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Novel set in Paris and Antibes, plus we chat with author Karen Swan

14th July 2016

The Paris Secret by Karen Swan, novel set in Paris and Antibes.

An apartment in Paris is discovered by urban explorers (people who take a risk entering a property that is off limits, trespassers to all intents and purposes) that clearly hasn’t seen the light of day or any human form for many decades. It is as untouched as the day the occupants left.

novel set in paris and antibes

TripFiction’s ARC copy

The apartment belongs to the Vermeil family, socialites and renowned for their eccentric daughter’s bad behaviour. But there is also Xavier, dark and brooding, the archetypical bad boy.

Flora is an art expert and has served time at the big auction houses in London and thus has a phenomenal amount of experience. She is tasked with going to Paris to make an inventory of the pieces in the abandoned apartment and finding a way moving them into the art market, in part, so that her boss’s firm can get back into the black. Provenance is everything when it comes to selling art – even a Renoir is worth virtually nothing if its heritage cannot be traced – and the pieces in this particular apartment can only be traced as far back to Franz von Taschelt, a Jew who, it seems, swindled other Jews out of their vast collections under Nazi rule. An absolute shattering blow to the Vermeils, and to Flora. Under these circumstances no-one will touch a single piece. The collection is worthless.

Flora has her work cut out in managing the Vermeil family’s interests and from Paris via a quick sojourn in Vienna, she is ensconced in a small lodging on the Vermeil estate in the South of France, where she works on cataloguing the works of art which have been brought down for that purpose. Romance is on the cards for Flora from unexpected quarters, but her mindset is that she really doesn’t “do” love…..

This is a supremely interesting book bringing to life the world of art connoisseurship, dovetailed with a story of intrigue and a smattering of smouldering romance. In terms of TripFiction, the locations form an evocative backdrop and I certainly could visualise the settings as they played out in Paris and Antibes. Recommended.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

TripFiction chats to Karen Swan:

TF: The Paris Secret is based on a true story. At the heart of the novel is an apartment that has remained shuttered since WW2, containing all kinds of treasures, a veritable time capsule. How did you come across this intriguing mystery and what are the details of it? 

KS: This is one of the joys of the twittersphere. I clearly remember the day I was sitting at my desk, stuck in a plot tangle, and a cup of tea and spot of twitter browsing was my preferred distraction method. Getting the thread of a story going viral is like a surfer catching a wave and I was immediately tugged along as I clicked on the link to the newspaper article detailing the discovery. There were no names identifying the owners or giving any back story as to why the apartment had been abandoned and remained so, but there were a few photographs showing the rooms as they’d been left: the actual apartment is a lot grander than the one I’ve used (a decision which was determined by plot) and showed a much more miscellaneous horde of belongings, whereas I focused on there being more of an art haul; I did however use the stuffed ostrich depicted there, which I just loved. I actually waited a couple of years before acting on the story, firstly as I had other plots on the go but also because I was certain every other writer on Twitter would pounce on it; it was such a gift of a storyline. It wasn’t so much the fact that the apartment had been found that interested me, so much as why the owners hadn’t returned to it. Can you really ‘forget’ owning such a thing? And if you can’t, then it begs the question, why was it deliberately left? I’ve made up my own story about it but I’d still love to know the real truth.

TF: You clearly know your way around the world of art and the auction houses, as Flora negotiates her way through the newly discovered collection of paintings. And how important provenance is when selling works of art. How has this come about? 

KS: Every book I write, I practically take an A level in the subject I’m writing about. In this book it’s the business of buying and selling fine art, but in previous books I’ve investigated longshore drift off the coast of the Hamptons (yes, really), guerrilla gardening, missingness, hedge funds, farming in the 1950s in the Swiss alps…. Its one of the great joys of my job, this ability to flit and hop between subjects that capture my imagination and then move on to something new once the plot’s been resolved. I probably spend 4-6 weeks researching before I sit down to write and the biggest discipline comes in knowing what to leave out. The temptation is to throw down everything I know on the matter concerned, a sort of showing-off, but how boring would that be to read? The particularly fascinating thing about researching provenance in art is that it’s basically a very grown-up treasure hunt with a clear paper trail to follow, so that gave the book an obvious structure, but mixed with the truth of the dark machinations of the Third Reich, it was an enormously rewarding book to write.

TF: Are you yourself a keen buyer at auctions, and if so what has been your most prized purchase? Does ebay count?

KS: No, sadly it’s not something I’ve been able to indulge yet, although I have friends and family who buy and sell a lot through Christie’s and Bonhams and I’ve been to all the major auction houses in London for various parties. Funnily enough I am going to be visiting Sothebys shortly as part of my research for next summer’s book. They are due to auction off the world’s largest uncut diamond and it’s going to be on show. I’d love to go to that sale but if I did, my husband would rest easy knowing there’s no chance I’d be putting my hand up!

TF:  You chose a Renoir as the main painting. What drew you in particular to his work?

KS: There were so many other artists I could have chosen, but it came down to a mix of practical requirements – partly because he’s so famous most people can readily visualize his style in their heads which is useful; partly because he was such a prolific artist I could bury my made-up paintings in his catalogue of works without them standing out, and partly because he was painting at a time that coincided with the dates needed for the plot.

TF: The Vermeil family, with whom Flora has to deal, are classy and dysfunctional. How did you build up the family structure and where did you find inspiration for the family members?

KS: No-one is what they first appear to be in this book and that was one of the elements I enjoyed most when writing it. We’re introduced to Vermeils via the public’s perception of them as a rich, high-profile family, before it layers down into first impressions and then deeper truths and understanding, so that by the time everything is turned on its head, the lines between who’s good and who’s bad has blurred.  I started with Lilian Vermeil in this instance. Initially, I was going to make her the heir in question and I was halfway through the first draft before I switched it over to her husband Jacques. Lilian has a chilly elegance to her that I steadily chipped away at, to reveal a surprisingly protective wife and mother. Equally, I started out with Xavier and Natascha as twins as I really wanted their closeness to be an oppressive and alienating force, keeping everyone at bay; them against the world. I wanted them to feel extreme and I hope most readers will feel a strong dislike for them in the early stages of the story. I liked Jacques’ subtlety and gentle manner but he is still a flawed character – he’s had affairs, he’s a little spoiled and vain, but he’s also a doctor doing good in the world when financially he doesn’t need to and his gentleness is a counterpoint to the accusations thrown at his father. I really loved building up this family dynamic. They felt completely alive to me throughout the journey.

TF: Location is the driver behind TripFiction. Both main locations – Paris and Antibes (there are two others, London and Vienna) – are evocatively described. What is your connection with each and what top tips do you have for anyone visiting? 

KS: Paris was inevitable as that is where the real apartment is located and although I could have taken artistic license and simply relocated the action to another place, the shadows of the German occupation are still long above the city (the Hermes roof garden for example had been a vegetable plot during the war). Antibes I chose because historically it’s such an artists’ mecca – nearby St Paul de Vence was, in the 1940s and 50s, host to everyone from Matisse to Dali, Braques and Picasso . And of course the huge estates along the Cap are where the grandest Parisian families have always decamped for the summer (even if most of the villas are owned by Russian oligarchs now.) I know Paris well so it’s always a familiar place for me to go back to in my mind when writing but I was new to Antibes and took a detour there with my family last summer after staying with friends in the Toulouse region. The best thing to do, in my experience, any time you go somewhere new is to immediately get lost – so we walked the Cap, St Paul, Antibes Old Town… We jumped off the rocks into a quiet bay on the Cap, sunbathed and people-watched on La Garoupe beach, watched the supercar procession along the promenade on the Friday night…Honestly, it was so over-the-top, if someone had said it had been staged for Top Gear, I wouldn’t have been in the least bit surprised.

TF:  What is next for you in terms of writing and travel?

KS:  The Christmas book is now written, edited and ready to go once we finalize the cover design. That story is based in Canada, mainly in the Rockies. I spent my gap year in Canada on the West coast so I know the area in general terms; I also did a publicity tour to Toronto not so long ago, with drinks with my publishers at Soho House…. See? Nothing is ever wasted!

I have just started writing the summer book which is set in Rome. I went over for a research trip but it rained almost solidly so I didn’t get the summer sizzle I was hoping for. But that’s okay. The plotline I’m developing will more than account for that!

Thank you to Karen and we really look forward to seeing her next books – especially the one set in Rome!

You can follow Karen on Twitter and Facebook 

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For more PARIS set books click here and ANTIBES here

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