How would you like to meet your favourite author?
Thanks to PGC Books, that chance rolled my way in mid-November when they arranged for me to interview Sunday Times bestselling author, Karen Swan. Yes, THAT Karen Swan—renowned author of huge international favourites such as Christmas at Tiffany’s, Christmas Under the Stars, The Paris Secret and many many more. The same Karen Swan who owns most of the space on my bookshelves.
See this pile of much loved books? That’s my collection. I own every novel Karen has written. I covet them, never lend them out (sorry, friends!), and reread the stack on the regular. Karen writes two books each year so there’s always a new read to bring home and enjoy.
This November, Karen was visiting Canada to promote her latest must-read The Christmas Secret and we enjoyed a chatty lunch at The Thompson Hotel in downtown Toronto, so it only made sense to make Karen my December guest for Authors Celebrating Authors.
Please welcome Karen Swan!
JM: Karen, you had a successful career in London as a journalist. Why did you decide to become an author?
KS: It was quite a toxic environment in magazines. It was great fun in my twenties, fashion shows, parties, gallery openings, girl about town—love it. It got to a point when 9/11 had just happened, I just got married and I felt like I wanted good things, purer things in my life. We (also) decided to start a family and had our first son. It was truly life changing for me…I knew that I didn’t want to be away from him in an office, or to put him in day care, and we were lucky enough that we could just about afford for me not to have to do that. Things were tight, but we could do it.
I resigned from the magazine and I had been seeing a doctor who’s other clients were Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss, Stella McCartney—mega names in the showbiz world so I knew that subject could be a non-fiction book and a project to keep my brain going while I was pregnant with my second son. After he was born, we did a post-natal book. The agent who was representing me, didn’t do fiction, but said, “you must go into fiction.” So one day I went to the library and wrote a scene. It was the first scene in Players where you have the two female characters sitting in a garden in London and the toddlers were running through sprinklers. I didn’t sit down with a plot, I just closed my eyes and it was what I saw. So I had this stand alone scene about three pages long, so either I do something with that or I don’t. I’m a very stubborn person so if I decide I’m doing something then I’m doing it. I commit. I then had to create a story from that one scene, which is not the way to write a book. But it was my first experience of it and it gave me a narrative arc. I sent the finished book out to agents and got picked up, then Macmillan bought it, and suddenly, I had a book, an agent and a publisher. I sort of fell into it. As soon as I did it, I just knew it was something I was supposed to do. If I had known the odds against me before I started, I don’t think I would have started.
JM: How did the writing change with your second book, Prima Donna?
KS: It’s funny. The first two books (Players and Prima Donna), I almost don’t count as my books. There was a writer who was huge in England about ten years ago and my sister-in-law knew her and said she got the most amazing book deal. Her book was a bonkbuster—the return of the Jackie Collins, pre-50 Shades—so I was looking at the market and trying to respond to that, which is a mistake. You should never do that. I wrote Players, then Prima Donna. I had a two book contract and had to come up with two more ideas. I came up with the idea for Christmas at Tiffany’s and I remember thinking, this is a problem because it wasn’t going to be in the same genre as the previous two. Macmillan had signed me to occupy a particular spot on their list and I thought, I’m not going to do that now—maybe they won’t want me. Luckily, they immediately saw the commercial potential of Christmas at Tiffany’s. When people ask about my books, I really don’t talk about the first two. They sort of taught me how to construct a book, how to put it together, and how to pace it.
JM: So many of your books have amazing travel destinations in them. Do you always travel to the places you plan to feature in your books?
KS: Largely. As much as I possibly can, especially if the book is really set there. If it’s just a couple of scenes, I don’t necessarily have to go. Initially, I would write books in places I had been to. Christmas at Tiffany’s, I knew London, Paris, New York City, Milan—cities I knew from my work as a fashion editor, so I was able to write about them. But when I began writing two books a year, there was no way I’m going to have enough places. Either I write about the same place or I’ve got to start travelling. The next Christmas book I want to set in Norway, so I said to my husband, we’ve got to go to Norway, so we’re researching that at the moment.
JM: Jen, your Canadian publicist, mentioned you were married in the gorgeous house featured on the cover of your latest novel, The Christmas Secret. Do you pull a lot from personal experience for your books? Do you use names of people you know, or things that have happened to you?
KS: I do. People ask, is it you in the books or your friends or family? It really isn’t. But what is in (my books), are the little details. In The Christmas Secret, the couple who run the guest house where Alex stays, their names are Mr. and Mrs. Peggie who are two of my greatest friends. They’re now going to wonder why they’re now 80 years old in my book. So there will be details. There might be a dress that I want, the name of someone’s dog, or a saying I use. My mum’s very good at picking out those things but it took her a while to accept that these characters aren’t me. They’re not my life, but I sort of pepper details of my life in there but in a very low key way. People who know me will know those details.
JM: Do you ever put people you know in the books?
KS: No, but people I’ve met briefly, there might be something about them that stays with me, it might be a mannerism, or a saying, or something about their face, and that can be enough to hook and build up a character. The names are always really important. When I get the name right, it suggests a certain character and personality to me, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the names before I even start developing the character. If the name is wrong, I can’t see anything. Whereas when the name is right, it’s sort of like the character is hanging in front of me, a spectre, I can see through them, they don’t have substance yet but it’s enough to get me going. And then after that they’re completely real.
JM: How much do you go into creating a character? Do you do a lot of pre-planning or do you just dive in?
KS: I dive in. I don’t really have time with the schedule being two books a year. What I’ve learned is, I give myself a lot of time to research, I probably research for three-four months. I write notes and am still researching when I’m writing. And I’ve learned that the first third, the first 30,000 words or so, it almost doesn’t matter what I’m putting down because I know I’ll have to go back and re-write them. By the end, I know the characters so well, they literally are old friends. I go back and what would have taken two weeks in the beginning can take two days. And at that point I can blitz it.
I sort of give myself a lot of slack early, and it can get a bit distracting because if I keep pushing forward knowing that I have to do a rewrite, sometimes I can’t go forward until I’ve made the corrections earlier on. It’s almost too much in my head. But usually because the deadline is so tight, I push through and then go straight back to the beginning and rewrite up to where I know who the characters are. I describe it like having bubbles on spikes. They have to rest without popping, nothing can become too set, it’s got to stay feather light, so I can move it around and change it. Until I get to the second draft, everything stays like that, so if they say we have to completely get rid of a character, or add another character, there needs to be enough air in the plot to be able to work that in. If you’ve written it so tightly that there’s no room at all, and it’s a set, rigid construction, it’s a hard task. I write knowing I’m going to rewrite. I forgive myself a lot in the early bits.
JM: You just get that first draft down.
KS: Totally. Actual writing is probably only thirty percent of a writer’s job. There’s research and there’s editing. Editing is massive. I have six weeks of editing on top of six weeks of writing. And that’s if I’m working really fast.
JM: Do you write for a full eight hour day?
KS: I really do. I can’t really write when the kids are at home. Two are away at boarding school, which is great but it’s a nightmare in summer or Easter. We live in the middle of nowhere, so I’m driving them everywhere and life is mad and I have not a minute to breathe, and I think, when am I supposed to work? As soon as the kids are back at school, boom—I won’t see anyone for coffee, I won’t see anyone for lunch. I’m so focused and I say to myself, I have to do 15,000 words a week, 3,000 words a day for 5 days and if I only write 2,000 words one day, that means I have to write 4,000 words the next day or I’m working on the weekend. And that’s how I do it. My life becomes tiny and the characters’ lives become real.
JM: Your November/December releases are Christmasy but they’re not solely focused on Christmas day itself. The season is a backdrop, not the main driver of the story. What is it about December that adds more drama?
KS: I deliberately don’t want my books to be centred around Christmas even though they are marketed as Christmas. I sort of use Christmas as a focus. When people get to Christmas, everyone naturally takes stock of their lives. Even if you don’t celebrate it, you don’t go to work because no one else is there. The world just sort of stops. Everyone’s with family and friends. It’s a time of reflection and you look back at the year and you’re aware that New Year’s is around the corner and we’re all resolving to be better, and I just think at Christmas, people press pause. I’ve always had my characters building towards Christmas day but it’s never about the festivities of that day itself. If I was to do it year in, year out—just Christmas itself—I’d go potty and run out of ideas.
JM: Christmas Under the Stars, which came out late in 2016, featured a Canadian setting—Banff, Alberta. Canadians love your books so much and you’re a repeat Globe and Mail bestselling author. I felt like the Canadian setting was a thank you to your Canadian readers.
KS: It was. I was properly grateful. I had been over here during my gap year and I knew that was a location I wanted to use. I needed an empty sky, somewhere remote, it gave me the mountains I wanted, the big snowy winters I wanted. I needed a town that wasn’t a ghost town out of season and was alive in its own right all year round. Banff was perfect.
JM: With your latest release, The Christmas Secret, you have so much in-depth information on distilleries and Scotland within the pages. Was it your Scottish background that inspired you to write a story that took place there?
KS: I always wanted to do a book in Scotland and I sort of did with Christmas at Tiffany’s, but I deliberately put it in the lowlands near Edinburgh, which is the very smart posh area. I didn’t put it in the Highlands because I wanted to keep the Highlands for their own complete story and I didn’t want to waste it. I’ve been waiting to do a Scottish book and my dad is from Fort William, which has Ben Nevis—the highest mountain in the British Isles. I love Scotland and I knew it was going to be a Christmas book, otherwise I would be writing about midges and the rain—that doesn’t have the same vibe!
My friend has a business coach who is paid a fortune and I asked what does this woman do and she started telling me. I’m thinking, oh my God—that’s such a book, I’ve got to use it. I often start with a character’s job. I don’t like my characters to have boring jobs. Part of the joy for me is experiencing other people’s lives, so I love finding out about these new jobs. I interviewed my friend who told me what the business coach does in her sessions. And then (I spoke to) another friend who is a psychiatrist and she was telling me about the psychiatric questioning at a dinner party—I was taking notes on the bread plate! Then another friend at the same dinner was telling me about TED Talks where I got all the information about body language. I was gathering all this information together: corporate world, Scotland, whisky. I’d been looking at various locations in Scotland. There are four distillery hot spots and I got to Islay, which is a self-contained island. They’ve got about ten distilleries on the island. I thought, I’m liking that, it just fed into those feelings of wanting to cocoon, retreat…the splendid isolation, log fires, walking in the heather, fresh air, snow-capped mountains—it was writing itself, this story. I had a plot, a character, a setting. It was really fun to write.
JM: I absolutely adore The Christmas Secret, and I must give dues to the book that started it all for me and brought you to my attention, the worldwide best-seller Christmas at Tiffany’s. Karen, my favourite couple of all-time is in that book—Henry & Cassie.
KS: I love Henry. He was so real. I wish he was real. I once went to a dinner party about three years after I wrote Christmas at Tiffany’s and this friend of mine—she’s ten years older than me and her husband is ten years older than her, and in walks her step-son, her new husband’s son who was probably six years younger than me, 6’3”, absolutely gorgeous. My jaw hit the floor. Oh my God, it’s Henry!
People ask me what’s my favourite book. I don’t have a straightforward answer to that, but if they ask who’s your favourite couple, it’s Cassie and Henry without a hesitation. I still remember that scene when he walks in in his boxer shorts and she’s Skyping and he’s in the background. Look, I’ve got goosebumps! (Karen actually did have goosebumps! And if you know the scene she’s talking about, you’ll understand why!)
JM: What has been your proudest moment as an author so far?
KS: Ooh, that’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that before. There were two and they were both related to Christmas at Tiffany’s. Tiffany’s was my first Sunday Times Top 10— it’s what every writer wants, to be a Sunday Times bestseller. That was amazing when that happened. The book was flying off shelves and they were reprinting like mad. I remember the TV was on and Robbie Williams was playing at Wembley for some reason and my father said, “imagine every person holding your book because you’ve sold more than that.” I was like oh my God, when I saw it in those terms. To suddenly see a mass of people like that holding your book, it was an incredible moment. And also the first time I was up in London and saw the poster for Christmas at Tiffany’s, oh my God. It still stops me.
JM: Can you say anything about your next book—what you’re releasing next summer?
KS: It’s called The Greek Escape and a lot of it is set in New York City, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I was sort of panicking because I couldn’t get the characters over in Greece for as long as I hoped, but it was sort of the way the plot happened. So, it’s NYC and Greece on this tiny Greek island called Hydra which is very close to Athens, but it’s not really on the international map. The rich Athenians know about it so it’s a very wealthy island with big houses, but they’ve only developed Hydra Town and nothing else on the island. It’s very rocky, there’s no beaches, but it’s sort of this elite enclave. There’s no cars, everything is taken by donkeys, there are no swimming pools, it’s very rustic and low key and I only know about it because when I went to university I went out with this chap whose family was Greek and they had a house in Athens and a house on Hydra. I went there three times with him and was completely charmed by it. Again, it was one of those places that was always in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to set it there. And I had an idea for a job which was working for a luxury concierge service like Quintessentially.com. I always thought that would be an interesting job. You’d have access all areas, unlimited funds, extreme experiences, so I had that written down in a note book for years and knew I was going to use it at some point. I could see that working for a summer story.
I had been in Greece last year for my own summer holidays, so Greece was in my mind again. I merged that job and that setting. We basically have a character who has come over from London to the New York office with a broken heart. She’s trying to rebuild her life in New York. She’s got a great mates in the office and there’s a terrible accident. She’s suddenly forced into her coleague’s position where she is one of the VIP managers who deals with five high net-worth clients where you’re getting people onto top tables at restaurants or concert tickets—this is a personalized VIP service for ultra net-worth individuals. So she’s suddenly in close communication with these individuals and then one of their wives disappears. While that happens, a new client comes in who is making his own demands and then her ex shows up from London. So there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of travel in it and it was quite a different book to write. There isn’t a backstory—it has one thread of narrative with two perspectives. It’s quite international and jet set but it’s rooted in the reality that this character doesn’t belong (in that world) so we see it through her wide-eyes. We come at it from her perspective. It will be out in June or July.
JM: I cannot wait! Karen, it’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you! Thanks for giving us the scoop on your writing process, your latest bestseller The Christmas Secret, and your next book!
**THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED**
YES! It’s giveaway time!
Karen and the lovely folks at PGC Books have generously offered a signed paperback copy of The Christmas Secret for one lucky reader!
Here’s how to enter:
This giveaway is open to Canadians only.
Leave a comment below answering this question: Who would you like to find waiting for you under the mistletoe this holiday season? (Please note: comments on my website have to be approved manually, so if you don’t see your answer showing up in the comments right away, don’t panic! It’s just awaiting moderation and once that’s done, it will appear.)
For an extra giveaway entry, head over to my Instagram @JaxMiddleton_Author, and do the following:
Like the giveaway photo (The Christmas Secret shot you see above),
Follow me (@JaxMiddleton_Author), and Karen Swan (@SwannyWrites),
Tag up to three friends who might be interested in this wonderful giveaway!
Entries will be accepted here in my blog’s comments until Wednesday, December 13/17 at 5pm ET. This giveaway is not associated or sponsored by Instagram. GOOD LUCK!
(Thanks again to Jen from PGC Books and Karen! — all photos taken by Jacquelyn Middleton)
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