Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Q&A with Karen Swan


Photo by Alicia Clarke



Karen Swan is the author of the new novel The Stolen Hours, the second in her Wild Isle series following The Last Summer. She lives in Sussex, UK.


Q: What inspired you to write The Stolen Hours, and how did you create your character Mhairi?


A: I only had a light impression of Mhairi when I began writing, as she is very much off the page in the first book in the series, The Last Summer. However, I knew I wanted her story to be centred around following her heart.


Effie, in The Last Summer, is defined by her wild spirit but I sensed Mhairi’s journey was to discard her “good girl” persona, which is something of a prison, and submit to her wild heart instead.


The hardships endured on St. Kilda meant marrying for love really was a fantasy and I liked the idea of the tension between a necessary marriage and a true love affair that could never be.


Q: This is the second in your Wild Isle series--what is the relationship between the two books, and how did you choose the setting for the novels?


A: Both Effie and Mhairi are close friends and neighbours on St. Kilda. They have grown up side by side but they are hugely contrasting characters and as such their experiences, though largely shared, are also distinct from one another.


The central action which unites each book in the series pivots around the fate of the most powerful man on the isle – the landlord’s factor – and their individual roles in his death. Each woman has a reason to hate him and each one has justification for killing him - so which one of them did it?


Although the stories begin on St. Kilda, after the evacuation their lives widely diverge. Effie goes to work on a grand aristocratic estate in Ayrshire whilst Mhairi is forced to begin her new life as a farmer’s wife on the Isle of Harris.


The third book, The Lost Lover, will be split between St. Kilda and Paris so there is a very different energy and tone in each story, which is set by each woman’s character.

Q: How did you research The Stolen Hours, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: I did months of research into life on St. Kilda before I began writing. I read diaries, biographies, histories, I watched archive footage, documentaries and I visited twice (with a third attempt unsuccessful due to wind direction and the boat being unable to dock).


It was imperative that I truly understood how the villagers scratched an existence from such an inhospitable and remote place, that I understood the rhythm of their seasons and was aware of their own island history.


However, the point of all this research was not to disgorge everything I had learned onto the page but simply to get to a point where the information was so alive in my own head, that I could then begin to develop the characters and have them move freely within that world. No one wants to read a textbook, so I know far more about St. Kildan life than I actually need to show.


Throughout the course of my research, I would have to say the most surprising – and saddest – thing to learn was that the islanders were obliged to drown their dogs the morning they left.


It took me a while to uncover the reason why – back then, to own a dog in the UK, you had to have a dog license, and that cost money. The St. Kildans of course didn’t run a cash economy and it would have been far crueller to simply abandon the dogs and let them starve to death.


A lot of dog lovers were upset by that scene in The Last Summer but, even as a dog owner myself, I felt it was an important truth that reflected the reality – and unsentimentality – of St. Kildan life.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I never have a clue how the books will end! If I ever know too much too soon, all I do is write towards that end point, which is a disaster; most of my books would be three chapters long!


I think my brain actually protects me by only revealing options for my characters and plot as I go along. As a rule, I can’t tend to see more than two chapters ahead and it invariably means my edits are a painful, protracted process.


However, I also firmly believe that if I can plot and predict a story off the top of my head, so will my readers. They are exposed to huge amounts of content – TV, film, social media – so it’s really hard to give them something completely unguessable.


There are only so many plot archetypes, after all, so what I really try to offer is an engrossing journey where even if they do predict the outcome, they’re so invested in the characters that it’s about the journey and not the destination anyway.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently writing the third book in the series, The Lost Lover. This book pivots around Flora MacQueen, a character who features strongly in the first two stories.


I hope by the time they’re reading this tale, my readers will be beginning to pick up on discrepancies in scenes shown in the other books as the new character’s perspective and love story offers further enlightenment into the factor’s fate.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Wild Isle series will end with book four and will be told through the character Jayne Ferguson. Readers of The Last Summer will know she is cursed with the gift of second sight and the action – I believe, at this point anyway – will open with a shocking death.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karen Swan.

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