Interview with Ken Follet about forthcoming 3rd book in Kingsbridge series: A Column of Fire

The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follet's are two lenghthy novels about a fictional medieval English town called Kingsbridge. When I read them years ago I became immersed in a world of conflict, betrayal, and scheming. In a way, the novels are like Game of Thrones (at least the TV series; I have not read the books) without magic. I did expect Follet to write a third book about Kingsbridge, but he did. and it's coming on September 12. It's called A Column of Fire. They sent me an advance copy, so as soon as I finish the book I'm currently reading (Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters)

This third book in the bestselling Kingsbridge series introduces readers to a world of spies and secret agents in the sixteenth century, the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Set during one of the most turbulent and revolutionary times in history, this novel is one of Follett’s most exciting and ambitious works yet, appealing to both long-time fans of the Kingsbridge series as well as readers new to Follett.

A Column of Fire begins in 1558 where the ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral look down on a city torn apart by religious conflict. As power in England shifts precariously between Catholics and Protestants, high principles clash bloodily with friendship, loyalty, and love. It’s the perfect epic, escapist read for the fall, after Game of Thrones leaves airwaves, transporting the reader to another century with its own heroes and villains. The real enemies then, as now, are not the rival religions. The true battle pitches those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else.

The publisher gave me this interview with Follett:

Were you excited about returning to Kingsbridge?

You bet. We've watched the place grow from an Anglo-Norman settlement to a thriving
medieval town, and now we see it at the start of the English Renaissance. Kingsbridge is
England in miniature.

Where did the idea for A Column of Fire come from?

I read somewhere that Queen Elizabeth I started the first English secret service. That
intrigued me, and I read several books about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. I felt sure this could be the basis of an exciting novel.

Why did you choose to call the book A Column of Fire?

It's biblical, like The Pillars of the Earth. Spies are sometimes referred to as a Fifth Column. And a lot of people were burned at the stake in the 16th century.

We know that A Column of Fire is about spies and secret agents in the 16th century, what are the other themes surrounding the book?

Most of my recent books are about people struggling for freedom in one form or another:
Welsh coal miners, Russian factory workers, Jews, African Americans. This is about religious
freedom.

How do these themes relate to your own life?

I've always hated people who assume they have authority over me. This made my schooldays
a challenge, obviously. A bully makes me angry. I empathize with fictional characters who
fight against tyranny.

strong>What sort of research did you do for A Column of Fire?
There's nobody left to interview, of course. As usual, most of my information comes from
history books. I also visited houses and castles built in this period. I looked at 16th century
clothing in the London Museum, and I went several times to the National Portrait Gallery to
study the faces of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Francis Drake and many others.

Did you visit the locations of the key events in A Column of Fire?

Scotland for Loch Leven, the prison from which Mary Queen of Scots escaped; Belgium for
Antwerp, then the banking centre of the western world; Spain for Seville, the richest city in
Spain; Paris because it was the headquarters of those who conspired to assassinate Queen
Elizabeth.

Plenty of historians have written about this era. Who among them do you particularly
like or respect?

Robert Hutchinson has written well about espionage at this time. Geoffrey Parker is the
authority on the long and bloody war in the Netherlands. Perhaps the most useful book was
Conyers Read's three-volume biography Mr Secretary Walsingham, about the man who was the Elizabethan equivalent of "M" in the James Bond stories.

Are any of your fictional characters based on real people?

Not really. I might give a villain the hair style of someone I dislike, and of course the female
heroes all have something in them of Barbara, my wife; but my fictional characters are never
portraits of real people.

A Column of Fire has a number of real historical characters, including several heads of state. Who did you particularly admire?

Three great 16th century leaders understood the need for religious tolerance, and
interestingly they were all women: our Queen Elizabeth I; Caterina dei Medici, who was
queen of France and then Queen Mother; and Marguerite de Parme, governor of the
Netherlands. In an age of relentless bigotry, each of them tried to persuade people of rival
religions to live in peace. For that they were hated. Their efforts were only partly successful.
Each of them was undermined: Elizabeth by repeated plots to assassinate her, Caterina by the
ruthless Guise family, and Marguerite by her half-brother King Felipe II of Spain. I admire
their idealism, courage and persistence in the face of bloodthirsty opposition.

What are you most proud of in your career?

It was a pretty good achievement to write a novel about the rather unpromising subject of
building a cathedral in the Middle Ages and turning it into an international No.1. We've sold
about twenty-six-million copies of The Pillars of the Earth. That's pretty good for a book a lot
of people thought would be too dull.

How long did it take you to write?

The whole thing took three years and three months. After two years I only had about 200
pages, and I felt this was a crisis. And as a novelist the only thing you can do if you want to
write faster is work more hours. So I started to work Saturdays and then Sundays as well. The
difficulty is simply that you've got to keep on making up more and more stuff about the same
people. If you write 100,000 words of a thriller, then it's finished. But after 100,000 words of
The Pillars of the Earth that's like that much. [He holds open first quarter of the book.] I had
all that to go. [He holds open the final three-quarters.] That was the great difficulty.

Some writers live in dread of their books being turned into films or TV series. Have
you enjoyed the experience?

Seeing good actors giving good performances, bringing to life characters I've invented and
speaking some of the lines I've written is a huge thrill. When it all goes well it's great. When
it goes badly you cringe when you see what's on the screen, but you have to take that risk.
I'm pleased and proud that some of my stories have made good film and TV. It confirms the
strength of the story that it can be transformed from one medium to another. And I'm also
pleased that my stories have been turned into a stage musical, several board games, and a
computer game.

What's next?

I'm working on a new story, but I'm not yet ready to talk about it—sorry!

Loading...