Victoria with people
Monday, 30 November -0001

A Greek tragedy... with a happy ending

As Greece goes into meltdown, the latest novel about the country by Victoria Hislop offers a glimmer of hope. Stephanie Cross talks to her about Mediterrenean romance, family secrets and being married to 'the most sued man in Britain'...

Written by Stephanie Cross

It’s been said that Victoria Hislop is the best thing to have happened to Greece in quite a while. The million-selling author of The Island certainly hasn’t done its tourist industry any harm, while a 26-part adaptation of her beach-buster debut, filmed on the Greek island of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete, must have cheered TV execs.

But these are turbulent times, and when I meet Victoria in a London hotel as headline news focuses on the Greek economy going into freefall, she is in reflective mood. ‘I think there is definitely a pattern in Greece that they’re their own worst enemy,’ she says.
Yet if the pattern is one of disasters and tumult, it is also one of resilience and recovery, as illustrated by The Thread, Victoria’s new novel. Set in the teeming port of Thessaloniki and spanning nearly 100 years, it’s a sweeping, insanely absorbing romance – ‘a Greek tragedy with a happy ending’, in the author’s words.
It’s also a hugely ambitious novel that, while effortless to read, delivers a fascinating lesson in Greek history. ‘I hope if people read it they might go, “Now I understand why this country is in such turmoil,” Victoria says, although she stresses that she doesn’t set out to educate. ‘I think the person who’s learning most is me.’
Victoria admits she’s proud of The Thread – ‘I put everything into it’ – but she is also anxious to know my reaction. ‘I’m not very literary,’ she says earnestly a number of times as we chat – this despite having read English at Oxford.
In fact, until the idea for the The Island came to her ‘completely out of the blue’, she had no thoughts of becoming a novelist. A former journalist, she also worked for a number of years – very successfully – in PR.
‘I was driving around in a BMW and leading that very 1980s lifestyle... very Dallas,’ she confesses. But if she enjoyed its fruits, it was with an understanding of what it was like to go without.
Victoria’s father was, if not an alcoholic – ‘I’m not really allowed to say because the last time I mentioned it, it caused huge family issues’ – then far from being a reliable breadwinner. ‘Let’s just say there was no money around, and I know it certainly caused my mother a great deal of anxiety.’

Born in Kent in 1959, Victoria says her parents were far from the conventional mum and dad who, as a child, she recalls longing for. They separated when she was a teenager; her mother (to whom she is extremely close) then began a long-term relationship with a French chef, while her father went to live with his girlfriend.
She has step-siblings, of whom she is ‘very, very fond’, and an elder sister, to whom she is also close. But it was not until she was 30 that Victoria discovered there had been another sister who died, aged three, before Victoria was born. For an author whose stock-in-trade is family secrets, it was nonetheless a shocking revelation.
‘I think it must have disturbed me a lot, this feeling that there had been this little person who’d been forgotten. I’m sure for my parents it was for the right reasons because they obviously felt that was the way to recover.’
Her own novels, however, insist on the need to be open about the past. And speaking of openness, I had wondered how to raise the subject of Victoria’s husband, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, a man responsible for exposing not a few secrets. But, as it turns out, Victoria doesn’t seem to mind my questioning at all.
The couple met at Oxford through a mutual friend. Was it love at first sight? ‘Erm... it can’t be if I’m saying “hmmm” like that, can it? No, I don’t think it was, really: it was definitely a great attraction. He was very funny and amazingly good company.’
They dated for seven years before marrying in 1988 – ‘it wasn’t a whirlwind romance!’ – and they have two children: Emily, now following in Victoria’s footsteps at Oxford, and William.
Being married to ‘the most sued man in Britain’ can’t always have been easy, I speculate. Well, Victoria concedes, there was a point when it did get ‘quite stressy’ when Ian was in court for contempt while she was pregnant with Emily. ‘I have a slight sort of attitude that you have to take what life brings you... but it would have been awful because I’d have been visiting Wandsworth with a baby.

‘Are you allowed to take babies when you visit prisons?’  victoria 3victoria 3

Happily there was no cause to find out, and if Ian is less than a domestic whizz around the couple’s 500-year-old Kent farmhouse kitchen – ‘watching Ian peel a carrot is just so painful’– then he is also, according to Victoria, better than she at compartmentalising work and family life.
‘When I’m writing, I’m really obsessed with it... Ian will stop, and he would always put something with the children before something to do with work.’

So is there a new novel in the offing? Not just yet, although a forthcoming promotional tour of Greece may well prove the spur.
‘I’m not anxious about it because these things come in their own time,’ Victoria saysUntil then, she, like the rest of the world, will be anxiously following the next chapter in that country’s eventful history.

Victoria Hislop’s latest novel The Thread is published by Headline Review, priced £18.99.

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