The Big Interview: Victoria Hislop

Victoria Hislop, and below with husband Ian
Victoria Hislop, and below with husband Ian
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SHE travels to Greece most months, is feted as a celebrity by her fans there and features on television regularly, even giving interviews in Greek.

Spending some of the money from two best-selling novels on a holiday home in Crete and four hours of one-on-one Greek lessons a week when at home in Kent has clearly paid off for Victoria Hislop.

“It’s such a beautiful and complex language,” she says. “I love trying to get my tongue around six, seven and even eight syllable words. It’s like wonderful, multi-layered music.

“If you live in another country some of the time or just visit regularly, I think it’s pretty unforgivable and pathetic to do that British tourist thing of just speaking English to everyone, loudly and more slowly, and expecting everyone to understand.”

Her manner is low-key, and she still seems a tad bemused by the gigantic worldwide success of her first two novels, The Island and The Return, which have been translated into 30 languages.

The first, a romance and sweeping family history set against the 20th century story of the leper colony of Spinalonga, a tiny island off the north coast of Crete, took the world by storm and stayed at number one in UK fiction sales for eight weeks.

Greece’s top actors vied with each other for parts in the 26-week adaptation of the novel, and the writer’s role as script consultant meant she travelled regularly to meet producers, reinforcing her love all things Hellenic. Threequarters of the Greek population watched the show.

The second book moved Hislop’s love of the Mediterranean west to Andalucia, Spain, where her tale was woven around the bloody events of the Spanish Civil War – a tale inspired initially by the story of the assassination of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

For her third chunky novel in seven years she has returned to Greece for The Thread, an often dark tale set in the city of Thessaloniki, whose last century has involved a great fire, population shifts, an earthquake, occupation and civil war.

The writer has cornered the market in what might be called chick lit – except for the fact that she spends a year to 18 months buried in the British Library or London Library before setting pen to paper, meticulously researching all the different angles on the historical background to each tale.

The story of the relationship between well-heeled Dimitri and Turkish immigrant seamstress Katerina spans most of the last century. As well as engrossing the reader in their fortunes and misfortunes and those of their friends of different ethnic backgrounds, Victoria brings to life a cosmopolitan city whose cloth is cut as much from Asia Minor as it is from Europe.

“I was in Thessaloniki talking about my work at the university,” says Victoria. “I had time before the event to go for a walk around the centre of the city and noticed a minaret. But there were not any obvious signs of Muslims living around the city, which seemed very ethically uniform and Greek Orthodox.

“I began to look into the history of the city and found that in a 20-year-period in the early part of the 20th century its population of Jews, Muslims and Christian Greeks changed after first the Muslims and then the Jews had to leave. This and the effects of it on the rest of the population seemed to be a good dramatic starting point for the novel.”

It’s the ability to portray the different facets of historical context in her novels that marks out Hislop’s brand of popular literature from others that absorb millions on their sun loungers. She has achieved that rare thing of tugging heart strings and also serving up a history lesson that is detailed, colourful and digestible. “I like history, and try to make it accessible. There are people who feel intimidated by an 800-page history book. I know I would be, and other women are, too.

“But you do worry when you are telling someone else’s history,” she says. “People have generally been very kind about the book, and in Greece many have said ‘thank you for telling this story’. For decades in the middle of the 20th century there was great censorship and the history books didn’t tell the story of what happened to Thessaloniki.”

Victoria Hislop’s romance with Greece began in the late 1970s when she was 17 years old. About to go to Oxford to read English after grammar school in Tonbridge, she went on holiday to Athens and the island of Paros with her mum and sister.

“That was it, really. It ticked so many boxes for me and still does. I immediately felt I could live there, what with the heat, blue skies, history, culture, music, wonderful food and lovely people. I went to Greece pretty much every year after that.”

When it comes to Greek history she says she is not really into Minoans. “I don’t find ancient Greece easy to get my teeth into at all... and there are so many more sources to go to with modern history.”

After Oxford (“which threw me off the trail of creative writing, as I saw all literature as something to be ripped apart and analysed”) Hislop followed a well-trodden path into publishing. But when her minuscule salary proved difficult to live on in London she switched to advertising, trebled her salary overnight and acquired the obligatory BMW.

Marrying fellow Oxford English graduate (the satirist, broadcaster and editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop), they had a daughter, Emily, then a son called William. Returning to work, Victoria found her heart wasn’t in it. “You have to love your work to leave your child, and I realised I didn’t...”

She says she didn’t plan to move into fiction writing. “I don’t tend to have a plan, and don’t understand people planning what they’ll be doing into next year. I quite like a bit of uncertainty in my life, and think it’s good to change what you do maybe every 10 to 15 years.”

A national newspaper commissioned Hislop to write a feature about a health farm in Australia, and that led to a long period of travel journalism. On a holiday in Crete, she visited the former leper colony of Spinalonga, her imagination was captured by the story of these outsiders, and the history of Crete itself in the last century – and so the story of The Island began to take shape in her imagination.

How difficult was it to travel from 2,000-word pieces of journalism to 400 pages of fiction?

“Once I’d done lots of research, not that difficult. I really enjoyed it – being able to let a story breathe properly and let my characters develop almost at their own pace.”

It sounds enviably easy, but Hislop says it wasn’t all plain sailing. It took a while to find a literary agent who’d take up a book about a leper colony and sell it to publishers. Once she did find an agent, the book was accepted by Headline after nine other companies had turned it down because its subject matter was “too risky”.

“They’d all thought it was not a ‘safe’ subject – until we found Flora, the woman who edits my books now, whose father happened to be a consultant in tropical diseases and had lived in Africa. She understood the medicine around the story, and thought it was gripping.”

The following year Hislop was back on a beach in Greece, taking what she calls her “paparazzi” photos of rows of holidaymakers all reading The Island. “I couldn’t believe it was happening, and said it would never happen again.” Since then her star has continued to rise. In 2009 she was invited to judge the children’s section of the Costa Book Awards – an experience she isn’t anxious to repeat.

“I’m not comfortable doing it, frankly. I don’t do book reviews because you’re setting yourself up as above those you’re criticising, and I know myself how difficult it is when you get a bad review. It’s easy to criticise, but not so easy to create. That said, I accept valid criticism and it makes me determined to do better next time. Having a number one best seller or two does not mean you haven’t still got loads to learn.”

Greece has taken Victoria Hislop to its heart (“people sometimes think I’m Greek but pretending to be English”, she says). The economic troubles and unrest of her adopted second home are “painful and sad” and she finds it heartbreaking to hear more and more tales of financial hardship amongst her friends each time she visits.

“They suddenly find another 10 per cent being taken away in tax and almost everyone feels vulnerable. Corruption is rife, everyone knows about it, and the man in the street thinks ‘what incentive is there to be honest when our leaders are dishonest?’ But the Greeks are very resilient people, and in the past each period of intense drama has led on to a time of stability and peace... I sincerely hope it will happen again.”

The Thread is published by Headline, £7.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk

Victoria Hislop will be talking about her work at Wesley Chapel, Harrogate as part of Harrogate Festival on July 6, 7.30pm. Information and tickets: 01423 502116 or at www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com