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Author Karen Swan on writing her novels in the treehouse in her garden

PUBLISHED: 15:17 07 July 2014

Author Karen Swan at her tree house on Ashdown Forest

Author Karen Swan at her tree house on Ashdown Forest

Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036

Karen Swan writes hugely popular novels in the treehouse at the bottom of her garden. But this is no ordinary treehouse, as Alice Cooke found out…

Having once mingled with the well-heeled in London, New York and Paris as a fashion journalist, the only heel that Karen Swan is now interested in is a command to her two gorgeous dogs, Crumble and Biscuit. For now Karen lives the high life in a very different sense – penning bestselling novels from amongst the branches at the bottom of her garden, in her treehouse.

Below her, the two Golden Retrievers bowl one another over in play, and apart from their jollity the only noises to be heard are those of the birds and the ponies in the field next door. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t.

“My garden in Battersea was about the size of the treehouse,” remembers Karen fondly. We are chatting over a cup of tea in the kitchen, before going out to see her enviable working space. “It is only in the summer though,” she is quick to admit. “When English winter sets in I move my table right in front of the Aga and have a dog on each side to keep me warm.” She even puts her feet in the warming oven occasionally, she tells me, laughing, but stresses that she wouldn’t recommend this on the grounds of safety.

“The children [there are three] always loved playing in trees so much that I hatched a plan to build a treehouse with my gardener – it was originally for them!” Her gardener is Michael Georges, who made a treehouse for his own children, which he then told Karen about – together they designed this one, before he built it from scratch. Michael took care not to use any bolts, so as not to damage the tree. “It sounded fantastic,” she enthuses, “and I thought the children would love it.” They did and still do love the treehouse – and who wouldn’t? Not only is it like some kind of Cath Kidston meets Peter Pan dream inside, but it is only accessible by a drawbridge. It’s the perfect stage for childhood adventures. But as well as hosting pirate heists, castle sieges and doll’s afternoon teas, the treehouse has been a huge hit with the grown-ups. “It’s the first thing that parents want to see when they pick their children up, and we’ll often wander down here with a cup of coffee to take a look. They pretend it’s for the benefit of the children, but I see straight through that!”

Karen says it’s no secret that she’s fallen completely in love with the space. “When the children are here I can keep an eye on them, but when they’re not I can be in complete solitude, without even a telephone to bother me if I choose – it makes for a fantastic working environment, especially when I’m editing.” She sometimes has to work from several computers as there’s no power at the bottom of the garden, but she says that this is a small price to pay.

The proof is in the pudding in this case, as Karen is currently working on her seventh successful book, and there are at least three more in the pipeline – she describes them as “warm – they’re rally cries for women’s friendships and good marriages – quite funny and a little bit rude.”

As far as the treehouse’s décor goes, it may look extremely well thought out to the untrained eye (mine), but I am assured that most of it is just leftovers. “The fabric for the curtains is in two colours because it was just what we had after making something else, but I also quite like the fact it’s not too pink or too blue – it’s a girly space and a boy’s place.” The paper lanterns were homemade for a children’s birthday party years ago. “I had no idea that they’d last so long, but I’m delighted that they have.” And the oversized Union Jack beanbags are from a shop in Suffolk called Runaway Coast (01728 454368; runawaycoast.com). Her gorgeous leather-bound notebook is a one-off antique from a local vintage shop (I was green with envy about this in particular, it is beautiful).

Now that her children are growing up, Karen finds that she’s able to claim the treehouse as her own more and more, “but the boys are desperate to move in a plasma tv and a PlayStation 3 – thank goodness there’s no power!” The closest they get is having a portable DVD player to gather around at sleepovers, which are still much enjoyed. “The dogs are amazing – when we creep down here to check on the children while they’re sleeping we always find the dogs lying nearby, keeping an eye on them.”

Her latest book, The Summer Without You, hit the shelves last month, and true to form, Karen is already embroiled in the story of the next one. “It takes over your thoughts – I do my best thinking out on walks with the dogs, and then it’s straight back to the treehouse to get everything down on paper.”

The Summer Without You is available from all good bookshops.

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