For novelist Victoria Hislop “courage” lies in the lives of every day people, whose stories act as the source of inspiration in her novels. Her stories either set in the island of Crete or in Granada are all connected by the common thread of courage, as exemplified by her heroes. In this talk Hislop unfolds the inspirational stories of courage behind her novels.
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Victoria Hislop talks to James Naughtie and readers about her debut novel The Island, a fictional account of a real life leper colony, the island of Spinalonga, just off the coast of Crete. First published in 2005, The Island has now sold over a million copies.
Victoria says that when she first went to Spinalonga, as a curious tourist, she had no idea that leprosy still even existed in the 20th century. She thought it had been wiped out hundreds of years ago. Even today, around 500 new cases are diagnosed every year in India and South America.
Before writing novels Victoria was a successful travel journalist. On that first visit, her initial idea had been to write a piece for one of the Sunday newspapers, but after fifteen minutes wandering around the abandoned village on the island, she decided to tell the story in fiction instead.
The resulting novel tells the story of a family beset by two cases of leprosy in the 1930s and 50s, before the cure was found. In the 1930s, Eleni, a school teacher in the village opposite the leper colony, catches the disease, probably from a pupil. As the pair are exiled to Spinalonga, we see how her husband and two daughters cope in her absence, one of whom will also succumb to the disease some fifteen years later.
Victoria explores the shame and stigma of the disease through these characters and their lives and love affairs in a family saga stretching to present day London.
As many of you will know, the live webchat on Facebook as part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads was marred by technical glitches. However, readers posted questions to the Facebook and these were forwarded to Victoria. As promised, Victoria Hislop has answered your questions. Read about The Thread, her writing, her experience of being a member of a book club, her love for Greece, and more. Thank you for your questions, and a huge thank you to Victoria for her answers.
Question 1: This is the second time that Richard and Judy have chosen one of your books for their Book Club. Can you describe how it felt to have been selected for a second time and how it differed from the first time?
Victoria: I was thrilled – it’s a fantastic list too and I am very lucky to be included among such titles. I shall be taking them all on my own holiday (apart from my own – I’ll definitely leave that one at home!).
Question 2: Did the book have an alternative title or was it always called The Thread?
Victoria: The title evolved – many of the women in the novel earn their living through “thread” of some kind – either as seamstresses or rug weavers – and it is the means by which they physically survive so it has huge importance for them. But at another level, as I was writing the novel, I saw how a single thread links all the events and chapters of modern Greek history – that one thing led to another as you might say – right up until the present day. We are all connected with our past.
Question 3: Clearly, you have a deep love and affection for Greece. Where has this come from?
Victoria: It began when I landed in Athens in 1976 and felt this amazing wall of warmth! I loved the heat and the dust, and my passion for the country (mainland and islands) has grown with the years. Now that I have so many friends there, a house, and speak the language, I feel very much at home there.
Question 4: I had little idea of the trouble in twentieth century Greece that you explored in The Thread. How did you go about researching the events in the book?
Victoria: Lots of reading, visiting museums, photo archives – but most of all wandering about in Thessaloniki and imagining what it would have been like to live there during such a turbulent period of history.
Question 5: Why the return to Greece in The Thread?
Victoria: Once I had read and learned about the huge exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1923, I realised that I wanted to follow the “story” and find out what the repercussions were for Greece (where it added 25% to Greece’s overall population). It was a massive event in their history, with over a million refugees arriving within a few months without homes, money, families. That was the initial reason for writing another novel set there.
Question 6: Did the history of Greece call you to find and write the story of The Thread?
Victoria: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. I am learning new things about Greece all the time – and sometimes come across something so unexpected that I feel driven to write about it.
Question 7: I would love to know what inspires you to write so lovingly about Greece. As a Greek Cypriot, I know your books have touched many Greeks both in Cyprus, Greece and the UK. Do you have a connection to Greece?
Victoria: I have no “roots” in Greece – but I have a very emotional connection to the country. There is a strong sense when I get there of “coming home” – it’s a really strange feeling but a nice one too, but there is no rational explanation for it. I’m not the first British person to love Greece so much – there have been plenty of Philhellenes before me! What’s not to love? Greece is an incredibly beautiful country – the images of riot police and demonstrators has tarnished its image in the recent past – but its beauty is still there.
Question 8: With all the current troubles, do you think Greece is a good place to go on holiday at the moment?
Victoria: Yes, definitely. The “problems” do not really affect tourists – for anyone who cares for Greece, the kindest thing they can do is go there for a holiday. They will find taverna and hotel owners will welcome them with open arms. The blue sky, clear sea, wonderful food, landscapes, culture – are unchanged. Parts of Athens are down-at-heel, lots of graffiti and so on, but the islands are another world.
Question 9: I’ve read your other two books but not yet finished this one. I noticed that they all have a combination of past and present – how do you work on them structurally – do you write the threads separately?
Victoria: No, the past and present are very much linked together. The present day character is someone, almost like myself, who is listening to a story from the past. So I write my books in the order in which they are then read – first we meet the contemporary person and then we are led back to their family history.
Question 10:How do you get your ideas for your books? What inspires you?
Victoria: Ideas and inspiration come as a surprise – I am not actually looking for them. And once an idea grabs me I get rather obsessed with it. Mediterranean countries definitely inspire me – Greece and Spain for example are full of drama, so they are, for me, good starting places.
Question 11: Are you working on anything at the moment and, if so, what?
Victoria: I am just finishing a collection of short stories. I find them very exciting and interesting to write – lots of them are set in Greece (again) and some in England. They’re fun to write too. I hope readers will like them.
Question 12: Have there been any discussions about turning any of your novels into films / TV adaptations?
Victoria: The Island was turned into a 26 part tv serial for Greek television. It was sensational – and three out of four people in Greece watched it! I was closely involved, from casting, script editing, sewing costumes to acting as an extra. So far, no definite approaches for The Thread, but I would love to see that being adapted for tv as well.
Question 13: When did you first want to begin writing fiction as a career?
Victoria: From the age of 15 when I did my o’level in English Language until 2001 (I think that was 25 years roughly), I did not write one creative sentence! I worked as a journalist for several years, but as soon as I went to Spinalonga (the island of my first novel’s title), I knew that I had to write something that came from my imagination rather than my intellect – hence moving into fiction.
Question 14: How often and where do you like to write?
Victoria: I write most days. It feels very comfortable to be writing. I move about – that’s the beauty of a lap top, you can take it anywhere – I haven’t had a big computer for years. Sometimes I write in a library, sometimes at home, lots when I am travelling/researching.
Question 15: Your books are excellent book club choices. Have you ever been part of a book club yourself, and which books would you recommend for book clubs to read and enjoy?
Victoria: Thanks! Yes, I was part of a thriving book club in Wandsworth when we lived in London and also in Kent when we moved there. I read so many books that I would otherwise never have discovered – it’s great to read something that is not necessarily your own choice, but it stretches you and often surprises too. There are so many possible recommendations – I remember when we read “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham, it provoked hours of discussion. As did “The English” by Jeremy Paxman – tremendous – particularly if you have book club members from other countries.
Question 16: If you were going on holiday, what would be your perfect read?
Victoria: I always look for books that fit the landscape where I am going to be. I couldn’t read Dickens or Jane Austen in a hot place – I think books could have “visas” – and Dickens and Austen would feel so out of place themselves in Greece for example. Louis de Bernieres and Kazantzakis are good for me, when I am in Greece (where I will be going on holiday this year!).
Victoria Hislop’s new novel, “The Thread”, is published by Headline books on October 27.
Thessaloniki, 1917. As Dimitri Komninos is born, a fire sweeps through the thriving multicultural city, where Christians, Jews and Moslems live side by side. It is the first of many catastrophic events that will change for ever this city, as war, fear and persecution begin to divide its people. Five years later, young Katerina escapes to Greece when her home in Asia Minor is destroyed by the Turkish army. Losing her mother in the chaos, she finds herself on a boat to an unknown destination. From that day the lives of Dimitri and Katerina become entwined, with each other and with the story of the city itself.
Thessaloniki, 2007. A young Anglo-Greek hears the life story of his grandparents for the first time and realises he has a decision to make. For many decades, they have looked after the memories and treasures of people who have been forcibly driven from their beloved city. Should he become their new custodian? Should he stay or should he go?
For more information on ‘The Thread’ and the troubled history of Thessaloniki, click here.
“‘The Thread’ is a more ambitious novel than her previous books, more expansive in its sweep of history, more controversial in its political stance. Her many, many fans will be delighted with what is her best novel yet.” The Scotsman (full review)
“Hislop … is very good at interweaving the lives of individuals into the backcloth of great events… this is a writer of laudably high ambition and it would only take a small nudge to move her to a whole new level. Recommended” Daily Mail (full review)
[wtab name=”Trailer”][youtube]http://youtu.be/V_lGE0O09AI[/youtube][/wtab] [wtab name=”Background reading to The Thread”]
All novels which use history as a backdrop require and deserve diligent research into the world the writer hopes to portray. These are some of the books I read during my research for ‘The Thread’. In addition to these, there are others in the London Library, in the Modern Greek History section as well as in the Embroidery section:
Concise History of Greece – Richard Clogg
Hellas – Nikolaos Gatzogiannis
Remember Greece – Dilys Powell
The Colossus of Maroussi – Henry Miller
The Hill of Kronos – Peter Levi
92 Archanon Street – John Lucas
Greek Fire – Nicholas Gage
Salonica, City of Ghosts – Mazower
Chronicle of the Big Fire – Yerolympos
Farewell to Salonika – Leon Sciaky
Twice a Stranger – Bruce Clark
Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe – Renee Hirshon
Population Exchange and Rural Settlement of Refugees – Kontogiorgi
The Unmixing of Turks and Greeks – Nansen Memorial Lecture – Huntford
Crossing the Aegean – edited by Renee Hirshon
I was sent to Athens – Morgenthau
Smyrna: The Destruction of a City – Marjorie Housepian Dobkin
Paradise Lost, Smyrna 1922 – Giles Milton
The Balkan Exchange of Minorities – Dimitri Pentzopoulos
Greece and the Greek Refugees – Eddy
Beyond the Aegean – Elia Kazan
Christ Recrucified – Kazantzakis
Motherland – Dmetri Kakmi
Not Even My Name – Thea Halo
Farewell Anatolia – Dido Sotiriou
The Mermaid Madonna – Stratis Myrivilis
Secrets of the Bosphorous – Morgenthau
The Jewish Community of Salonika – Bea Lewcowicz
The Illusion of Safety – Michael Matsas
From Thessaloniki to Auschwitz and Back – Kounio Amariglio
The Holocaust in Salonica: Eyewitness Accounts – Ed. Steve Bowman
Greece – A Jewish History – Fleming
Road to Rembetika – Gail Holst
The House by the Sea – Fromer
The Origins of the Greek Civil War – Close
Greek Civil War – O’Ballance
Becoming a Subject: Political Prisoners – Polymeris Voglis
After the War was Over – Ed. Mark Mazower
Eleni – Nicholas Gage
Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries – ed. Goldberg
Victoria Hislop visits a former leper colony off Crete
I met Manoli Foundoulakis on 20 January 2007, in a hotel in Crete. It was at exactly six o’clock in the evening. His punctuality was only one of the many differences between Manoli and every other Greek I had ever encountered. We met because I had written a novel set on Spinalonga, a small island off Crete, which was a leper colony from 1903 until 1957, and Manoli had been asked to write a foreword to the Greek edition. He was a former leprosy sufferer, and still lived in the village opposite the island.
When I wrote The Island, my complete lack of Greek meant that I had not been able to do any research about the people who had lived on Spinalonga. Everything about the island itself, the patients and the doctors came from my imagination as I sat at my desk back in England. Indeed, Manoli was the first European with leprosy that I had ever met. I had always maintained a firm conviction that those who suffered from this disease would be as funny, clever, charming and wise as anyone else. Why would they not? And in Manoli, I saw how close to the truth my instinct had taken me.
When he emerged from the shadows of the hotel foyer to shake my hand, I was shocked. This was not because of the way he looked as, in spite of the very obvious damage that had been done to his face by the disease, Manoli was still a handsome man. It was more the feeling that a character in my novel had come to life.
I was anxious that Manoli might be critical of the assumptions I had made about the lives of people with leprosy. Instead he thanked me for lifting the stigma that had blighted his life for so many years. However, at that first meeting, someone had to translate every sentence we spoke to each other. I decided there and then that I would find time to learn Greek in order to talk to Manoli. I began my lessons in London shortly afterwards and gradually realised my ambition. (read more)
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 leper 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.”
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