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Karen Swan is a favorite with binge reading listeners. Her appearance on the show at Christmas time last year was one of the most listened to episodes of 2022.
So it’s great to have her back on our Encore program. That’s the one where people who’ve already been on the show, come back to talk about their latest book and for Karen it’s her latest holiday special, The Christmas Postcards.
In case you’re asking yourself why a show that ran in December, 2021 is in the 2022 best of lineup, it’s because we have to take the stats from December 1 of each year, December 1st, 2021 to December 1st, 2022, to give us time to produce a show by January one.
Next week, we’ll start posting the top 15 for 2022 and we’re dividing it over two weeks, so there’s not too much to listen to in one show each week. You’re getting excerpts from a great range of genres from romance to thriller, women’s fiction to historicals. So don’t miss it. That’s just the way it all came together. I didn’t do any tweaking
Books Giveaway – Enter the Draw
Giveaway with 40 romances that make for great holiday reading, including my three holiday novellas pack.
Enter the giveaway by clicking here 👉 https://www.booksweeps.com/giveaway/december22-
Plus a new E reader to be won, in total, $450 in value. Links for how you enter that plus anything else that you might want to find out and link to, in the show notes for this episode on the joys of binge reading.com.
Enter the giveaway by clicking here 👉 https://www.booksweeps.com/giveaway/december22-
And don’t forget if you enjoy the show, leave us a review so others will hear about us too.
Links to things mentioned in the episode:
Links to things mentioned in this episode
Nicole Kidman film: Before I Go To Sleep, from a novel by S. J. Watson.
S. J. Watson novel of same name: https://www.sjwatson-books.com/
The Hard Way: Chris Bonington – Documentary on climbing the south face of Annapurna.
Chris Bonington: https://www.bonington.com/
Where to find Karen Swan online
But now here’s our show.
Introducing international author Karen Swan
Jenny Wheeler: Karen, you were last with us in December, 2021, talking about your very successful international career and last year’s Christmas book. You’ve made a real, terrific story of doing two books a year, one for summer, and one for Christmas.
Could you just recap for us, before we get into The Christmas Postcards, tell us how that pattern got established.
Karen Swan: It all really happened because of me majorly messing up, it wasn’t ever anything on my horizon at all, but Christmas at Tiffany’s, which was my third book, had just come out and done amazingly well all over the world. This book was a bestseller. It was so unexpected to me.
It was amazing experience and it meant that there was quite a lot of pressure to follow up strongly.
At that point it was taking me a year to write a book. Christmas at Tiffany’s had come out in November. I was handing my book into them for the following year in January.
And as I handed it in in January, my editor starts reading it and she said, ‘We have a problem.’
And I was like, ‘oh no,’ no writer wants to hear that. There’s a problem with the manuscript, especially when you’ve just had a really big hit. And it wasn’t even the main thrust of the story that was the issue.
Going head to head with Nicole Kidman
It was that in writing my book, which became known as The Perfect Present, I was writing about a woman originally with amnesia and. I decided to give it a slightly darker twist and have her being stalked by someone in her life, which isn’t particularly romantic fiction, but it was just a sort of a back thread.
It was an element of menace. Unfortunately for me, there was a book that had come out in hardback and it was about to come out in paperback, but it had also been optioned by a major Hollywood studio. Nicole Kidman was in it.
I mean, it was major and that book, that film was…. What was it called? Don’t Look Now? No. Was it that? What was it called? I never even read it. It was when she has amnesia and oh The Nicole Kidman film…
Jenny Wheeler: Before I Go To Sleep. That was the name of it, I think Karen. Before I Go To Sleep. (Editor note)
Karen Swan: Anyway, the longer story short is that this was a very similar vibe to that, and my editor said, look, I know you haven’t copied this.
You’ve been writing this book for the last year. The film hasn’t come out yet, but by the time your book comes out, the film will be out and everyone will think you’ve copied it.
And I was like, oh this is a nightmare. And she said, you’re going to have to completely rewrite it. I said, what do you mean I’m going to have to completely rewrite?
Sitting and crying as she wrote
And this is January. She said at the absolute latest, we can get the book out and get all the promo done and sell it out to the stores.
The absolute latest we have to have it by is April. And I was like, you have to be joking. And they were not joking and I’m crying, I’m sobbing down the phone.
I just had to sit down. I’d probably written about 110,000 words which I had to go through. I could only keep about 30,000 words.
I had to take characters who’d been bad and make them good. In my mind’s eye, I had to totally flip the switch on them and see them in an entirely different way, which is so hard because when you are writing the first draft of a book, you are getting to know your characters and their stories.
To just junk all that and start afresh was appalling and it was horrific and I couldn’t stop crying, but I also had no choice but to sit there crying at the keyboard every single day for six, seven weeks.
And actually in the end, I handed the book in early, earlier than I was expected to.
And I have to say the book was so much better as a result of it. And it made me realize I spent so much time faffing about wandering around the house, playing with the.
Thinking all that feels a bit hard. I’ll have a wander around the garden and see whether I can work it out and of course I wouldn’t cause I’d, go and sit in the sun or something.
A discover – Karen Swan works better under pressure
I’ve realized that actually you do your best work under pressure or I do, under pressure with focus, with intensity and no distraction
Sit down and do it, you know, bum glue, sit on the chair, stare at the screen until your eyes bleed and keep typing and even if you edit out half of it, it will still move you on.
It was not a fun process, but it was very illuminating and it made me realize that I work better in that very driven way.
And after that, my editor read it and said, we love it. How do you feel about doing two a year? Because I love doing the Christmas books, but it can be limiting if you can only write about one time of year, you’ve always got to have that lovely, warm vibe that people want.
And I thought, well, I want to do that, but also more things as well. So, it allowed me to have, an opportunity to do that really. But it’s jolly hard.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, I bet it is. But what a great discovery to make, and I must admit, I admire your basic tenacity because probably a lot of people would’ve just fallen over at that point and said, I can’t do that, and dropped out of the whole race. So good on you.
Karen Swan: Yes, it was sheer desperation. We had a young family. I had just done well with a book. You’re so desperate to be successful. There are so many people who want to do what I’m doing and to have had this opportunity and to then feel like I was going fumble the ball…
I was like, I’ve got to turn this around.
Tradition of exotic locations – Nepal this time round
Jenny Wheeler: Now The Christmas Postcards maintains the tradition that you have for exotic locations because it’s partly set in Nepal.
And I must say I loved the parts of the book set in Nepal because there was a feeling of reality about the Nepal part of it.
Not that there wasn’t about the rest of the book, but it had a real freshness that it felt like you had gone treking there yourself.
And I wondered, have you actually treked in Nepal?
Karen Swan: I haven’t, but, and it’s a big but, my brother was a climber, is a climber. He climbed Virgin Peaks in the Andes. He did the Alps. He’s been all around America at all the national parks. Done Yosemite, you name it.
So I grew up with crampons on the kitchen table, ice axes in the cloakroom ropes on the stairs, just, I grew up with kit around me.
And with a Scottish background, we were in the Highlands of Scotland and all our holidays we had a cottage in the Highlands.
My brother would get up before dawn to go and climb the north face of Ben Nevis, and be there for breakfast. He’d be up on the top, having a bacon sandwich for breakfast.
The benefits of having a mountaineer brother
So that was my brother and I’ve seen all his Cine films. When he was on his Gap year in Yosemite in one of them, he had got a rope between a cliff face and effectively a rock spire.
And he had pulled the rope taut and he was climbing on a harness, he had a harness of his waist and he was climbing across on it.
And then he stops halfway across on this rope high up in Yosemite, and he’s got this old Cine film, from the 1970s, it belonged to our aunt and uncle. And you get this very jerky sort of filming with Cine.
And of course, it’s silent as well. We didn’t have sound, anyway, and he bent backwards, took his hands off the rope, lent backwards, and you could see this perspective upside down.
And I got this real sense of what it was to be up there at altitude. It was astonishing. I’d always had that perspective and love mountains and so what I was wanting to do was to really juxtapose two people who had made entirely different life choices.
You’ve got Natasha, and she’s chosen this very safe path. A very cozy little town, back in her hometown, raising a young family, trying to make her marriage work, and knowing that really on paper, she’s got what a lot of people want, but her life is quite small and she’s becoming aware of that.
Then I’ve chosen this man, Duffy, who is happy go-lucky. He’s easy in his bones, but he’s also driven by something darker. And we start off with him, on a trek, he’s not on some crazy rampage.
A You Tube discovery that helped the research
We see him just hanging out, he’s on the bus. He’s hanging out with the tourists and they’re racing ahead to do this and do that, but for him the journey is the destination and he’s taking his time.
He’s a loner. He’s doing it on his own. He’s in no rush, but we gradually have this sense of he’s moving towards something and he’s also moving away from something.
I wanted to have that feeling build with him and this sense of actually things becoming more extreme with him, with his landscape.
In this day and age, we’re so lucky. I mean, you go onto YouTube, there are literally travel bloggers who will have a camera on their shoulder, and you can literally do the Annapurna base camp circuit with them every step.
And so, I did. I sat for hours. And I would just freeze frame every few seconds.
What are the plants I’m seeing here? How is the landscape changing? What color are the signs? What are the animals we’re seeing? When does the weather change?
When do we have a sense of him being in the Himalayas? Because actually for a lot of it, when we think of the Himalayas, you think of it from distance, but when you’re in it, you just feel like you’re in a wood or in a forest.
You don’t often get those big viewpoints where you get the perspective. I really wanted that juxtaposition. And then finally, where I really got lucky was that I was like, okay, I’ve got him to Annapurna Base Camp.
Now we’re getting up one route. And there’s various Annapurna mountains routes, and I was like, well, which one?
But I chose Annapurna one because it’s the most deadly mountain, it’s got the highest death rate. And I thought, okay, there we go.
And I thought, well, if you’re base camp, which side of the mountain are you on? And I had to work all that out, which was not that easy.
Chris Bonington archival footage
And as luck would have it, I thought, okay, so he’s going do this ascent. And I found on YouTube, there was a climber in the seventies called Chris Bonington, a British climber, and he led the first virgin ascent of the south face up out of Annapurna one. Would you believe it? Back in the seventies, they took a film crew.
They had footage. And so again, I managed to find some maps from, climbing sites online of where the camps are on the mountains.
And then I was able to go into Chris Bonington’s, and you can see this on YouTube, you can see it yourself, and you could see again, the landscape that they’re moving through and where the peril was, what the risks were, where they were in going to be in danger.
And that then informed, obviously my high point scenes. So, although I haven’t been up there, I have emotionally, I’ve really treked it with people who’ve done it.
But I actually would love to do it. It is something I would love to do. Not actually up Annapurna, no, but I would love to do the base camp.
Characters feeling let down by life
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. Now, both of these characters also have a sense of dissatisfaction with their lives, even though both of them, others might look at them and, be jealous of them. Think that they’ve got it made. I was curious about that as well.
Do you think that often we avoid home truths about our lives just to enable us to keep moving along.
And, I wondered if maybe at Christmas time that boils to the surface. You either take stock of your life around about that time or else you have high expectations of Christmas and it doesn’t quite live up to it.
Do you feel as if your life isn’t what you wanted it to be? Is that making too much of it? Is it a bit philosophical? Might it be possible that people do that”
Karen Swan: I think so. I think change is difficult. Whatever your life and your circumstances when you feel deep inside that there’s something fundamentally wrong or something fundamentally missing.
It’s a very difficult thing to take on board and accept. And I think there can be long periods of denial, and with both characters, I think that Natasha is in denial and she’s trying to make this marriage work and she’s overlooking a lot of obvious issues.
I think with Duffy actually he has faced his demons and he is moving towards what he believes is his destiny.
New Year is ‘divorce season’
He feels like he’s done, that he can’t find the happiness he wants and, he feels that he’s got to go and face his past, which has been haunting him.
And, that’s the way he’s dealing with it. And he’s prepared to lose everything to do that. So, he’s facing it. She’s not, but they’ve had this series of near misses and glancing blows where they’ve met, they’ve nearly met.
I wanted this slightly rolling sense of destiny between them. And yes, I think with, Christmas, no one thinks, oh, I really, I must get the house in order. And everything needs to be perfect for Easter, for example. Christmas, isn’t it, even if you’re not Christian.
I hope I’m not making, sweeping generalizations to say this, but it seems to be a pause button largely from many people in the world.
A time when they stop, everyone has a holiday. Families are reunited, everyone’s together, and you’re chasing that. It’s that moment where you want life to be perfect.
And I think it’s no coincidence that, there’s a lot of divorces that happen in the New Year, following Christmas. People contacting solicitors in the new year because of that realization over Christmas that is not working. I think that it does all coalesce.
Rituals of Christmas book readers
Jenny Wheeler: I wondered if you have any feedback from your readers about whether they have any rituals about reading Christmas books.
A few weeks back, I talked to Faith Hogan about her Christmas book and she said that she had this little ritual she did every year where she bought a special, Christmas book to read, and she doesn’t touch it until Christmas Eve.
She settles down with a glass of wine on Christmas Eve and starts to read, and I thought that was really quite amusing. Do you have any stories like that, that you’ve heard from readers? That they anticipate your box and make it a little ritual of reading them?
Karen Swan: I do, and this is the problem because sometimes I think, and I felt this recently, I’ve been so busy with major edits and I thought, gosh, this isn’t sustainable.
I’m going to have to drop back to one book a year. I can’t do both. And then I think, but which one do I drop? Because the problem I have, although I feel that the summer book gives me more creative freedom, so many people tell me the Christmas book heralds their Christmas countdown.
For some people the book comes out and they’re like, yes, now I know it’s the ‘Countdown to Christmas.’ And that’s their ‘we’re in the starting blocks,’ others. They buy it and they say, no, I’m not touching it, but I know it’s there, but I’m not touching it until 1st of December or Christmas Eve.
And then other people say to me, I always reread your books – and it’s Christmas at Tiffany’s or The Perfect Present, that’s a lot of people’s favorite books.
The new summer book – a Scottish historical
And, they say, I reread that every single year. And I think, you know the story better than I do at this point.
But, it’s amazing that people do that, I think because, they’re making my long word document that I’m sitting in my study tapping out, that’s a part of their actual life and their ritual and their happiness.
And to be honest, to be part of that is amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop doing Christmas books,
Jenny Wheeler: That’s gorgeous. We do make these Encore, episodes a little bit shorter than the normal ones, so let’s move on to talking about your other books this year because you mentioned last year you were starting a new historical fiction series set on the Scottish Island of St. Kilda.
You’ve now published the first in that series. So tell us a bit about that.
Karen Swan: I have to say I loved that so much. It’s set on St. Kilda in the summer of 1930. St. Kilda is the outermost of the Outer Hebrides, so it’s 100. miles off the Scottish Mainland, and it really is a two-mile-long rock in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.
It had been populated first by the Vikings, and it had been populated for 2000 years.
But the world was industrializing. They were getting modern technology and St. Kilda was being left behind. They were a Gaelic speaking community. They had no comms at all with the outside world. The World War had happened, they had some, because the Navy were stationed there.
St Kilda – the wind swept ‘wild island’
But they were very much not a part of the modern world and they petitioned the British government and asked to be evacuated.
And so the book The Last Summer is the first in a series of four or five books in which we follow four or five women, and it is around the events of the last night before evacuation, when a very powerful man goes missing.
And it’s all about what has happened to him and the women’s involvement in it. Each book is one woman’s story.
St Kilda is known as the wild island. And I see each woman has a wild element to her. In The Last Summer, my girl Effie, she’s a wild spirit, she’s a real tomboy
In the book I have literally just an hour ago sent into my editor, which is the follow up that’s called The Stolen Hours, and we follow a girl called Mhairi.
And she is a wild heart. The next will follow a girl called Flora, and she is wild beauty, and they each have their own wildness and their own story, but they’re all interconnected around this central mystery, and it’s been fascinating for me, first of all, to write a fully historical novel.
It’s all set in 1930. There’s no modern day narrative. But it still reads easily. it doesn’t feel difficult to read. It feels like still a very approachable book, but it’s around this tiny island community.
Where to find Karen Swan online
I love doing the research and I’m loving the logistics of writing a series and having to make everything, threading it together and, you pick up plot points and threads that you laid down in Book one.
You pick them up in book two and you have to set them down for book three. So, it’s a good mental challenge,
Jenny Wheeler: And so this is going to be your, effectively, your summer book for the next few years. Is it?
Karen Swan: Exactly.
Jenny Wheeler: Mm-hmm… Yes. Santa Montefiori has been on the show, a few months back and she gave it a fantastic review, so I’m sure there’d be a lot of people that would spark their interest.
She said that it gave you love, passion, drama, violence, menace, and peril and characters you want to fall in love with.
I think you’ve done some good work there, haven’t you?
Karen Swan: Oh, Santa’s so lovely. It was so generous of her to say that. And, I’m a huge, huge fan of her books and, that was a real thrill to, to see that she liked it.
Jenny Wheeler: Karen, whereabouts can readers find you online? And do you like to interact with your readers online?
Karen Swan: Yes, definitely. Instagram is the best place to get hold of me and my handle is at @Swannywrites.
I’m not great on Facebook because I find it really hard to navigate if someone posts a comment embedded further down in an old post I will get a notification, but I go in and I just can’t find it and I find it really frustrating.
So I’ve actually put on Facebook, ‘I’m not on here.’ What happens with Facebook is that it is linked to my Instagram account, so anything I place on Instagram will go to Facebook, but I’m not actually active on there.
It’s Instagram where I go on every day. I check in on messages and I really.
I try really hard, if someone has taken the time to reach out and contact me, I will always, come back to them I love chatting with everyone.
It’s really vital for me to see what people are responding to, the good and the bad. No one wants to have someone saying, you are appalling, I hated it.
Listening when you sometimes might not like what you hear
But equally, you do have to know if you’re not hitting the mark. People obviously can do it respectfully and nicely, but it’s that thing of I want to know what people want so that I can, appeal to them.
I’ll still write my books my way, but you’ve got to be realistic.
You can’t please all the people all the time, and you’ve got to be a bit thick-skinned and go, okay, they didn’t like it.
I’ll bear that in mind when I’m writing. They didn’t like this element. I remember I had a reader. So I need more love, I need more romance.
Because I was getting historical, I think I just written in The Paris Secret and then The Spanish Promise and I was loving all my historical research and I suppose, because I write two books a year, sometimes I feel like I’m writing about love a lot and I’m like, don’t say he looked at her again.
I’m bit wary, sometimes of it and I thought, Nope, Karen. Get your head back in there, you’ve got to start falling in love again, because that’s what people want. And so, I made a real focus on that for the next book and made sure that I did that.
Jenny Wheeler: We’ll make sure we get your link for the Chris Bonington film too.
Karen Swan – and Happy New Year to all our readers
.Karen Swan: Yeah, I will get that to you. Because honestly, it’s fascinating, I could not believe my luck to find that. what were the chances?
And, if it’s got like 10,000 views, 9,000 of them are me. Because I would look up before and I’d go, oh, I need to look at that ice wall again, I was tapping between maps and routes and this footage.
And honestly and truly, I was sitting down and in my head, I was fully there. My hands were cold, you know.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Karen Swan: Fabulous. Thank you, Jenny. I love coming on here. Thank you so much.
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE AND THANKS SO MUCH FOR LISTENING THIS YEAR!!!
If you enjoyed hearing about Karen’s books you might also enjoy…
Rhys Bowen’s Christmas series – historical mysteries set in the 1930s
Next Week on Binge Reading 2022’s Top Shows
Next week on binge reading: seven of the top books that made the Top 15 for 2022. These are the ones that you chose to listen to, a great range of favorites for you to pick up on if you missed any of them, or you’re looking for fresh inspiration about what to read next. That’s on the joys of binge reading for next week.
That’s it for today. See you next time and happy reading.