Author Q & A with Karen Swan

They say that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, and behind London’s most powerful leaders, there stands only one—Alex Hyde, business coach par excellence. She’s the woman they turn to for advice and strategy when the pressure gets too much. So when Alex gets a call offering an unbelievable sum to discreetly manage a family member on the board of an esteemed Scottish whisky company, it’s business as usual. She can do this in her sleep.

Only, she’s never met anyone like Lochlan Farqhuar before. CEO of Kentallen Distilleries, he’s also the son and heir of the company’s founder, and a man for whom there is no “no.” He’s a maverick, and Alex needs to get inside his head before he brings the company to its knees. But as she tasks herself with finding a way in, she finds that for once, she’s not the one in control. And when she stumbles across a chance discovery that changes everything, she’s suddenly not so sure she should be.

What drew you to Scotland and the island of Islay for this particular setting? How much time do you spend researching your locations?

Location is a really important consideration for all my stories and I had been wanting to set a book in Scotland for a while. My father is Scottish and I was married in the Highlands, so I wanted to tell a story that would allow me to tap into that dramatic landscape and rich heritage. The book’s heroine is an executive coach which meant the action would be set in a business environment and obviously malt whisky is a key player in the Scottish economy. There are several principal distilling areas throughout Scotland- Campbelltown, Speyside etc – but when I came upon Islay, I knew I had found my setting. A tiny snowy isle, cut off from the mainland, a close-knit agricultural community, crofts and kilts…The story almost wrote itself!

Where is your favourite place to write?

I write like I sleep – anywhere; I have written in my parents’ kitchen, at the café beside my daughter’s ballet school, in the car during swimming lessons…I don’t think it helps to become too narrow-minded in terms of where you ‘can’ write; sometimes you’ve just go to get those words down, wherever you are. But I do prefer to work in my study because it’s a dedicated space that’s very calming and peaceful – psychologically, going in there I know I’m there to work and I have a small ritual of lighting my favourite scented candle (Sno by Scanda Navisk) whilst I’m writing to make the process seem more of a treat and less of an ordeal! And in the summer, I do edits in my treehouse at the bottom of the garden. It is surrounded by a white wisteria and set in two silver birch trees and being down there, with the light coming through the trees, really doesn’t feel like work at all.

What is your writing process like?

Pretty intense. It isn’t for everyone. I write two books a year so I don’t have the luxury of time to prevaricate or even really get writers’ block. I allow c.3-4months to research a book (and recover from the previous one)  and c.2-3months to write it. It’s a very demanding schedule that means I have to hit a specific word count every day in order to make my deadlines and occasionally, that pressure can feel paralyzing. But strangely, it does work for me. I’ve worked out over the years that I can’t really write well when my actual life is bigger than my fictional life and I have to literally and emotionally withdraw when I’m on deadline, to allow the characters and their world to become more vivid and real than my own.

Do you have a muse? Are any of your characters been inspired by people in your life?

No muse, sadly, but my husband is my go-to person if ever I have a plot knot or a writing block. A glass of wine and chat with him about it usually unblocks the problem; sometimes I notice how odd it is that we should dedicate an entire evening to discussing people and problems that don’t even exist!

In terms of people inspiring characters, I definitely don’t use friends or family. The requirements of the plot invariably call for situations that I wouldn’t want to envisage with people I know! But I do find I’ll recall someone I met briefly – maybe even years earlier – and who’s somehow left an impression on me, be it a name or a physical mannerism or a saying. But an impression is all I want from them – after a certain point in the writing process, if I’m doing my job correctly, then the character becomes their own person anyway.

What are some of your favourite holiday traditions and/or what is your favourite way to spend Christmas?

I’ve got a few traditions that I just won’t break: gingerbread houses baked from scratch that my three children then decorate on Christmas Eve as I stuff the turkey; some 1950s Hollywood Christmas songs playing on loop – for example Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney by Ella Fitzgerald and Snow by Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee. We also follow the Icelandic tradition of each family member giving another a book the night before Christmas. And lastly, but most importantly, my children wriggling into their stockings which I made them all for their first Christmases and which used to be like sleeping bags on them and are now, quite literally, more like socks! It’s the last thing they do before going to bed and we always take a photo with the dogs battling to get in on the action too – as much as anything, it’s a marker for how much they’ve grown that year.

I’m very excited to share that Publisher’s Group Canada will be bringing Karen Swan to a library or bookstore near you next week! Below is a list of places and dates where you can see Karen in person, and listen to her talk about her wonderful books. For reservations or tickets, click on the active links below.

Toronto: A Novel Spot Bookshop Appearance with Karen Swan
Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 2:30 p.m.
A Novel Spot Bookshop  – Reservations required

Oakville : An Evening with Karen Swan
Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m.
Oakville Public Library, Central Branch – Tickets on sale now

Kitchener: An Evening with Karen Swan
Wednesday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m.
Kitchener Public Library, 85 Queen Branch – Registration required

Whitby : An Evening with Karen Swan
Thursday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m.
Whitby Public Library Central Branch – Registration required

A copy of Christmas Secret was provided by Publishers Group Canada in anticipation of Karen Swan’s visit to Canada. It is available to purchase from your favourite independent, online or bricks & mortar bookseller. ISBN: 9781509838059, 478 pages.