Victoria Hislop tells Lesley McDowell why she decided to set a love story amidst the violent upheavals of 1920s Thessaloniki
I first met Victoria Hislop on the island of Crete in spring 2005. We were part of a press group invited to write about a beautiful new hotel complex, and Hislop had brought along a copy of her first book, a novel about a tiny island set in the bay overlooked by that self-same hotel. The island, she explained, had once been a place where those suffering from leprosy had been sent by the authorities, and it had created its own little society there, complete with a cinema, school, hospital and shops.
Some of us took a boat out to the island and walked about, fascinated by its appalling human history. Hislop’s book wasn’t out yet, but I think we all recognised an excellent idea for a story. Even so, none of us, least of all Hislop herself, I suspect, could have predicted the phenomenal success of her debut. Her main job before her novelistic career took off was as a travel journalist, writing for the major London broadsheets. But even before it was selected as a Richard and Judy summer read, The Island was selling well – as a result of that selection, however, it went on to sell over two million copies worldwide. It also won Hislop the Newcomer of the Year Award at the Galaxy British Book Awards, and set up her second novel, The Return, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, for more bestselling success.
As many reviewers and interviewers keep pointing out, in some mystification, Hislop’s subjects just aren’t the kind we associate today with commercial fiction, or the “beach read”, the category Hislop’s books most often occupy. Mystification, because leprosy and war are hardly light subjects. Why would so many of us want to read about them? Yet I remember reading love stories set against the backdrop of the Second World War when I was younger, and adoring them. Is it possible Hislop has revived an older, more “old-fashioned” genre, I ask her, one that we have somehow forgotten about? Is that the secret of her appeal?
“I definitely find it very complimentary being described as old-fashioned,” she says. The publicity for her third novel, The Thread, also set against the backdrop of wars, but including the fate of refugees and political activists from 1920s Greece to the present day, is underway. She is up in London today, away from her country home in Sissinghurst where she lives with her husband, the Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, and their two children. “People said that about The Island. It was a story told by older people which gives you the excuse not to sound like a contemporary writer, and I love the voice of an elderly person. I want to construct sentences the people wouldn’t hear now.”
She also likes focusing on subjects that “people haven’t found too much before. Maybe that’s what it is,” she says about the appeal of her books. “Many people wouldn’t pick up a history book about Greece. I’m not a literary writer, I’m not difficult to read, I’m not inaccessible. But I do like something unusual, something people don’t know already. Possibly it is quite journalistic of me, scratching beneath the surface.”
This novel, she admits, is “somewhat different. Greece wasn’t in the papers when I started researching it, now it’s there every day. I hope my story might make people sympathise a little bit about where the Greeks are today, how it’s connected with the past.”
The Thread opens with an elderly Greek couple in Thessaloniki, Dimitri and Katerina, recounting to their grandson, who has been brought up in London, how they came to meet and fall in love. Hislop began with the elderly couple partly, she says, because “in Spain and Greece elderly people are smaller and frailer, and that’s due to massive undernourishment when they were younger. I would look at them and realise what they had been through – they really are from another era.”
Dimitri and Katerina’s story begins when they are born in 1917, the year of a great fire that almost razes Thessaloniki to the ground. They are from “different sides of the track” – Dimitri Komninos is born to an ambitious cloth merchant and his unhappy, lonely wife; Katerina is brought up by a “surrogate” mother, Eugenia, when she is separated from her own mother during an escape from Asia Minor. Katerina and her mother, along with thousands of others, had been fleeing the invading Turkish army. As Hislop is at pains to point out, Thessaloniki was, at the turn of the 20th century, a place where different cultures lived side-by-side: Christians, Jews and Muslims joined in the daily throng. It was the target destination of many refugees from Asia Minor, but it was also where many ended up accidentally, their destination originally Athens. The huge influx of refugees changed the place – Muslims began to leave, and of course, after the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, Jews were expelled and only Christians were left.
Hislop has long had a love affair of her own with Greece – from holidays in the 1970s to the present day – and is pretty much fluent now in Greek. Thanks to The Island’s success, she also has a permanent family home there. But she admits she was largely in the dark about Thessaloniki’s history. “I’d never cottoned on to the huge population exchange, the refugees from Asia Minor. It’s like David Cameron saying in Parliament that we’ve got 15 million Brits from abroad coming back and they’ll be here by Easter and we have to provide for them. There would be real panic. When I read about this for the first time, I really began to understand why Greece is like it is today. The occupation, too, was economically devastating, the Germans stripped the country bare. I hadn’t realised before what that sequence of disaster had meant for Greece.”
Hislop takes a left-wing perspective in her novel, with her hero, Dimitri, active first with the Communists and then with the resistance. After the Germans left there was effectively a civil war, as the government cracked down on left-wing dissenters – Hislop sends Dimitri into the mountains to hide, after showing his close friend murdered in prison. It’s not an obvious romantic context, and yet nothing works better for lovers than for them to be divided by forces beyond their control. Does she think of The Thread as a romance?
“I think it’s a strange romance because it’s not that romantic in a way,” she says. “I suppose from a woman’s point of view, there’s a huge number of women without men at that time, because a lot have died or are away fighting. That does make your female characters more interesting – how do they survive? They have to be incredibly strong.” Is she worried about how her book will be received in Greece when it’s published there? Is this recent history still controversial?
“Yes, the civil war area is still slightly sensitive. There are people who still believe the Communists did the wrong thing and I know some of them. I’ve had to stop having some conversations with some people when I’ve discovered about them, ‘oh, you’re rather right-wing’. Maybe there will be some criticism about it. I shall hotly defend my socialist politics!”
I’m curious about how things have changed for her since we first met. “One of the biggest things that’s changed is to do with Greece,” she says. “Last year, The Island was the biggest-selling book there, three years after it first came out” [partly thanks to a Greek TV production of the novel] and so I get recognised in the street there now. That’s probably the biggest change – being recognised in another country.” And does she still refuse to let her husband know what she’s writing about until she’s finished? “He’s still kept away as much as ever! He did keep asking when he saw all the history books about the Jews in Greece, and kept asking if I was writing about the Holocaust. I think he was a bit nervous for me, worried that it might not be the right thing to be doing. But it’s part of the history of the country.”
Hislop’s view of history in her novels is, just like the writer herself, a compassionate and generous one, and possibly this is also a huge part of their appeal. 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 Thread is published by Headline Review on 27 October (£18.99). Victoria Hislop will appear at the Dundee Literary Festival on Friday 28 October at 5:30pm.