Victoria Hislop is sitting pretty. The former travel journalist penned her first novel, The Island, in 2005, and its follow-up, The Return, three years later. Both have proved to be huge hits in her native Britain and beyond, with The Island not only reaching the top of the bestseller charts, but also netting its author a gong as Newcomer of the Year at 2007’s British Book Awards. It was aided by its selection as a summer read on Richard & Judy – the UK equivalent of Oprah’s famed book club, which comes with a similarly Midas-like touch in terms of sales.
We speak as she prepares for her first visit to Dubai next month for EAIFL, the UAE’s inaugural literature festival. In addition to promoting current release, The Return, Hislop is getting ready to write her third novel. (‘I can’t sit down with a blank sheet of paper; it doesn’t work like that for me,’ she laughs. ‘It’ll probably be an idea that comes when I’m travelling – who knows? It might even happen while I’m in Dubai.’) She is also working closely with producers as debut, The Island, finds new life as a local drama series in Greece, the country in which it is set.
The success of her first novel there, notes Hislop happily, as she chats by phone from her blizzard-entrenched home in the English countryside, has ‘proportionately been bigger than in the UK’. Which is saying something. Among her native Britons, it has become the book of choice for visiting holidaymakers to Greece in the same way as Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was in the ’90s.
Remove the exotic locations, however, and their auto-associations with summer holidays and sun-dazzled beaches that have Hislop’s novels persistently pegged as ‘summer reads’, and there is at times an almost Gothic darkness at the heart of her books. For all their sunshine – both literal and metaphorical – they positively writhe with family secrets and mystery, skeleton-stuffed closets, brooding architecture, brutal war and fatal disease. Both books revolve around their lead character’s need to uncover the past to provide a key to their future, stretching back into the dark history of their European settings in order to do so. In the case of The Island, that place is the tiny isle of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete, which served, as recently as 50 years ago, as Greece’s leper colony. The Return, meanwhile, investigates the impact of Spain’s brutal Civil War on the small town of Granada.
Hislop reveals that the inspiration for each novel came to her while on trips to the locations in which they’re set. Having visited Crete on a family holiday, she had become entranced with Spinalonga and its history. In turn, the idea for The Return, was inspired during a travel writing assignment in Granada, where she was learning to salsa dance (which transmuted into the fascination for flamenco that appears in the book). But uncovering details about the country’s long and bloody Civil War isn’t easy in Spain. ‘You kind of have to scratch away at the surface,’ Hislop says. ‘It’s not a very obvious thing in the day-to-day landscape there; you have to explore to find out about it.’
All of which sounds rather more like good old-fashioned journalistic curiosity than the happy ‘accident’ she initially puts it down to. ‘I always want to find out, in a way, more than what people want to tell me,’ Hislop concedes. ‘I suppose the thing that links those two books is that the subject of civil war and the subject of leprosy both have a tremendous taboo attached to them and people will tell you a little bit but not a lot – you really have to try and ask people quite personal questions about it and I think my journalistic background gives that to me.’
At the heart of both, however, lie very human stories: tales of love and loss, shame and defiance. It’s as if through humanising history Hislop brings it alive. ‘In a way I want to leave the history behind,’ she agrees. Not that that precludes her from undertaking extensive research before she begins to write. You have to understand the facts, she explains, before being able to cast them aside, begin to really question: ‘What would it have been like to be a mother with children with all this going on around you?’ The people are more important to her than the background. ‘But,’ she says, ‘the background has to be there, like a canvas.’
Each of Hislop’s novels centres around a modern-day English protagonist in search of a personal truth, the answer for which becomes apparent only through understanding the wider history of their foreign ancestors. Does she agree, as she seems to suggest, that in order to understand the present, it helps to understand the past?
‘Although I suggest in both the books that it’s helpful to peel away the layers and look at where you come from, it’s still a choice; it doesn’t necessarily help,’ Hislop replies, after a certain deliberation. ‘I suppose it’s something I’m interested in myself, but I’ve never actually done it, which is rather odd, isn’t it?’
She jokes that her personal quest into the past has taken her no further than ‘about 20 miles down the road in Kent’, where she paid a recent visit to what was once her childhood home. ‘It was really odd,’ she reveals. ‘I don’t know whether it was a good idea.’ Did she introduce herself? ‘I might next time,’ she muses, ‘but I was slightly freaked by seeing the house and it not being quite as I remembered.’ It is astonishing, we both agree, the sway that bricks and mortar can hold, but perhaps it’s only fitting that a writer whose stories are so connected to place should herself feel the same: ‘All of my dreams, even now,’ she reveals, ‘are set in that house – a house that I haven’t lived in since I was 18. So perhaps it’s had a very profound effect.’
Beyond that, while she broadly knows something about the history of her family on her father’s side, on her mother’s she can trace no further back than her grandmother. ‘And the odd thing about my mother is that she looks either Italian or Spanish – she doesn’t look at all English,’ Hislop notes animatedly. ‘So maybe the whole thing is a fantasy of mine to connect myself with a Mediterranean country. I think,’ she finishes with a laugh, ‘it probably is.’
EAIFL power The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAIFL) is the first event of its kind to take place in the UAE. More than 50 international authors will come together to debate and discuss their work in a series of events and signings. Victoria Hislop will be appearing in conversation with author Kate Mosse, whose historical novel, Labyrinth, also found fame via the book club on UK TV show, Richard & Judy. The authors will discuss the shared preoccupations of their fiction (history, music, a very particular sense of place), and reflect on the benefits and otherwise of literary prizes. Mosse, like Hislop, has been the recipient of a British Book Award and is a co-founder of the UK’s Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.