The Christmas Secret by Karen Swan ($24.99, PGC Books) came out Nov. 2 and I interviewed the author about Christmas, writing and how she researches her books. You can read my review of The Christmas Secret here.

Hi Karen,

Q. Thank you so much for speaking with me about your latest book The Christmas Secret.

The Christmas Secret by Karen Swan (PGC Books) hit Canadian shelves Nov. 2. Swan will be in the GTA Nov. 14 to 16.
The Christmas Secret by Karen Swan (PGC Books) hit Canadian shelves Nov. 2. Swan will be in the GTA Nov. 14 to 16.

I noticed on the Pan MacMillan website, you have written a number of books set around Christmas. What do you love about writing books set at this time of year?

A. Unlike the summer, where everyone takes their holidays at different times, Christmas is almost an enforced stop upon much of the world; even those who don’t celebrate Christmas can’t really work through it. Everyday life is paused and people scatter from their offices, gyms and apartments back to family homes, spending time with relatives and old friends they haven’t seen in too long…For me, that sense of suspension is perfect for a time of reflection, relaxation and escape and I know that my readers want all of those things from my books. They’ve got the time for it, and the headspace. Christmas is the ultimate ‘me time’.

Q. While your books are set at Christmas, they really aren’t Christmas books in that you want to re-read them every Christmas or only at Christmastime. Why is Christmas not a more central part of your books?

A. The plot and characters must always come first for me; Christmas is very much a backdrop. I think it would become very tired, very quickly, if I only ever wrote stories in which there was snow on the ground and a tree in the corner of the room. All the Christmas clichés – mulled wine and mistletoe, parties and wintry walks – are wonderful for creating atmosphere but also very limiting.

I try to take an entirely new approach to every book I write, be it in terms of location or structure (sometimes I write through the prism of multiple characters, other times through a past / present narrative thread) and whilst I want to tap into those feelings of cozy seclusion and retreat, I don’t want the action of the novel to be constrained by them.

Q. Is Christmas your favourite time of year? Why? What do you love about the holiday season?

A. I do love Christmas and the sanctity it places on family. There’s no other time when I get to be with my husband, children, parents, all together. It’s sad that that should be such a rarity or luxury, but the demands of modern life mean it’s both those things. It’s not the actual day itself that I love most, but the anticipation building up to it – wrapping the presents, decorating the house, having carols on loop, all the parties.

It’s almost a shame to get to Christmas Day itself, although I’m invariably on my knees by the time we do!

Q. Do you have a list of Christmas books you re-read each festive season?

A. I never re-read books as my view is there are far too many to still get through, but if I were to go back to one, it would be Jane Austen’s Emma; her father is one of my all-time favourite literary characters.

Q. I have read two of your books so far – The Christmas Secret and The Rome Affair. While I found they were different from each, they were similar in style – secrets, intrigue and strong characters. How would you label your style and what do you enjoy about writing this way?

A. I would say I’m a fairly evocative writer. Sense of place comes through strongly in all my stories – in fact, I get quite a lot of readers using my books as sorts of travel guides when they visit somewhere I’ve written about – and I sometimes feel more like a film director than a writer as the worlds I build in my head become so real, it’s like looking at them through a camera. I’m also definitely not a minimalist; clearly there’s beauty in spare form too, but I love the richness of language, to me it’s like a song or a painting – it has texture, colour, form and flow. When I write, I am aiming for my words to wrap around the reader and carry them away; I hope reading one of my books is an immersive experience.

Q. What is your writing process?

A. I have three children so I have no choice but to work around school schedules and term times, but I find this is actually great for focusing the mind and keeping me off social media. I usually spend three to four months researching a book and then two to three months writing it. I like to write fast and really immerse myself in my fictional world; I’ve found that having months and months in which to write doesn’t work for me – I wander off, make tea, get on the phone…a compressed amount of time in which to live and breathe the story makes it come alive more vividly and I’ve learnt over the years that I need to subsume my own life to my characters’ when I’m writing. During the school holidays, my own life feels enormous and pressured and overwhelming; but when the kids are out and I can write, I withdraw socially and ‘go under’. It takes me about three weeks after finishing a book to feel ‘normal’ again.

Q. What do you like about the writing/publishing process? Don’t like?

A. I love the excitement of publication, and seeing all the marketing plans coming together. It’s always a thrill to see a giant billboard of your book in a train station. And working on the covers is always nail-biting, but hugely satisfying as it becomes the ‘face’ of the story and gives – what till then, is just a very long Word document – a physical presence. Sometimes, we get it right first time, other times, we have to go back to it with completely new ideas three or four times.

Editing is my least favourite part of the process – it’s exhausting emotionally as you jump around the text; you have to be able to ‘hold’ the framework of the story in your head at this point and not become too rigid about what you’ve already put down. Even if all the ends tie up, you still need to be open to changing parts and rewriting, sometimes quite extensively; One small change on Page 30, for example, can ripple through the book and create a significant change by Page 330.

I can’t be too precious or possessive about it either – if three other people are telling me something doesn’t work, I know it’s better to trust them than to dig my heels in. Sometimes, you can be too close to the text and need the benefit of others’ space and perspective. The absolute worst part of the process though is hitting on the title and the strapline; they’re killers. We can be brainstorming for weeks sometimes but we always seem to get there in the end and it’s worth it when we hit on the right thing. Seeing the cover, title and strapline (a short, easily remembered phrase used by an organization so people will recognize it or its products) come together is when I really feel like my Word document has become a book.

Q. Are your characters based on people who you know?

A. No, never, although I do tend to use as a framework people I’ve met only fleetingly, but who have somehow made an impression on me – it might be a phrase of theirs, a physical mannerism, how they dress, their name, their physicality. I’ve just written next summer’s book looking at a torn-out magazine photograph of an actress modelling a jumper. I have no idea who she is and don’t wish to know either; the less I know about her the better. Bizarrely, in the other shots for the article, I had no reaction to her at all, but in this one image, she chimed completely with the new heroine I was trying to conjure and it was incredibly helpful to be able to glance at her as I wrote.

Q. In a blog post on the Pan MacMillan website about The Paris Secret, you mention as a writer:

“It’s not the headline images that ignite the imagination but the grainy snapshots of lives lived below the radar. They can be small and easy to miss, just like that apartment hidden in plain sight where no one ever thought to question why the curtains were never drawn”.

I found that idea interesting. Have all your story ideas come from “grainy snapshots?” Where else do you draw your ideas from?

A. I am such a big believer in seeing past the flash, the brash and the loud. If there’s a party, it’s not the disco queen I’m interested in, but the wallflower; if I see someone elderly, I don’t see their walking stick but wonder about the adventures of their youth. I always want to know what’s beneath the covers of people’s lives – who they once were or who they might have been. I’m endlessly fascinated by the effect of our environments upon us; every new place I go to, I ask myself ‘what would my life be like if I lived here? How would I be different?’ I think we all have the capacity to live numerous different lives, depending upon where we are and when; We are products of our environments and I think there’s something so liberating about knowing you could move somewhere new and ‘put on’ a fresh, new life. I’m currently living with my family in the English countryside, but as my children get older, I sometimes think I’d like to live next in a palazzo in Venice or a loft in Berlin. Why not?

Q. You have written stories set in Paris and in Rome, The Christmas Secret is set in Scotland. What is the research that goes into these books?

A. It’s become a bit of a virtuous circle really – I used to set my books in places I had already visited, as I could then ‘see’ them in my mind’s eye when I wrote; but with delivering two books a year, I fast ran out of locations and now have to actively think about where I’d like the next book to be set and then travel there for research. I don’t do tours or touristy things. I just pack my trainers and a bottle of water and walk and walk and walk. Getting lost is the best way to get to know somewhere in my opinion and I stop frequently to take photographs of local details – the colour of the letterboxes, car registration plates, front doors, trees and flowers, the birds…That kind of local flavour can’t be captured without having been there yourself and it stamps an authenticity on the story.

Q. What is your favourite place to visit?

A. Rome, without doubt. I love feeling the weight of history in places and I prefer all things in life to be a little faded and crumbling.

I’m not a fan of the new and shiny, so I’m a complete sucker for the tiny, winding streets, zippy Vespas, rickety bar tables set on cobbles…I go back any chance I get, looking up at the shuttered windows, balconies and roof terraces and wondering about the millions of lives – and love stories – that have been played out there, so many of them unnoticed or seemingly unremarkable. Yet I bet they weren’t.

Q. According to the profile on the Pan MacMillan website, you live in a forest in Sussex. What does that mean? Have you ever set or will you set a story from your home base?

A. I live in the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex and my house is only a mile away from AA Milne’s, where The Adventures of Pooh Bear was written. I spent my children’s childhoods telling them they were walking through the real and actual Hundred Acre Wood, but they didn’t believe me until they saw it in the film ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’! It’s such a stunning pocket of England and it attracts huge numbers of tourists – many of whom build Eeyore’s house of sticks in the woods. However, much as I love it, I think I would find it quite intimidating to take on the burden of representing somewhere that is so famously immortalized elsewhere in literature. I often use London as a setting though; my previous home, I know it so well and love the different vibes of the various districts. I think I will always return to writing books set in London.

Q. You mentioned in your acknowledgements of The Christmas Secret that a friend told an anecdote that provided the idea for this story. What was this anecdote? Why did you set the story on this Scottish island?

A. A good friend of mine runs a large company and was telling me about her business coach and how she helped her deal with the stress of such a big job. In passing, she mentioned that this coach had been employed by a household name company to ‘deal’ (I’m trying not to put any spoilers in here, for those who haven’t yet read the book) with a board member. My jaw dropped as she gave me the details because I knew it was an excellent hook for a book. In spite of my friend’s offer to meet her coach, I didn’t want to get any closer to the truth of that specific tale – I had to make the story my own and spin off in my own direction with it. Incidentally, I had been wanting to set a book in Scotland for a while and decided this was the right plot for it. And because the nature of my heroine’s job meant I would be setting the book in the business world, I researched the big Scottish industries and naturally, whisky was right up there. Deciding to set it on Islay came down to practicality more than anything else – there are several other big distillery centres across Scotland, but this was the only one clustered on an island and I immediately liked the sense of seclusion and community that implied. It also tapped into those feelings of coziness and retreat I mentioned earlier – snow storms, being cut off from the mainland, log fires…With all those different components in place, the bones of the story came together pretty quickly.

Q. What was the most enjoyable thing about writing The Christmas Secret? What was the hardest?

A. My father is Scottish and I spent much of my childhood in the Highlands so it really was a joy to let my mind fall back into those landscapes that I know and love so well. I think I’ve got several more Highland books in me yet.

This was a tricky book to write, however. I had to do a huge amount of research into what business coaches actually do and I interviewed my friend several times to get an insight into their sessions together. The practice is highly specialized and I’d never heard of some of the components – constellations, Socratic thinking and the like. It took me a while to really get to grips with the mindsets and language used by these professionals, which was crucial because so much of the action between the principal characters is played out during their sessions together.

At the same time, I was also intensively researching the 1918 SS Tuscania tragedy, which is a true event and forms the backstory to the book. There’s a scene where the stricken soldiers are thrown onto the rocks in a storm and I had to know what undergarments American soldiers in the First World War were supplied with (knitted vests and long johns). It was incredibly specific and much of what I read was so sad but I felt compelled to do my very best to remember and honour those men as we come up to the centenary anniversary.

Q. You had to become a “near expert” on whiskey and the distillery industry as well as non-verbal body language. What was harder to research? What was most or least enjoyable?

A. I found the psychology of non-verbal body language absolutely fascinating; it’s definitely something I‘d like to look into in even more detail and perhaps come back to in another book. I’m fascinated by anything that reveals hidden emotions and the heart, as in this age of social media and it’s portrayal of ‘perfection’, we’re all so clued-up on how to deflect from our vulnerabilities.

As for researching the whiskey industry, well, my father is a true single malt snob so I was able to benefit from his wisdom – and enjoy a dram or three with him, along the way.

Note: This story has been edited to remove events that have past.

Read my review of The Secret Path here.

Read my review of Swan’s, The Hidden Beach here.

Read my reviews of her other books by clicking here and searching Karen Swan on the search bar.