Ken Follett on his favourite genres to write in, and how they inspired his new thriller Never

With the release of his first contemporary thriller in over a decade, Ken Follett talks about novels that inspired him and the ways he blends genres in his writing. 

Ken Follett's well-known literary breakthrough was with spy-thriller The Eye of the Needle in 1978, an international bestseller that sold millions of copies. But then, almost from nowhere, he astonished his readers with his first historical novel The Pillars of the Earth - an epic medieval story about the building of a cathedral. 

No stranger to genre-hopping, Ken's latest novel Never is his exciting return to contemporary thrillers. Visionary in scale and expertly researched, Never is more than just a thriller. Following three players in a worldwide game of political espionage, Ken introduces a spy working undercover with jihadists, a genius Chinese spymaster, and a US president entrapped by a populist rival. As an international chain reaction sets off a spiral of catastrophic consequences, these gripping characters will have to work tirelessly to stop the world from edging closer to war . . .

Here, in the corridors of an old underground bunker where wartime spies historically worked, Ken reveals the genre inspirations for his novels and how Never defies the traditional thriller-genre expectations.

My first bestseller was The Eye of the Needle, a genre spy story set in the Second World War and one that owes a lot to the greatest of all outdoor adventure thrillers: The 39 Steps by John Buchan. I've always loved thrillers and my new book, Never, is in that genre . . . sort of. 

I've always felt a spy story was better if the spy's mission could change the course of history, or change the outcome of a battle or a revolution. I studied military history looking for moments when spies could make a difference, but history gave me all kinds of story ideas that had little to do with wars or revolutions. That's how The Pillars of the Earth came about and many other novels in the historical fiction genre. Never is driven by suspense, which makes it a thriller. 

But, unlike the usual thriller, there's no one character who can save the world - no James Bond or Richard Hannay. Instead, we see a group of characters who interact - each of them with a problem that's affected by what any of the others do. I can think of only one other writer who mixes the thriller with the saga in this way and that's Greg Iles, with his mysteries set in the complex underworld of Mississippi.

Genres offer us a tradition to build on, and an opportunity to make something new and different from an old model. That's exciting for the author, and I hope for the reader too.

Image credit: Barbara Follett


by Ken Follett

Bestselling thriller writer Ken Follett is back after over a decade, with a compelling novel featuring a stolen army drone, a hidden stash of highly toxic chemicals, a genius Chinese spymaster and a US president with a populist rival hot on his heels. 

Never is a terrifying look at how international and diplomatic peacetime is only a few missteps away from a chain reaction of catastrophic consequences, with only three very different protagonists able to prevent disaster by working in the shadows.