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8 Quick Questions for Ken Follett

Author writes new historical novel, ‘The Armor of Light’

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Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Olivier Favre)

Master storyteller Ken Follett’s latest novel, The Armor of Light, is the fifth volume in his epic historical fiction series that began with the 1989 bestseller The Pillars of the Earth. The English author, 74, recently attended a state dinner hosted by France’s President Emmanuel Macron for King Charles III, held in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. He shares some of the evening’s star-studded details, as well as his dream dinner party guests, favorite authors and advice for aspiring writers. 

What’s the secret to writing a good book?

spinner image book cover that says ken follett, the armor of light
Follett's new novel “The Armor of Light” is the fifth book in the Kingsbridge series.

I don’t think it’s a secret. I think there’s a very simple answer to that. The reader must share the emotions of the characters in the story. If somebody is in trouble, the reader’s anxious. Something scary is happening and the reader is sitting on the edge of the chair. Something sad happens and tears come to the reader’s eyes. We put our characters through all these trials, and we write about how they feel. If the reader doesn’t feel emotionally about the story, it’s not going to be a bestseller. It’s not going to be a good novel. There’s no reason to read that book if you don’t care what happens to the people. I think that’s the most important thing — to make sure that the reader really cares profoundly, emotionally about what’s happening in this story. If you think about books that you’ve read and enjoyed, it’s always all about the emotion.

What advice would you give to an aspiring young author?

The important thing you have to do is read a lot, because you learn so much about a novel. Every author I know was an avid reader from a very young age, and they all continue to be readers. That’s how you learn about a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, how you learn to describe landscape, how to do dialogue, how to do a cliff-hanger. When you start to write your first novel, you have an enormous amount of knowledge about what a novel takes.

Have you made any life changes as you’ve aged?

When I was 60, Barbara [wife Barbara Follett is a former British Labour Party politician and Member of Parliament] said to me, “You’re too fat.” She’s always subtle and gentle. And so I dieted seriously for four years, and I lost about 40 pounds. I’ve kept the same weight ever since. … Barbara and I do yoga together. I really like yoga because it’s all about flexibility and balance and things like that that you need to do. We continue to be a bit careful about what we eat. We eat very little red meat now. We might completely cut it out, but for the moment we’re having it just once a week.

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How did you prepare for the recent state dinner in France?

Well, I spend a lot of time reading French. So over the last few days, I’ve been reading a French novel and also reading [the weekly French news magazine] Paris Match, just to get in the flow of the language. It was black tie, and I have a beautiful new Italian tuxedo, so I wore that. It comes from a store in London called Anglo-Italian, and they have all the clothes made in Naples and Milan.

Did your wife also attend?

She wasn’t invited. And we discussed whether we should say to the office of the president, “Well, I want to bring my wife.” … But when I got there, I saw that everybody else had done exactly that: Mick Jagger was there with his girlfriend; Hugh Grant was there with his wife; all the Brits had brought their wives. So I was wrong. I should have replied to the invitation saying, “I want to bring my wife.” … I don’t necessarily get two of those [invitations] in a lifetime.

Who was the most interesting person you spoke with?

Bernard Arnault. I was sitting next to him. He’s the richest man in the world. [Arnault oversees LVMH, which owns dozens of fashion and cosmetics brands, including Louis Vuitton and Sephora.] First of all, I thanked him for giving [approximately] 200 million euros for the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. [The cathedral was badly damaged by fire in 2019.] Even for him, that’s a lot of money. I’m very interested in his business — fashion, which I find interesting. He said to me, “Have you ever been to a runway show?” I said, “No, I never have. He said, “Oh, I’ll invite you next time.” We talked about wine. We’re both wine lovers. And President Macron did serve a wonderful red wine last night. It was Château Mouton Rothschild 2004, and Mr. Rothschild was sitting right opposite us. Bernard said, “He brought the wine.” Lovely, it was absolutely lovely. I drank far too much of it.

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If you hosted your own dinner party and could invite three people, living or dead, who would they be?

Shakespeare. I really would like to talk to Shakespeare about those plays. I’ve got some questions for him — one or two little things — editorial comments I’d like to make to Will. He’s the greatest writer ever in our language. Gosh, I wonder what kind of man he was. He would be big on my list. I really like Paul McCartney. He has been writing beautiful music, and so much of it. He’s like Mozart. It seems to have poured out of him — tune after tune after tune. I’d like for him to bring his guitar and maybe write a little song. Who else? Marilyn Monroe — there’s an enigma. Her sort of pose was dumb blonde, but she wasn’t dumb. But she was very beautiful and obviously very alluring, because so many men fell for her. It would be fun to come under the sunshine of that gorgeous, smart, alluring woman and see how I survived it.

Besides Shakespeare, who are some of your favorite authors?

I’ve got pretty wide tastes. I mentioned that this week I’ve been reading a novel in French by an author I like very much. His name doesn’t sound French. His name is Patrick Modiano. He won the [2014] Nobel Prize, and this book is called Rue des Boutiques Obscures, which [translates to] “the street of hidden shops,” which sounds weird. But it’s a very good story about a man who loses his memory and has to try and find out who he is. Before that I read the latest Stephen King [book], which is great, Holly. Stephen King is one of those authors who never disappoints you. He’s more or less the same age as me [76] and he’s written twice as many books, and they’re all terrific. I think he’s a really great writer. I admire him enormously.

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