Ken Follett: I love France but I couldn’t be an expat there

The multiple best-selling author tried living in France after his first big success but left after three years as he missed the “all the sort of pleasures of life in London”. Yet, there was a more fundamental reason

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Best-selling author Ken Follett did what many people dream of doing when he hit the big time with Eye of the Needle (1978) – once he heard it would make him enough money to give up work he decided to head for the south of France and concentrate full-time on writing.

But he is refreshingly frank on why he gave up the “good life”: “Much as I loved living in France I did feel that not being French I wasn’t entitled to an opinion about French politics and not being in Britain I wasn’t entitled to an opinion about British politics and that was quite important to me.

“I’ve always had strong feelings about politics and that was a big disadvantage of living in a foreign country.”

However, he does not see himself leading a European campaign to extend the right to vote for those living and paying tax in a foreign country. He prefers to look at more home-based aims, such as ending religious teaching in schools. This is a surprise as he is best known for his best-selling 1989 medieval blockbuster about the building of a cathedral, The Pillars of the Earth.

He was brought up in a Plymouth Brethren family and says: “Despite being brought up religious I don’t think we should impose religion on children in schools – we should leave that to churches on Sunday and on Monday we should teach science and maths... and French.”

He said “I don’t speak French very well but I can get by. I still visit and there’s nothing I like better than to go to Paris for a few days.”

Follett moved to Grasse above the Côte d’Azur after the success of his thriller Eye of the Needle, which was turned into a film with Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan.

He said: “I had always loved France, so when I started to make money it was the fulfilment of a dream to live in the south of France: lovely weather, swimming pool in the garden and all that sort of thing. I remain very fond of France and there are a lot of things about France I love.

What’s your opinion of France today?

As a Labour Party man, I was pleased to see François Hollande get elected and it’s a little early to judge him but I wish him the best.

It’s pretty clear the direction taken by people like President Sarkozy and David Cameron in the UK was a mistake and too much austerity is self-defeating. We can see that now and the successful way to deal with this recession has been Barack Obama’s way and Gordon Brown’s way which is a modest amount of austerity but not too much.

If Hollande goes down that route, if he follows Obama and has a plan for jobs and growth he will do very well. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Where will he find the money?

I don’t think that’s the issue. It’s not finding the money or spending the money but striking the right balance. We’ve seen in the UK if you strike the wrong balance and you have too much austerity it’s self-defeating because people are unemployed therefore your taxation income goes down therefore your debt position gets worse because of austerity, not better.

It’s about finding the right balance and now Sarkozy is out and his approach has been proved wrong and I’m hoping that Hollande’s proves right.

Hollande speaks excellent English, are you prepared to come and give him some advice?

Haha. I’m not famous for my modesty but I’m certainly not arrogant enough to do that. Ha.

Now Follet is starting work on the third volume of his trilogy The Century. The first book, Fall of Giants became an immediate bestseller and the second, Winter of the World, goes on sale this October.

Spanning the 20th century, the trilogy follows five families in the US, Russia, Germany, England and Wales in a work of enormous scope and drama covering the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

It is also living history and Follett has a team of researchers working for him checking the facts and making sure if “I say something then it’s true; it happened”.

He said: “Winter of the World begins in 1933 with the rise to power of Hitler in Berlin, so there is a big research challenge for each new book and right now I am doing the same for Book Three.

“It is to be called Edge of Eternity and the reason is that at the time of the Cold War we all thought that we might be wiped out by nuclear war.”

Will you be looking for a new topic soon for your next book?

I’ve been working on Edge of Eternity for about six months and I’m still outlining. After the trilogy, I think I’ll write another medieval story and that will make another trilogy.

I haven’t decided what the topic will be but it will be like Pillars of the Earth and [follow-up] World Without End and it’ll be about some real historical event or some real process. I haven’t thought about the story, just that it will be medieval.

But I’m working on the outline and doing research for Edge of Eternity – that means I’m reading Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoirs.

Has there been anything in the research that opened your eyes, despite having lived through the period?

I think Edge of Eternity will open with a chapter on the civil rights struggle in the US. I lived through that but I was just a kid and I have been really shocked by the brutality of that era and the violence that was done to people who only really demanded their rights, something demanded by the constitution.

Have any of your ideas from the time changed in light of your new reading?

Yes, I was at university in the late 60s and Lyndon Johnson was a hate figure. We all marched around Grosvenor Square protesting against the war in Vietnam and the chant was ‘Hey, hey LBJ how many kids have you killed today?’ Studying his life I realised that, apart from that, Johnson was one of the greatest presidents ever.

He was brilliant. Other than the Vietnam war the things he did were tremendous achievements and very much in line with my own political ideas: welfare, healthcare and civil rights, he was very strong on equality for African-Americans and I had not realised that.

It’s typical of what happens when you look into something deeply: your original rather simple beliefs are not quite adequate. He had very similar beliefs to John Kennedy.

The most interesting part of an enterprise like this is when you write about people who think the opposite of yourself.

In Winter of the World one of the most interesting and challenging of tasks was to say why Erik [the son in the German family] wants so badly to join the Hitler Youth; looking at the thinking of somebody whose ideas are the opposite of my own is very, very interesting.