually put up these fabulous buildings. He read the payroll records of French monasteries and took an interest in who the builders were and how much money they made. He was the first person to notice, for example, that a significant minority of the names were female. The medieval church was sexist, but women as well as men built the cathedrals.

The author discusses his faith and values. Watch

Another work of Gimpel's, The Medieval Machine, taught me that the Middle Ages were a time of rapid high-tech innovation, during which the power of water mills was harnessed for a wide variety of industrial applications. Soon I was taking an interest in medieval life in general. And I began to get a picture of how the building of the great cathedrals must have seemed like the right thing to do for medieval people.

The explanation is not simple. It is a little like trying to understand why 20th-century people spent so much money exploring outer space. In both cases, a whole network of influences operated: scientific curiosity, commercial interests, political rivalries and the spiritual aspirations of earthbound people. And it seems to me there was only one way to map that network: by writing a novel…

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Sometime in 1976 I wrote an outline and about four chapters of the novel. I sent it to my agent, Al Zuckerman, who wrote, "You have created a tapestry. What you need is a series of linked melodramas."

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.

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Excerpted from The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Copyright © 1989 by Ken Follett. Excerpted by permission of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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