Interview: Victoria Hislop

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She is an internationally best selling author, the wife of one of Britain’s most notorious political shrews, a well respected journalist and a one-time-Fordy to boot (she read English at St Hilda’s in the late seventies).

Over the summer I sat down with the lady herself, Victoria Hislop, to discuss the release of her newest fictional venture, The Return (published in June by Headline Review), the incredible success of her first novel The Island, her plans for the future and her memories of an Oxford past.

Discussing her new book first, Hislop is as enigmatic as any author when it comes to giving away the plot, but once I assure her that I have read the passion-fuelled beach romp we come to a speedy accord about the book’s darker corners. The Return is essentially a novel about ‘a woman who falls in love with the Spanish culture’ through the medium of dance, ‘discovering many hidden secrets’ beneath the fringes of the famous flamenco dancers’ dresses as she delves into the history and politics of Granada.

A tale of pain of loss

Externally, the work appears very similar to The Island, Hislop’s first novel, a beautiful tale of pain and loss, which dominated the paperback charts for more than eight consecutive weeks during last summer. Selling over one million copies in the UK alone, the novel furnished Hislop with many avid fans, to which she claims ‘you never become accustomed,’ as well as an award for ‘Newcomer of the Year’ at the Galaxy British Book Awards in 2007: an award she collected in plaster due to a rather serious skiing accident that saw her dancing shoes relegated to the wardrobe for some time.

One of the truly unique things about The Island is the acuity with which the author forms her visual world and the emotional connection that she is able to create through an unparalleled understanding of the landscape and natural terrain within which her characters exist.

Inspired by travel

Hislop, whose fictional roots are firmly planted in her beginnings as a travel journalist, agrees that little speaks to her so much as location: ‘I have always been inspired by places and have always been very aware of atmosphere – and how it changes from place to place and I think this was the case from a very early age. I always had strong likes and dislikes for places. I am never neutral about how a location makes me feel. And this has definitely been an inspiration for all of my writing, fictional and otherwise.’

Indeed, neutrality does not seem to be a Hislop family trait, and yet one has to admire the cultural fires that burn in each of Victoria’s novels and the way she describes them. I was so overtaken by the story of Spinalonga and its lost people that I was inspired to visit the island during a stay in Crete last year.

Victoria, who was presented with the keys to the city, mentioned that the success of her first foray into fiction was ‘a wonderful surprise. It seemed unlikely that a story about a leper colony would be such a commercial success, but people reacted very strongly to it, even when it first came out. Very gratifyingly too, the Cretan public, and the Greeks as a whole, identified very strongly with the characters and the situations. I am continually asked in Greece, “How did you know all of this?” And I always tell them that I just soaked up their atmosphere and the result was this novel.’

Despite the success that Victoria has experienced in all areas of writing and journalism, she seemingly cannot help but complement a landscape full of her competitors. ‘I think the fiction market is in a very healthy state at the moment. There is masses of new fiction of every kind – and nobody can have the excuse that they can’t find something to read – perhaps the only reason for not reading is that there’s too much choice. And it’s not just quantity – it’s quality too. And a good novel costs the same as a cappuccino and a slice of cake in Georgina’s in the covered market – I know it’s still there because I went there with my niece who is at St Catz.’ However, a book about the university itself does not seem a likely proposition: ‘All I can say is that I am unlikely to be inspired by anywhere cold, grey or wet,’ a censure that sadly few English locations were likely to avoid this summer.

Oxford memories

Despite the weather, it is hardly surprising that throughout our interview Hislop’s mentions of Oxford are familiar and somewhat longing. She recounts how she was introduced to her husband, with whom she lives in Kent with their two teenage children, whilst at Oxford. ‘We were in the English Faculty Library,’ a place where more than just a love of literature was born, ‘and a mutual friend just sort of stuck us together.’ The editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, and his charming counterpart have been together ever since and were married in 1988.

Hislop also attributes the necessary discipline that allows her to write to her time at the hallowed institution, although perhaps not that spent in the library. She worked three years in the creation of her second project – devotedly sitting down to write every day even when she ‘did not feel like it.’

Thankfully for those of us who flit around the English Faculty Library, or indeed any other with less discipline, Victoria assures me that she had no real plan when she left University other than that she liked to write. ‘I never project that far ahead – and never have. I think about one year at a time is enough, because so many unforeseen things can affect your life. I always shudder when I hear people admit to anything like a ‘five year plan’ or even worse, a ‘ten year plan.’ Life is potentially much too exciting day to day to plan it too much.’

Hislop tells humorously of her one foray as a Cherwell journalist, the only attempt she made during her schooling. ‘I wrote for you guys once! I wrote a story about some kind of embezzlement that had been going on in a college. It was under the editorship of Harry Thompson (who sadly died two years ago) who later became the first producer of Have I Got News For You. He never commissioned me again – though it was the front page story!’

Girlish enthusiasm

Despite no instant journalistic success, she does claim that she always felt writing was for her, and when asked about what inspires her and what she loves about the process of writing Hislop speaks with a kind of girlish enthusiasm which makes you want a piece of whatever she has. ‘The best part of being a writer is feeling your imagination coming to life, and then ‘meeting’ your characters.

The worst part of creation for me is that it is very solitary.’ As for adored writers and literary brain food, ‘though she only wrote one novel, Emily Bronte really inspired me – there is someone who conveyed the spirit of place superbly – her poetry is astonishing too. I also hugely admire Andre Gide, Maggie O’Farrell, Rose Tremain, George Orwell and Joseph Conrad and many many more!’

Thus those politicos worrying about the state of the book market are reassured that budding novelists may continue to search for love in cold climates with impunity, while those of us with ten year plans are off to Georgina’s and the rest might just enjoy the return journey.

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