Karen Swan discusses her new book The Paris Secret
What can readers expect from The Paris Secret?
This story is heavy on plot, revolving around a decades-old mystery in which lies are uncovered, only to reveal more lies. It has a blend of old-school glamour – delving into the wartime history of one of Paris society’s most prominent families – mixed with a present-day cast of hip, urban characters working in the high-stakes Fine Arts sphere. The action spans London and Paris, Vienna and Antibes and at the book’s heart is a passionate ‘coup de foudre’ love affair that defies reason, sense or self control.
Please tell us about the inspiration behind the story.
The kernel of the story is based on true-life events but I’ve very much gone off on my own tangent from that kicking-off point. Several years ago now, an apartment was discovered in Paris which was found not to have been opened since the Second World War. It was a complete time capsule, with everything still exactly as the owners had left it. I was fascinated, looking at the paraphernalia of a life interrupted, but one question nagged at me: why had the owners not returned to reclaim it? What kept them from returning, so long after the war had ended? The writer in me sensed a secret and although I still don’t know the true reason why the apartment was left for so long (the owners remain unknown to the public), I knew I could take that question and spin a story from it.
Why is Paris such a great place for storytelling?
For one thing, everyone knows it – it’s monuments, bridges, buildings, streets have become an international shorthand for romance, which means the reader comes to the page with a common understanding of what the city represents. But it’s also an intimate city – you can walk its centre easily, you can stroll right by the water’s edge and cruise up and down the river in a way that you don’t see in cities like London or Rome. It’s the city that invented people-watching as a national past-time thank to its café culture, it’s the city that, with Dior’s New Look in 1947, used fashion to break the yoke of a world in post-war austerity. With its formal gardens and wide boulevards, it can be a grand city and yet within half a mile, you can step through narrow, cobbled streets with a bohemian vibe. It’s a city of contrasts and perhaps more than anything, it’s a city that looks as beautiful at night as it does by day.
Why is this the perfect summer read?
It has a mystery to keep you guessing (with a twist I guarantee you won’t see coming), a smouldering passion that is as frustrating as it is exciting and a host of glamorous locations for true escapism.
Who are you reading right now?
Emma Cline’s The Girls which blends a shimmering summer vibe with simmering menace, and – luckily for me – an early proof of the thriller The House of Mirrors by E.O. Chirovici.
Can you tell us about a typical summer in your house?
I have French doors all around the ground floor of my house so they are open morning, noon and night, curtains fluttering – I absolutely love the feeling of a breeze in the rooms and that whimsical delight of drifting barefoot, in and out of the garden. We eat outside whenever we can and I put cushions out on the lawn for the children (and dogs) to flop on. The children are usually busy on sailing, tennis and drama courses and we holiday in Majorca, the South of France, Cornwall and Norfolk. This year though we are getting our new puppy, so I’ll be spending more time than usual running around picking up stray shoes and playing tug-of-war on rope toys.
How much research was required into the arts so Flora’s character would feel as genuine as possible for the reader?
I always do a huge amount of research before committing to writing any book – I probably spend as much time researching as I do writing – and this was no exception. I felt like I could have taken an A level in Nazi history after prepping for this story but it’s important I know more than I need to, because that knowledge translates into an ease in the writing and I can be more judicious in deciding what to use and what to leave out. On a personal level, I found Flora’s job absolutely fascinating – I’d have loved to do it myself – and I was able to interview a friend who works in the Fine Art industry, for keener insights; but even without all that spade work about the mechanisms of the world she moves through, Flora was one of those characters I understood immediately. Some characters I feel I only crack towards the very end of the first draft of a book, but Flora was an old friend from the beginning.
Have you ever forgotten you had something very precious and been really pleased to find it?
Yes, I honestly feel that way about inadvertently coming across any old, long-forgotten photo or note from my children. It could be an old mother’s day card or just a note they’d left on my pillow, but whenever I find them again, I’m stopped in my tracks and transported back in time. Life is just moving too fast and although my children are only 14, 12 and 9, their young childhood is already behind us and as a family we are in the next chapter of our lives so anything that brings me back to their younger years, I cherish.
What is next for you?
The Christmas book is now edited, wrapped and ready to go – it’s called Christmas Under The Stars and is based around a tragedy in the Canadian Rockies. And I’m currently writing next summer’s book, which is set in Rome so I have just enjoyed a research trip there, eating gelato and people-watching on the steps of the Pantheon.
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