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Monday, October 03, 2005
An Interview with Ken Follett

Ken FollettThis Halloween, master storyteller Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle, The Pillars of the Earth) will discuss The History of the Thriller here at the Y.

Follett recently spoke to us and gave a short rundown on the history of his favorite genre. After the jump, Ken Follett’s Thriller 101.

What was the first recorded thriller, in your opinion? What was its plot and how did it set the stage for books to follow?

The first modern thriller is The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, published in 1903. It is an open-air adventure thriller about two young men who stumble upon a German armada preparing to invade England.

Were there any books that defined the genre for you and why do they do so?

Riddle of the Sands defines one of two strands of thriller, and is the ancestor of the James Bond books. The second strand was started by Joseph Conrad with The Secret Agent in 1907. This book is the father of the low-key, psychological thrillers of Graham Greene and John le Carre.

Do you feel that thriller books influence movies more or vice-versa?

Just as the thriller is the most popular literary genre of the 20th century, so films that tell similar stories—stories of people in danger—have probably been the most popular movie genre. And movies have influenced all writers, not just thriller writers. We all now tell stories by cutting from one dramatic scene to the next, whereas Victorian novelists felt free to write long passages of undramatic summary.

How has the thriller evolved over the years?

The simple story of men in danger, as exemplified by The Riddle of the Sands, has been augmented with the following extra elements: female characters, professional secret agents (as opposed to amateurs), gadgetry, expensive lifestyles, violence, and explicit sex.

What do you feel are the requirements to a successful thriller?

A thriller is a story about people in danger. For success, the author must make the reader care about the destiny of the principals, and—the hardest part—sustain this anxiety, or suspense, for about 100,000 words.

Tickets for Ken Follett: The History of the Thriller are currently available.

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