This evening I am in fan mode as again, one of my favourite authors has agreed to take part in A Life in Books. Tonight I welcome Karen Swan, author of of thirteen bestsellers, most of which I have read. Earlier today I reviewed her latest book The Rome Affair, which is a fabulous read, please check out my review, I will put a link at the end of this blog
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I’ve been completely moulded by two facts. One is that I grew up in the London suburbs, with the upshot of being ‘neither one, nor t’other’ that I’m both addicted to the vim of city life but crave the peace and birdsong of the countryside. I’m also the eldest of three which I’m convinced is why I’m a ‘mother hen’, always feeling responsible for others and feeling I must set an example.
I’m now married with three children and live in the real Hundred Aker Wood, aka the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. I have two shooting golden retrievers who walk me every day and without whom I wouldn’t be able to work alone, at home.
I spent seven years in the fashion industry working variously as a stylist, a consultant and a writer but the almost-accidental move into writing fiction was life-changing and I realized pretty much instantly that I was always supposed to have done this.
1. What was your favourite book from childhood?
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford about three pets crossing hundreds of miles of the Canadian wilderness to get back to their master. I must have read it a dozen times and cried every time. I was an animal nut as a child and when, one night, our dog went missing and walked himself the five miles back to my grandmother’s house – where he had been staying whilst we were on holiday – I felt as if the drama had leapt from the page into my own life (albeit modestly).
2. What type of books did you read as a teenager?
In my early teens, and as a shy, braced-up student at an all-girls school, I devoured the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal. The glamorous twin heroines, with boys chasing them and exciting social lives, were everything I wasn’t and I definitely lived vicariously through them. By my mid to late teens though, I got seriously into the classics and whilst the Brontes left me cold, I became obsessed with Jane Austen and George Eliot.
3. When you were at school what was your favourite book you studied?
Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – I loved their chemistry and how she held all the power. I also couldn’t get enough of the metaphysical poet John Donne; he was so wonderfully wry and witty.
4. What is your favourite classic book?
It’s a toss-up between George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Jane Austen’s Emma. Mill on the Floss was the first classic I read that actually made my hair stand on end like a modern-day thriller, but Mr Woodhouse, Emma’s father, was laugh-out-loud funny.
5. What would you consider to be one of the best books you have had over the last 5 years?
I adored Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I’m not usually interested in dystopian literature but I had heard good reviews about it so I managed to bag a copy and was rewarded by being hooked from the first page. It’s premise is that 98% of the world’s population is wiped out by a pandemic and apart from the opening chapters showing the final days of life ‘as we know it’, it deals with the aftermath, twenty years on. The civilizing forces of technology and education fall away immediately – this is now a world without power after all – but it is music and literature which prove to be so redemptive for humanity.
6. What book to you think you should read but never get round to?
Well, I’ve been trying to read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend for the past few months but I never quite have the time to commit myself to it. I think on some level, I know it’s going to swallow me whole and I’ll be lost to everyone around me till I hit the last page, so I really do need a window in my diary!
7. What do you consider to be your favourite book ?
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – it changed me from the inside out with its depiction of the ripple effect of injustice.
8. Is there a book that you have started but been unable to finish?
City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. It’s enormous and according to its reviews, very Marmite. I’m on the wrong side at the moment but I am going to persevere and go back to it, ever hopeful that my endeavours will be rewarded!
9. If you were stranded on a desert Island which 2 books would you want to have with you?
Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman and – if you’ll allow me to count this as one – the box set of the Famous Five to remind me of happier times populated with picnics, dogs and feral childhoods.
10. Kindle or Book?
Book. That’s not even a question to me.
Karen’s new book The Rome Affair is published on Thursday 13 July. Please click on the link to read my review.