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 leper 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.’