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Tom Chaney No. 252: The Art of Ken Follett

Of Writers and Their Books, No. 252: 2 May 2010, essay The Art of Ken Follett
The next earlier Tom Chaney column, a book review of Generations by John Edgerton

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

The Art of Ken Follett

I keep being impressed with the works of writer Ken Follett. Beginning with his 1978 novel, Eye of the Needle and continuing down to the present, Follett has been a pleasure to read and re-read.

I have to confess to the delights of re-reading most of what he has written even when I know the intricacies of plot ahead of time.

In the last few weeks, I have gone back to The Eye of the Needle, The Hammer of Eden 1998, and Jackdaws 2001. I have read Code to Zero 2000, for the first time.

Follett has a quite fine site on the internet wherein he describes his process of work on telling a story. I say telling a story rather than 'writing a novel' for he has produced a couple of non-fiction tales along the way which, though factually true, have the ring of the higher truth of fiction. I especially admire his On the Wings of Eagles wherein he recounts the actual rescue of four white collar employees of Ross Perot who had been arrested in Tehran and could not escape.

But his description of the process of telling the story is relevant in either case.

The Eye of the Needle and Jackdaws are both spy stories set during World War II. Both involve the deception the allied forces used to keep the landing site on D-Day secret from Germany. The former involves the tale of a German spy embedded in England who must escape to Germany to bear film of the fake armies erected in Britain and how his escape is thwarted by a legless man raising sheep on an island near Scotland. Jackdaws is a tale of British spies -- a dirty, distaff, half dozen -- infiltrated into France to sabotage the communication network of the Germans just prior to the invasion.

In Code to Zero it is 1958. A Russian spy in the C.I.A. causes a scientist working on America's first space satellite to develop a permanent loss of memory. He is forced to rediscover his life by deduction in time to save the satellite Explorer from following the fate of Vanguard which had blown up on the launch pad.

The Hammer of Eden involves a series of man-made earthquakes using a piece of oil drilling machinery to literally "hammer" the earth. A mob related fugitive, long off the radar of law enforcement has joined a hippy cult raising grapes and making wine on public land in California. When the governor announces a dam proposal that would flood their operation, the cult leader makes good on his threat to cause an earthquake. Not believed at first, his man-made quakes become increasingly more serious.

One important thread which runs through all Follett's works is their believability in the face of incredulity. On his web site, Follett gives some hints at the craftsmanship which makes this possible.

He describes the process beginning with the idea. The reader encounters the end result of that process. One of the first things that strikes me as I read and re-read Follett is the economy of his language. Neither a word nor a sentence is wasted in any paragraph. The building blocks of language are trimmed and fitted into the seamless whole of the entire piece. Apparent digressions are merely necessary alternate routes in a well-planned journey. The beauty of this process is that the mechanics of the plan are not self evident until the whole is revealed.

Follett is also a master of suspense -- believable suspense. He is able to pile complication upon complication which readers seem to relish. As Die Nadel, the villain in The Eye of the Needle, moves toward his final rendezvous he pirouettes like the best ballet dancer or broken field runner.

And I could wax eloquent on Follett's detail in his historical novel on the building of a cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth. It is the depth of his research which leads by nature into his economical descriptions.

If you don't know Follett, I promise you a great adventure.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
Ken Follett: Master Storyteller and Best-Selling Author Think you found something incorrect in a Follett novel? He has a page about this:Oops! Errors, omissions and loose ends ...

This story was posted on 2010-05-02 04:40:44
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