Karen Swan is the author of the new novel The Paris Secret. Her other novels include The Summer Without You, Christmas at Tiffany's, and The Perfect Present. She lives in East Sussex, UK.
Q: You note that The Paris Secret was based on a real-life discovery of an abandoned apartment in Paris. What did you see as the right balance between the actual story and your own fictional creation?
A: It’s both a creative and a legal issue – one has to be really careful not to imply anything as true when it’s not, especially if it’s got negative connotations.
But also, the joy as a writer is in taking an idea and seeing where it leads you and in this instance, I was led by the nose on the question of why the family - having justifiably fled Paris during the Nazi occupation – never returned to the apartment in over 70 years. I had done as much research as I could but the family who own it have gone to great lengths to avoid further publicity on the issue.
Quite possibly their true reasons for keeping it locked are far more mundane than what I’ve come up with, but that’s the joy of fiction - all stories are rooted in truth to some extent and it’s enough to simply start with a question and let my imagination spool out and see where I end up.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I always do a huge amount of research before I start writing – several months’ worth in fact. For this novel, I had something of a head start in that I had studied Nazi Germany at A-Level in the UK so I was already pretty well-informed on the subject.
But what was particularly interesting and surprising to me, was coming in to it at such an oblique angle – Art, I soon realized, was absolutely key to the Third Reich, not just in terms of military strategy but also as part of their peacetime aspirations.
Hitler, as is well documented, was a failed artist, having been rejected repeatedly by art academies in Munich. He continued to paint throughout his life, however, and one of his recognized objectives, once he’d won control of Europe, was to open a museum in Linz, his hometown, which would become the greatest art collection in the world.
Certainly the Nazis, under Goring who was also an avid collector, were steadily plundering state assets from monasteries, churches and museums in all their occupied territories with a view to furnishing this museum – to the point where the “Monuments Men” were formed as part of an unprecedented international aid effort to save as much of the cultural heritage of Europe as was possible during combat.
But in addition to this overarching goal, at grass roots level, art was being used to fund their armaments programme. Throughout the 1930s, as the Far Right movement grew, Jewish families had been obliged to inventory their assets.
Once war broke out, for a while, selling their more valuable items was a form of “flight tax,” in which those families were effectively able to barter their way out of Germany, but eventually, that was stopped as the Holocaust began to ramp up - documentation was falsified, money for goods was paid into blocked bank accounts and these assets were essentially stolen from them.
It was boom-time for state-sponsored agents, galleries and dealers; whatever the Reich leaders didn’t want for themselves, the so-called “degenerate” art of modern artists was sold abroad - the Dutch and American markets positively flourished - and was reinvested in the military effort. Quite literally, Jewish art assets were used to fund the very war which was intending to eradicate them.
Q: How did you come up with your main character, Flora Sykes?
A: Flora was something of a gift in that she came to me fully formed. I always use names as a starting point for “visualizing” my characters; I already knew what her job would be and that she was based in London, but as soon as I came up with her name, I could see her walking down Bond Street.
I’m not usually that lucky; in my most recent book, I only really got to grips with my heroine in the final 50 pages of the first draft, which was pretty painful.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
A: I admire beautiful prose; language is like music to me – it has tension, rhythm, metre, shape and sound – so I appreciate authors with a similar ear.
I adore Katherine Rundell, a British children’s writer who is so good, I insist on reading her stories out loud to my daughter so that I don’t miss out!
Also Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd, and I just read the newest book by Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone, which was instant love. She’s a stunning writer - there were passages I wanted to mark with a highlighter so that I could go back to them, they were that good.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I write two books a year in the UK – a Christmas title and a “summer” book. The Paris Secret is one of the latter, and I’ve just completed next summer’s story The Greek Escape, so I’m about to go into edits for that.
I was also in Canada a few weeks back promoting my newest book, The Christmas Secret, and then I was in Norway last week researching next Christmas’s book (December 2018); I’m just in the final stretch of working out a plot and I’ll try to start writing before the Christmas break.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m a busy mother of three, I have two dogs and I absolutely love my job.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb