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Interview: December 15, 2000

December 15, 2000

CODE TO ZERO, is the intense new thriller from Ken Follett, the acclaimed author of EYE OF THE NEEDLE and THE THIRD TWIN. Writer Ann Bruns, a life-long fan, was eager to find out more about the man behind the books. Join our conversation with Follett as we question him about his writing, the CIA, communism, his early children's books, a hint about his next project and much more.

BRC: CODE TO ZERO is an action-packed thriller leading up to the launch of the Explorer I satellite which took place in 1958. Why did you choose to use an actual event as your focal point rather than create a fictional launch?

Ken Follett: Most of my stories have some basis in fact. I like to create imaginary characters and events around a real historical situation. I want readers to feel: "Okay, this probably didn't happen, but it might have."

BRC: Was the continuation of the United States as a world power actually so precarious in the 50s that everything hinged on the success of this one space launch?

KF: It certainly seemed that way at the time. With hindsight, we see that the Soviet Union never had a chance of world domination, but we didn't know that then.

BRC: Was the plan to sabotage the US space program in CODE TO ZERO based on any real event?

KF: No. However, the CIA research program, in which they tested drugs including LSD for possible use on interrogation subjects, is real.

BRC: At the beginning of the chapters, you've included actual scientific information about the Jupiter missiles that create a fascinating backdrop. At one point, there's a reference to the fuel containing a form of nerve gas. Wouldn't this have posed a serious danger to the public given the possibility of explosions?

KF: You bet it would. But we weren't as careful about our environment back in 1958.

BRC: This isn't the first time your novels have dealt with highly technical scientific data. Is this a field you've pursued, or are you just a voracious researcher?

KF: I enjoy learning technical details, and I believe the readers like the feeling that they are learning about something as well as enjoying a good story.

BRC: In CODE TO ZERO you depict Harvard in the pre-WWII era as a hotbed of dissident activity, with a great many students and professors actively supporting Communism. Was this a reflection of the trendy youth cells that sprung up briefly on many college campuses during this time period or was there a more serious communist movement taking place on this campus?

KF: I don't think "trendy" is the word. There was a very serious communist strain among American intellectuals before the war. America was a more tolerant place in those days, and Communists were not treated as pariahs. That ended with the McCarthy era.

BRC: This group of college friends ends up involved in government activities during WWII --- chiefly the CIA. Yet there was little indication in their college years that any of them had an interest in, or aptitude for, covert work, particularly Luke. Why would a guy who seemed so passive end up working for the CIA in the French Resistance?

KF: Some of them were already involved in covert work at Harvard, but being covert it was secret, which is why they showed little indication of it. Others were simply among the many people who did extraordinary and brave things in wartime.

BRC: Luke eventually discovers that he's been subjected to a treatment that causes global amnesia. In what little information I was able to find, global amnesia is generally referred to as transient rather than irreversible. Have there been case studies in which this type of amnesia was found to be permanent?

KF: No. I have imagined that the CIA research program was successful in finding a way to cause permanent amnesia. In real life the program was totally unsuccessful, despite costing millions of dollars.

BRC: The government-sanctioned low-profile experiments that Billie's research team conducted on drug effects and mind control are reminiscent of actual experiments that have been exposed to public scrutiny in recent years. Do you believe most of these secret activities have now been uncovered, or have we just seen the tip of the iceberg?

KF: The CIA is still pathologically secretive. We know much more about the KGB. God knows what the CIA has done.

BRC: Anthony's motivation for becoming a communist and later a spy never seemed very clear, even to the character himself. In fact, he seemed perfectly content belonging to a wealthy, prestigious family and he certainly had achieved success in his career. Did I miss something?

KF: I guess you did. He was pretending to be perfectly content. In fact he was angry and rebellious.

BRC: Within the storyline of CODE TO ZERO you touch on a number of sensitive subjects like illegal activities by the CIA and the weaknesses of the space program in those early years. How do you go about researching such sensitive areas?

KF: The CIA's research program is described in a book called "The Search for the Manchurian Candidate." The problems of the early space program are covered in many books.

BRC: You authored an impressive list of successful novels taking place in all parts of the world during a variety of eras from the Dark Ages to the 20th century. Do you have a favorite time period that you enjoy writing about? Would you like to write more nonfiction or do you prefer the thriller genre?

KF: My favorite period is World War Two, and I'm in the middle of writing my fourth novel set in that era.

BRC: ON WINGS OF EAGLES was the true story of the rescue mission mounted by Ross Perot to free his employees from an Iranian prison during the Islamic Revolution. A fascinating book, by the way! How did you come to be the one to chronicle their story?

KF: Ross said to his wife: "Who do you think should write the book about the rescue?" She happened to be reading one of my books and said: "This guy is great."

BRC: When your children were young, you wrote a few children's mysteries, but none recently. Would you ever consider writing more children or young adult fiction?

KF: I might. But I wrote those books when my own children were small, and I knew exactly what children would understand and enjoy. Now that they're grown up, I'm not sure I could do it.

BRC: THE KEY TO REBECCA, LIE DOWN WITH LIONS, and THE THIRD TWIN were all made into miniseries; and CODE TO ZERO has already been optioned for the big screen. Have you been pleased with the results of these productions?

KF: Sometimes.

BRC: "Eye" was a very good film. "Rebecca" and "Twin" were excellent miniseries. Were you involved in writing the screen versions?

KF: No.

BRC: What is your approach to writing a novel --- do you organize the plot and characters from A to Z before beginning, or do you let it flow as you go?

KF: I spend about a year planning the book in great detail before I write page one.

BRC: What authors inspired you?

KF: Ian Fleming, with the James Bond books (not the films, which are too unrealistic).

BRC: Who do you enjoy reading now?

KF: Stephen King.

BRC: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

KF: Be a perfectionist.

BRC: Is there another Follett novel already underway? If so, can you tell us something about it?

KF: It's about a group of women in the French Resistance.