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Author Ken Follett discusses his latest blockbuster novel, ‘Never’

"Never" book cover (left), Ken Follett (right). Image: Courtesy of Pan Macmillan SA.

Visionary in scale, and the first contemporary novel in more than a decade from master storyteller Ken Follett, ‘Never’ imagines the unimaginable: the imminent threat of World War 3.

More than a thriller, Never is an immersive adventure that will keep you transfixed until the final page. Exclusively for Maverick Life, The Reading List grabbed a few minutes of Follett’s time to discuss his latest book.

The Reading List: Your novel feels almost too real, too close to home – and the revelations in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book Peril would seem to confirm this, to some extent. Did playing out the near-apocalypse scenarios that inform Never make you feel uneasy – or even terrified – about our real-world future?

Ken Follett: We have been a bit complacent in recent years because we thought the Cold War was over and the Cold War may be over, but all the dangers are still there. All the major countries are still armed to the teeth and as I discovered while writing Never, it is so easy for a minor incident to turn into a major incident and for situations to escalate rapidly beyond all control. It’s all too easy to imagine a time when people will do their best to resolve a situation and fail.

TRL: In particular, the end of Never (no spoilers!) is excruciating yet utterly believable. Is the end of the world near?

Ken Follett: Well, I certainly hope not, but I think there is a general atmosphere of danger and tension in the world which is much greater than I have ever known it. We’re not just at risk from nuclear attacks, but also things like a virus or climate change.

TRL: The book revolves around a woman president of the US, Pauline Green. Did you draw insights into her character, with her ‘common-sense conservatism’, from any real-life politicians?

Ken Follett: No, all of the characters in the book are completely fictional, especially the national leaders. That’s deliberate. I wanted to make it clear that Pauline Green and the other leaders, like the president of China, were all fictional people. I didn’t think it would work to have real people in this story. I did have a great deal of help from people who have been involved in politics at very high levels and it was this that informed the military or diplomatic positions taken by various characters. This is the most realistic story I’ve ever written and I do think the real-life presidents and prime ministers would make much the same decisions as the characters in the book.

TRL: The sections of the book set in Africa, Chad to be specific, were particularly fascinating. I imagine these were challenging sections to research? What resources did you dig into?

Ken Follett: Unfortunately, Chad is not a very safe country to visit, and I was also writing during the pandemic when travel was very difficult, but I was able to find some wonderful photographs online. Google Earth is also a hugely helpful tool for authors as you can see a satellite picture of anywhere on the planet. So, when I was writing about Kiah and Abdul, two of my characters, crossing the Sahara Desert in a rickety old bus, I was able to look at all the places they travel through on Google Earth and I was able to describe them accurately.

 TRL: Never runs to 800 pages, but it’s an exceptionally taught novel at the same time. What’s the key to achieving this control of the story? Do you write loosely and then edit down, or do you work quite strictly from the start?

Ken Follett: I usually spend about a year to 18 months working on a novel, researching and planning, before I even start writing. However, for Never I wrote the outline and the first draft in about a year, and the rewrite in three months, which is warp speed for me. The last time I felt so full of ideas was when I was writing Eye of the Needle, almost half a century ago.

TRL: Often, they say, the most unlikeable characters are the most fun to write. But I feel in the case of the odious Senator James Moore, with his ‘nuke-em-all approach to international diplomacy’, the similarity to far too many real people in positions of power may have drained some of the joy from his creation?

Ken Follett: The challenge with Moore was to make him very plausible but also stupid. That made it interesting.

TRL: In the preface you write that you’ve come to believe that World War 1 was a tragic accident, ‘a war that nobody wanted’. Never follows a pattern of political decision-making that’s ominously in the same vein. Can you see a political break like Brexit, having already catalysed ongoing spats over fishing between Britain and France, for example, taking the West down the same path in a few years?

Ken Follett: All the bad things that people predicted would happen after Brexit are happening. British companies are having a terrible trouble exporting, their goods are delayed at customs, they have to fill in all kinds of new forms at customs forms and it’s also difficult for European countries to export to us. And, of course, Northern Ireland is rioting because, clearly, they cannot be part of the UK in the way they used to be because Ireland, the South, is in the European Union and the North is not and something is going to have to be done about that. Northern Ireland is very worried that they’re going to be told you can’t be in the UK anymore. They’re part of our country, they’re entitled to be heard, but they weren’t listened to. I believe that Brexit is the beginning of a long, slow decline for my country. I hope I’m wrong.

TRL: It requires many hundreds of pages to achieve the kind of snowball effect of extreme tension that the dozens of smaller crises in Never contribute to. This much to say – the length of your novel is fair. That said, we’ve observed a trend toward larger novels in general over the past few years. What do you think is driving this trend?

Ken Follett: If a novel is good, people want it to go on forever. And a long novel is much more satisfying. You feel you have lived with the characters, not just read about them. If a long novel is boring, of course it’s better short.

TRL: You once said that the writer you most admire is Jane Austen, ‘for inventing the shape of the novel’. Is there a book of hers that your thrillers most closely resemble, in terms of story arc and resolution?

Ken Follett: The point about Jane Austen is that she really invented story arc and resolution. Before her, most novels were one adventure after another with no strong overarching story.

TRL: Dan Brown hangs upside down. Agatha Christie ate apples in the bathtub while examining crime scene photos, and James Joyce preferred writing while lying on his stomach. Do you have any secret writing habits?

Ken Follett: No, nothing quite so interesting I’m afraid. I wake up early, usually around six, and begin writing. I work at my desk at home, and I’ll write until around three or four in the afternoon when the ideas start to flow a little more slowly and I start thinking about having a glass of wine or champagne. I suppose one thing that I do is always completely retype my second draft. That way I can make sure that I don’t miss anything.

TRL: What are the three books you can’t do without?

Ken Follett: The Oxford Dictionary (full 20-volume edition); the King James Bible (for titles); and the Times World Atlas. DM/ML

Never by Ken Follett is published by Pan Macmillan SA (R440). Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including interviews! – daily.

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