Ken Follett sounds awfully relaxed on the phone from London for an author who managed to publish two 900-page plus historical epics in two years and is already elbow deep in the next. “Winter of the World,” just out, catches up with the children of the characters in his previous “Fall of Giants.” The year is 1933, the Nazis are on the rise and countless lives collide.
Books: What are you reading currently?
FOLLETT: “Shakespeare’s Language” by Frank Kermode. He analyzes the poetry and concepts of the speech. Some of the speeches in the plays we understand clearly and others seem dreadfully obscure. We tend to blame that on obsolete language, but that’s not it, according to Kermode. It’s that Shakespeare is struggling to express something profound.
Books: Do you read a lot of literary criticism?
FOLLETT: I read mostly fiction, a lot of 19th-century novels. I am very fond of Edith Wharton. She’s quite high brow but also a great storyteller. My favorite is “The House of Mirth.” I also like “The Reef.”
Books: Any other 19th-century favorites?
FOLLETT: Dickens. I’ve read all his novels but they’re all worth rereading. I’m rereading “The Pickwick Papers” right now. I like it better than the first time, when I was quite young. I remember being impatient with how the story wanders all over the place.
Books: Do you read for research for your books?
FOLLETT: I read a lot of nonfiction. One of my favorites I read for my new book is George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.” He fought in the Spanish Civil War. It’s about that and his political disillusionment with Communism. The most horrifying thing I discovered researching this book is that the Nazis had a program, long before the Holocaust, for killing handicapped people. “The Nazi Doctors” by Robert Lifton is the best known on that.
Books: What books stood out from your research for “The Pillars of the Earth”?
FOLLETT: That book was really inspired by “The Cathedral Builders” by Jean Gimpel, a maverick French intellectual, the first person to write about the cathedrals from the point of view of people who built them.
Books: What are you reading currently for your work?
FOLLETT: “Walking with the Wind,” the autobiography of John Lewis, one of the Freedom Riders and a congressman. I’m really enjoying it.
Books: Do you like autobiographies?
FOLLETT: Yes. Martin Amis wrote a memoir called “Experience.” What I liked is the account of his relationship with his father, who must have been a very difficult man to love. I like it better than anything else he’s written.
The best book on Dickens is a biography of his lover, Nelly Ternan, “The Invisible Woman,” by Claire Tomalin. It is a terribly fraught story because he was the man who told Victorian England how wonderful marriage and the home was.
Books: Your evangelical parents didn’t allow you to watch TV or films. Did they put restrictions on your reading?
FOLLETT: Amazingly, no. It’s crazy. But then fundamentalists are crazy. My parents felt I would be irreparably damaged if I saw “Flash Gordon,” but when I was 12 they didn’t notice that I was reading James Bond books. Censorship is like that. It has no logic to it.
Books: Did any book change your thinking about your parents’ sect?
FOLLETT: Yes, the autobiography “Father and Son” by Edmund Gosse. His family was in the same sect my parents were in. It’s about his doubts and the guilt he feels because he doesn’t believe what they believe. That enabled me to see that it was possible for a young man to break away.
Books: Is there anything in your library that would surprise people?
FOLLETT: I have quite a few different bibles. Having rejected my parents’ religion, I still think the King James Bible is the most important work of literature in English. None of us can help being influenced by it.