Victoria Hislop: Greece is the word
PUBLISHED: 11:26 22 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:26 22 September 2014
A lost city is the setting for Victoria Hislop’s latest novel, The Sunrise. Katie Jarvis spoke to her (enviously) about dividing her time between Crete and London, and the inspiration that springs from her love of Greece
There are some questions it’s difficult to ask - and this is one of them. But it’s got to be done.
“Victoria,” I say, tensing in readiness. “Tell me honestly… What’s the view from your window?”
The Skype call to Greece is hit-and-miss; but, from my cold, dull room in England, I can just about make out her words. Sadly.
“I’m very lucky,” she instantly admits. “I’m looking out at the Med, across an unbelievably beautiful bay in Crete. It’s actually very, very rough today, which is exciting – huge waves crashing on the rocks just below me. It really is spectacular; absolutely beautiful.”
Cheeringly, despite 19 degrees of warmth, a shower is predicted. “So that might make you less envious,” she says, understandingly.
I can already picture it: a lashing cerulean sea; teasing winds buffeting our Skype call (we later have to revert to the landline); mischievous Hermes, winged sandals idly dangling over a Mount Ida peak, toying with the invisible strands of the internet as if fingering a lyre.
Victoria Hislop has said, at various times, that there was nothing logical or even swanky about buying a summer house on an Aegean island of white-capped mountains, patchwork beaches and brimmingly fertile plains; a place of labyrinths and monsters, where Zeus himself was born. If anything, in the economic disaster that is Greece today, it’s probably worth less than she paid for it. But she loves it; loves the country dearly. She’s earned it – her transition from journalist to novelist has been blessed by the gods with three bestsellers and counting. And it’s earned her. For from her window, she can almost see Spinalonga, a few hundred yards across the bay, the abandoned leper colony that suffused her debut novel, The Island, (two million copies sold; translated into 24 languages).
“It’s always been places,” she muses. “That’s where my books begin – with a physical place that inspires me and makes me want to write a story about it: Granada in The Return; then Thessaloniki in The Thread; and now Famagusta.”
Famagusta, indeed: the setting for her latest book, The Sunrise. And she’s picked another fabulous location, redolent of mystery, history and, yes, brutality. In the early 1970s, Famagusta was Cyprus’s leading resort, full of glamorous tourists, gilded by an ambitious business crowd capitalising on the desirability of its already-golden shores. But underneath the apparent calmness of the groaning green olive trees and glistening lemon groves heaved an incipient earthquake: for tensions between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, who lived side by side, were growing. And when a Greek coup erupted, Turkey invaded; shells began to fall and the 40,000 inhabitants were forced to pack their most precious possessions – family photographs, religious icons stuffed into hasty suitcases – and flee, leaving their houses to moulder like beached Mary Celestes.
Astonishingly, four decades on, those same fences erected by the Turkish army remain in place. The people who fled are still but ghosts in the streets; even journalists are banned from entering.
Victoria first laid eyes on that unnerving nothingness just after the war, in 1978, on a gap-year before she went up to St Hilda’s, Oxford, to study English. “It kind of lodged in my mind that there was this empty city. I was in the north of the island, which was occupied – and still is occupied – by Turkey; but I remember seeing Famagusta in the distance and asking somebody what it was. And then I just forgot about it.”
Three years ago, she went back, and it filled her mind once again as if she’d never stopped wondering. “I went up as close as I could to the barbed wire and it was crying out to have a story told about it. It was as I’d seen it, all those years before, but with 35 extra years of dereliction. I have a bit of a thing about abandoned buildings; there’s a lot of story inside them.”
Alongside the island’s narrative, of course, lies a series of personal tragedies. In Victoria’s story, there are two focuses. Firstly, the impossibly glamorous Aphroditi and and Savvas Papacosta are pouring all their money into creating a hotel of breathtaking splendour. The magnificent reception area is lit by a kaleidoscope of chandeliers, topped by a gold-leafed ceiling: “At the centre of the one-acre space was a trio of gilded dolphins in a pool. Life-sized, they appeared to spring out of the water, their glassy eyes meeting those of the observer.” Hubris writ large, of course.
At the other end of the scale are two humble, grieving families: Greek and Turkish Cypriots surviving side by side, who bear the full brunt of the ensuing war. As much as The Sunrise is a gripping read, it’s a timely reminder that, beneath the politics and conflicts played out in the world today, ordinary people are suffering in extraordinary ways. There are, in this book, evils; but they are not evils of nationality or ethnicity; they are evils of weakness and opportunism.
“There are a lot of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots – at the far extreme of politics on both sides – who would regard everybody who is not part of their ethnic group as bad, and wanting to bring harm to them,” Victoria says. It’s an image she wanted to dispel with every word she wrote. “It’s clearly ridiculous but there are people who believe that. And it would be a big surprise to a lot of my Greek readers to find that the Turkish Cypriots aren’t baddies and that Greek Cypriots aren’t goodies.
“It’s much more complicated than that. And that was really what I wanted to try and put into the story – that evil is not a matter of somebody’s nationality or religion; it’s something way beneath that; something that’s much more fundamental.”
So meticulously detailed is her story - from the families’ desperate attempts to scour grocery shops for food, to the fear of bumping into soldiers as they illegally camp in their own houses - that I wonder whether she used real diaries to flesh out her characters.
“No, I don’t ever do that thing of finding real stories. It’s how some people go about writing but, for me, that would be completely crushing; I just make it all up. The actual politics of the war and the day-to-day events – when the bombs fell; when people were evacuated; when the coup happened; how the men were called up to help defend the country - all of that is very accurately researched. But in terms of the characters themselves, the actual hotel, what those people did: there’s no grain of truth.”
Nevertheless, it feels so very real; it could be so very real. In fact, the interweaving of the political and the personal is a stark reminder of the anarchy that lies beneath every civilised surface. Comforting as it is to believe that hegemonic, internecine violence is confined to faraway places such as Iraq and Syria, the truth can be far more unpalatable.
“I think we got a glimpse of it when we had, certainly in London, the riots a couple of summers ago: how quickly the ordinary structures of society can disappear. Famagusta was such a sophisticated place – like any holiday resort that lots of us are lucky enough to go to now; but even there, [civilisation] was very fragile; not based on anything except for an ability to get on with each other. As soon as people are at each other’s throats, it can very quickly be destroyed.”
We’ve certainly seen further glimpses of potential anarchy as Greece’s economy has crashed and burned. Riots, anti-austerity protests, despair amongst the unemployed, educated and aspirational, who can’t even feed their families. Are things any better in the country now?
“Well, the summer and the winter are two different kinds of planets in Greece,” Victoria says. “In the summer, the warm weather, blue skies and the proximity of sea for almost everybody alleviates hardship quite a lot: the natural gifts that Greece has are all free. And then, when it gets into November and December, things feel a bit tougher.”
During the last few years, she’s seen the importance of family grow more than ever. “And parents here, they’ll make huge sacrifices to stop their children having any hardships. So you’ll get elderly people sitting at home, not going out as much as they used to, because they’ve given any money they have to their kids, which I find extraordinary.”
Are there elements of Greece that she’d import back to her Kensington home? Apart from the weather – ‘Der!’, we both say – it’s more the other way round. “I’m incredibly lucky that I can have one foot in one place and one foot in the other, because that’s how it feels. But I’m always very glad when I get back to the UK because there are certain aspects I wish I could import to Greece. Definitely a bit more organisation and punctuality. That’s the thing that drives me nuts. Meeting somebody is to the nearest hour!”
Later, though, she does admit that her husband – Private Eye editor Ian Hislop – enjoys the anonymity of Crete. “He can walk down the street and nobody knows who he is – that’s quite nice for him, whereas in London that’s not always the case.” Then she demurs again. “We’re quite relaxed about [fame] really. It doesn’t feel like it affects day to day life. And weirdly, London has become so cosmopolitan - at least in the area we live in - that most people round us are from other countries; so they probably don’t watch Have I Got News for You because they don’t understand it.”
Victoria Hislop is certainly self-effacing in the nicest, most attractive of ways. She shies away from having her photograph on her books, where possible: “I find it easier to be not known because, when you’re a writer, you want to observe things, not be like Jeffrey Archer sitting in Caffè Nero to make some notes on what’s going on around him. He won’t be on his own for very long and I think that must be a real bore… but then he’s always had his pictures on all his books.”
What she does do, however – especially now her two children have left home - is appear at various literary festivals, such as Cheltenham’s, which she’ll be visiting this month. And then she’ll be in Greece, Cyprus and Norway, promoting The Sunrise. “I go to a lot of festivals and probably Cheltenham is the best organised. I’m not just saying that! You feel so welcome and you get to eat some of the best food in Britain!” Plus, her “baby sister” Rose [Hamson] – who’s staying with her as we speak - is a florist in Cheltenham: “It’s a lovely town. I envy her a lot.”
Maybe. But there’s a fair amount to envy in Victoria Hislop’s life, too. In a few moments, she’ll go back to her desk, put the air-conditioning on, and start work again. “I’m inspired by things in Greece. It’s a productive place for me,” she says.
So what’s to come? Which lost city will be the site of her next novel?
“When I finish writing a book, I never have any idea of what I’m going to do next. I’ve poured all the contents out of the jug and there’s nothing in there. (Though I should have said ‘carafe of wine’!) But something will arrive at some point in the next few months – I’ll be somewhere and, at the right moment, a new idea will come. It’s happened four times now and I imagine it will again.”
• The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop is published by Headline Review in hardback, priced £19.99, and in ebook
• Victoria will be talking about The Sunrise on Friday, October 10 at 6.15pm in The Sunday Times Garden Theatre, as part of Cheltenham Literature Festival; www.cheltenhamfestivals.com
This interview by Katie Jarvis is from the October 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @KatieJarvis