A publishing disaster led romance author Karen Swan into the schedule that’s made her an international bestseller, with two books a year – a summer one and a wintry snow-bound Christmas one that regularly make the UK top popular fiction lists.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and in Binge Reading today Karen talks about Midnight in the Snow, her latest Christmas blockbuster, set in a ritzy Austrian ski resort, as well as her new five-book historical fiction series, launching in 2022.
We’ve got three eBook copies of Midnight in the Snow to give away to three lucky readers. Make sure your name is there in the draw and be in to win, either by entering on our website www.thejoysofbingereading.com/giveaway or on our Binge Reading Facebook page.
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- The ‘disaster’ that became a breakthrough
- How Karen found her ‘sweet spot’ in fiction
- Her fascination with the Outer Hebrides
- The Italian writer she can’t get enough of
- How Lance Armstrong inspired her latest book
- The international appetite for snowy Christmas stories
Where to find Karen Swan:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
But now, here’s Karen.
Introducing women’s fiction author Karen Swan
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Karen, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Karen Swan: Hi Jenny. Thank you for having me today.
Jenny Wheeler: You have got a lovely program that you’re following, a very particular publishing program.
You’ve got 20 books that are international best sellers, highly successful, but you do two books a year, one in the summer and one at Christmas. Tell us how that evolved. Did you start out with that right from the beginning?
Karen Swan: No, definitely not. It all came about from a disaster. I had written my third book.
I’d had a two-book deal for my first two books and I came up with an idea for my third book for my new contract.
I was very nervous about it because it was slightly different from my first two books, but I felt strongly that for the first two books I’d been slightly copying other people in terms of what did I think was going to sell well to the market rather than telling the stories I wanted to tell.
Karen Swan on finding the sweet spot – books she really wanted to write
When it came to my new deal I had this story idea that was slightly different to the first two books, but I felt I had to go for it because I felt I couldn’t sustain a career writing books that I didn’t really want to write but felt I should. So, I took a punt and presented them with this book idea.
That book became Christmas at Tiffany’s and it was my first best seller. It did incredibly well, not just in the UK but across the world. It was this major success and it was so exciting to have broken through into the top 10, to have made it on my third book. I couldn’t believe it.
Then, of course, I had to follow up on my next book. By the time Christmas at Tiffany’s came out, I’d already written the other book. Christmas at Tiffany’s came out in the November and I submitted in the January and about two days later my editor came back to me and said, there’s a problem.
A bright idea that just didn’t work out so well
This was the worst thing I could hear because when you’ve had a book that has just done incredibly well, all you want is to do the same. To hear there’s a problem with the book I’ve just handed in was pretty galling. As a result of research into Christmas at Tiffany’s, I had been on the Tiffany’s website, finding a way I was going to use Tiffany’s in this book.
I had seen their charms on their website and this had given me an idea for a story that went on to become The Perfect Present, which was the book that followed up Christmas at Tiffany’s.
The problem was I decided to take a slightly dark backstory. Fundamentally the plot was fine. A woman, she’s a jeweler, she makes a charm bracelet for this woman. Her husband commissions her to make a charm bracelet for his wife and she has to go around and interview the most important people in this woman’s life – her best friend, her first boyfriend, her sister, all of this.
That was fine. You could see where the inspiration for that came from, from Tiffany’s. But I decided, as a backstory, as a twist, to have it that the woman was suffering from amnesia and she was being stalked by her marriage counselor. She and her husband had been having marriage problems and she was being stalked by her marriage counselor who’d become obsessed with her.
It was a random back thread I decided to weave into this very beautiful love story. The reveal was that she had amnesia and she was the wife and her husband was trying to reintroduce her to the people in her own life who she no longer remembered.
A genuine duplication – but to be safe she had to do a total re-rite
I just happened to do this back story that they’d been having marriage problems before her accident and that the marriage counselor become obsessed with her. When I handed it in in January, my editor said to me, have you read this book Before I Go To Sleep? I said no, but I’ve heard about it.
This woman with amnesia has to put post-its everywhere. I haven’t read it. It was about to be made into a film with Nicole Kidman. It was about to be a very high-profile film. They said, basically, it’s a woman who has amnesia and she was having an affair.
There was a very similar thread. Of course, mine was a love story and I just happened to slightly go down a rabbit hole with this dark twist, but they said, look, we know you haven’t copied S J Watson who’s written Before I Go To Sleep, but by the time this book comes out next November, the film will be out and everyone will think you’ve copied their story. She said, you’re going to have to completely rewrite.
It couldn’t have been a worse time for my family. My husband had had terrible trouble at work, he had been made redundant, my dog had just had puppies. Everything was going wrong, and suddenly they said, the maximum we can give you is six weeks to rewrite the book. If we’re going to get it on the shelves, that’s when we will need to send it to the retailers for them to choose, and of course, they really want to follow up on the success of Christmas at Tiffany’s.
A test she passed with flying colours – and it changed the way she works
I had six weeks. The book was 120,000 words long. I had to scrap everything bar 30,000 words. I had to repurpose everything. The bad guy in the first draft – he was the marriage counselor – then became the boyfriend in the new book and he was a good guy. Of course, at this point, when you’ve finished a book, the characters have settled in your mind. You know who they are. That’s the journey you go on, and I had to completely reimagine them all, and I had to lose the amnesia.
It was the worst thing that could have happened. I cried for about three days solidly, because the pressure now was immense. At least when I’d been writing the book originally, I didn’t have the stage fright because Christmas at Tiffany’s hadn’t quite come out, so I was able to write quite freely.
But then when you’re suddenly hearing that this book has done incredibly well across the world and you think and now you’ve messed up the next one and you’ve got to rewrite it, there’s an element of rabbit in headlights.
Anyway, long story short. I thought, right. Obviously I have got to get my book on the shelves next Christmas. I have got to stop crying. I have got to deal with this. What do I know? What can I use? Fundamentally my main character can remain the same girl minus the amnesia. I have got to come up with a different story, but I know the main character and that’s half the battle of writing any book, getting to know the characters along the way. So, I had a cast of characters that largely I could take with me. I just had to now drop them into an entirely different setting and story.
Author Karen Swan didn’t realize what she was capable of till tested
It was incredibly hard, but I set myself a strict deadline. I looked at the deadline they’d given me and I worked backwards and I worked out I could do it if I wrote 3,000 words a day, so 15,000 words a week, which is quite a lot, but I thought if I do that, then I will make the deadline and my book will be on the shelves next Christmas.
So, I did it. I sat down and it was a way of breaking past the panic and the chaos and the terror and saying, right, all I’ve got to do is the next 3,000 words, all I’ve got to do is the next 3,000 words, rather than calamity, oh my God, I have to write an entirely new book in six weeks.
What it made me realize was there was so much faffing around going on in my writing process before. I would wander around, cuddle the dogs, make a cup of tea, go for a walk, sit down and write a bit, get on the phone to a friend, thinking that the book would somehow just come. It doesn’t. The book comes when you stare at the screen and you force yourself to focus and put your head in that world. There are no shortcuts.
It really made me focus. I actually ended up handing the book in a bit early. I was about a week ahead of my deadline in the end because momentum took over. Honestly, it was a much better book than the original one. It’s one of my favorite books now.
A challenge that changed the way Karen Swan worked from then on
They said to me afterwards, you’ve actually done quite well there. Would you like to do two books a year going forward? I thought, yes, because it’s doubled the stress but it’s also doubled the fun. Being a writer is spending 99% of the time in a room on your own with just the dogs for company. But you get to publication time and you get to do things like this. You get to talk to people, you get to do book tours.
It’s exciting seeing how a book will do, so why wouldn’t you want to do that twice a year? So, it was victory snatched from the jaws of defeat and disaster.
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds wonderful. All of your books, whether they’re summer or Christmas, have evocative locations, but they have complicated love stories and often a twisting mystery underneath them that is a little bit dark. That is obviously something that appeals to you – this slightly complicated and involved plotting. They are part romance and part mystery, aren’t they?
Karen Swan: Yes. That’s how I think of them. It’s funny when people describe me as a romance novelist, because for me the romance is always obviously there – we have the story within the context of a romance – but because I write two books a year, there are only so many times I can fall in love. For me, the interest and the intellectual stimulation is always the plot, the story, and I’m always fairly keen that my main character saves herself in whatever situation she’s in. She’s not a damsel in distress. She’s not waiting for love to rescue her.
Romantic heroines that are not waiting for a man to rescue them
We love our leading man, whoever he is in any book, but the focus for me is always my leading lady, resolving her own issues and finding love along the way, incidentally. For me, that keeps it interesting because otherwise I think you’d fall into tropes of boy meets girl. When you’re writing as much as I am, and I do write quite long books, my books are quite big, so I need to keep the interest level up. There has to be more than their eyes met across a crowded room.
Jenny Wheeler: You have some very interesting backstories going on, which is one of the things I enjoy. The Christmas one this year, Midnight in the Snow, is set in an upmarket Austrian ski resort. I liked that because probably I will never get to see one of those resorts so you get that escapist aspect.
But it’s also all about the internationally competitive snowboarder scene and the surfing scene as well, because one of the characters starts out as an international competing surfer and has to switch to snowboarding because of various things that happen. How did you get the research for all of that stuff? There is a lot of interesting back knowledge in there.
Karen Swan: The idea for the story was sort of accidental. I was cooking and quite often when I’m cooking, I like to have a documentary running in the background that I don’t have to listen to too closely. I put on Lance Armstrong, and it was quite a long documentary. It was about three parts, and I kept forgetting to cook because I was so engrossed in this man’s story.
My husband’s always been into the Tour de France and always kept very close tabs on the story, but I never really did. To me, he was the guy who won the Tour de France loads of times in spite of having had cancer, then got caught out as a doping cheat. Then to listen to him talking about this, what really piqued my interest was the anger coming off this man, the hostility.
Inspired by a Lance Armstrong documentary to research super athletes
He is so furious because what’s happened is yes, he was a cheat, but so was everyone else. He was the poster guy and in a way, he took the fall for it. But he was the poster boy for alpine cycling. It was amazing the anger that came off him. I was watching him and seeing this real unlikeability. He was unapologetically ambitious to the point of unlikeability. He was so driven and unrepentant.
I thought, my God, here you are. You’ve got three hours of airtime in which surely you’re trying to make us like you and I completely loathe you. You’re terrible. You’re an awful person. I was gripped by it because I thought, is this the personality that you need to become a winner at this level? Is this what it takes to become an elite champion?
Then a couple of weeks later out comes the Oscar Pistorius story. Obviously that has a very different ending but, again, when he was talking about this athlete who has overcome terrible adversity, these physical challenges – in Lance Armstrong’s case it was cancer, in his case it was a physical handicap – there were real similarities between them. I thought, it’s so interesting having these antiheroes.
They are so unlikeable, but also I have tremendous sympathy for them, and I’m so interested in this conflict of feelings I have about them. It got me thinking. That would make a really interesting character, someone we start out hating, someone who is unapologetically ferocious in his ambition, and he will do whatever it takes to get to the top. That was the interest I came into the book with.
Researching the snow boarder scene on Instagram…
Then, of course, because it was a Christmas book. I’m so sorry for Australia because obviously for you Christmas is not snowy, but for 90% of my market it is, and they want the snow. The year before I had done Amsterdam so I wanted to get out of the city again and I wanted a natural landscape, so I needed a winter sport.
I thought, what sports can I have that are in the snow? I didn’t want to get involved with anything like bobsled racing because I wouldn’t know enough about that. But I am a skier. I don’t snowboard, but I began thinking about that.
I suddenly thought, how about surfing to snowboarding? Is that a thing? Because when you think about it, it must be. There is a lot of overlap. I started reading as much as I could online. I started following snowboarders and surfers on Instagram and then going through their feeds, looking at old interviews, doing as much reading as I possibly could. I watched films, I watched documentaries and it really is a thing. There is a big crossover between snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing.
It is easiest to go from surfing onto snowboarding because with surfing, you’re dealing with a moving surface. You’ve got to pop up on the board on a moving surface, and then you’ve got to deal with the wave. You’ve got to time the waves. There’s a lot of changing conditions. On the half pipe, you are strapped on the board. It’s static. You go down. I’m not saying it’s not difficult because of course it’s incredibly technical. No chance I could ever do it, but as an athlete coming from one to the other, that’s the way to do it.
Redeeming the fiercely competitive character into someone likeable
I did as much research as I possibly could and had to get quite technical about it. There’s still loads I don’t understand. Snowboarding terminology is very obscure. I’m not sure that half the snowboarders know what the terms mean. I had to give myself a glossary to work with that I would then refer to. I took the view that we don’t need to understand what an ollie is, or a switchback 360 is, when we’re watching the Winter Olympics. It’s all the excitement. It’s fine. They tell us these things, we watch and we enjoy the spectacle. I took that view as well.
Jenny Wheeler: Your character Kit Foley who we are talking about, you do make him quite ferocious and unlikable at the beginning, but there is always that suspicion, I guess because we know he’s the main character, that he’s going to be at least slightly redeemed somewhere along the way. It is part of the enjoyment of the story, how you manage to do that.
Taking you up on your point about the Southern hemisphere and snow, it’s funny because I have had this conversation with other writers as well. Even though we are in the sunshine at Christmastime, there’s something evocative about the idea of a white Christmas that makes those Christmas stories with snow on the cover still very attractive to us in this part of the world.
The story’s ending required many re-rites to get it feeling true
Karen Swan: Good. Of course, you guys obviously have beautiful mountain ranges in New Zealand. Yes, it was quite a challenge to make Kit vulnerable and likeable. Honestly, I was halfway through and I thought, I don’t know if I can do it because I’ve convinced myself he’s so hateful. How on earth do I unwind this?
The particular challenge was revealing his story and creating a conflict for Clover, my main character, in terms of having to put her career and her reputation on the line in relation to doing the right thing by him, but also in those final scenes to make sure he’s still fundamentally the man we see at the beginning. He doesn’t become soppy.
I had to write the final scenes so many times because I had to stay within his voice and it was really difficult to do that and to give him that ending and give the readers that ending, but also stay true to him. It was really hard, but I loved it.
Jenny Wheeler: That does raise another question I was going to ask you and that is, when you are doing these complicated plots, whether you know right at the beginning how it’s all going to work. From what you’ve said, it’s an unfolding story for you as much as the reader. I suspect that’s one reason they remain interesting all the way through, because you are interested in them all the way through.
Karen Swan: Completely. Anytime I’ve known a lot, it’s awful. I could literally tell the entire book in three chapters. All I want to do is get to that reveal. It’s a nightmare. It’s like the imp on my shoulder is jumping up and down and won’t be ignored. It’s like, leave me alone!
I do quite like being in the dark. I try not to overly plot because I think that if I am able to see six steps down the road, well, frankly, so can everyone else.
Romance readers are sophisticated readers and deserve respect
Readers are very sophisticated. Readers are exposed to a lot of narrative and fiction in their lives. We’ve all got Netflix and Sky and libraries and Kindle and audio books. We are exposed to so much now that readers have seen it all, heard it all. They are very good at predicting a twist.
There is the archetype of, there are only five stories or whatever. Well, that’s largely true, but my feeling is that every story is about the journey and not necessarily the destination. We all know who’s going to get together. The question is how they get there. How invested are we in their relationship by the time they get there?
I quite like getting to know my characters in a very organic way. I don’t like them to be prescriptive and I liked them to be flawed. I don’t want them to be archetypes. I don’t want them to be perfect or I hope not stereotypical. I’m very happy for them to be a bit unlikeable because I know that for me as a reader, if I’m invested in the story, I will work quite hard to find redeeming qualities in those characters, because I don’t believe we’re all good or all evil or all wicked. We all inhabit shades of gray and the interest is in picking out bits of both.
Jenny Wheeler: One of the other books of yours I read that I thought had an extremely interesting plot line was The Spanish Promise. It’s a dual timeline mystery set in both present day Spain and the years of the Civil War.
It’s simply Spain’s richest man is giving away his fortune to someone has family has never heard of. It was a wonderful way to introduce it all, and you made that particular possibility seem so real and possible as well. Where did the genesis of that come from?
The Spanish Promise – a dual timeline history reaching to Civil War
Karen Swan: That was quite a hard story. I was struggling to get that book together. I read two thick textbooks on the Spanish Civil War because I had done Modern History at A level.
I had done Stalinist Russia, I had done Hitler’s Germany and I had done Mussolini’s Italy, but I had never done Civil War Spain in 1936, which is the precursor to it all. I read these two books on the Spanish Civil War and I really wanted to tell a story.
What interested me as I was reading it was that Spain was so rigid in its camps – red or white army. I loved the idea of this family being split down the middle by these divided loyalties, and it was a really organic process.
I went into that story blind. Sometimes I go in and I know largely where I’m going. Other times I go mining. I literally go into the dark and I have to find the diamond in the dark somewhere.
I had to inch my way through with the characters and allow them to reveal themselves.
There is a big twist about a third of the way through, quite early on, which I didn’t see coming. I suddenly went, oh, because I had thought possibly that reveal would come at the end, but I realized I needed to have it so much sooner.
Lives based on misunderstandings
I won’t say what it is for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I don’t want to spoil it, but I thought, no, I’ve got to put that here. Then it re-balanced my narrative arc and instead of having maybe a high point 50% of the way through, it was a bit like a big top with the tent poles at 30% and at 60%-70%.
I love it when that happens, because it then re-calibrates the rhythm of the book and it means there’s no formula to where I’m writing it. So, I’m going with it. I have to say all the way through that book – and this is I think my favorite book – I kept thinking, how does she get to know what we will know? I’m being very careful about how I say this. I don’t want to spoil anything.
The strapline on that book is no one ever knows the whole story. That became the strapline because I suddenly realized that the pathos is she never does know the whole story and their lives have been lived based on misunderstandings.
That’s where all the pathos lies. In the final scene of the book, which is a continuation of the very first scene of the book – we come back to it – everything changes in the last two paragraphs. This tremendous sadness of what had to happen – it’s so hard to say it without saying it – for these two other characters to protect her. That’s all I can say, isn’t it? I can’t say more than that without revealing it.
Turning to Karen Swan as reader… and her favorites are…
But for me, I had goosebumps when I realized that that’s where the power of the book lay – in the fact that she doesn’t know it and she never did. Maybe it gets missed by most readers, but for me, I love, love, love that book.
Jenny Wheeler: I thought it was terrific too. We really are running out of time. It’s been terrific.
Karen Swan: I’m sorry. I do talk.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to you as a reader, Karen. When you started out reading those Civil War books, did you do that for your own fun and the story developed, or did you already have an idea to write a book about the Spanish Civil War? I’m interested in your reading tastes. We’ll move on to that.
Karen Swan: I did read them with the view to writing a book, so I read them to educate myself because it was a gap in my knowledge. Frankly, once I started I was so fascinated and I filled a huge book with my notes. I effectively had to teach myself about the Spanish Civil War, and once I understood the issues and the dividing lines, then I was able to drop characters and a plot within that, because I had a working knowledge to manipulate.
Favorite of all time – Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series
In terms of my taste, I have to say that my favorite ever series is the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which are based in 1950s Naples. Honestly, I could just bite down on those books and eat them. I lived and breathed that world so wholly that I’m devastated that it’s ended and I’m not there with them, and I’m living in Sussex in the British countryside with my husband and children and two dogs.
I loved the grittiness of it, I loved the complication of the two women’s friendship and what she did by showing that. We always assume that the most important relationship in your life is with your romantic partner, whoever that may be. Elena Ferrante shows it’s this woman’s best friendship. It’s their friendship and their love and also their rivalry and sometimes their hatred of each other.
It is this intense burning relationship in both women’s lives. It’s more than their romantic partners. It’s more than their children. It’s all consuming. I loved it for that. It’s so imperfect and flawed and tortured and joyous and painful and I thought, my God, this is the most real thing I’ve ever read in my life. If I read nothing else, it would be that.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s gorgeous. Looking ahead for you personally over the next 12 months, what have you got on your desk? What are you working on now?
Karen Swan: What I’m really excited about and I just finished it – next summer I’ve got coming out the first book in a series of five. It’s coming out in hardback first of all which is new for me and that’s really exciting.
Coming up from Karen – a new five book Hebrides historical series
It’s a historical series. It’s set in 1930, one summer, August 1930, and it’s based on the evacuation of St Kilda. St Kilda is the outermost of the Outer Hebrides. It’s a tiny island, two and a half miles long, two and a half miles wide, a hundred miles off the Scottish mainland. It had been inhabited for 4,000 years by humans and in the summer of 1930, at the villagers’ request, they were evacuated by the British government and came over to the mainland.
There were only 36 Islanders remaining at that point for various reasons. They had tipped below critical mass because they had no communications with the outside world, they didn’t have a regular postal service, they didn’t have a radio mast. Between the months of September and April every year, the island was impassible to all but trawler ships or the Navy. The seas were too wild, so they were completely cut off.
Their harvest had failed and the way they would survive was by scaling the sea cliffs which were the highest in the British Isles, and they’re vertical. They would scale the sea cliffs to catch the sea birds and their eggs and they would live off that. But out of 36 Islanders, there was only a handful who were able bodied. The others were either elderly or they were children, and they simply couldn’t sustain themselves when their crops were failing. The end had come.
My family is Scottish. My father’s Scottish. I was married in Scotland. I was christened in Scotland. All my summers were spent in the Highlands, so I identify very strongly with being Scottish. My surname is MacLeod. Actually, it’s Swan MacLeod, which is from MacSwan MacLeod. That’s where the Swan comes from. It was the MacLeods who owned St Kilda.
St Kilda – the island that could not continue as a settlement
That wasn’t a reason to do it, but again, it was another point of interest. I spoke to my father about it. There was a tiny article in the Times newspaper saying 90 years since St Kilda gave up. It was a tiny little black and white photo, an inch and a half square, of these very dour looking men with beards and curious clothes, looking at the camera, against these tiny stone cottages.
The headline was 90 years after St Kilda gave up. It was the fact that they said “gave up” rather than 90 years since St Kilda evacuated. The idea that they gave up piqued my interest. I did my research. I got over there. It’s a four-hour boat journey nowadays to get there, but back then it was a 12-hour crossing and only when the weather was good.
I was fascinated. I’ve basically got five books, each book set around one girl on the island. They are, of course, all neighbors, friends, in some cases relations to each other, and there’s a mystery. The first book is called The Last Summer. We start in May 1930 and the Earl of Dumfries – who eventually went on to buy St Kilda from MacLeod, who was the landlord – came over to visit with his son.
The first book is centered around a girl called Effie Gillies, and she falls in love with Lord Sholto, who is the son of the Earl of Dumfries. He was a very keen ornithologist so she guides them around the isle for a week. We then cut to three months later, the evacuation scene, and then her life in the weeks following the evacuation, when the body of the factor is found, the factor being the estate manager for Macleod. He had gone missing during the evacuation and a week or so after the evacuation, his body is found on the island.
As always – the story behind the story fascinates author Karen Swan
That becomes a mystery as to what happened to him and who was involved, and it follows the story of the five women who are all interlinked.
Jenny Wheeler: That is amazing that you could turn that into a five-book series.
Karen Swan: Well, there’s so much information. It’s really fascinating. Again, I did an absolute ton of research. I was up in Scotland about three weeks ago and I popped into this museum in Fort William in the Highlands where my family lived. I had been doing some research and I knew that they had some relics of St Kilda.
It was stuff I’d seen before, but I wanted to go in and see it anyway. I went in and they had what they call a St Kilda mailboat, which is what the islanders would use because they didn’t have a postal service. They would use a sheep’s bladder as a buoy. They would inflate that. There were no trees on the island so wood was incredibly scarce and a rarity, but obviously there would be shipwrecks or driftwood would come along and they would hoard whatever wood they could find.
An unusual way of sending letters – in tiny carved wooden boats
They would carve little boats, tiny little vessels, a couple of inches long. They would hollow it out and they would use fulmar oil to create a protective seal and they would put their letters inside the hollowed-out wood.
They would then seal it with the oil and when they had a favorable current and wind direction, they would inflate the sheep bladder and toss it into the sea.
76% of the time the mailboat would land up on the Isle of Lewis, 60 miles away across the North Atlantic. Sometimes they’d end up in the Faroe islands or Norway, depending on the winds.
I had seen a St Kilda mailboat before, but they had one and I looked at it. It was in one of the display cabinets right at the back of this tiny, tiny museum. It was right on the bottom so I had to kneel on the ground to have a look at it.
There was a little explanation behind it and right at the very end, the last sentence, as I’m literally lying on the ground with my cheek on the floor, trying to read this thing that probably no one but me has ever read, it had this sentence that I was like, oh my God, that’s book five.
It was this one sentence that opened it up, because I had plotted all the way through to book four and I knew book five would come, but I didn’t know the details of it yet. I had some details, but not all of it. Then, literally, in this random, tiny little museum in the west Highlands having to lie on the floor with my face on the ground, I found the thread that has opened up the last book in the series.
What author Karen Swan will be up to in the next twelve months
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Are you doing those as well as keeping up your schedule of the two books a year with the others?
Karen Swan: I’ll continue doing my Christmas books as standalone, so for the next five years the St Kilda series will be my summer book. I’m very excited about that.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. We have run out of time. Where can your readers find you online and do you enjoy interacting with your readers?
Karen Swan: Yes. I absolutely love it. I would implore people to find me at Instagram on @swannywrites. I find Twitter quite a hostile place, so I don’t tend to post on there, although I do check in and I will retweet and go back to people if they’ve come to me through there, but I don’t tend to post on there.
Facebook also I find quite obscure. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s linked to my personal account but picking up messages is always so involved. I have to log in separately each time and then I can’t find it. If someone’s put a comment on an old post, I’m not automatically directed to it. I have to go hunting for it. It’s hard for me to keep in touch on Facebook.
But I’m on Insta every day and I make a point of absolutely connecting with people on Insta. So that’s the place.
Where to find author Karen Swan online
Jenny Wheeler: Do you post photographs as well?
Karen Swan: I do, yes. I’m pretty terrible. My poor publicity department I think just tear their hair out because I don’t like to do a hard sell so I don’t post lots and lots about the books. I talk around them. I’ll give people stories about the research trip I took to that place and I’ll show them photos, but I don’t like to bore people.
Jenny Wheeler: But I think that’s what people like. Out of interest, you can still go as a tourist to the island, can you?
Karen Swan: Yes you can. It’s owned now by the National Trust. It was sold to the Earl of Dumfries, and then I think in 1956 he bequeathed it to the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the National Trust are there now. Also, the Ministry of Defense, which is not great, but it is a UNESCO world heritage site so it’s very protected.
You can’t stay there. It’s a four-hour crossing, you get four hours to stay there and then it’s four hours back. It’s a pretty intense journey. It’s a 12-hour day and the seas are big. It’s hard, but so worth it. It feels like such a privilege to have been there, it really does. It’s incredibly special.
Jenny Wheeler: Once again, if you got photographs there, very few people are going to be able to do that themselves.
Karen Swan: Exactly. What I’m going to do when the book comes out is I’m going to create a highlights reel or a highlights tab. I’ll put my photos there so that people can come in, have a good look around and see what I saw and hopefully get a real sense of the place because it’s quite extraordinary.
It’s like a bowl, this beautiful green bowl, but it’s absolutely vertical on the outside cliffs and it shelves down to this tiny little beach. You’ve got these beautiful, historic, very low stone cottages that fan around the bay and then their plots running down to the beach.
A special fascination with a deserted island – now a nature sanctuary
What’s really special about St Kilda is they have these stone structures called cleits. They’re like beehives, stone beehives, and these were their stores. They would put the peat there because obviously there was no firewood, so they would cut peat for their fires and store their peat there. They would store bird carcasses there, they would pluck the birds for their feathers. That was part of their rent agreement with MacLeod.
When they caught the fulmars, the birds store an oil in their stomachs and in the days before electricity, they would use the fulmar oil for lamps. This was all part of the rental obligations to MacLeod, so they needed places to store their goods. There are something like 1,400 cleits across the island. They are everywhere. Some are bigger than others, historic stone structures and it’s a child’s paradise. It’s idyllic when the weather’s beautiful.
When I was there the weather was gorgeous, but there are no trees, there’s no shelter, and the winds. You can imagine a hundred miles off the mainland of Britain in the North Atlantic, going up towards the Faroe islands. The winds there are wild and the Islanders in the winter would be deafened by the winds, literally be deafened, because they would howl and scream around this caldera. It was inescapable. An incredibly severe place to live.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic, Karen. We will look forward to that book with great anticipation. Thank you so much. It’s been fantastic to talk.
Karen Swan: Thank you, Jenny. What fun. I really enjoyed it.
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