An interview with Victoria Hislop

Following on from the success of The Island, The Sunrise and Cartes Postales from Greece, Victoria Hislop’s latest novel, Those Who Are Loved, is set against the backdrop of the German occupation of Greece in World War II, the subsequent civil war and military dictatorship. The novel sheds light on the complexity and trauma of Greece’s past and weaves an epic tale of an ordinary woman compelled to live an extraordinary life.
Interview by Alice Beazer for New Books  – 100th issue

Image Credit © Bill Waters

Congratulations on your amazing new novel; what was the original inspiration for Those Who Are Loved?

The inspiration really was seeing Makronisos from a distance – the island prison – and realising that Greece had its own Alcatraz or its Robben Island. I found that deeply intriguing! And ten years later, here is the novel. It was a big subject to investigate.

Those Who Are Loved begins in 2016, as Themis sits with her grandchildren. The narrative then goes back to Themis’ childhood, and tells the extraordinary tale of her life chronologically. Why did you choose to structure the novel in this way – beginning and ending in the present day (well, almost the present day)?

I have always been drawn to the notion of an older person telling a story to a younger one. Now that I am writing this, I am wondering whether this goes back to our early years when our parents, grandparents, teachers perhaps, read to us. It seems very natural to be told a story by an older person. I have done this in several of my novels. But there is an added layer perhaps – where the life of the older person has contained events or actions which they have wanted to conceal, for reasons of stigma or perhaps fear of persecution.

The powerful bond between grandparents and their grandchildren is a lovely theme in this novel; firstly, with Themis’ warm-hearted grandmother Kyria Koralis, then with Themis’ own grandchildren. Interestingly, Themis feels comfortable to discuss the details of her life with her grandchildren, but not her own children – why did you choose to write this?

I think the revelation of family secrets often takes some years. In a sense this is inevitable. Such things need the distance of time and hindsight, when there can’t be any repercussions perhaps.

Themis is the strong-willed protagonist at the heart of Those Who Are Loved – why did you choose to call her ‘Themis’? And what inspired the character of Themis? Was she based on any real woman?

My character is not based on any one individual but is inspired by all the women who got swept up in the civil war conflict in Greece – for the first time putting on trousers and picking up a gun. It was a very liberating time for women in Greece – they were very much domestic creatures until that time – and indeed they mostly returned to the same domestic position in society afterwards. The use of the name Themis was inspired by two things. Firstly, a wonderful woman I met in Athens, also called Themis, who seemed very forward-thinking, very strong, very inspiring and feminist. Secondly, Themis was the Goddess of Justice – and this is very much the motivation of ‘my’ Themis. She is motivated by a desire for justice and for equality – for the right of everyone to have food to eat and freedom to hold their own political views. This is what drives her to fight rather than a belief in communism per se. A statue of Themis stands on top of the Old Bailey, always shown blindfolded, and holding a pair of scales. She seems as relevant a symbol for our times and for 1940s Greece as she was for the Ancient Greeks.

Whilst Themis is a child, she befriends Fotini, a refugee – I loved reading about their blossoming friendship. I was struck by the clear parallels with the refugee crisis in Greece today. What did you want to show through Fotini’s story?

The influx of refugees into 21st century Greece definitely has some parallels with the wave of refugees that came in almost 100 years ago as a result of the Greek-Turkish War which resulted in the huge population exchange of 1923 (when more than a million Greek Orthodox Christians arrived in Greece from Turkey and hundreds of thousands of Moslems left for Turkey). Fotini’s family is one of those who has been displaced in this way and forms part of the huge number of largely impoverished people who struggled to survive at that time – and who allied themselves with the Left. Many of them lived as well as they could in the rapidly expanding city of Athens – and there are still areas, such as Nea Smyrni (New Smyrna) which reflect where they settled. There are some real differences, however, between refugees arriving in Greece today and those from the 1920’s. One of them is that many have ambitions to return to their home countries and do not regard Greece as a permanent home. For most 21st century refugees, Greece is a place that they are passing through in order to get to countries in northern Europe. In the 1920s the arriving refugees knew that they would never return to their original homes and also they were Greek Orthodox Christians so assimilated more speedily into Greek culture and life. I wasn’t particularly wanting to show anything through Fotini’s story, apart from the fact that social mobility is often denied to people – and poverty is often a hard situation to struggle out of.

(read the full interview at the New Books website)