Brighton rocks!

Hester Lacey ventured to the Labour Party Conference to talk to the decidedly off message Ken Follett about his latest blockbuster, his party membership and his rock 'n' roll band
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Ken Follett couldn't have made his latest thriller, Code to Zero, less appealing - to me at any rate - if he'd tried. For a start, it's set in the 1950s, the dullest decade of the last century, there only to link the war years to the 1960s. The Cold War (yawn) is at its height and the pesky undercover Russkies (groan) are out to scupper an American satellite (snore). So it's some tribute to Mr Follett's skill that, much to my amazement, I found myself staying up till 1am to finish it.

Ken Follett couldn't have made his latest thriller, Code to Zero, less appealing - to me at any rate - if he'd tried. For a start, it's set in the 1950s, the dullest decade of the last century, there only to link the war years to the 1960s. The Cold War (yawn) is at its height and the pesky undercover Russkies (groan) are out to scupper an American satellite (snore). So it's some tribute to Mr Follett's skill that, much to my amazement, I found myself staying up till 1am to finish it.

Being no novice at thriller writing, the author himself was not at all surprised. His job is hooking the reader and reeling them in, and with 14 bestsellers under his belt already, he knows his business. In Brighton during the Labour Party Conference last month, Follett stood out among the hordes of delegates and visitors, in immaculate black and white tweeds accessorised with bright red (of course) tie and pocket handkerchief, and leonine snow-white quiff. A long-time Labour activist and early New Labour enthusiast, he is somewhat off-message at the moment, having recently pub-

lished a sharp criticism of spin culture. This means, he says, that he can enjoy conference all the more, avoiding all the boring bits and attending all the parties.

He makes producing a page-turner sound like a breeze. The secret, he says, is the preparation. "I start with some situation that strikes me as dramatic. I write that notion down as one paragraph, then I think about what happened before and what happens afterwards, and it becomes three paragraphs, then it's a page, and I rewrite that outline longhand again and again, until it's about 40 pages. Then I type it up and send it to my agent and my publisher and say 'What do you think of this?'"

Sounds easy. But in fact, before his first best-seller, Eye of the Needle, was published 22 years ago, he'd written a bunch of turkeys - 10 of them, in fact. "All sorts of things were wrong with those books," he says. "I didn't plan them carefully enough, I didn't think enough about the characters, they weren't particularly plausible, I didn't research those books very well - they had everything wrong with them. My first successful book was the first one that I'd really planned properly."

The kind of detail that's vital, he says, is less the Bond-esque name-checking of flashy cars than knowing things like whether you could buy bacon during the Second World War, and if so, where and how. Sadly, much like exam cramming, the results don't stay. "I forget it all as soon as I've finished the book."

For Code to Zero, the subject was rocket science: "The upper stages of the missile are contained in an aluminium tub with a cast magnesium base. The upper-stage tub rests on bearings, allowing it to spin during flight. It will rotate at about 550 revolutions per minute to improve accuracy..." and so on. It was, says Follett nonchalantly, "not that difficult" to find out about. "The most complicated subject I've studied was the building of medieval cathedrals for The Pillars of the Earth [his 1989 international bestseller]. Medieval builders themselves didn't understand the physics of how they made the cathedrals stand up, they were playing it by ear and improvising, and that is quite difficult to grasp."

He began his career as a journalist on the South Wales Echo, and then moved to the London Evening News. "I don't think I was really cut out for it. As time went by I began to get fed up with making mountains out of molehills and as a news reporter, that's basically what you've got to do." He moved into publishing, with "a little paperback company that had been started by journalists to publish books by journalists, which was a neat little idea. It was kind of a shame that nobody in the company knew anything about publishing, because we were all journalists."

The company didn't last long, but Follett wrote Eye of the Needle when he was 27, and signed a $3m three-book deal. So that was it, rich and famous? "Yeah. It was great," he says with engaging relish. "I've always enjoyed that aspect. Flying first class, all that, which is bollocks I know, but I like it. But then I did actually have to write the books. A lot of people write one good book and I didn't know if I was going to be one of those or be someone who manages to do it for a living."

It doesn't bother him, he says, that while thrillers may stick on the bestseller lists they are unlikely to be shortlisted for the literary prizes. "Most of my readers also read literary novels. They know they're reading different kinds of things, but they don't feel you have to be one kind of person to read a literary novel and one kind of person to read a thriller. But I get very irritated with what I think are very bad judgements about literary novels." He thinks last year's Booker Prize winner, JM Coetzee's Disgrace, is "a dreadful novel. I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemy. There are literary novels which really capture people's imaginations, millions of people read them: Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Birdsong, A Suitable Boy, Nick Hornby's novels. None of the ones I've mentioned have won the Booker prize, and that irritates me." Of the genre he has made his own, he admires individual books rather than writers. "The Day of the Jackal is a great classic. I wish I had written Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal the cannibal is the best villain ever created and I wish I had created him."

He normally writes a book every two years; his current publisher is urging him to up this to one every year. He's prepared to give it a go, though he's busy enough as President of the Dyslexia Institute, council member of the National Literary Trust, Shakespeare aficionado (he'd love to direct Hamlet) and bass guitar player in a band called Damn Right I Got the Blues. He likes the music, he says, because it is sensory as opposed to writing, which is purely cerebral.

"We meet every Monday night and play in a rehearsal studio with no audience, and that's what we really enjoy. I've always loved the blues, and there's also a very attractive cameraderie about a band. Now and again we play in public. It's a way of keeping up to scratch."

Given the choice, would he rather be a best-selling author or a rock star? "I think I'd choose this. You know, the rock 'n' roll lifestyle is all right as a fantasy but I don't think I'd like it in real life. I like to go to bed early, and it would be flattering to be mobbed by groupies but it's not me really."

Given his cooling relationship with the Labour bigwigs, what is he doing at conference? "Being a party member is a bit like a marriage. As Neil Kinnock used to say, 'Murder yes, divorce never.' I may get cross with it from time to time but I'll always be a member. I joined in 1970 - I graduated from college, got my first job, joined the National Union of Journalists and the Labour Party, and yes, I'm still in both. What makes the world a more civilised place is politics: people having rights and good government."

For most people, he says, the way they vote is part of their identity. "Floating voters are the exception. I'd always vote Labour. In the States people say 'I'm a yeller-dawg Democrat', which means they'd vote Democrat even if the candidate was a yeller dawg. I'm that kind of Labour party supporter."

He and his wife, Barbara Follett, the Labour MP for Stevenage, have recently sold their huge Chelsea pile in favour of a little Georgian house in London. "When Barbara and I got together we had six adolescent children to take care of from different marriages. I've got two, Barbara's got three, and we also have a nephew who's been brought up with Barbara's girls, and we wanted them each to have a bedroom. Now they're all in their twenties and thirties we don't need a big house." He loves having the family around, he says, but it's nice being just the two of them. "We have a great time when we're on our own. I usually cook. I make pasta sauces: I like to see what's in the fridge and see what falls to hand. It usually works out OK. Well, I didn't say I was that great a cook."

His latest project takes him back to the Second World War. "We sent 15 women into German-occupied France as secret agents. The new book is about a team of them who are parachuted into France to blow up a telephone exchange. There are lots of stories like this about men with a mission, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, but I don't think anyone's ever done a bunch of women." Despite two decades of experience, a new book, he says, is always a challenge. "The danger lies in thinking that you're magic, that anything you do will be great. You mustn't let yourself get too secure. I mean, I'm just making it all up! Why would you care what I'm making up in my head? I have to make you care, and that's very difficult."

* "Code to Zero" by Ken Follett is published by Macmillan (£16.99)