Rather apt for the time of the year, Sussex author Karen Swan’s new book is called The Christmas Postcards. Denise Tyler finds out more about it
You’re known as the Queen of Destination Fiction and your books have featured some amazing places – Rome, Paris, Greece, Spain, Norway to name a few – and now the Himalayas in The Christmas Postcards. Do the destinations inspire the stories or the other way round?
Generally I think of the story and then I will research places. I want my characters to be embedded in the places I’m setting the books in so I want to know how it feels to be a local there, not a tourist. Every time I go somewhere, I’m looking around thinking, what’s it like to live in that house? Or to be that person living in there? That’s what’s underneath everything, underneath every location, underneath every character.
In The Christmas Postcards, Natasha’s desperate social media search for her devastated daughter’s lost toy triggers a life-changing mystery with scandalous revelations. What inspired that idea?
I had seen a TikTok about a little girl who had left her teddy at a tourist attraction in Iceland somewhere. There was an online appeal and a tour guide took the teddy, drove with it across Iceland with all his tourists, met someone at the airport who then flew over with it. And then the dad of this little girl met them at the airport. You know, parents will go to extraordinary lengths. Each of my children have had a toy that had this tyrannical hold over the family. If it got lost, the child was not going to sleep that night. So by the time my daughter was born, as soon as it became apparent which was THE toy, I got triples!
You moved from London to rural Sussex; that’s quite a change..
I happened to come down to see a friend and I got horribly lost. I ended up driving through Lindfield, which of course has to be one of the prettiest villages in all Sussex: Georgian townhouses, a duck pond, the village green. I mentioned it to my mother; she’s Irish and had moved over from Ireland to Hove when she was 16 to train as a nurse. Sussex had been her first English home and she loved it. That immediately gave me the sense of having roots there.
We’re right in the Ashdown Forest and it’s actually the best of both worlds because we’ve got the forest at the front of the house and farmland behind us so we get to enjoy the sheep grazing, the horses and cows, but we can walk out the front of the house with the dogs straight on to common land and it’s just glorious.
You’ve raised three children in Sussex; where were your favourite family haunts and have they changed as the children have grown?
My daughter still loves Tulleys [Farm] for Halloween and we all loved Heaven Farm in Danehill for the bluebells when they were little. We would go to what we and our friends called the smelly donkey service at Hadlow Down on Christmas Eve, where they would bring a live donkey into the church and the youngest born baby of the parish would be carried in as baby Jesus; it was just idyllic. We always get our Christmas trees at Goddenwick where you can choose and cut your own and we always like going to Wakehurst Place, especially at this time of year when the leaves are changing. But for us, walking on the forest was very much our family thing. We would sometimes take the camping stove and walk to the river with the children and dogs, off the beaten track, and cook up sausages which often attracted every dog on the forest!
Where are your favourite places to eat as a family in Sussex?
Our local pub is very much The Griffin [Fletching]. My teenage boys can be found propping up the bar when they’re home and of course the garden is beautiful though I like being inside near the fire. I like it because it’s a really honest pub; it’s not tarted up. I also like the Red Lion at Chelwood Gate; they do an excellent Sunday lunch. The Coach and Horses, also in Chelwood Gate, is another lovely local pub with a lovely garden, great for a good meal with friends. We don’t tend to go to restaurants too much, but we’ve been to Gravetye Manor a few times and that’s nice for something super swanky and special.
In The Christmas Postcards, Natasha loses herself in painting to switch off from her troubles; what’s your favourite way to switch off from writing?
I’m definitely a dog walker and I love to walk in the woods. I’ve heard the Japanese term ‘forest bathing’ and that’s literally what I do. If I’m stressed, if I’m angry or upset I walk the dogs and when I come back I’m no longer any of those things. I also do a lot of sewing and I find I can totally lose all track of time when I’m doing that; it just disengages my brain. There’s always a buzz when I’m writing – what do I need to do in that scene, what about that character – but sewing is a great way to make that stop. I’m self-taught so the potential for getting it wrong is always really high; I have to be absolutely sure I’m doing it right!