Sunday Time bestselling author Karen Swan takes us to Norway in her new Christmas novel, The Christmas Lights. But what is Christmas like for her at home…?
Karen, we always look forward to your Christmas novels. When do you start planning them, and how long do they take to write?
I write two books a year so the schedule is very tight and airless. Publication time in particular is a real pinch-point for me because I find I’m simultaneously promoting the current book, editing the next one and researching the one after that!
If I’m lucky, I’ll get an idea several months ahead of having to start writing; I’m good at noticing a seed of an idea, writing it down and then letting it germinate for a while. Other times though, I have to actively hunt for an idea. In those instances, I’ll usually start with the “vibe” I want to convey, then a location, then a plot hook and finally start filling in character detail, plot minutiae and back stories from there.
I research for up to two months and then write in approx. 6-8 weeks. Editing takes another 5-6 weeks on top but by then, I’m promoting the current book and thinking about the next one!
Sounds like fun, but hard work! Last year, you took us to Islay for Christmas. This year it’s a Norwegian shelf farm. What made you choose this setting for The Christmas Lights? Do you have ties to Norway?
It was never a deliberate ploy but I’ve noticed I seem to love setting my Christmas stories in the mountains, perhaps because so many of my own childhood Christmases were spent in the Scottish Highlands.
For this one, I had also – unusually – come up with the title before the story and I really loved the idea of incorporating the northern lights somehow. That meant going north, and having covered the Canadian Rockies in Christmas Under The Stars, Scandinavia seemed like the obvious choice.
I’ve always wanted to go to there myself anyway so it gave me the perfect excuse and I think culturally, we’ve all fallen in love with their concept of hygge.
As well as the unfamiliar setting of a shelf farm, you also take us into the world of Instagram – a fascinating, yet unexplored territory for me and many others. Did you have to do lots of research to find out how it works?
Funnily enough, I’d been wanting to write an Instagram-based story for a while, and in fact I abandoned one a couple of years ago when I hit on the plot hook for Christmas Under The Stars instead. So it had been bubbling away inside my mind for a while when I noticed that I had been following some accounts for several years and that I was fully acquainted with the trajectory of their recent lives – be it getting married, having a baby, moving house, whatever.
I wondered, will I still be following them in ten years? Forty? Are we going to grow old together through a screen?
These people become as familiar to you as actual friends and yet, I don’t consider myself to be an avid social media fan, so if I was reeled in, it made me wonder what it would be like to be that person with all those strangers watching you.
Instagram stars Bo and Zak and their friends face danger on the mountain; the mountains have always been dangerous, as you show when you take us back to nonagenarian Signy’s story, set in 1936. Are the risks they present an allegory for the Instagram world?
In a way yes. I liked the sense of isolation the mountains created and the irony that, although Bo and Zac were physically cut off from the rest of the world, still there were 10 million people watching their every move.
The Christmas Lights show the highs and lows of social media. As an author in the spotlight, how do you navigate it successfully?
To be honest, there’s no masterplan but I have what I consider to be a healthy wariness of social media. I try not to post too much (many would say I don’t post enough!) and I struggle with selfies; call it showing my age but I just see it as vanity, endlessly posing and trying to look good for the camera.
My view is that those who follow me do so because they like my books, so I try to give an honest depiction about the life of a writer: where my inspiration comes from, the pressure of deadlines, the excitement of publication, trying to relax.
Fundamentally my life is very boring – mother of three, owner of two dogs, lives in the countryside, writes books – so I don’t presume anyone would care about what I had for breakfast.
You’ve published so many successful novels. Do you still get a buzz when you first hold your new novel in your hands?
Yes, always. I think I would take it as a sign to stop if I didn’t get that thrill when the box is delivered with factory-fresh prints of my latest book.
Who are your favourite authors and which Christmas books will you be reading this year?
I’ll be trying some books by an author who’s new to me, Ottessa Moshfegh. But on a regular basis, anything by Sebastian Faulks, Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Elena Ferrante. For the classics, Jane Austen and George Eliot.
Do you have a favourite-ever Christmas book?
I’m not sure this could strictly be termed a Christmas book, but as a child I always re-read The Velveteen Rabbit around then so it gives me all those festive feels.
Tell us a little about your Christmas plans. Are there any unusual traditions you follow?
We moved house this summer so I’m really looking forward to our first Christmas in our new home. I make gingerbread houses for the kids to decorate on Christmas Eve, even though they’re rollicking-great teenagers now, and we’ll each give each other a book to unwrap on Christmas Eve. It’s an Icelandic tradition that I took to my heart.
Will you have as huge a tree as Bo and Zak have in The Christmas Lights?
It’s going to be a whopper! Our ceilings are 4m high downstairs, so I’m thinking a 3.8m tree, with just enough room for the fairy on top!
What would you like to find in your Christmas stocking this year?
Cashmere socks by N Peal. I can’t sleep with cold feet and they’re the best because they don’t twist around your foot when you turn over.
Your fictional heroes are all men we could fall in love with! But who would be your real-life sexy Santa?
Obviously my husband, but if he upped and left, I’d probably quickly start stalking Richard Madden and Luke Pasqualino.
And finally, sprouts – Yes or no?
Categorically yes. They’re as important as the turkey as far as I’m concerned.
Thanks so much for chatting to us, Karen. Have a very merry Christmas.