Special Feature: A COLUMN OF FIRE (Kingsbridge #3) by Ken Follett

There is a reason that Ken Follett is a #1 best selling author–his novels are fantastic.

I read his book THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH while I was visiting London in 2009 and never looked back. His writing was unparalleled and I loved that book with all my heart. I couldn’t put it down the entire vacation and I happened to be cathedral hopping in England so it was a fitting read to be sure.

I didn’t continue on with the Kingsbridge series though, only because I felt like the way Pillars ended, it was enough. I was happy with where it ended and where all the characters were in their lives. I didn’t want to sully the wonder of the first book with an unsatisfying second book, if that’s what it turned out to be—I don’t know if it was that or not but I haven’t yet read WORLD WITHOUT END.

So here we are, another Kingsbridge book is coming out and the summary sounds so promising. I was intrigued enough to consider reading it and continuing with the series. I decided to read A COLUMN OF FIRE later this fall so I will be posting a review in Nov, but until then I wanted to let readers in on a little Q & A with the author and a summary of what sounds like a fantastic book.

On September 12th, Viking released the book and if I were you, just based on the caliber of Ken Follett’s writing and story telling style, I would go pick up this book ASAP!

Christmas 1558, and young Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge to find his world has changed.

The ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral look down on a city torn by religious hatred. Europe is in turmoil as high principles clash bloodily with friendship, loyalty and love, and Ned soon finds himself on the opposite side from the girl he longs to marry, Margery Fitzgerald.

Then Elizabeth Tudor becomes queen and all of Europe turns against England. The shrewd, determined young monarch immediately sets up the country’s first secret service to give her early warning of assassination plots, rebellions and invasion plans.

Elizabeth knows that alluring, headstrong Mary Queen of Scots lies in wait in Paris. Part of a brutally ambitious French family, Mary has been proclaimed the rightful ruler of England, with her own supporters scheming to get rid of the new queen.

Over a turbulent half-century, the love between Ned and Margery seems doomed, as extremism sparks violence from Edinburgh to Geneva. With Elizabeth clinging precariously to her throne and her principles, protected by a small, dedicated group of resourceful spies and courageous secret agents, it becomes clear that the real enemies – then as now – are not the rival religions.

The true battle pitches those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else – no matter the cost (summary from Goodreads). 

Q & A with the author

Q: Were you excited about returning to Kingsbridge?

A: You bet. We’ve watched the place grow from an Anglo-Norman settlement to a thriving
medieval town, and now we see it at the start of the English Renaissance. Kingsbridge is
England in miniature.

Q: Where did the idea for A Column of Fire come from?

A: I read somewhere that Queen Elizabeth I started the first English secret service. That
intrigued me, and I read several books about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. I felt
sure this could be the basis of an exciting novel.

Q: Why did you choose to call the book A Column of Fire?

A: It’s biblical, like The Pillars of the Earth. Spies are sometimes referred to as a Fifth Column.
And a lot of people were burned at the stake in the 16th century.

Q: We know that A Column of Fire is about spies and secret agents in the 16th century,
what are the other themes surrounding the book?

A: Most of my recent books are about people struggling for freedom in one form or another:
Welsh coal miners, Russian factory workers, Jews, African Americans. This is about religious
freedom.

Q: How do these themes relate to your own life?

A: I’ve always hated people who assume they have authority over me. This made my schooldays
a challenge, obviously. A bully makes me angry. I empathize with fictional characters who
fight against tyranny.

Q: What sort of research did you do for A Column of Fire?

A: There’s nobody left to interview, of course. As usual, most of my information comes from
history books. I also visited houses and castles built in this period. I looked at 16th century
clothing in the London Museum, and I went several times to the National Portrait Gallery to
study the faces of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Francis Drake and many others.

Q: Did you visit the locations of the key events in A Column of Fire?

A: Scotland for Loch Leven, the prison from which Mary Queen of Scots escaped; Belgium for
Antwerp, then the banking centre of the western world; Spain for Seville, the richest city in
Spain; Paris because it was the headquarters of those who conspired to assassinate Queen
Elizabeth.

Q: Plenty of historians have written about this era. Who among them do you particularly
like or respect?

A: Robert Hutchinson has written well about espionage at this time. Geoffrey Parker is the
authority on the long and bloody war in the Netherlands. Perhaps the most useful book was
Conyers Read’s three-volume biography Mr Secretary Walsingham, about the man who was
he Elizabethan equivalent of “M” in the James Bond stories.

Q: Are any of your fictional characters based on real people?

A: Not really. I might give a villain the hair style of someone I dislike, and of course the female
heroes all have something in them of Barbara, my wife; but my fictional characters are never
portraits of real people.

Q: A Column of Fire has a number of real historical characters, including several heads of
state. Who did you particularly admire?

A: Three great 16th century leaders understood the need for religious tolerance, and
interestingly they were all women: our Queen Elizabeth I; Caterina dei Medici, who was
queen of France and then Queen Mother; and Marguerite de Parme, governor of the
Netherlands. In an age of relentless bigotry, each of them tried to persuade people of rival
religions to live in peace. For that they were hated. Their efforts were only partly successful.
Each of them was undermined: Elizabeth by repeated plots to assassinate her, Caterina by the
ruthless Guise family, and Marguerite by her half-brother King Felipe II of Spain. I admire
their idealism, courage and persistence in the face of bloodthirsty opposition.

Q: What are you most proud of in your career?

A: It was a pretty good achievement to write a novel about the rather unpromising subject of
building a cathedral in the Middle Ages and turning it into an international No.1. We’ve sold
about twenty-six-million copies of The Pillars of the Earth. That’s pretty good for a book a lot
of people thought would be too dull.

Q: How long did it take you to write?

A: The whole thing took three years and three months. After two years I only had about 200
pages, and I felt this was a crisis. And as a novelist the only thing you can do if you want to
write faster is work more hours. So I started to work Saturdays and then Sundays as well. The
difficulty is simply that you’ve got to keep on making up more and more stuff about the same

people. If you write 100,000 words of a thriller, then it’s finished. But after 100,000 words of
The Pillars of the Earth that’s like that much. [He holds open first quarter of the book.] I had
all that to go. [He holds open the final three-quarters.] That was the great difficulty.

Q: Some writers live in dread of their books being turned into films or TV series. Have
you enjoyed the experience?

A: Seeing good actors giving good performances, bringing to life characters I’ve invented and
speaking some of the lines I’ve written is a huge thrill. When it all goes well it’s great. When
it goes badly you cringe when you see what’s on the screen, but you have to take that risk.
I’m pleased and proud that some of my stories have made good film and TV. It confirms the
strength of the story that it can be transformed from one medium to another. And I’m also
pleased that my stories have been turned into a stage musical, several board games, and a
computer game.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’m working on a new story, but I’m not yet ready to talk about it—sorry!

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