EDGE OF ETERNITY, by Ken Follett, bursts into the publishing world on Tuesday, September 16th. And everyone is gnashing their teeth, biting at the bit, to get at it. I thought a conversation with Mr. Follett might fuel the fire even more. So here you have it.
With the Century Trilogy, you set out to write a sweeping historical epic of the twentieth century; what does it feel like to have just complete it?
Mainly I feel relieved that it worked. When I embarked on the project I was not sure that I could tell the story of an entire century in fiction. I thought I might read some similar books by other authors and found that no one had ever tried to do this-which made it all the more daunting. But readers have loved the trilogy and I’m very happy about it.
Remind us, where did the idea for the Century Trilogy come from? Why the 20th century?
I wanted to recapture the magic of WORLD WITHOUT END but, fond as I am of the Middle Ages, didn’t want to become a “medieval writer.” At some point, in trying to figure out how to do that, I thought of the twentieth century-the most dramatic and bloodthirsty century in the history of the human race; an ongoing drama of war against oppressive regimes and of people struggling for independence. It’s a thrilling story and it’s our story, one that has touched us all either directly or through our parents or grandparents.
Why did you choose the title EDGE OF ETERNITY?
Throughout this period we all knew that nuclear war could break out at any minute and bring the human race to an end. In that sense we were living on the edge of eternity.
Unlike the previous two books in the trilogy, FALL OF GIANTS and WINTER OF THE WORLD, EDGE OF ETERNITY takes place in a more recent era, one that you grew up in. Was it more difficult to ear the historian’s hat in this case? Did you let your own memories guide any of your character’s experiences? Are there any autobiographical details tucked into the narrative?
Like my character Dave Williams, I learned to play the guitar in the early sixties. I was also a pretty cool dresser! Like Jasper Murray, I went to university in London and worked for the college newspaper-which was my first experience of writing for readers other than my school teachers. Like Walli Franck, I was thrilled to achieve success in America.
You did some unique research for this book, including personally retracing the Freedom Riders route via Greyhound Bus and visiting monuments like the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. How did these experiences help shape your writing, and how did they affect you personally?
Most of the cities are familiar to me-Berlin, Moscow, London, Paris-but I did make a research trip to Cuba, as I have a character in Havana during the Cuban missile crisis. I also visited cities in the Deep South of the USA where the great events of the Civil Rights era took place. Retracing the steps of the Freedom Riders was a profoundly emotional experience for me and for anyone who has any personal connection with the issue of freedom and discrimination. In the sixties, civil rights leaders were vilified by the press and conservative politicians. When they were beaten up and killed, many people said they deserved it. Now there are statues to them all over the Deep South.
You also interviewed first-person witnesses to the era, like civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis and former White House intern Mimi Alford. What did you learn from them, and how did you incorporate it into EDGE OF ETERNITY?
John Lewis gave me insight into the almost saintly behavior of nonviolent civil rights protestors who did not retaliate when abused and even beaten. Mimi Alford told me what it was like to have sex with President Kennedy. Frank Gannon, who worked in the Nixon White House, convinced me that Nixon was not quite as bad as I had thought.
Like the previous two novels in the trilogy, EDGE OF ETERNITY has a number of real historical characters, including several heads of state. What are your thoughts on the key leaders of the era?
I came to admire both Kennedy and Johnson. I found that Nixon was a better president that I had previously thought. Both Reagan and George W. Bush were ineffectual in foreign affairs, despite the propaganda to the contrary. I have nothing but contempt for leaders in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before the Gorbachev era.
Do you still read the reviews of your work?
I do read my reviews. I particularly love it when readers-whether a reviewer in a national paper or someone I meet on the street-says once they started reading they couldn’t stop. It makes me feel like I must have done a pretty good job.
So there you have it Just a little tidbit of what’s to come. My review will come on Monday, September 15. Stay tuned!