Scots author Karen Swan's latest book is riding a wave of interest in ballet sparked by the success of Darren Aronofsky's psychological horror film Black Swan. Here, she tells Jackie McGlone how a girl who wanted to be a ballerina ended up making her pointe on the page
• Karen Swan says holidays with her Scottish parents instilled a love for the Highlands. And Natalie Portman in Black Swan, below
KAREN SWAN can't wait to see the deliriously dark ballet thriller Black Swan. "I've been obsessively watching the You Tube trailer," she says, looking somewhat shamefaced since she is only a fortnight's deadline away from completing her third novel. Her hopes for the Natalie Portman movie has nothing to do with the odd coincidence that the film bears the novelist's name – her name is actually Swan MacLeod – but owes everything to the fact that she publishes her latest novel this month, Prima Donna. At 566 pages, it's an archetypal beach-read paperback even if it is being published in the bleak midwinter, but, importantly, centres on the ballet world, telling of a sexy, Brazilian bombshell of a prima ballerina, Pia Soto, who raises the barre when it comes to bad behaviour on pointe and off.
"If Black Swan is about a White Swan's descent into corruption by becoming the Black Swan, Prima Donna does the reverse. It tells how a seductive Black Swan goes from the edge of darkness and is transformed and redeemed, with Pia even developing White-Swan attributes. Mine's the classic fairytale, bad girl comes good," says Swan.
Suddenly, it seems, ballet rocks – and shocks. There's Black Swan, and Emily Blunt stars as a ballerina in love with Matt Damon's politician in the upcoming romantic thriller, The Adjustment Bureau.
Meanwhile, fashion is having a pretty ballerina moment, with the spring catwalks awash in frothy tulle and satin slippers. Cheryl Cole wears a pink tutu in her latest video and silver-haired David Byrne sports one in his newly-released concert film, Rise, Ride, Roar. Then there's Apollo's Angels, a forensic history of classical ballet by former dancer Jennifer Homans.
"I honestly had no idea I was tapping into the dance zeitgeist," says Swan. At 37, she's a mother of three children under ten, is fine-boned and vanilla-blonde and, when we meet in a venerable London hotel she is elegant in denim.
"I've danced all my life and I still go to an advanced modern dance class every week, near Tunbridge Wells," she continues. Whenever her youngest child, four-year-old Plum – short for Paloma – asks "What do you want to be when you grow up, Mummy?" she always replies, "A ballerina, of course, darling." So there's more than a bit of wish-fulfilment in the novel, she whispers. Swan jokes she could not have more Celtic blood coursing through her veins if she wished, as she is the daughter of a proud Scot, Malcolm Victor Swan MacLeod, a former Special Branch officer from Skye, and an Irish mother, Margaret.
Despite having been born and educated in England, Swan, a former fashion journalist, says her heart belongs to Scotland: she recalls long, blissful summers here with her parents and her two siblings when she was growing up. She still spends as much time as possible north of the Border when she's not at home in Sussex, where she and her accountant husband, Anders Green, live in the middle of a forest with their children and a retriever called Biscuit.
The couple married ten years ago on Eriskay, which the MacLeod clan took over for the celebrations. Green wore a MacLeod hunting tartan kilt – Swan's wedding gift to her English husband – "because he has the legs for it". The elder of their two sons was christened at the church near Fort William where she had been baptised Karen Anne Swan MacLeod.
Much as she loves her very Scottish name, Swan had to drop the MacLeod when she started writing blockbuster fiction since the shorter name suited the flamboyantly embossed covers of her saucy books, which have been favourably compared to those of Jilly Cooper, one of her literary heroines.
"I can live with that comparison; it's a massive compliment to be called 'an urban Jilly Cooper,'" she smiles. Her first novel, Players – the tagline reads, "Friendships are strong. Lust is stronger" – sold at a rate of 3,000 copies a week, eventually topping the Bookseller's Heatseekers charts. "All through my life no-one could ever spell or pronounce my surname," she sighs. "I'd always written as a journalist as Karen Swan MacLeod. Dad's family name is actually MacSwan MacLeod, so we're very Scottish. I think Karen Swan sounds like a made-up name for someone who writes sexy, romantic novels. But we have given our boys – Oliver and William – the MacLeod name and Plum is a Swan."
Everyone asks Swan how she manages to juggle three children with a writing career. It's down to her mother, she says, to whom she dedicated her first novel, with the stricture that she wasn't to read the rude and raunchy bits: "I don't have a nanny and I have no desire to have one – and I certainly don't have an au pair. Instead, I have my mum, who's a third parent to the children since she and dad live about 20 minutes away from us.
"When Ollie, my first child, was born, I fell madly in love with him and vowed I'd never be parted from him. I knew I never wanted to work in an office ever again. I'd been a fashion stylist – it was so boring because I just didn't have the eye – before becoming a writer and commissioning editor on a Sunday newspaper magazine. I wanted to use my brain a bit more, so I feel my whole career has been a process of elimination until I became a writer, especially after I co-wrote a baby book, The Gentle Birth Method."
The book details the system of diet, alternative therapies, massage and visualisation pioneered by Dr Gowri Mothi, which is beloved of yummy mummy celebrities, such as Elle MacPherson, Kate Moss, Sharleen Spiteri, Sadie Frost and Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, they all came to the book launch. Given stories about the parlous state of maternity services in the NHS, it's a method, says Swan, that she highly recommends. After all, she's tried it three times.
"Anyway, the next logical step seemed to be fiction, although I'd never written so much as a short story. I'd never have done it, though, if my mother-in-law hadn't dropped in one day and booted me out of the house so that I could have a day off to myself. I didn't have time to ring anyone to go for coffee and I didn't dare shop, lest my husband cut my credit card in two – just like Tor, one of the trio of heroines in my novel Players – so I ended up in the library with my laptop. Two hours later I'd written the first scene, which became chapter one of my first book."
Swan was determined to finish the book, despite having her third child and moving to the countryside, where her kitchen boasts a chocolate-brown Aga. "Very Enid Blyton. It was a huge life change, but I simply couldn't bear to be one of those people going round constantly bleating that I was writing a novel. So now, weather permitting, I write in a somewhat dilapidated treehouse that belongs to the children, although they kick me out when they want to play there. Gosh, I sound such a forest pixie!"
London-born and educated at Heathfield Girls' School, in Pinner, north London ("I'd have preferred being with boys!" she laughs), and at Exeter University, where she read medieval English, she insists that, despite her very English education, she is much more Scottish than English.
"I'm definitely a Scot! Every spare moment of my childhood was spent in Scotland, at my aunt's house, Crolinnhe, near Fort William, which is up for sale. I'm absolutely gutted. It's my childhood home: a big Victorian villa with fabulous balustrades. It's up on an embankment and it has these elevated views across Loch Linnhe that are just staggering. The gardens are beautiful, just like the fictional Secret Garden, with overgrown woods, old gates and steps covered in moss. The games we played! There's also a wonderful bumpy lawn – which my lawn in Sussex resembles – that's great for sledging or doing roly-polys down. It was the most special place to be a child." So why has she never set any of her books in Scotland, the land that so fired her childhood imagination?
Well, she replies, the one she's supposed to be finishing as we speak, which is tentatively called Christmas at Tiffany's, opens in Scotland, then her heroine is despatched to London, Paris and New York, while Prima Donna takes in Chicago, Aspen, St Moritz, an English country house and a small village in southern Ireland, not a million miles removed from the one where Swan's mother was born.
Wrapping on her chic, penguin-patterned scarf, Swan prepares to head back to Sussex, saying: "I'm an at-home mum, with three children. I'm walking the dog, doing the school run, going to matches, doing all the shopping and cooking. My life's really boring. My escapism is my writing. I think we all need a little glamour in our lives – and I get it through my books. I hope my readers do, too."
• Prima Donna, by Karen Swan, is published by Pan, 6.99.QUEENS OF THE BEACH READS
JILLY COOPER: Though she was well-known journalist throughout the 1970s, in the 1980s her "bonkbusters" such as Riders, Rivals and Polo – featuring infidelity, misunderstandings among the upper classes, and lots of horses – propelled her to international fame. Ian Rankin is a big fan, naming Rivals in his top five favourite books.
HELEN FIELDING:In the mid 1990s, Fielding's newspaper column on the life of the thirtysomething everywoman Bridget Jones opened the floodgates for true-to-life confessional novels that came to characterise 'chick lit'. The Bridget Jones books used Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion as models.
JENNY COLGAN: Born in Ayrshire, Colgan is probably Scotland's most successful author of modern romantic comedies, having written many bestsellers, beginning with Amanda's Wedding in 2000, and, most recently, The Good, The Bad and the Dumped. Her first job was in the NHS and she's also tried her hand at cartooning and stand-up comedy.
JANE GREEN: Another newspaper journalist, Jane Green wrote her first novel Straight Talking in 1996, at the time 'chick lit' was blooming, and caught the wave. She's had success on both sides of the Atlantic, and she lives in the US, where she has set many of her stories such as Beach House and Girl Friday.
MARIAN KEYES: Ireland's Marian Keyes exploded into bookshops in 1995 with Watermelon, swiftly followed by Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and Rachel's Holiday, all massive bestsellers, cementing her name as one of the founders of the 'chick lit' phenomenon and crowding other authors off the shelves with her thick paperbacks.
CANDACE BUSHNELL: Having created her alter ego Carrie Bradshaw in her column for the New York Times, Bushnell unleashed on the world Sex and the City, which eventually spawned a long-running TV show, inspired two films, and forced straight men into knowing what a "Manolo Blahnik" is.