There is no denying it... Ken Follett (Cardiff, 74 years old) has been able to apply practicality to his life. It is something he knows how to recognize in certain aspects of Napoleon, for example. Like the fact, he says, that he imposed in France to place simple numbers on the door of the houses so as not to disorient whoever was going to look for you and not a gibberish of codes. The fact is that the driver who takes us from London to Knebworth finds his mansion and leaves us at the gate, where Stephen Pattinson, one of his assistants, awaits us. We follow him inside and the gravel of the ground cancels out any sign of discretion with our steps.
Knebworth is a town of just two hundred inhabitants, located just over half an hour from the capital, in Hertfordshire, and famous since 1974 thanks to its music festival. But this late August morning peace reigns in the rolling serenity of the countryside. There is no trace of decibels, although, in the house of the Folletts, everything is ready for them to offer their next private concert of blues and rock during the weekend, with him on bass, in the barn.
Walked... On the right stands a small stage with microphones and speakers coupled between the huge shelves where the author keeps at least a sample of all the copies of his original work and translated into more than 40 languages. There already rests one of The Armor of Light (Plaza & Janés), which appears on September 26 and closes – for now – the saga that began with The pillars of the earth.
Ken Follett, with his gibson, the bass he plays at private blues and rock concerts in his barn. Manuel Vazquez
Five volumes compose it since it started in 1989. The first gives title to the series and covers the construction of cathedrals. It is followed by A World Without End (2007), which tries to tell how the irruption of the Black Death revolutionized medicine throughout Europe. In 2017 appeared A Pillar of Fire, which addresses the wars of religion, and in 2020, Follett decided to return to the era of before the beginning and invent a prequel that he titled The Darkness and the Dawn. Specifically, it went back to the year 997, when Britain was a dark and backward pit crossed by wars between Vikings and Welsh, where the Normans arrived to change everything. "With them they begin to build castles, churches, laws are dictated ... Modern England starts there," says Follett.
The Armor of Light addresses the effects of the industrial revolution between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There, the author has closed a millennium of adventures anchored in several turning points, without that being his initial intention. "It's been coming out," he says. Follett has invited us to sit in the old barn, now converted into a cozy space for recreation with visitors and friends. He wears a black suit and white shirt and says he could use a coffee.
Although it has fulfilled its purpose of telling in its own way and for the general public a period of a thousand years, in the two decades that we have been in the third millennium, it would not know where to find points of light. So he starts thinking about them and he can't think of anything positive to highlight. "Let's see...", he hesitates. " I've read a lot of good books over the years..." Perhaps that is related to the fact that the crisis sharpens creativity, but not only. "Oh, and my granddaughter has become a writer and has already published three books. Her name is Alexandra Overy, and although she has not yet achieved a best seller, she is on her way to it, "announces the grandfather.
She doesn't know if she, with the fantasy stories she invents, will beat her record of around 175 million copies sold. It also cost him at first and he is taken as a joke to be confused with other authors of similar dimensions, as happened to him some time ago in Seville. "A woman came up to me and said, 'Sorry to bother you, but I've recognized you: You're Stephen King!'" Despite the cluelessness of some, today, he does not conceive his work without conquering the taste of the reader. "You can't write about what you want, you have to ask yourself on every page: who cares about this? Some authors say that they write what they want and I think it is wonderful if it coincides with the taste of their readers. But I don't do it for that: it's not about pleasing or satisfying exclusively those who read you, but about capturing their attention," he says.
Ken Follett, 74, in his home, with a Ruth Bader Ginsburg cushion on one of his couches. Manuel Vazquez
Grab their attention for what they like or care about? "I can't tell you...", he says. At the same time, Follett continues to think of something good that can point to this beginning of the XXI century. The bad is obvious. The pandemic. The war in Ukraine. El Brexit... "Alas, yes! I'm tempted to make myself a T-shirt with this slogan: 'I warned you.'" But to that already evident disaster, to that national suicide in the international sphere, Follett does not see a good solution in the future.
In the atmosphere begins to flow the idea of a second referendum among the British public. But that is nothing more than an internal national desideratum on the part of certain sectors. The way out of the mess is time-consuming. Their fear is this: "Would they let us come back? Difficult to be accepted, isn't it? Now it seems that the British would want to, but I see two problems. First, that it is humiliating for us to ask for it. Second, that the more educated people are aware that they may not allow us to enter again."
And then? "For now, we should, for starters, create new trade agreements that facilitate the movement of goods. And then, time, wait until people forget what happened. Above all, that Europeans do not take into account how twisted bastards we British can become. And maybe one day we'll be back. It's a disgrace, we've inflicted a lot of damage on ourselves." Not just in the purely economic sphere, Follett believes. "Also in the most intimate ones, with that feeling that I hate and that leads us to think: we are British and we don't need anyone else. I hate that attitude. My life is literature and it represents a European issue. We cannot work without being aware of the French, Italian, German or Spanish heritage. By the way, do you think Shakespeare ever read Don Quixote?"
Judging by the work he wrote with John Fletcher on the Cardenio, a mythical and pre-romantic episode included in Cervantes' masterpiece, it would seem so. Follett seeks in that his refutation of isolation. "If at that time creativity flowed and Don Quixote crossed borders so quickly, how is this obsession with closure possible in the twenty-first century?" His entire series of The Pillars of the Earth speaks of a common past between the islands and the mainland. The editors point out that his new book deals with the effects of the industrial revolution, but, specifically, the main theme of this new installment lies in capitalism. Your first steps. Its consequences. For better and for worse. "From the emergence of machines to the formation of unions, the part I like the most," says the old Labour Party militant.
If Kingsbridge served as the setting for all of the above, that town with its cathedral, its bridge, its related families, its solidarity and its greed is the perfect imaginary laboratory to develop matter. "It's like that, it's about capitalism," Follett says. "In fact, in almost all my books I have dealt with the creation of wealth," he points out as something common in his work. But in this one he delves deeper into these aspects. On something, therefore, very current: how to solve the fact that machinery replaces man. "On the one hand, with every invention comes an opportunity, and on the other, there are those who thought at the time that the devil dwelt in them and were the work of Satan. We've always been superstitious," he says.
And the emergence of artificial intelligence at the beginning of the century? Does Follett include it in the list of advantages or concerns to consider? He leaves doubt in the realm of ambiguity: "It's the last frontier. They say that if you ask the invention to write a Follett-style novel, it could. Although I hope it goes very badly. In five seconds he is able to solve incredible things. And the fact that you ask Siri, for example, to put Bob Dylan on you and execute him, is very disturbing to me."
There is no respite when it comes to imagining something good. In this field he moves with the paradox of knowing that, as far as his work is concerned, fortune continues to assist him. And a team of 26 people, led by Barbara Follett, his wife, a former active politician and parliamentarian of the Labour Party, today in charge of the office opened by her and the author, while in Knebworth, his house, his intimate territory, where we are, isolation, concentration, space for his study and his creation are imposed.
Before his eyes, from the window, there is only a green horizon truffled with centenary trees. Follett walks to a pond to take a portrait and leaves behind his indoor pool and the house surrounded by benches and wooden armchairs where he sometimes sits to read in the afternoon, weather permitting. Also a tennis court, although he has already stopped practicing that sport after learning that his friend Ridley Scott, producer of the series on The Pillars of the Earth, suffered some injuries related to age and the use of rackets. But the writer has other hobbies: "I like to cook...", he says. " Yesterday I made a frankly good risotto with fresh tomatoes. Barbara and I don't eat processed food."
The writer Ken Follet, at his home in London.Manuel Vázquez
They do maintain other vices... Backgammon, for example. "Every day we dedicate time to our departure. It is the line that starts the day, the moment in which we have nothing else to do but think about the board. We don't learn anything, we don't create anything in that moment, we just play."
Follett gets up very soon. At 5.30 or 6.00 he is already working. "I'm early, I like to take advantage of those first hours of energy, when my mind is completely clear, to concentrate before breakfast," he says. While he writes, Barbara coordinates the team working on his company. "They deal mainly with two things: promotion and contracts. Every time a book of mine appears, we must prepare hundreds of agreements. We've gone up to 1,000, and that takes time."
Each novel takes him three years of work: "The first I dedicate to reading and researching, the second to writing and finally to correcting." In the preparation period, he sometimes goes to the field. For The Armor of Light he spent a few days in Waterloo, near Brussels, to measure with his own steps the terrain where the British, the Dutch and the Germans defeated Napoleon. "At a crucial moment in the battle, the Prussians told Wellington that their troops would arrive at lunchtime to support him. They were 14 kilometers away and I wanted to walk them. It took me three hours, so I could see why it was impossible for them to arrive at the scheduled time. If it cost me that time, imagine an army, carrying heavy artillery and forced to retreat in some sections."
His obsession with rigor, data, proven facts comes from his training as a philosophy student in London, a crucial stage in which he broke with the environment of his childhood. Follett was born in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, into an ultra-religious family. His parents belonged to a kind of Puritan sect. Everything was measured in the eyes of God. The break with that also belongs to his intimate sphere and he does not mind talking about it: "I was born in 1949, the year the USSR tested its first atomic bomb or we crowned Queen Elizabeth, but none of that affected me directly."
He is remembered as a great reader as a child. Adventures, especially. "I liked cowboy and spaceship stories. We didn't have a radio or TV, I knew that, no matter what, I was meant to tell stories. These did not arise around me, but from within." The Bible was then, consciously and unconsciously, a great influence. "Growing up surrounded by those kinds of great stories that you're forced to believe marks you: David and Goliath, Noah's ark, Cain and Abel, Genesis, Jesus' miracles." Although already in adolescence he began to doubt. "That's why I studied philosophy, I started at 18 and I was rebelling against what they instilled in me as a child, I needed tools to fight against that."
At university he learned to get away from dogmas and fanaticisms: "I knew how difficult it is to verify something and I understood that you should not trust the unproven. That was the atmosphere I breathed: delving into the elements that lead to certainty. The truth was based on values of the highest demand."
That inner journey was an upset for Martin and Lavinia, his parents. "But I couldn't help it. I questioned them for years and they must have guessed it. Although they were disappointed, they should not have been surprised. It created a distance between us. We never fought, but a kind of coldness set in. We went to church three times on Sundays and on weekdays. For them it represented a way of life. If one spoke of politics, the question immediately arose: what will the Lord want...? If you were going to buy a car, the question arose: what kind of vehicle would Jesus Christ drive? That was the level..."
Time healed that chasm and in the end they came close again. "I loved them, they loved me, they were very proud of me when I started publishing and selling so many books." Above all, one based on the construction of cathedrals. And he returns to that search for meaning in transcendence. "When you enter such a temple, whether you are a Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, a tremendous spiritual sense invades you, it pierces the air, the soul exudes."
While he recounts his fascination with the emergence of calculus and mathematics at a time when they built indestructible ogival bows by eye to honor God, he does not stop thinking of something good to highlight for this beginning of the new millennium. Finally... You already have it. He doesn't hesitate. "The best thing that has happened in these years, for me, has been the consolidation of the feminist struggle. That has been worth it." Once the doubt is resolved, Follett says goodbye with some hope. After all, something keeps changing. For good.
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