Ken Follett (Kenneth Martin Follett), (born 5 June 1949) is a Welsh author of thrillers and historical novels who has sold more than 160 million copies of his works. Many of his books have achieved high ranking on best seller lists. For example, in the US, many reached the number 1 position on the New York Times Best Seller list, including Edge of Eternity, Fall of Giants, A Dangerous Fortune, The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, Triple, Winter of the World, and World Without End.
- Apples Carstairs series (as Simon Myles)
- Piers Roper series
- Kingsbridge series
- The Century Trilogy
Ken Follett was born on 5 June 1949 in Cardiff, Wales. He was the first child of Martin Follett, a tax inspector, and Lavinia (Veenie) Follett, who went on to have two more children, Hannah and James. Barred from watching films and television by his Plymouth Brethren parents, he developed an early interest in reading but remained an indifferent student until he entered his teens. His family moved to London when he was ten years old, and he began applying himself to his studies at Harrow Weald Grammar School and Poole Technical College.
He won admission in 1967 to University College London, where he studied philosophy and became involved in centre-left politics. He married Mary, in 1968, and their son Emanuele was born in the same year. After graduation in the autumn of 1970, Follett took a three-month post-graduate course in journalism and went to work as a trainee reporter in Cardiff on the South Wales Echo. In 1973 a daughter, Marie-Claire, was born.
After three years in Cardiff, he returned to London as a general-assignment reporter for the Evening News. Finding the work unchallenging, he eventually left journalism for publishing and became, by the late 1970s, deputy managing director of the small London publisher Everest Books. He also began writing fiction during evenings and weekends as a hobby. Later, he said, he began writing books when he needed extra money to fix his car, and the publishers’ advance a fellow journalist had been paid for a thriller was the sum required for the repairs. Success came gradually at first, but the 1978 publication of Eye of the Needle, which became an international bestseller and sold over 10 million copies, made him both wealthy and internationally famous.
Each of Follett’s subsequent novels has also become a best-seller, ranking high on the New York Times Best Seller list; a number have been adapted for the screen. As of January 2018, he had published 44 books. The first five best sellers were spy thrillers: Eye of the Needle (1978), Triple (1979), The Key to Rebecca (1980), The Man from St. Petersburg (1982) and Lie Down with Lions (1986). On Wings of Eagles (1983) was the true story of how two of Ross Perot’s employees were rescued from Iran during the revolution of 1979.
The next three novels, Night Over Water (1991), A Dangerous Fortune (1993) and A Place Called Freedom (1995) were more historical than thriller, but he returned to the thriller genre with The Third Twin (1996) which in the Publishing Trends annual survey of international fiction best-sellers for 1997 was ranked no. 2 worldwide, after John Grisham’s The Partner. His next work, The Hammer of Eden (1998), was another contemporary suspense story followed by a Cold War thriller, Code to Zero (2000).
Follett returned to the Second World War era with his next two novels, Jackdaws (2001), a thriller about a group of women parachuted into France to destroy a vital telephone exchange – which won the Corine Literature Prize for 2003 – and Hornet Flight (2002), about a daring young Danish couple who escape to Britain from occupied Denmark in a rebuilt Hornet Moth biplane with vital information about German radar. Whiteout (2004) is a contemporary thriller about the theft of a deadly virus from a research lab.
Ken Follett surprised his readers with his first non-spy thriller, The Pillars of the Earth (1989), a novel about building a cathedral in a small English village during the Anarchy in the 12th century. The novel was highly successful, received positive reviews and was on the New York Times Best Seller list for 18 weeks. It also topped best-seller lists in Canada, Britain and Italy, and was on the German best-seller list for six years. It has sold 26 million copies so far. On 16 August 2017, it was also published as a computer game by German developer and publisher Daedalic Entertainment.
Its much-later sequel, World Without End (2007), returns to Kingsbridge 157 years later, and features the descendants of the characters in Pillars. It focuses on the destinies of a handful of people as their lives are devastated by the Black Death, the plague that swept Europe from the middle of the 14th century.
The next novel in the series, A Column of Fire, was published in September 2017. Beginning in 1558, the story follows the romance between Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald over half a century. It commences at a time when Europe turns against Elizabethan England, and the queen finds herself beset by plots to dethrone her.
A fourth novel, The Evening and the Morning (2020), is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth. Set in the decade around 1000 CE – in the so-called Dark Ages – the story “concerns the gradual creation of the town of Kingsbridge and of the many people — priests, nobles, peasants, the enslaved — who played significant roles.” As such, the book provides “a solid underpinning to the later installments of the Kingsbridge series.”
Taken as a whole, the Kingsbridge series could be seen as depicting the shifting relations between the Kingsbridge Priory and the Kingsbridge merchants and artisans. In Pillars of the Earth, monks and townspeople are allies, standing together against the rapacious Earl of Shiring. Building the cathedral is a joint effort benefiting both – the cathedral’s construction draws new inhabitants and trade, turning Kingsbridge from a backwater village into a thriving town, while the Priory’s income from taxing this increasing trade finances the continued construction of the cathedral. In World Without End, set two centuries later, priory and townspeople come into a head-on collision, merchants and artisans chafing under the priory’s rule which suffocates the increase of trade and production, while conservative priors seek to hold on to power by all possible means. Unlike with the cathedral, construction of the bridge is the focus of intense struggle between priory and town. Later, the devastation of the Black Death weakens the priory and enables the town to win at last its charter as a borough, though conflict with the priory is not quite over. By the time of Column of Fire, the priory is gone, having been dissolved by King Henry VIII. The merchants’ rule of the city is complete and uncontested, though they are divided into mutually-antagonistic factions, and one of their bones of contention is control of the former priory building, taking up valuable real estate at the town center. Ultimately, in token of the merchants’ total victory, the priory building is itself transformed into a thriving market. The series has been described as being “as comprehensive an account of the building of a civilization — with its laws, structures, customs and beliefs — as you are likely to encounter anywhere in popular fiction.”
Follett’s novels, Fall of Giants, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity, make up the Century Trilogy. Fall of Giants (2010) followed the fates of five interrelated families – American, German, Russian, English and Welsh – as they moved through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the struggle for women’s suffrage. Fall of Giants, published simultaneously in 14 countries, was internationally popular and topped several best-seller lists.
Winter of the World (2012) picks up where the first book left off, as its five interrelated families enter a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the Spanish Civil War and the great dramas of World War II, to the explosions of the American and Soviet atom bombs and the beginning of the long Cold War.
The final novel in the ‘Century’ trilogy, Edge of Eternity, which follows those families through the events of the second half of the 20th century, was published on 16 September 2014. Like the previous two books, it chronicles the lives of five families through the Cold War and civil-rights movements.
A major element of the first two volumes, Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, is the increasing political assertiveness of the British working class and the rise of the British Labour Party – exemplified by the Williams Family, Welsh coal miners, of which several viewpoint characters end up as Members of the British Parliament and one of becomes a cabinet minister in Clement Attlee’s post-WWII Labour government. However, the theme of British politics is nearly absent from the third part Edge of Eternity, which concentrates on the Cold War on the one hand and the US Civil Rights Movement on the other; for example, though the novel continues until 1989, it makes no reference at all to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Follett has had a number of novels made into films and television mini series: Eye of the Needle was made into an acclaimed film, starring Donald Sutherland, and six novels have been made into television mini-series: The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, On Wings of Eagles (1986), The Third Twin – the rights for which were sold to CBS for $US1,400,000, a record price at the time – and The Pillars of the Earth (2010) and World Without End (2012). These last two have been screened in several languages in many countries. Follett also had a cameo role as the valet in The Third Twin and later as a merchant in The Pillars of the Earth. In 2016, A Dangerous Fortune was also adapted.
Follett is a member of various organisations that promote literacy and writing, and is actively involved in various organisations in his home town of Stevenage.
- Chair of the National Year of Reading 1998-99, a British government initiative to raise literacy levels.
- Fellow of University College, London (1994)
- Fellow of Yr Academi Gymreig – the Welsh Academy (2011)
- Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts
- President, Dyslexia Action (1998-2009)
- Patron, Schools Radio (2007-)
- Chair of the Advisory Committee, Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) UK (2003-)
- Board Member, National Academy of Writing (2003-)
- Trustee, National Literacy Trust (1996-)
He is active in numerous Stevenage charities and was a governor of Roebuck Primary School for ten years, serving as the Chair of Governors for four of those years.
On 15 September 2010, Follett, along with 54 other public figures, signed an open letter published in The Guardian stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to the UK.
He has also donated £25,000 to the Yvette Cooper campaign in the 2015 Labour Party (UK) leadership election, as well as another £25,000 from his wife Barbara Follett
Follett’s archival papers are housed at the Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, United States. They include outlines, first drafts, notes and correspondence, original manuscripts, and copies of early books now out of print.
Follett became involved, during the late 1970s, in the activities of Britain’s Labour Party. In the course of his political activities, he met Barbara Broer, a Labour Party official, who became his second wife in 1984. She was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1997, representing Stevenage. She was re-elected in both 2001 and 2005, but did not stand in the 2010 general election. Follett himself remains a prominent Labour supporter and fundraiser as well as a prominent Blairite. In 2010, he was the largest donor to Ed Balls’s campaign to become leader of the Labour Party, saying:
Ed Balls is the only Labour leadership candidate who offers a path to economic growth; his time at the Treasury, with low borrowing and high growth, shows he is the true candidate of the centre in this leadership election.
He is an amateur musician playing bass guitar for Damn Right I Got the Blues, and appears occasionally with the folk group Clog Iron playing a bass balalaika.