Well before blockbuster movies, there were blockbuster novels: big, juicy, page-turning epics, with dozens of characters, exotic settings and multiple plots playing out over several years, often against the backdrop of some extended historical conflict. In the middle of the 20th century, stalwarts such as James Jones, Herman Wouk and James Michener bestrode the bestseller lists like the titans they were.
In recent years, however, the form has fallen somewhat out of favor with writers, if not with readers. Who wants to do all that research? Who has the nerve, not to mention the patience, to keep all those narrative balls in the air over hundreds of pages?
Ken Follett, actually. At 63, the Welsh author is one of the last Mohicans of the form, having traded his highly successful thrillers ("Eye of the Needle," "The Key to Rebecca") for the multigenerational historical saga in 1989's "The Pillars of the Earth" (adapted as a Starz miniseries in 2010) and its sequel, 2007's "World Without End," which premieres as a miniseries on Reelz next month.
Now, Follett is amid his most audaciously ambitious project yet: the Century Trilogy, in which five interrelated families -- American, Russian, German, English and Welsh -- battle through the most dramatic events of the 20th century in a story that will sprawl over nearly 3,000 pages. The first volume, the bestselling "Fall of Giants" (2010), encompassed World War I, the Russian Revolution and the struggle for women's suffrage. The second, a 940-page doorstop called "Winter of the World" (Dutton, $36), was published this week.
"Certainly it's easier to write a 100,000-word thriller than it is to write one of these bigger novels, which are three times as long and 10 times as difficult," Follett says in a phone interview from his home in London. "You have this group of characters, and you write 100,000 words about them, but you haven't finished; you have to keep making up more and more stuff about them. A regular novel is a snapshot of the major characters at some moment, probably some crisis, in their lives. In a novel like 'Pillars of the Earth,' for example, you've got to tell their entire biographies, including conflicts and romances that can go on for 50 years or more."
In 1978, Follett produced his first big hit, "Eye of the Needle" -- made into a 1981 film starring Donald Sutherland as a conflicted German spy during World War II -- and proceeded to write a series of taut thrillers, each of them landing at or near the top of the bestseller lists. By the mid-'80s, Follett wanted to try something new. "I felt there was a great popular novel to be written about the construction of a medieval cathedral, which, of course, takes place over a great many years and would necessarily be a much longer, more complicated story -- very different from what I'd been doing . . . I ended up reinventing myself with 'The Pillars of the Earth,' and it was the biggest book of my career."
Since "The Pillars of the Earth," Follett has oscillated between big historical epics and shorter thrillers. In the Century Trilogy, he blends the modes. "I didn't want to do another medieval story, though, and so I thought of the 20th century, the most dramatic century in the history of the human race -- the greatest inventions, the worst wars, more people killed in war than in all the previous centuries put together. I thought the idea was terrific."
But was he capable of pulling off such an audacious feat? "I was by no means sure," he says. "But I figured that by that point, I had been an author for something like 30 years, and I really owed it to myself to take that risk. Of course, I'm past the age when you might cheerfully think to yourself, 'I might do that in 15 years' time.' If I was going to do something that ambitious, there was really no other time to do it than now." Will the Century Trilogy follow its predecessors as a miniseries? "It's going to be the most expensive miniseries in the history of television, and for that reason, it will probably never get made," Follett says. "I'm not going to let anybody do it cheaply, either. They've either got to bet the farm or not do it at all."