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The Follett Interview
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When were you a crime reporter?
I was a newspaper reporter when I quit college in 1970 until late '74. I was never specifically a crime reporter, but I was often sent to court because my shorthand was so good. I bet you don't do shorthand.
But I did do shorthand, which was necessary for court work because if you report something wrong in court you lose your immunity from prosecution. I guess I also spent some time at Scotland Yard -- so yeah, I did a lot of crime work.
You must get interviewed a lot. Anyone ever use shorthand?
Yes. Some people do. Definitely.
Did you do interviews when you were a reporter?
On my first newspaper job I had the pop music column. So I interviewed Stevie Wonder. He was probably the best in terms of most famous and most interesting. I interviewed Led Zeppelin.
Did they tear up the room with Samurai swords?
No, no. They were quite calm. They looked as if later that night they might raise a little hell.
I meant to ask you this after you mentioned Erica Jong. I've always been under the illusion that I really understand women, even though my wife tells me, "You don't understand women at all."
Ha ha ha.
But you have this reputation of really understanding women.
I don't really think that way. When I'm writing a woman character, I don't think, "What would a woman do?" I just think, "What would this character do in this situation?" I've never made a big distinction between the way that women react and the way that men react. It's often more interesting artistically to have a female character in a situation of physical danger. Two men in a fight is fairly tame, but put a woman in that situation and you haven't got all that history of male confrontation to get in your way. You can do anything you want.
I don't think there's any great mystery about writing female characters, so long as you talk to them -- I mean if you lived in a monastery and never met any women maybe it would be difficult, but somebody who's led a normal life, and fallen in love, and been married, had sisters and daughters, mother and aunts -- what's the mystery? You know women as well as you know men.
But it is said you have this great insight into female characters.
It is true that an awful lot of thriller writers write women rather badly. So just doing it OK gets a lot of credit.
Thrillers have been traditionally very masculine books, the women characters often rather decorative. Like the James Bond books, which are really my literary influence. Now the women in those stories are very peripheral. They're in the story to either create a problem for James Bond or be the romantic interest. Whereas in my books the women often solve the problem. Even if the woman is not the hero, she's a strong character. She does change the plot. She'll often rescue the male character from some situation. When I started writing, this was mildly unusual. Now it's commonplace.
For the past year I've had this crazy impulse to read a James Bond novel. They aren't as silly as the movies, are they?
They've never had the humor that the movies had. Sean Connery really slightly subverted James Bond when he played the part because he had this slightly ironic self-mocking air all the way through. But in the books themselves there's no self-mockery about James Bond. He's quite serious about his drinks and clothing and cigarettes and food and all that sort of thing. There is nothing wry or amused about James Bond.
There are a lot of nonfiction books in this room. You yourself wrote one nonfiction book, about Iran.
"On Wings of Eagles." It was about two employees of Ross Perot who were arrested during the revolution in Tehran, and they escaped. Perot sent in a rescue team. And they all got out.
The book was really a collaborate effort of all the people who'd been in the story. I interviewed all of them. And spent a long time with Perot himself. And showed my draft to all the principals in the story to correct.
Were you surprised when Perot ran for president?
I wasn't that surprised. People were always saying to him in those days, "You should run for office." That was in '82. He used to say, "If you could run for king I might."
What made you choose to do this book?
I was looking for something different to do. I had written three novels in quick succession. Then one of Perot's people called my agent and explained that Perot had decided that sooner or later someone was going to do a book about the rescue. If they didn't cooperate it would be an inaccurate book. So they wanted a good book written that would be accurate, and they would pick someone to collaborate and take charge of it. I was selected as the writer.
So since I was looking for something different, this sounded great. I took it. The drama was already there. Here were these data processors from Texas, and they were in this ancient and rather primitive kingdom, Iran. The culture clash is terrific drama. Then there's the drama of the businessman who finds himself in the middle of a revolution. Then there was the ultimate drama of the boss who says, "I sent these people in there. They're my responsibility. I'm going to get them out, no matter what it takes." That was a great story.
Who had "final cut"?
In the end that wasn't an issue. At first I was worried that it would be an issue between me and Perot before I got to know him. So we made a deal whereby it would cost him $1 million, but he would have the right to kill the project.
You'd get the million either way?
Yes. That would be my compensation for not publishing the book. So that was the deal we made. We never came close to quarreling because my worry had been that he would want to promote himself egotistically. That wasn't a problem. His worry would be that I would take against the character of Col. Simons. He was afraid that I, as a cynical Brit, would deflate this character. None of that turned up to be an issue. Col. Simons was a gung-ho hero. And I actually managed to get a little underneath his skin.
There was no danger of fatwa on you, was there?
I don't think I would have done the book if the project came after Salman Rushdie's fatwa. I think I would have been too scared. But at the time I wasn't scared of the Ayatollah. I wasn't afraid of anybody. I probably should have been.
Do you know Salman Rushdie?
Yeah. I think he's a terrific writer. And he's been through a terrible experience. He's a very strong character. And that's really helped. He has the most enormous self-confidence. He's got quite a big ego actually. Too big for some people. Some people don't like Salman; I like him. That ego and that self-confidence have really helped him through this.
When he was really in hiding, I used to see him at the home of a mutual friend. In those days Salman would be having dinner with you, and three bodyguards would be having take-away (food) in the next room. But then he started to come to regular parties and show up at book parties and so on.
How different is publishing in London from New York?
Not that much different. The British watch the American bestseller list and vice versa. A lot of companies are owned by international conglomerates.
Martin Amis aside, do we Yanks seem more money-obsessed?
No. All publishers all over the world are having to pay attention to the bottom line. I want publishers to be strong, not subsidized by other businesses.
But you're a member of the small percentage of writers who make money. No one will lose money publishing a Ken Follett novel.
I wouldn't say it was a small percentage. Most writers make money. Occasionally, at the beginning of a writer's career, when the publisher is trying to establish the writer, they will spend more than they're making to try to bring this writer to the public's attention. But by and large publishers expect every book to make a profit.
Did the Jackal (the nom de guerre of famously aggressive New York literary agent Andrew Wylie) try to sign you?
Ha ha ha. No.
Would you have been tempted?
No. I mean, Al Zuckerman, who has been my U.S. agent for 25 years, is a very good editor. And that's his great value to me. He's almost a collaborator.
Is there any book that you've written that just never came together.
I abandoned a book after working on it for a year. I was writing a story called "Country Risk," which was about a KGB plot to take over a bank and then subsequently cause a financial crisis. Not a bad story idea. I must have been working on this through 1983. At the end of that year I had an outline that all my publishers liked. My agent liked it. At first I thought it was great, but then I stepped back. I thought about how people talk about "Eye of the Needle." They were so on the edge of their seat reading this book. They couldn't bear to put it down because they were afraid of what was going to happen next. I realized that nobody was ever going to feel that way about this story about bankers. And so I dropped it.
It was heartbreaking because it was a year's work, but it was the right decision. Then the book I wrote was "Lie Down With Lions."
Did that one come easy?
Yes. That was very much an adventure story. Outdoor adventure story. Two people escaping across the Himalayas. And the KGB team chasing them.
I don't know anything about your personal life. Do you have more than one wife?
Yes. Funny way to put the question. I'm now married for the second time. I have two children and three stepchildren.
Who were you married to when you abandoned your manuscript?
Oh, I see. "Country Risk." I was married to my first wife.
I'm married. I can't imagine coming in and telling my wife, "I'm going to drop this book."
Well, that. My publishers were a bit dismayed, because I was going back to square one, which meant I wouldn't be delivering the book as soon as they hoped. But no one argued with me about it. I'm trying to remember conversations with my then wife about it. And I can't remember what she said about it.
It was risky writing about Russia in the '80s anyway. The scene kept changing. I have no desire to read John le Carré books from that decade.
I've always found John le Carré after his first few books, which were great, hard to read.
You ever put yourself in peril in the last 20 years doing research?
No. When I did "Lie Down With Lions," I didn't go to Afghanistan. I used people who had been. I talked to TV reporters.
What if you had had the opportunity?
I would have said, "No." And it could have been arranged. The war was on and people were going there as reporters. But I didn't go because it was dangerous.
But you have a wife and kids, it wasn't really an option. I would like to think that I would have gone to Spain with Hemingway in the '30s. Or Nicaragua in the '80s.
There's a very short period in your life when those options are open to you. You have to be 19 or 20 and single.
Do you ever regret that you never visited a battlefield?
No. I don't think I would have found any battle or wartime situation congenial. I've always been fond of creature comforts. Hot baths. I never liked danger.
David Bowman is a regular contributor to Salon.
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