Interview with Karen Swan
It’s probably no secret that I read a lot of historical fiction. When you host a podcast titled New Books in Historical Fiction, that comes with the territory—and, of course, I took on the podcast channel because that’s the genre that interests me most. But even I don’t read only historical novels. I’m a sucker for mysteries featuring (or narrated by) cats, most of which are contemporary, and although the days when I devoured romance novels by the carton are long gone, I still enjoy a good modern-day story based on relationships—whether friendship or love. This week’s interview with the prolific and bestselling author Karen Swan grows out of that interest.
Swan’s Christmas by Candlelight—due out on October 17, 2023—reached me by a rather circuitous route: the author has a second series, The Wild Isle, set in Scotland in the 1930s, of which book 2, The Last Summer, came out a few months back. At the time, I had no space in my schedule and, in fact, no time to read anything I hadn’t already contracted to take on, but when I learned that the same author had a Christmas-themed book due out this fall, I agreed to take a look. At first, misled by the “candlelight” in the title, I assumed that too was historical, but I soon realized my mistake. Still, a modern-day group of friends stranded in a rural English mansion over Christmas sounded good to me, and I was not disappointed. Karen Swan kindly agreed to answer my questions, and the results are below.
You are the author of more than twenty novels, ten of them Christmas novels. In fact, you put out two per year. Where do you find the time?
Good old-fashioned bum glue! Nothing beats the discipline of just sitting down and staying sitting down, staring at that screen, until the words come. Sometimes they flow, other times it’s like pushing a house up a hill, but sadly books don’t write themselves and you have to commit the hours. It’s easier now my children are older and I’m not running around for school runs, sports matches, errands, and play dates in the same way, but I find having a routine really works for me. I like to walk my two dogs on the Ashdown Forest (“birthplace” of Winnie The Pooh), have breakfast, then head to the study. Often, as deadlines approach I have to work weekends too, and writing seven days a week for a month or more isn’t uncommon, which is pretty grueling, but I wouldn’t change it. I know how lucky I am to get paid to do something I love, and it feeds my soul being able to live in my head like this.
Christmas by Candlelight opens at Durham University in April 2014, with your main narrator, Elizabeth Pugh (Libby, Libs), in the library. Sketch that scene for us, please, in terms of what it reveals about your characters right away.
The scene is set a few minutes from midnight in the uni library and from the off, it shows Libby as being slightly set apart from the other girls: she’s working hard while they’re off clubbing. There’s great camaraderie between them all, but although Libby’s their housemate she’s not necessarily part of their social circle, so from the very beginning, we have a sense of otherness.
Libby is a bit of an outlier within this group in terms of being less privileged and therefore more driven. How do you see her, as a personality?
She views herself, in the elite Durham landscape, as a Have Not: she’s not sophisticated or cool, rich or posh; she’s romantically naïve and a little lonely. However, what she is, is hugely focused and ambitious. Her drive to succeed is a direct result of her upbringing, in which she has gone without and watched her parents struggle to make ends meet—and that is presented as a positive. It isn’t a chip on her shoulder and she’s not chasing “things” but following a dream; deprivation has given her a goal and a reason to get up every morning. The other characters, for all their privilege, don’t necessarily have purpose, and beneath the outwardly glamorous hedonism, there’s a sense of chaos and drift, of being rudderless.
And what can you say about her relationship with Max, who is traveling with her in 2023?
Max is a man who ticks all the boxes—like her, he’s successful in the corporate world, driven and sophisticated. He’s a Cambridge graduate, a true-blue winner, and an endorsement, if you like, of her successful journey to the top. She would have seen him as out of her league at university, but she’s reached all her goals now, and he is proof of her transition up the social ladder too. On paper and in person, they fit, and he’s the man she should want.
The story goes back and forth between Libby’s university days (2014), and their 2023 meeting at the country house of one friend, Archie, gradually revealing the secrets the group has concealed from each other and the outside world. It’s difficult to ask much more about their past without giving too much away. But do tell us a bit about Archie, who in personality and status is almost Libby’s opposite.
Archie’s a member of the landed gentry and has recently inherited the family seat, a beautiful sprawling estate in Yorkshire in the northeast of England. He enjoyed notoriety and popularity in equal measure at Durham—which is a university well known for its rigid social exclusivity—and he was the very top of the social heap. He’s an unlikely friend or ally to someone like Libby and stands in relief to her, but I have tried to show the nuance of his position too: the financial pressures facing modern-day aristocracy, the loneliness of attracting acolytes. It’s not a pity party by any means, but he’s not the “got it all” guy he appears to be, and his emotional landscape is fairly bleak. In some regards, he’s actually jealous of Libby and admires her.
And what can you say about the other members of the group: Ems and her husband, Coco, Charlie, Rollo, and Zannah?
As with all groups of friends, there’s a balance of personalities and egos, each person fulfilling a certain role. Ems and Prock are the Mum and Dad of the group: very grounded, middle of the road types sitting between Libby and the other characters; they work hard and have a vision for their future, underpinned by a rock-solid love affair and fabulous sex life! Coco and Zannah are superficially party girls, but that is reductive of two young women battling their own demons; they have strong hearts and are both fiercely loyal to their friends. Charlie, something of a maths and tech genius, is an observer, quiet and slightly more removed from the others like Libby, though he is socially their equal. Rollo is Archie’s best friend since prep school days and very much a product of the upper middle class: loving his countryside pursuits, he’s great with Labradors and horses, less so with girls. He’s larger than life, the MC of their group settings, but he’s inwardly lonely and, as the second son of a gentleman farmer, somewhat without a defined role going forwards.
The action really picks up in the present when Libby and Max, who had intended to join the party for just a few hours, can’t leave as planned. Could you describe what happens—at the level of setting the stage?
The Yorkshire moors are famously remote, and weather conditions on the uplands there can quickly become treacherous. What appears to be a snow flurry on their approach to the house party becomes much more significant during the dinner and by the time they go to leave, the tiny country lanes are impassable to all but agricultural vehicles; Max and Libby have no choice but to stay the night. They’re with her old friends, and there’s more than enough room to put them up, so it’s not a disaster, but Libby finds herself increasingly challenged by the steady move from social chit-chat to deeper conversation and reminiscences; she had purposely lost touch with everyone since graduation and wants her past to stay well out of the present. Unfortunately for her and Max, the whiteout leads to a blackout, testing everyone’s resilience and good humor, but things take a decidedly darker turn when they notice a series of strange happenings in the house.
Given that packed schedule, you must already be working on the next novel—perhaps even the one after next! Could you give us a hint of what to expect?
I’m currently finishing next summer’s book, The Lost Lover, which is the third installment of four in my historical series based on the remote Scottish Isle of St. Kilda. The action is set in the early 1930s and pivots around a beautiful, heartbroken young woman called Flora MacQueen who, after evacuation to the mainland, finds fame in Paris—but at a terrible price.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Karen Swan is the bestselling author of twenty-four novels to date, most recently The Last Summer and Christmas by Candlelight. Find out more about her at https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/karen-swan/6006.