The Salon Interview: Ken Follett

The thriller-master talks about Bob Dylan, working with Ross Perot and why he prefers the creature comforts of a luxury hotel to the perilous terrain of his heroes.

Published December 2, 1998 7:37PM (EST)

Bestselling thriller author Ken Follett recently sat down to chat about his new book, "Hammer of
Eden." It's about a terrorist group that threatens to level San Francisco
with a man-made earthquake. Follett, a friendly, trim Englishman in
his 50s, made himself available during a visit to Manhattan, where he resided in splendor in a 35th-floor luxury hotel suite.

I hear you're heading out to San Francisco after this.
If fate is kind to you there will be an earth tremor when you arrive.

A little one, that would be nice. A big one would be not. [He laughs. Note: Follett's laugh is a simple, straightforward, "Ha
ha ha."]

You're pretty safe in New York. Apparently there are no earthquake fault
lines here.

Somebody told me that there's a fault line that runs right through the
middle of Manhattan. I don't believe it is true. We don't have the edge of
a tectonic plate here, do we?

Did you spend a lot of time out west researching "Hammer of Eden"?

Not a lot of time. I spent probably in total three or four weeks.

Do you do a lot of research? Do you have a staff to assist you?

No. No. I use Dan Starr, a professional researcher here in New York who
does all the legwork, all that stuff which would take me days and weeks of
calling, waiting for people to call back. Dan does all that. Finds books.
Makes reading lists. Finds maps. I say to him, "I need a seismologist." So
he'll find one who is good at explaining their work, and is willing to read
the manuscript and catch errors.

I also wanted to spend some time with the FBI, so Dan called the San
Francisco FBI and got ahold of the agent in charge of media, and set up an
appointment. I have to do the actual interviewing myself -- you can't have
somebody else do that because you don't know in advance all the questions
you'll want.

Did people in San Francisco get nervous when you started talking to them
about man-made earthquakes?

Yes. I went to see Gov. Pete Wilson. I told him what my story was and said,
"Just try to imagine for a minute, if there was a terrorist threat of an
earthquake and something happened that made you believe they could really
do it, how would you deal with it?"

He gave the answer I anticipated. He said, "No mater what the threat, you
couldn't give in because if you did, then next week there would be another

How real is the idea of an earthquake bomb?

I hope it isn't real. Some of the seismologists told me, "There's no way
this could happen." But others gave sad little shrugs and said, "It's hard
to say. Who knows? Maybe. It's within the realm of possibly."

Is every book the same pattern -- research, outline, write it?

Generally. That has been the pattern for several books. "Pillars of the
Earth" was different because it was so long. It took much longer to
write it. Over three years. Otherwise for a long time now I've been on
these two-year cycles -- a year of preparation and a year of writing.

Do you have a lot of writer friends in London?

Probably my best friend among writers is Hanif Kureishi. He writes
novels about the experience of being Asian in London. [In London, "Asian"
means Indian and Pakistani rather than Japanese and Chinese.] A novel of
his was filmed and was quite successful, "My Beautiful Laundrette."
He's probably my closest friend among
writers. I know the thriller writers. I see Frederick Forsyth, Jack
Higgins. I see Jeffrey Archer. Who else? Ruth Rendell. I see some of the
feminists. Fay Weldon. In America, Erica Jong. She is probably my oldest
friend. I've known her for 20 years now. Known her through several

You care about Bob Dylan?

Yeah. Very much.

Have you heard his new album? There's an 18-minute song on it where Dylan
mentions to a Boston waitress that he's read Erica Jong.

Oh really? I don't know if she knows about it. The last album that I got of his was "Good as I've Been to You,"
which was really raw, but terrific folk songs. Just before I came to
America I was playing "Highway 61." That album must be 30 years

Where were you when Dylan went electric in the '60s?

I was in university. From 1967 to '70. I used to play guitar, and I used to
play Bob Dylan songs. I'd play "Blowin' in the Wind." And all those
numbers. "Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." "Bob Dylan's Dream." "The Times They Are
a-Changing." I can still play all those songs.

And I've really been enjoying "Highway 61." Those surreal lyrics.
"You can hear the penny whistles/You can hear them blow/If you lean
your head out far enough/From Desolation Row." That's terrific. God knows
what it means. But it's just wonderful. They stay in your head, those words.

Is this the first time you've gone public as a Dylan freak?

No one has ever asked me.

When were you a crime reporter?

I was a newspaper reporter when I quit college in 1970 until late '74. I
was never specifically a crime reporter, but I was often sent to court
because my shorthand was so good. I bet you don't do shorthand.


But I did do shorthand, which was necessary for court work because if you
report something wrong in court you lose your immunity from prosecution.
I guess I also spent some time at Scotland Yard -- so yeah, I did a lot of
crime work.

You must get interviewed a lot. Anyone ever use shorthand?

Yes. Some people do. Definitely.

Did you do interviews when you were a reporter?

On my first newspaper job I had the pop music column. So I interviewed
Stevie Wonder. He was probably the best in terms of most famous and most
interesting. I interviewed Led Zeppelin.

Did they tear up the room with Samurai swords?

No, no. They were quite calm. They looked as if later that night they might
raise a little hell.

I meant to ask you this after you mentioned Erica Jong. I've always been
under the illusion that I really understand women, even though my wife
tells me, "You don't understand women at all."

Ha ha ha.

But you have this reputation of really understanding women.

I don't really think that way. When I'm writing a woman character, I don't
think, "What would a woman do?" I just think, "What would this character do
in this situation?" I've never made a big distinction between the way that
women react and the way that men react. It's often more interesting
artistically to have a female character in a situation of physical danger.
Two men in a fight is fairly tame, but put a woman in that situation and
you haven't got all that history of male confrontation to get in your way.
You can do anything you want.

I don't think there's any great mystery about writing female characters, so
long as you talk to them -- I mean if you lived in a monastery and never met
any women maybe it would be difficult, but somebody who's led a normal
life, and fallen in love, and been married, had sisters and daughters,
mother and aunts -- what's the mystery? You know women as well as you know

But it is said you have this great insight into female characters.

It is true that an awful lot of thriller writers write women rather badly.
So just doing it OK gets a lot of credit.

Thrillers have been traditionally very masculine books, the women
characters often rather decorative. Like the James Bond books, which are
really my literary influence. Now the women in those stories are very
peripheral. They're in the story to either create a problem for James Bond
or be the romantic interest. Whereas in my books the women often solve the
problem. Even if the woman is not the hero, she's a strong character. She
does change the plot. She'll often rescue the male character from some
situation. When I started writing, this was mildly unusual. Now it's

For the past year I've had this crazy impulse to read a James Bond novel.
They aren't as silly as the movies, are they?

They've never had the humor that the movies had. Sean Connery really
slightly subverted James Bond when he played the part because he had this
slightly ironic self-mocking air all the way through. But in the books
themselves there's no self-mockery about James Bond. He's quite serious
about his drinks and clothing and cigarettes and food and all that sort of
thing. There is nothing wry or amused about James Bond.

There are a lot of nonfiction books in this room. You yourself wrote one nonfiction book, about Iran.

"On Wings of Eagles." It was about two employees of Ross Perot who
were arrested during the revolution in Tehran, and they escaped. Perot sent
in a rescue team. And they all got out.

The book was really a collaborate effort of all the people who'd been in
the story. I interviewed all of them. And spent a long time with Perot
himself. And showed my draft to all the principals in the story to correct.

Were you surprised when Perot ran for president?

I wasn't that surprised. People were always saying to him in those days,
"You should run for office." That was in '82. He used to say, "If you could
run for king I might."

What made you choose to do this book?

I was looking for something different to do. I had written three novels in quick succession. Then one of Perot's
people called my agent and explained that Perot had decided that sooner or
later someone was going to do a book about the rescue. If they didn't
cooperate it would be an inaccurate book. So they wanted a good book
written that would be accurate, and they would pick someone to collaborate
and take charge of it. I was selected as the writer.

So since I was looking for something different, this sounded great. I
took it. The drama was already there. Here were these data processors from
Texas, and they were in this ancient and rather primitive kingdom, Iran.
The culture clash is terrific drama. Then there's the drama of the
businessman who finds himself in the middle of a revolution. Then there was
the ultimate drama of the boss who says, "I sent these people in there.
They're my responsibility. I'm going to get them out, no matter what it
takes." That was a great story.

Who had "final cut"?

In the end that wasn't an issue. At first I was worried that it would be an
issue between me and Perot before I got to know him. So we made a deal
whereby it would cost him $1 million, but he would have the right to
kill the project.

You'd get the million either way?

Yes. That would be my compensation for not publishing the book. So that
was the deal we made. We never came close to quarreling because my worry
had been that he would want to promote himself egotistically. That wasn't a
problem. His worry would be that I would take against the character of
Col. Simons. He was afraid that I, as a cynical Brit, would deflate this
character. None of that turned up to be an issue. Col. Simons was a
gung-ho hero. And I actually managed to get a little underneath his skin.

There was no danger of fatwa on you, was there?

I don't think I would have done the book if the project came after
Salman Rushdie's fatwa. I think I would have been too scared. But at the
time I wasn't scared of the Ayatollah. I wasn't afraid of anybody. I
probably should have been.

Do you know Salman Rushdie?

Yeah. I think he's a terrific writer. And he's been through a terrible
experience. He's a very strong character. And that's really helped. He has
the most enormous self-confidence. He's got quite a big ego actually. Too
big for some people. Some people don't like Salman; I like him. That ego
and that self-confidence have really helped him through this.

When he was really in hiding, I used to see him at the home of a mutual
friend. In those days Salman would be having dinner with you, and three
bodyguards would be having take-away (food) in the next room. But then he started to come to regular parties and show up at book parties and so on.

How different is publishing in London from New York?

Not that much different. The British watch the
American bestseller list and vice versa. A lot of companies are owned by
international conglomerates.

Martin Amis aside, do we Yanks seem more money-obsessed?

No. All publishers all over the world are having to pay attention to the
bottom line. I want publishers to be strong, not subsidized by other

But you're a member of the small percentage of writers who make money. No
one will lose money publishing a Ken Follett novel.

I wouldn't say it was a small percentage. Most writers make money.
Occasionally, at the beginning of a writer's career, when the
publisher is trying to establish the writer, they will spend more than
they're making to try to bring this writer to the public's attention. But
by and large publishers expect every book to make a profit.

Did the Jackal [the nom de guerre of famously aggressive New York literary agent Andrew Wylie] try to sign you?

Ha ha ha. No.

Would you have been tempted?

No. I mean, Al Zuckerman, who has been my U.S. agent for 25 years, is a
very good editor. And that's his great value to me. He's almost a

Is there any book that you've written that just never came together.

I abandoned a book after working on it for a year. I was writing a story
called "Country Risk," which was about a KGB plot to take over a bank
and then subsequently cause a financial crisis. Not a bad story idea. I
must have been working on this through 1983. At the end of that year I had
an outline that all my publishers liked. My agent liked it. At first I
thought it was great, but then I stepped back. I thought about how people
talk about "Eye of the Needle." They were so on the edge of their seat
reading this book. They couldn't bear to put it down because they were
afraid of what was going to happen next. I realized that nobody was ever
going to feel that way about this story about bankers. And so I dropped it.

It was heartbreaking because it was a year's work, but it was the right
decision. Then the book I wrote was "Lie Down With Lions."

Did that one come easy?

Yes. That was very much an adventure story. Outdoor adventure story. Two
people escaping across the Himalayas. And the KGB team chasing them.

I don't know anything about your personal life. Do you have more than one wife?

Yes. Funny way to put the question. I'm now married for the second time. I
have two children and three stepchildren.

Who were you married to when you abandoned your manuscript?

Oh, I see. "Country Risk." I was married to my first wife.

I'm married. I can't imagine coming in and telling my wife, "I'm going to
drop this book."

Well, that. My publishers were a bit dismayed, because I was going back to
square one, which meant I wouldn't be delivering the book as soon as they
hoped. But no one argued with me about it. I'm trying to remember
conversations with my then wife about it. And I can't remember what she
said about it.

It was risky writing about Russia in the '80s anyway. The scene kept
changing. I have no desire to read John le Carré books from that decade.

I've always found John le Carré after his first few books, which were
great, hard to read.

You ever put yourself in peril in the last 20 years doing research?

No. When I did "Lie Down With Lions," I didn't go to Afghanistan. I
used people who had been. I talked to TV reporters.

What if you had had the opportunity?

I would have said, "No." And it could have been arranged. The war was on
and people were going there as reporters. But I didn't go because it was

But you have a wife and kids, it wasn't really an option. I would like to
think that I would have gone to Spain with Hemingway in the '30s. Or
Nicaragua in the '80s.

There's a very short period in your life when those options are open to
you. You have to be 19 or 20 and single.

Do you ever regret that you never visited a battlefield?

No. I don't think I would have found any battle or wartime situation
congenial. I've always been fond of creature comforts. Hot baths. I never
liked danger.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

MORE FROM David Bowman

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