I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a very busy Karen Swan! Already working on her next bestseller, we had the chance to reflect over her career choices, her new book, The Christmas Secret, and her thoughts about being an author. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed getting to know international bestseller author, Karen Swan.
Interview with Karen Swan, author of The Christmas Secret!
Q Fashion to Fiction. Do you have any regrets leaving the fashion industry, or was being an author a hidden dream that you’ve always wanted to make into a reality? Was it a stretch to switch from fashion to fiction? What inspired you to do this? What advice can you give similar closet writers out there who would love to do what you’ve done?
K.S – Working in the fashion industry was great fun and I don’t regret a moment of it; I had some really fun times, doing shoots and going to fashion shows – this was back when tickets were like gold dust, there was a very strict seating hierarchy and only a handful of accredited photographers could get photos. Now everything’s live-streamed and open access, it doesn’t feel quite so rarified. It was a much more closed world back then and competition to get into it was fierce; it was such a fun world to inhabit in my carefree twenties, but once I had my first child, it lost a lot of it’s gloss for me. Pretty much what you saw in The Devil Wears Prada was true and I didn’t have the inclination to put up with a lot of the nonsense that goes on in that industry. People definitely confuse obnoxiousness as a badge of power and many were downright rude; who needs it?
I’d honestly never considered writing fiction but I had come to realize through my fashion career – as I moved from the styling side of things to the writing of fashion features – that it wasn’t fashion I loved, so much as the process of just writing.
When my agent for a non-fiction project I’d been working on, advised me to give fiction a try, I thought she was mad. Nonetheless, I had a spare afternoon one day so I went to my local library and wrote a scene – and it was a seminal moment. I realized absolutely that it was what I was supposed to have been doing all along. It made perfect sense of my headspace. So many people over the years had predicted I would be a writer and I’d shot them all down. I was definitely the last one to show up to that party!
My advice for anyone flirting with the idea of writing is to just sit down and do it. You can do courses and examine the markets and speak to industry professionals of course, but if there’s a story in you, the best and only way to see if it’s any good, is to get it out in the first place. Once the bones are there, you can edit, edit, edit – take external advice then. But there’s no shortcut to a good book, only hard graft.
Q Your Very First. Thinking back to that very first book you ever wrote and subsequently was published, can you share with my readers a particular part of the writing process that was the biggest struggle for you back then? What would you say to writers who are facing similar struggles now?
K.S – Haha yes. Sex scenes are excruciating to write and very rarely successful. I now definitely take the approach of taking the reader up as far as the bedroom door and then politely but firmly slamming the door on them!
But when writing my first book, I also didn’t know basic things like how many words or chapters were the ‘right amount’ – either for the story’s needs, or a publisher’s considerations. Every writer has their own style and natural story-telling arc – much like with recounting an anecdote, we all do it in our own way – so it took me a few books to learn to trust where I was in each story and to know when to segue from beginning to middle, and when to move from the middle to the all-important end.
Q Facing The Block. I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times…How do you deal with writer’s block? Do you have special ways of getting past it? What’s the longest block you’ve incurred?
K.S. – Writer’s Block is definitely real and there have been times -maybe a couple of months at most – when I’ve not been able to make any headway, when I close my eyes and all I see is white space. What I have learned; however, is that writer’s block is usually a sign I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere and I have taught myself to go back to an earlier point, try to find it and rewrite from there. That can be easier said than done though and before I take such drastic action, I will force myself to sit down and stare at the screen and eek out something – anything – and sometimes that sheer dogged persistence is enough; several times over the years, I’ve hit upon the kernel I needed right at the end of a long day, where I’ve written pages of drivel that I know I can’t use – but it’s completely worth it if it gets me to that moment of clarity.
Q Author Defeat. What’s your worse writing moment when creating “The Christmas Secret?”
K.S. – I really wanted to thread the historical tragedy of the SS Tuscania – an American troopship that was torpedoed off the coast of Islay in February 1918 – into the book; I felt utterly compelled to include it and yet I couldn’t quite explain why. It made my job of telling this story a lot harder and involved days, if not weeks, of extra research. I managed to find a way to make it a central component of the plot but it would have been so much easier not to bother; it wasn’t strictly necessary and merely supplied one extra plot twist. But I trusted my instinct on it anyway and was actually brought to tears when I wrote the last lines of the epilogue which explained why it mattered. I hadn’t been able to articulate it, even to myself, until I wrote those final words.
Q Crazy Career Expectations. What was the worse part of becoming a published author for you? What sacrifices are you making now to continue your career?
I do struggle a little with the attention that occasionally comes my way because of it; Although socially, I’m fairly gregarious, I personally consider myself to be a very private, introverted person and I find it odd when I’m made aware sometimes that people know who I am or have opinions about me before we’ve even met. I don’t think anyone becomes a writer because they, personally, want the limelight.
In terms of sacrifices, writing two books a year definitely takes a physical toll on me – not just on my hands, forearms and eyes, but also my legs and back from enforced sitting for such long periods. I always have a bad back for the first fortnight of starting a book and my vision is shot by the end of one. It’s hard too, if I’m on a deadline and can’t be with my family at special moments – I’m not just talking about missing a sports match, or working through a weekend, but working over the summer holidays or Christmas. I try to do most of my work when the children are at school but that isn’t completely possible due to how the publication schedules fall and last year, I started writing The Christmas Secret on Boxing Day.
Having said all that, I’m a published author and I know what an absolute privilege that is; many others would like to be, too, and I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and the loyal readership I’ve built over the years. Everyone works hard and makes sacrifices. Why shouldn’t I?
Q Pressure Points. Are you ever pressured either by aspects of a writing career, or personal issues to the point of giving up writing? Alex Hyde recharges using yoga at a special retreat… Have you ever taken an extended break from writing to recharge? If yes, what do you do and where, if anywhere special, do you go?
K.S. – I haven’t taken a break from writing yet, although I do try to completely unwind when I’m between books: I don’t want to sit down, I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to think about the previous one or the next one…My mind needs to stop completely and I let my own life take over, charging around after the kids, walking the dogs, travelling…I try to do yoga for the stress-relief but I’m hypermobile and keep getting injured from it, which is rather frustrating; I find that walking outdoors is the best thing for my mind, body and soul.
Q The Idea Pool. Where do you get all these fabulous ideas from? Do you have a muse?
K.S. – No muse, sadly, although my husband is amazing for talking through ideas or plot problems with me; But I do write down ideas as I come upon them – perhaps a clipping in a magazine or newspaper, a comment from a friend, a feature on the radio…Then, when I’m brainstorming the next book, I go back to these notes and allow a sort of ‘stream of conscious’ thinking, to see whether anything chimes or connects.
Next summer’s book, which I’ve just finished, is composed of various different strands – a basic idea I’d had about six years ago, interwoven with both an article I read in Time magazine at Easter and a throwaway line in another book I read on holiday this summer; I realized I could mesh them together to create a homogenous story and this is very often how it happens – the stories build up organically from a variety of sources, it’s just a matter of first consciously identifying and recording anything that piques my interest.
Q Your Favs. What types of books do you enjoy reading and who is your favorite author? Did any particular author inspire your career?
K.S – I view reading the way I do eating and dressing: what am I in the mood for? Sometimes I want a quick but gritty thriller, other times something haunting and melodic that will wrap me in beauty.
Jane Austen is my all-time favorite author and I’m feeling a real yearning to revisit her books at the moment, it really has been years since I last picked one up. But I also love John Irving and Arundhati Roy; I adore Robert Harris, Ian McEwan and William Boyd. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from A Little Life, nor A Fine Balance even though both books were emotionally grueling.
Q The Christmas Secret. You picked one of the worse settings during such a difficult time of the year to place Alex Hyde. Then, you turned this dark and initially dreary place into a beautiful place as your story progressed and Alex’s character developed. Do you believe this setting and its development played a crucial part in helping Alex grow, by putting her in a place outside her regular comfort zone? Can you explain your thought process on this matter?
K.S. – Yes, I loved the idea of using the island’s isolation as a metaphor for her own state of being. When we first meet Alex, she is the epitome of the successful career woman: financially independent, strong-minded, determined, unafraid, utterly equal to the very powerful men she works with in the business world. Nothing about her suggests ‘victim’ or broken – nor is she. But by placing her in a world where there’s no uber or five star hotels, where the only taxi driver has gout and she has to share a bathroom with strangers, we very quickly break down the illusion of invincibility and find her weak spots and pressure points; we realize she’s cut off from both her past and that she’s almost frozen emotionally. She’s very used to things going her way, working according to her methods but things go on here as they always have done. This is a place where the families are intertwined over many generations, where it’s all but impossible to keep a secret; there’s practically no wifi and the ferries don’t run in bad weather…Islay was perfect for breaking her down.
Q Alex Hyde. Wow! Wish I was her! When you were creating this character, did you originally mean for her to be so complex? Or, did she just end up being that way as you continued to write the story? Were you concerned she might have come across almost too perfect, too unbelievable?
K.S. – I do try very hard in each of my books for my characters to be complex, varied and most definitely not binary. I like them to inhabit many areas of grey -as in life, no-one is entirely good or entirely bad. I liked setting Alex up as ‘perfect’ initially and then steadily dismantling her on a personal level – finding those little quirks that made her human and warming her up. But when it came to ‘the big reveal’, I was adamant she had to go through with what she had been tasked with doing; my husband and I argued about it but I insisted she go ahead with it.
Without wanting to give any spoilers here, I firmly believed that she couldn’t back out of it just because she had fallen in love. If the tables had been turned, a man would not have been expected to back out of it for love, so why should she? Some might say that makes her a ‘ball-breaker’ – and you really will need to read the book to understand what I’m talking about here – but I don’t want to portray women as having to choose between love and ambition. I respect her for doing the harder thing – she has her reasons for it, after all.
Q More Alex Hyde. She holds an interesting name. Hyde is often associated with Jekyll & Hyde, and a personality consisting of a mild-manner being of intelligence, and a strong and fierce being of strength. Is this why you gave her a surname named after Hyde? Did you purposely give her a masculine name to reflect a strong woman in a man’s world? Was it to focus on the two parts of her character that she constantly struggles with while interacting with Lochlan? Was this just an interesting coincidence, or was there another method to your madness that you’d care to share?
K.S. – Honestly, I chose the name because it sounded sharp and strong; it has a no-nonsense briskness to it and of course, it’s gender neutral, which could be construed as a positive for a woman operating very much in a man’s world. Having said that, I was definitely aware of the duality of the name and the fact that she herself is having to come across in one way, whilst operating in entirely another.
Q Scotland. Have you ever been? Does it hold a special place in your heart? What’s your favorite thing about Scotland?
K.S. – My father is Scottish, I was christened there, married there, my eldest son was christened there. I’ve been going up every year since I was born and it’s part of the fabric of me. The landscape of the Highlands is stitched to my soul and I never feel more free, happy or connected to this world than when I’m in the mountains there. The midges always leave me alone, I love haggis and I don’t even care about the rain!
Q Research. It’s obvious from your comments under “Acknowledgements” at the back of the book that you did a lot of research for your book, The Christmas Secret. Do you find, it important to be as accurate as possible about certain facts and then not so much about others? You researched the whiskey industry; did you research anything else other than what you listed in the “Acknowledgement” section? How much time do you allow or generally spend on researching? Do you ever go and physically do in person research for your novels?
K.S. – Yes, I feel like I do a degree for almost every book I write and this one was no exception – for The Christmas Secret I specialized in the whisky distilling industries and the first world war. I have taken true events such as the Tuscania tragedy but because I’ve woven it into my own story, I have taken the bones of the action and then fictionalized those elements of it where we come into personal contact with characters and made up names etc.
I read through diary entries, old newspaper reports, letters, front-line telegrams, all to get the tone of the time as well as the reality facing these people in 1918. I will always do as much research as I can in person although my tight schedule doesn’t necessarily always allow it. I like to allow three-four months research per book.
Q Stronger The Better. You write a lot about strong women. I’ve noticed that you also write about them compromising their strengths in order to succeed in love and careers. Do you find this difficult to manage? Have you ever written a character only to rewrite her because she turned out differently than what you had first intended? Do you believe a woman has no choice but to sacrifice in order to succeed, especially in a world of business that’s dominated by men?
K.S. – Actually, I’d have to disagree with this. In this particular book, Alex risks losing Lochie precisely because she refuses to compromise on the task she’s been set: she puts her career before him and we only find out her reasons for doing so afterwards. It is risky because it potentially alienates the reader if she comes across as manipulative and cold, but I felt really strongly that if Lochie would have done it, in her shoes, then she should too.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a character who would give up her career for a man, as that’s something I personally really don’t believe in. As the mother of a daughter, I want her to grow up seeing that woman don’t need to constrain themselves or become somehow smaller in order to keep love.
Q Lochlan vs. Hyde. In the beginning of the story, Lochlan wasn’t particularly nice, in fact rather rude and disrespectful, and perhaps, one could argue even demeaning and abusive to Hyde… Why did you do this? Were you concerned that in doing this, you may lose readers or turn them off of wanting to read more?
K.S. – No, I deliberately wanted him to come across as abrasive and even aggressive. At this point, we want the reader to side in sympathy with Alex as Lochie acts out in exactly the way he was initially described by Sholto. But as we go through the story, we sense frustration beneath his prickly defensiveness, we learn of his devastating personal losses, and then finally, we gather the truth about the people around him supposedly working in his best interests – Alex included.
Absolutely no-one is as they seem in this story and I liked that Alex – for a while, at least – was something of an anti-heroine. I really don’t want to write about sweet, ditzy characters, I think it’s so much more rewarding to have flawed characters that you learn to love and understand. It is a risky venture and possibly some readers will want a smoother ride, but I actively wanted the reader to feel unbalanced and not quite sure who to trust or believe.
Q Not Fashionable. Did you face similar scenarios where women were not respected or accepted in business dominated by men?
K.S. – I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve never experienced sexual discrimination in my career, but then I’ve worked in two of the most heavily female-weighted industries: fashion and publishing. Having said that, I definitely came across women bosses who abused their positions of power with very poor behavior that might possibly even be said to be worse than sexual discrimination.
Q Two Is Better Than One. There were actually two stories going on in “The Christmas Secret.” One was set in the past, and the other, was in the present. I felt you needed to do this in order to introduce backstory without using a prologue? Am I right? Can you explain why you used this method as opposed to using a prologue? There’s been a lot of discussion in social media avenues about the usage of a prologue in a story and some feel it’s not something necessary or necessarily used in all genres. Do you agree?
K.S. – I think a prologue is a wonderful tool for either introducing the element of suspense and anticipation, so that the reader is compelled to turn the page because they know what they’re building up to, or as a red herring – they think they understand what they’ve read, until the context of the greater book casts it in a new light. I usually use it for the latter, but in this case I did away with it altogether because I wanted to introduce the backstory slowly and build it up through several different sources. I wanted it to read as a fractured, almost dream-like tale, and for the reader to not quite understand why it was relevant – until the reveal. To have introduced it all in a prologue would have revealed certain key plot details far too soon.
Q Time After Time. How long does it take you to write a book typically 400 pages long? How many times do you edit your own work before releasing it to an editor? How many times have you scrapped work, stories that sounded good, but nope didn’t work?
K.S. – I usually sit down to write the story in 10-12 weeks, which is very, very fast, but this follows several months of research and general mulling over beforehand. My schedule for producing two books a year is so tight that it’s hard to take much longer than that anyway, but I do find the concentrated nature of writing so tightly really focuses my mind and I subsume my own life, during that period, for the characters’.
By the time I hand in to my editor, I’ve usually only had the time to manage the most scant of read-throughs and corrections (although this wouldn’t be the case if I was writing one book a year); Luckily I have a very forgiving editor and agent who both know I am probably harder on myself than they are, and I will spend another three weeks in the next edit stage really hauling it into shape.
I’ve only once started writing a book and then abandoned it. That was a couple of years ago, when I was c.10,000k words into a story when I had an idea about a woman making unexpected contact with an astronaut on the ISS! It was random, to say the least, but I knew it was too good to let go and that book eventually became Christmas Under the Stars.
Q Name Calling. Where do you get these fantastic women’s names you’ve used for your Protagonists: Clem Alderton, Rowena Tipton, Allegra Fisher, Flora Sykes, Nettie Watson, Elena Damiani, Francesca Hackett… Do you ever name your Protagonist after someone you know? For that matter, do you ever create a character based on someone you don’t like?
K.S. – I really do like a good strong name, particularly ones that can shorten. Perhaps it’s because Karen really doesn’t shorten to anything, so I’ve always loved nicknames (mine is Flop, on account of the hair). Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of the writing process – it’s immediate, evocative, pacey, colorful and intimate – so I love a name that sounds familiar in speech. ‘Flo’; ‘Legs’….Also, names have color, they suggest personalities to me and they’re one of the first things I decide upon when starting a book.
When I was writing my first ever book, I went to the trouble of writing out character profiles: name, age, job, characteristics etc… and I had my main protagonist down as Lily. But I just couldn’t ‘see’ her.’ Then I changed her name to Tor and it was as though she was standing before me.
Q Setting The Place. Your setting choices are rather impressive in all your books, Hamptons, Swiss Alps, Italy, Paris… to name a few, even in the Canadian Rockies! Do you travel a lot? Have you been to all these places? Where would you like to write about next? Hawaii? 😊
K.S. – I have! I’m incredibly lucky; some of them I knew from my own personal holidays – Verbier and Zermatt from skiing for example; but others I visited specially for research: Portofino, The Hamptons… I do deliberately choose places that have an aspirational quality; I think of the worlds in my books as having an Instagram filter on them – life is just a little brighter, more intense, than in reality. But I have readers from all over the world so I also want them to come to these places with me with a similar cultural expectation: not many of my Lithuanian readers are likely to know much about Dorset, for example. I look for places with an international profile and appeal.
Q Your Classic Hero. What is your favorite heroine from a classic publication, like those written by Jane Austen, (but she doesn’t have to be one of Jane’s).
K.S. – I love Jane Austen’s characters because she was writing about strong, independent women, way ahead of her time. They’re not strident or aggressive characters but rather have this wonderfully low-key strength, wry wit and intelligence. They are oppressed in so many ways by the society in which they move and yet they navigate it with a deft touch. Lizzie Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliott, I love them all but perhaps Lizzie edges it for me; I admire her stubbornness and pride in an age of meekness.
Q Sayings. I love the saying used in your book, The Christmas Secret, “…the definition of wisdom is old men planting trees under whose shade they will never sit…” Where is this from? And the other: “…if the spirit is the child, the cask is the mother.” Where did that come from?
K.S. – These are Scottish epithets, although the latter is only used within the whisky industry. I do love quoting wisdoms from minds far greater than my own. They really force you to pause and reflect for a moment.
Q Your Way. As an author of so many successfully published books, can you tell my readers some of which are hopeful for publication themselves, how you organize your thoughts when beginning to plan out you new projects? Do you use a specific writing program? Do you first draft your ideas in a notebook, or do you strictly use a computer?
K.S. – I’m incapable of writing anything in long-hand, for one thing I really do have the world’s worst writing, so although I write my own research notes, half the time I can’t read them!
But the genesis of every book is different: sometimes I start with a character name or a character’s profession and build up and out from that; with others, I begin with a plot thread and then close in on finer details such as location, character profiles etc. There really isn’t a fixed way to doing it and nor do I think there should be. I’ve written thirteen novels now and one thing I’ve learnt from being prolific is that things get really boring, really quickly, if you follow a formula.
I’ve also learnt that it’s not necessarily working out what to write, that’s so difficult, but how to write it: I always write in the third person but I’m trying to build up the courage to write a first-person story; I’ve just told this book through a past-present narrative, but in Christmas Under The Stars, I split the narrative prism four ways so that the reader had multiple perspectives and had to decide where the actual truth lay. And next summer’s book – which I’ve just finished – really threw me because the narrative arc was shorter than I anticipated and I was coming into the finale long before I expected to – and yet, it all panned out by the end because those closing scenes were longer than I’d planned. Chopping up how I write a book and tell a story not only keeps things fresh for me, but for the reader too, I hope, and I take pride in the fact that none of my books read the same.
Q Planning. Do you carry around planner? How good are you managing your time? Are you well organized, have anyone helping you, ready to begin your next story? Do you have a book of ideas you visit often?
K.S. – At this time, every year, I treat myself to a beautiful leather-bound Smythson diary. I cry as I’m paying for it because it really, really hurts to spend so much on a diary – but in addition to keeping my family life on track, it has a vast notebook section where I write down all my research notes, as well as plot ideas in the back. It’s wonderful because I used to scribble on post-its and the backs of envelopes and then lose them. Now I know that any idea I have is safely recorded there and I can come back to find it – if I can just read my handwriting first!
Q Genre Dreaming. Is there another genre that you would like to try writing?
K.S. – I’d love to do more historically-rooted novels. I’m so fascinated by both world wars; I really delved deep into the Nazi looting of Jewish art in The Paris Secret and I think I could have been lost for years in all my research material, the more I read, the more transfixed I became. I’m also interested in screenplays; I’ve got an idea for one film in particular that I’m really desperate to get down and show to people. I get so excited thinking about it – it’s just a matter of finding the time to actually do it.
Q Bonus Question: Is Alex Hyde secretly…you?
K.S – Haha, no, not even a little bit, but I’m flattered you think it might be! I could do a lot worse.
This concludes my interview with Karen Swan. If you like this interview, leave your comments below, like, and follow me in order to keep up with the latest reviews and interviews. Thank you for visiting.