One of the joys of garage sale browsing: coming across a book that you’ve been wanting to read or thinking about reading and picking it up for a song. That’s exactly what how I came to have a door stopper of a novel, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This is a truly hefty tome: It weighs in at almost 1,000 pages.
While I’m not sure when or whether I’ll tackle the entire story, I did dip into the Preface, which was well worth the buck I paid for the book (in mint condition, too!) In it, Ken described how he almost didn’t write the book — and why he’s glad he did.
Here’s what happened: Since his late twenties, Ken has been fascinated by cathedrals. He’s studied them, visited them, and even came up with a novel idea about one. His agent passed on it and Ken went down the thriller track and eventually penned his breakthrough novel, Eye of the Needle. Instant bestsellerdom.
But, oh that cathedral novel! It kept calling to Ken. And so after a bunch of successful thrillers, he finally decided to write a historical novel set in medieval times. Needless to say, his agent, publisher, friends — everyone felt he was making a big mistake by breaking out of his genre niche. But Ken resisted their warnings and spent more than three years writing The Pillars of the Earth. And guess what? Readers loved it! Fans raved about it, called it their favorite book, and asked him to write a sequel.
As Ken tells the tale in his Preface, “This was a word-of-mouth book. It’s a truism in the book business that the best kind of advertising is the kind you can’t buy: personal recommendations of one reader to another. That was what was selling Pillars. You did it, dear reader. Publishers, agents, critics, and the people who give out literary prizes generally overlooked this book, but you did not. You noticed that it was different and special, and you told your friends and in the end the word got around.
“And so it happened. It seemed like the wrong book. I seemed like the wrong writer; and I almost didn’t do it. But it is my best book and you honored it.
“I appreciate that. Thank you.”
What a wonderful love note to his readers, isn’t it? Breaking free of a genre you’ve mastered: Now that’s a risky business — and that’s writing dangerously. Bravo, Ken! Write on!