For Victoria Hislop, falling in love with the Mediterranean was not a slow burn, but something akin to standing under a hairdryer. ‘I remember the aeroplane doors opening,’ she says, ‘and this hot wind unlike anything I’d felt in Britain – this unbelievable warmth.’ She was fourteen years old, and had only known seaside holidays in Bognor Regis or Felpham in West Sussex (‘We used to rent a flat above a shop owned by a man with a glass eye who terrified me, and we’d sit on the beach, cold and wrapped up and feeling uncomfortable.’) But then a friend of the family suggested taking a holiday flat in Malta; trips to Minorca and Athens followed, and there was no looking back: ‘I was so happy – and now I can’t keep away.’
It has been a profitable passion. In the last nine years she has written three bestselling novels set in southern Europe – two of them (The Island and The Thread) about Greece, the other (The Return) about Spain. The Island alone has sold more than two million copies, as well as spawning a 26-part series on Greek television. Part of the proceeds has been spent on a house on Crete which she owns with her husband Ian, the editor of Private Eye, and another substantial portion on the Greek language lessons she has been taking for the past three and a half years.
‘I can’t yet pick up a Greek novel and read it,’ she says, ‘but I can do a live television interview at seven in the morning. For the first few visits to Greece to promote The Island I had a translator, and I hated it: I felt as if everything I said was going through a gauze. Also, there was an elderly man on Crete who was a good friend of mine – someone who’d had leprosy – and I thought, “If I don’t get on with it I’ll never be able to have a proper conversation with him.” He died last year, very sadly, but by the end I could visit him in hospital without anyone else being there, and that was a great reason to have learnt.’
As this story suggests, success has not given Hislop any airs or graces. She radiates cheerful, down-to-earth Britishness, albeit with an overlay of Continental chic. Today she looks formally elegant – simple silver jewellery, bright blue dress, knee-length boots – having come from a memorial service for another celebrated Hellenophile, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
‘There was nothing in Greek,’ she reports, ‘which made me sad. There was so much Greek poetry that he knew and would have loved. My ear was crying out for it.’
For her Spanish novel, she learnt a different kind of language – dance. ‘Granada, where I set The Return, has a very strong flamenco culture,’ she explains. ‘Every lamppost is covered in posters advertising a concert, usually in some dingy basement bar. It’s a really vibrant place: you could never be bored there. It has a huge amount of tradition, and amazing food, and there is a great sense of a city in a landscape. If someone told me I had to spend the rest of my life there, I’d be very contented.’
What draws Hislop as a novelist, however, is the sense that ‘so much is hidden’ beneath the surface of the beautiful places she writes about. In The Island it was the story of a leprosy colony; in The Return and The Thread, the experience of families divided by civil war. ‘The Return grew out of seeing these elderly people wandering around and thinking to myself, “They lived through all of that, yet there is no monument to the people who died fighting for the Republic. Why not?” Which was very naïve, of course, because Franco was in control for so long, and he was the one who set up the monuments and wrote the history of the Civil War.’
In Greece, when writing The Thread, she found the legacy of internal strife closer to the surface: ‘There’s a lot of talk of “betrayal”. My Greek publisher was worried that I was even alluding to it in the book, because anything to do with the Civil War is like sticking your fingers in an electric socket and standing in a bucket of water – so I wrote it very, very carefully.’
You certainly would not expect the inheritors of such dark histories to be grateful to a foreigner for putting them in the spotlight; but according to Hislop, the response in Greece has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘I get a lot of messages on my website, and they say really nice things – very emotional, because the Greeks can’t hold things back. They’re grateful because I’ve given them detail that they didn’t know, and they’re happy that their story is being delivered to them in a relatively simple form, which is what my novels are: they’re not complex.’
The emails she ignores are those from people encouraging her to use their family stories as material. ‘I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do, and a very dull one,’ she says. ‘Where’s the imagination involved? Every single one of my characters is completely out of my head.’
She feels deeply for the Greeks in their present economic predicament. ‘Owning a house there brings you closer to them: you look at your electricity bill and think, “Oh, there’s a huge great tax that’s been added on.” There are a lot of people who are struggling, and one shares their frustration.’
Might she choose a subject nearer to home for her next book? ‘It definitely won’t be set in Britain, I can tell you that. I remember very little from my English degree except “Drama is conflict” – and there are no such dramatic starting points in British twentieth-century history. Also, I’m slightly afraid of writing about British people: I’m not sure I’d do it very well. With Greece I feel I’ve built up a bank of knowledge – and I’m fascinated by it still.’
Victoria talks to Jackie McGlone about “The Return” keeping secrets, and researching her third novel…
“VICTORIA HISLOP certainly knows HOW to keep a secret. No mean feat, considering she’s married to a man who has made it his business to uncover cracking news stories about the great and good doing bad things which they would prefer to remain hidden.The wife of the more famous Ian, editor of Private Eye and panellist on the popular BBC1 show Have I Got News For You, Hislop admits: “I am rather good at keeping secrets, especially from Ian.”
Indeed, she’s currently ferreting away all sorts of things from her nosy husband, including the small library of books she’s reading to research her third novel.
The other evening she was propped up in bed tapping away on her laptop, when Ian sidled up behind her and tried to read the words on her screen. “I slammed the lid shut,” laughs Hislop, a glossy-haired, slender woman on the cusp of 50, dressed in figure-revealing black, with high-heeled suede boots adding inches.
“He does try to sneak up on me when I’m writing, but I’m paranoid about talking about my work, so I’ve told him he’ll know where my next book is set when he gets the postcard from wherever it is that I’m planning to set it. I never show Ian my books until they are finished. He doesn’t say much about them, in any case. My daughter, who is 18, says she has my book by her bed, which means it’s waiting in the pile to be read. My 15-year-old son, however, has read my new book, The Return. He sent me a text saying, ‘Amazing, mum!’ It’s the best compliment I’ve ever had. I treasure it.”
“All I’ll tell you about the new book, though, is it is set somewhere hot. Erm, yes, it’s a Mediterranean country. And, ummm, aahh …” she hesitates. “… Err, secrets will be unravelled.” So far so formulaic, then. For torrid climates and ancient secrets are the currency of the bestselling novelist’s success. With a little help from Richard and Judy, when it was selected as their Summer Read of 2006, her first novel. The Island, sold more than a million copies, earning her an estimated £500,000. Her second, The Return, has just soared to the top of the paperback charts toppling mega-selling thriller writer, Lee Child, from the number one slot.
Both The Island and The Return tell of the uncovering of old family secrets. The first is a multi-generational narrative set in a former leprosy colony on Spinalonga, a Greek island off Crete, which Hislop and her family discovered when they were holidaying there. Her husband hates sitting on a beach, preferring to explore new places. The Return takes place in Granada and revisits the bloody conflict of the Spanish Civil War, which tore the country, and many loving families, apart.
Her books are unashamed beach reads – she jokes about being called “Queen of the Beach Read” – although Hislop has, in fact, single-handedly reinvented the holiday blockbuster, with her ambitious take on big historical events, reminding readers of the tragic past of the lands they now visit courtesy of easyJet. Indeed, thousands this summer will read The Return while sunning themselves on Spanish beaches and learn some unpalatable truths about their holiday destination, noted one reviewer.
Formerly a travel writer, Hislop has certainly smartened up the genre. “A beach book with heart,” claimed the Observer of The Island, which is currently being filmed as a 25-part serial for Greek television, but with the addition of some steamy sex scenes which aren’t actually in the book.
Incidentally, that critic might have added that The Island is also a book “with brains”, for Hislop’s books are for thinking sun-worshippers, even if they do include those blockbuster staples: adultery, murder, love and passion triumphing against great odds.
The Return is every bit as gripping as The Island, and is impossible to read without a box of Kleenex by your side. It tells of Sonia Cameron, who is unhappily married to a “dusty” husband, with a serious drink problem. Oblivious to the past, she travels to Moorish Granada, with a wild-child girlfriend, in search of escape and salsa lessons.
Through dance she discovers a new lease of life. By chance, she also meets an elderly cafe proprietor, who recounts – in a riveting third-person narrative that makes up the best part of the novel – the story of the death of the great Spanish poet, Lorca, and of the Ramirez family.
His moving tale follows the family’s misfortunes during the Spanish Civil War, telling how the battle of memory against forgetting is still being fought on all fronts.
“In the wake of the military coup led by General Franco, in 1936, the three-year civil war devastated the country,” says Hislop, adding that many Scots made a notable contribution, fighting for the Republican cause, and her book is unashamedly biased anyway, since it’s written from the Left-wing perspective of the war. “When I read from the book in England at author events, I always have to explain the context. People in Scotland never need that. They ask such intelligent questions and they always tell me things I never knew,” she says.
Half a million people died in the conflict and an equal number went into exile. After 1939, hundreds of thousands of Republicans still languished in prison and many faced the firing squad and burial in unmarked graves.
Those who had fought against Franco experienced years of repression and even when the fascist dictator died in 1975, many people in Spain still remained silent about their experiences. The friend with whom Hislop stayed in Granada while researching her novel refused point blank to discuss the past with her. It troubles her that she has been unable to find out why the shutters came down when she mentioned that she would be writing a novel about the civil war.
“Why, why do you want to write about it? It’s got nothing to do with you,” her friend said, then refused to talk about it to her.
“Of course that made me even more interested as I am sure he has a family story to tell,” she says, pointing out that, as holidaymakers, many of us might even have been lying by the sea in Benidorm, say, while elsewhere, people were still being executed in the mid-1970s.
“There was, in effect, a “pacto de olvido”, a pact of forgetting,” says Hislop, when we meet over morning coffee in the cafe of a Tunbridge Wells department store – the Hislops and their children live in the nearby village of Sissinghurst. She’s on her way to a book signing, otherwise we would have met at the family home. A wattle-and-daub house, it is 500-years-old and apparently, it’s a miracle it’s still standing.
Carefully stirring her coffee, she notes that many people who fought on the Left were unable to publish anything about it. Now, almost 70 years since the civil war ended, that pact has finally been broken. And that, believes Hislop, is a cause for celebration, despite the revisionist historians on the Right who still insist that the repression of the Left is a myth. “Many people have not told of course, people like my friend clearly still have secrets they do not wish to reveal.”
A warm, lively conversationalist, she is no stranger to long-buried secrets herself and it’s tempting to play the amateur psychologist and suggest that this is why she writes so well about such matters since they echo her own past.
BORN Victoria Hamson, in Kent, her childhood was difficult, unconventional and sometimes unhappy. Her father drank too much – which explains the accuracy with which she writes about Sonia’s alcoholic husband in The Return – and often directed his unreasonable anger towards Victoria. “I have no idea why this was,” she sighs.
“I felt he neither loved nor liked me very much. It hurt terribly. I really don’t know why I annoyed him as I worked very hard at school and tried to make him proud of me. Now I’ll never know, because he died several years ago. He wasn’t like that with my lovely sister, Anna, who is 18 months older than I am.”
Now that she has children herself – Emily (18) and William (15) – she finds her father’s behaviour even more inexplicable, especially since her husband is such a devoted father, despite the fact that their children are both so bright and eloquent neither he nor his wife can ever win an argument at home. “We always lose in the battle of words,” she laughs.
Their father’s televisual fame used to embarrass the siblings dreadfully when they were younger, she says. “It’s a bit of a drag having a parent on the telly, I think. But Ian’s famous because people like watching him and Paul Merton – who’s become a real family friend – so we can’t really complain.”
When Hislop was 30, she discovered a secret that changed her perspective on life – her parents had had another daughter before she was born. One evening during an interval at the theatre – her father had by then remarried and had two younger children to whom she’s now close – he referred in passing to having had five children. She knew of only four.
Was there some living, secret child, she wondered as she sat uneasily through the second act of the play, her emotions in turmoil, her mind reeling with shock. She was desperate to know more.
It emerged that her sister, Sonia, had died of an asthma attack at the age of three and that her brief life had been wiped from the family record. Her parents had put away all of her pictures and then they must have told everyone not to mention her, Hislop believes. “I knew nothing about her at all because there was no reference to her – ever. It just seemed so incredibly sad. But that was how they dealt with grief in the Fifties. There were no bereavement counsellors and people were not encouraged to grieve openly the way they are now.”
No other family members went to Sonia’s funeral, only her parents. The tragic story haunted Hislop and when she finally discussed it with her mother she understood that trying to forget was how things were done 50 years ago. That’s what her parents attempted to do. “Now, I realise it must have been awful for them,” she says.
There were more skeletons in the family cupboard, though. When her parents finally separated, she was in her teens. Her father had pretended he was leaving the family home because he’d been made redundant. For many years, Hislop believed he had moved to Warwickshire because he’d found a job there. In fact, he had a mistress and was dividing his time between two women, two homes and two families. Meanwhile, her mother was almost in penury and supported her two girls by taking a job as a cook and maitresse d’ in a restaurant. Hislop’s abiding memory is of her mother cycling off in a long skirt in the evenings to work, but she was always there with tea and home-made cakes when Victoria and Anna came home from school. “She was so loving, so very maternal!” she says.
These are memories she treasures because she’s always had a wonderful relationship with her mother, who is now in her eighties and lives close by in Tunbridge Wells.
Hislop was a student at Oxford University – where she and Ian met and fell in love, “a whirlwind romance” that culminated in their marriage eight years later – when her father finally confessed to his long-running affair. She met her stepmother Cherry, whom she likes very much, and two half-siblings, Rose and Jack, both now in their twenties, and immediately liked them, too. “They are beautiful children,” she says, adding that she adores her second family.
Pausing to sweep up the crumbs of her toast, Hislop says: “You know, all families have secrets.” Perhaps some have more secrets than others? For instance, her mother has told her how her grandmother, who lived with them when she was a child, had grown up in a mental institution run by her father. One of her sisters had an affair with an inmate, which produced an illegitimate daughter who was adopted. Later, the great-aunt married another patient, a bigamist, who claimed to be a lord.
All of this was so shaming at the time it had been swept under the carpet for years, adds Hislop, who, having been a journalist, is imbued with lively curiosity about her own family’s clandestine past as well as that of others. “Everyone has a story to tell about their family secrets,” she insists, gently quizzing me about mine.
Her own husband discovered his secret Scottish heritage when he took part in the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? and found that his grandfather was a soldier from Ayr, who helped free France in 1918, and that his great-great-great-grandfather was a crofter from Stornaway in Lewis. “He’s terribly proud of his Scottish roots – he’s entitled to wear the Matheson tartan,” she says. And, not many people know this, he’s a demon Scottish dancer, who can be found on Burns night in Tunbridge Wells doing a very merry Gay Gordons.
Meanwhile, his wife is passionate about Latin American dancing; Ian, unsurprisingly, is not “a salsa type”.
Like the heroine of The Return, Hislop originally went to Granada to learn to dance because she wanted to write a novel about dance; then, like Sonia, she stumbled across stories about the civil war. “I love music and I love to dance. I even dance in my kitchen when I’m cooking.
“I don’t like silence. To me both music and dance are more important than words,” she confesses, adding that she also plays the violin, usually in duets. “It really is unlike anything else one does.”
Before they moved to the country, she had started learning to dance in London. Then she discovered to her chagrin that there were no courses available in Tunbridge Wells. Such is the mania for dance in Britain today, though, that there’s even a salsa class in her local village hall.
She will be salsaing again soon when she returns to Spain for the publication of the Spanish translation of The Return. The fiendishly difficult Gypsy art of flamenco is beyond her, however, she says, adding that she’s also done a crash course in line dancing and belly dancing for a magazine feature. “Salsa is marvellously simple. I’m hooked on it.
“We even stay in on Saturday nights so that I don’t miss Strictly Come Dancing when it’s on.”
Dancing makes her happy. Surely being married to the quick-witted Ian her life is full of laughs anyway?
“Ian is actually a very serious person,” she replies. “Although he can be hysterically funny. He is domestically challenged and has been known to make cucumber sandwiches for the children using a courgette – a story I used in The Island, by the way. About twice a year, he prepares a meal but he does it in the manner of a TV chef – we all sit in the kitchen weeping with laughter, because he’s so funny.
“He’s not always amusing, though. That would be boring.”
Victoria Hislop’s first novel, The Island, was an international bestseller. It was about Spinaloga, the island housing a leprosy colony off Crete. For her second novel, ‘The Return‘ she tackles another difficult subject: the Civil War which tore Spain apart during the 1930s.
Her protagonist, Sonia, travels to Granada to celebrate a friend’s birthday and to follow her new passion: dance classes. But her holiday leads to a crucial discovery about her own family history, which proves to be life-changing. Victoria Hislop joins Jenni Murray to reveal why the land of flamenco, castanets and a buried history of violence, captured her imagination.
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