All Greek To Me

19th September 2014

Kathy Walton meets novelist Victoria Hislop

From Athens to Oslo… via Chorleywood.

Victoria Hislop is relaxing in the kitchen of her North London home with her cat Colin happily snoozing on her lap. They are the very image of perfect contentment.

She has just returned from five weeks in Greece, a combination of holiday and promotional interviews for her forthcoming novel The Sunrise (set in Cyprus) and is off later this month on a book tour of Norway – but not before she has squeezed in her second visit to the local area as the guest of Chorleywood Bookshop.

Her previous visit here was to publicise both her second novel, The Return, set in Spain after the Civil War (published 2008) and her first, The Island (published 2005), an evocative depiction of life on the island of Spinalonga, a former Greek leprosy colony, that closed in 1957.

The Island, in particular, was a spectacular hit, selling more than three million copies worldwide, spending eight weeks at No. 1 in the Sunday Times paperback chart and – perhaps most lucratively – winning Richard and Judy’s Summer Read prize. One critic called it “a beach book with a heart.”

“Of course I was surprised by its success, it would be odd not to be, but it’s rather nice” concedes Victoria, who is notoriously unassuming about her talent.

She resolutely refuses to have her photo on the paperback editions of her novels (which traditionally sell more copies than hardbacks) and despite similar success of The Return and her third novel The Thread (set in the Greek city of Thessaloniki), she she still doesn’t feel as if she’s famous over here.

“Until I have written five novels, I’m just someone who writes – and lots of people are good at telling stories,”she says modestly.

Disappointingly for her many fans, though, she says that there is no fifth novel in the pipeline yet, before adding, self-deprecatingly, “I hope I improve as I go along.”

Not that her Greek readers would think that she needs to improve. In Greece The Island has achieved almost cult status and was recently turned into what has become the country’s most popular television series ever, co-written by Victoria.

“Weirdly everyone knows who I am in Greece,” she laughs. “I can’t sit in a cafe without being recognised.”

It is hardly surprising that the Greeks have taken Victoria to their hearts; she is pretty, smiley, refreshingly down to earth and paints a colourful and often moving picture of their culture.

She says she has come to feel a “special affinity” with the country; she and her husband Ian Hislop (editor of Private Eye and regular panellist on BBC2’s Have I Got News For You) have a second home there, which she uses as a base for her research and for family holidays with the couple’s two children, Emily, 23, and William, 21. Only half-jokingly, she says that when she dies, she hopes her ashes will be divided between England and Greece.

What must impress the Greeks as much as her knowlege of their people and traditions, is that – unusually for a Brit – she has taken the trouble to learn their language for her many TV and radio interviews, rather than rely on an interpreter.

“It’s become something of an obsession,” she admits. “I’ve spent more time learning Greek in the past five years than I have writing.”

Her effors are sure to be rewarded. If her success with her previous novels is anything to go by, The Sunrise will be given a rapturous reception in both the UK and Greece.

The novel is set in the Nothern Cypriot city of Famagusta, once a thriving beach resort favoured by the international jet set of the late 1960s and 70s, with stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton making frequent visits, and the Greeks and Turks living side by side in relative harmony.

The plot charts the stories of two families who remain in the city after the Turkish invasion in 1974, when everyone else has fled and the island of Cyprus is divided in two.

If the families’ story is a fictional one, the historical background to the novel is real enough. Instead of returning home within a few days of the 1974 invasion, as they had hoped, Famagusta’s 40,000 inhabitants found themselves permanently shut out by the Turkish army who shelled the city and cordoned it off with barbed wire, leaving a ghost town.

Since then, a new city has grown up around the original buildings, but it is the deserted streets of old Famagusta that inspired Victoria.

For the first time, she faced the challenge of writing about somewhere that she hadn’t been permitted to visit, forced to rely instead on hours of library research in Greece and Britain and interviewing dozens of Cypriots from both the Greek and Turkish communities.

“Famagusta looks like a place that’s longing to be written about,” she says. “I have stood very close to the wire and surveyed it from the top of a building which is right next to it. It really makes your hairs stand on end, to see the dark windows of dozens of hotels, knowing that their beds are probably still unmade and that there are tables still set in the dining-room, gathering dust and dilapidation for four decades. It gave my imagination more than enough to work on.”

She refuses to say if the novel ends happily, saying simply that the ending is a “hopeful” one.

“I always see the potential for hope and triumph. The politicians on both sides in Cyprus are always talking, even if they never get very far. No one has given up hope that the island will once again be one place.”

In each of her four novels to date, Victoria has explored the aftermath of a tragedy or conflict and set ‘what is’ against ‘what might have been’, with the repercussions, both personal and political, seen largely through the eyes of the female characters.

“I generally look at the effects of male political decisions on the wives, family and women. I find it easier to put myself in women’s shoes and see how they survive,” she says.

Suriving means a great deal to her. Ever since she wrote The Island, helping patients to overcome leprosy has become her personal mission. She carried out much of her research into the disease with the help of a professor at the London School of Hygiene and through her, was introduced to the charity Lepra, for whom Victoria is now an ambassador, speaking at fund-raising dinners and visiting hospitals in India.

“Lepra’s work reaches millions because as well as treatment, they fund education as preventative medicine. It’s very exciting because you can really see the benefits,” she says.

As we say goodbye, I wonder how a woman who combines motherhood, writing and charity work manages to be so calm. It turns out it’s largely due to Colin, aparently, and his relaxing feline vibes. He takes all the stress out of any potential crisis.

Victoria suddenly remembers that she has promised to make a typically English afternoon tea for a foreign journalist who is interviewing her tomorrow and only now do I discover that she’s not completely perfect. “Scones?” I ask. She laughs. ”I’m cheating by using bought ones.” She shrugs, charmingly, and down to scratch the cat’s head and that little bit of soft fur just below the ear. Colin purrs. The adoration is mutual.

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