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Ken Follett photographed in London this month.

Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail

You should know, dogged reader, that it's your fault the novel crushing your chest contains 985 pages and weighs as much as a prize rutabaga. You asked for it, whether you know it or not. You bought millions of copies of the author's last book, World Without End (1,024 pages). Readers must want more of the same, he thought, and who could blame him?

So send your chiropractor's bills to one K. Follett, care of Penguin Books. He won't mind; he's got lots of money, and he's about to have more, now that his new doorstopper (perhaps that should be "tank-stopper"), Fall of Giants, is thudding into stores.

To be fair, the poor man is trying to cram a good portion of the 20th century into one trilogy of novels - that's right, there are two more to come.

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Eight decades, five families, several wars, strikes, affairs, bastard children - Ken Follett is squeezing them all in, like so many clowns in a mini-car.

"The trouble is," says Folett, "people really like a long novel - if it's good. If it's boring then it's much worse than a boring short novel. If they get into the story, they love it to go on and on."

On the eve of a book tour that will keep him away from home till Christmas, the novelist professes to be on a knife's edge about the reception his new book will receive. Although a man who has sold more than 100-million copies of his novels can be only so anxious, and one who shuns the limelight would probably not have chosen the Wolseley, one of London's most beautiful and fashionable restaurants, for a breakfast meeting.

"I'm waiting to find out what paying customers think," he says, tucking into an abstemious breakfast of dry toast, poached eggs and black coffee. His jolly demeanour - 10 per cent cheery grin and 90 per cent luxuriant silver hair - suggests that his worries are safely in check.

Well, there is one thing he's worried about, and that's boring his readers. As a result Fall of Giants is crowded with incident from the first page: One of the main characters (and the authorial stand-in) is the Welsh child miner Billy Williams, who witnesses a terrible underground explosion. The shock waves, through the next 900 pages, are felt in the grand estate of an English lord; in the budding social consciences of a suffragette and a housemaid with ambition; in the growing discontent of a Russian factory worker, and the unease of an American politician. There are romances that develop across class boundaries and war-torn countries, women who fall in love with the wrong men, children disowned by their fathers. And that's all before you get to the Battle of the Somme.

"If there's one reason my books are successful, it's that there's never a moment where you feel bored," Follett says. He is an unapologetic architect of plot, not a French-polisher of prose, and is robustly contemptuous of novels that are too literary: "If somebody says a book is well written, in my opinion that's not a compliment. It's like when people come out of the theatre and say, 'That was great acting.' It means the play is rotten."

He lets out a cackle, which is lost in the restaurant's general din. Even though Fall of Giants takes place upstairs and downstairs, it's no secret where you'll find the sympathies of this Welsh-born Labour Party supporter, whose second wife, Barbara Follett, is a former Labour MP. They lie with the working folk, and in particularly Billy Williams, who is known in the pit as Billy-With-Jesus. The miners' evocative nicknames - Dai Crybaby, Spotty Llewellyn - came from stories told to Follett by his Welsh mother; the arguments over religion that Billy has with his Bible-thumping father mirrored fights the novelist had with his own family.

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Follett was raised in the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren sect: "That's probably why I'm such a sybarite - I was brought up to think pleasure was a bad thing. So now I spend my days drinking fine wine and eating in gourmet restaurants."

The evidence of the dry toast suggests otherwise. "I would have had butter," he says glumly, "if they had offered some."

Writing novels has provided a level of luxury living unimagined when Follett, as a young reporter, decided to write a thriller because he couldn't afford to have his car fixed. That novel, published in 1978 when he wasn't quite 30 years old, was Eye of the Needle. Other spy and crime capers followed, but his career took an epic turn, literally, with the success of his two lengthy novels about the building of a medieval cathedral, The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel, World Without End. Pillars, one of George Bush Sr.'s favourite novels, won Follett a trip to the White House to meet the then-vice-president. "He was very charming. And if you didn't know about his politics you'd probably like him."

The two cathedral novels were research-heavy, a burden that was only increased when Follett decided to take on the past 100 years in his "Çentury" trilogy. (It's actually a little less: He's taken his cue from Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes and concentrates on the period from the start of the First World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall.) Still, it means there are a stack of biographies to read in his house in Stevenage, just north of London, and the specialist assistance of an American researcher who trots to the library when questions arise such as, "What did women wear to lawn parties in Buffalo in the early 1930s?"

Now Follett's part way through the second book, but the writing will necessarily be interrupted by a lengthy international book tour. Kind of like a rock star. "Yes," he cackles again. "But the groupies are much older."

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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