by Karen Swan
My husband is quite convinced that I deliberately set my books in wide-ranging and far-flung locations, just so that I can legitimately claim to have to go there for research – an expensive way to work, he mutters. And given that my books aren’t set in grimy backwaters or grim conurbations, but rather super-glam, iconic destinations like the ski resorts of Verbier and Zermatt, the summer escapes of America’s Hamptons or Europe’s Portofino and of course, the international shopping cities of London, New York, Paris…well, we can probably agree he has a point.
But you see, I do too. Truly I do. Bear with…
Location isn’t just a backdrop to people’s lives, it informs the very tone and colour and flavour of their lifestyles – a 28-year old gallerist living in Venice is, by definition, living a completely different version of the same life of a 28-year old gallerist in SoHo. It’s an issue I explored in Christmas at Tiffanys when my heroine tested out the theory that she could change who she was by changing her address. Yes, New York has yellow cabs and London has black, yes East Hampton is a grid of pretty grey weatherboarded giant dolls houses and Rome is a warren of umber-coloured crumbling apartments and palazzos, but to understand what it actually feels like to live in any of those places, you have to look further than anything Google Images can show you. You have to go there and feel it for yourself.
When I visited Portofino for my book Christmas at Claridges, I had the locals looking at me, suspicious as hell, as I ran around photographing the rooftops and drain covers, the menus, the plants growing in the walls, the door knockers… I didn’t once step foot in Gucci or Pucci because let’s face it, once inside I could have been on Sloane Street or Madison Avenue, instead off-roading into the olive and lemon groves, finding overgrown paths to the beach and generally exploring like a child. In the Hamptons for last summer’s book The Summer Without You, I went to yoga classes in East Hampton, drove myself round to the tiny private airport and finally learnt what a flagel was. And in Zermatt in Christmas In The Snow, I skied the runs I then wrote about, peered through the windows of the curiously tiny, old, blackened grain stores and wondered why they were all perched on wooden stilts which were topped with giant granite discs.
So I will continue to drive my husband to despair – and penury – as I travel for my books, because location is the jam in the sandwich of character and plot. It provides a cultural framework, insinuates an inherent pace of life, and can serve as a catalyst for reinvention. After all, whenever we go somewhere new, we have the opportunity to become someone new ourselves and it’s a question I always have my characters address in every story: does she want to change? Does she dare to?
More than that – do I dare to tell my husband the next book’s set in Antibes?
Karen Swan is the author of summer reads that will leave you pining for a good, sunny holiday, whether it’s the Swiss Alps or the fabulous Hamptons. Her upcoming book, Summer at Tiffany’s is out in July.