Successful British novelist Victoria Hislop is about to release her new book, set in Cyprus. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman with a zest for life
Victoria Hislop first came to Cyprus in 1978. That’s a story in itself. She was 18 going on 19, and answered an ad in the back of a magazine: “Overland journey to Cyprus, £90”. She was just out of school, and “I wanted an adventure” – so she found herself in a packed, battered nine-seater mini-van with a half-dozen other youngsters.
Looking back, she says now, sitting at an outdoor café in Phaneromeni Square in Nicosia, there was something very odd about the whole thing. The van belonged to a middle-aged couple, who did all the driving. They were surly and not very friendly; by the end, none of the youngsters would even speak to them. The idea was to see the sights along the way, but in fact all they saw was the inside of the mini-van. They drove and drove, relentlessly – then, in the middle of the night, the van would stop and the passengers would be ordered out to pitch their tents. Victoria recalls “waking up in Belgium in someone’s garden”, being harangued by an angry Belgian woman, clearly having been too tired at 3am the night before even to see where they were camping.
Why did this grim-faced couple offer to drive to Cyprus? Maybe just to make some cash – but then why did they take a detour across Turkey, veering east to the plains of Anatolia where the man woke them all up one night to announce that they’d been robbed, and all their money was gone? They must’ve been delivering something, muses Victoria, green eyes dancing with amusement in her lively face, “either delivering or taking”, with herself and the others brought in as cover. A gaggle of wide-eyed young people was much less likely to attract the attention of Customs than two miserable gits in their 50s.
Needless to say, that first trip was memorable. Victoria knew about the invasion, 1974 having been “the first summer that I actually remember following current affairs; I was 14, and kind of waking up a little bit”, but she’d somehow forgotten that she was coming to a divided island – and was surprised when the van crossed from Mersin to the occupied north and she found herself in a non-place that wouldn’t even stamp her passport. The rest of the trip (she was here for two weeks) was equally disconcerting. She had very little money, the bulk of it having been stolen – or was it? – in Turkey, and mostly ate watermelon, bread and countless tomatoes that ended up making her violently ill. The tents were boiling-hot and unbearable. The girls were courted (if that’s the word) by Turkish soldiers, but Victoria felt threatened and unsafe. After all, she says, “we were English girls, and everyone makes the same assumption about English girls on holiday. And that wasn’t really my thing”.
That traumatic teenage trip left its scars: “I’ve never been camping since,” she admits, laughing merrily. “If someone tells me we’re going to sleep in a tent, forget it!” Fortunately, that dislike doesn’t extend to Cyprus itself – and in fact Cyprus is the subject of her new book The Sunrise, her fourth novel since making her name with The Island in 2005. That debut, a big hit in Britain and even bigger hit in Greece (where it became a hugely successful TV series), was set on the leper colony of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete; since then she’s written The Return, set during the Spanish Civil War, and The Thread, set in Thessaloniki – and now The Sunrise, which takes place in Famagusta before and during the invasion.
Writing about other countries’ histories has its pitfalls, but so far no-one’s complained about ignorant foreigners sticking their nose into things they don’t understand. That could change here, notes Victoria with a rueful grin. I feel like I’m licking my fingers and putting them in a wall socket, she says, pointing vaguely at the wall of the café: “I’m going to have some electric shocks, for sure”.
For a start, one of her protagonists – the book’s hero, albeit “a very flawed hero” – is Turkish Cypriot, “which is going to lose me a lot of fans, I think”. But the biggest difference from her earlier books (apart from being more political) is that this is not a historical novel, or not really: “It’s not a history that’s finished. It’s still there, it’s still an open wound”. As if to underline the point, her Cypriot-born Greek publisher Costas Papadopoulos hovers nearby as we chat, ready to drive her to Derynia where they’ll be attending the annual mid-August march protesting the occupation of Famagusta.
The book is neutral, affirms Victoria. There are two families, one from each community, and “all are essentially victims”; she reserves her ire for Turkey and the Greek junta, what she calls the “very unpleasant men meddling in your affairs”. Still, it’s also true that her catalyst for writing The Sunrise was meeting a Turkish Cypriot woman in London a couple of years ago: “She’d read a short story I’d written that’s set in Nicosia and is all about the missing, and she said to me: ‘I really like that story, but there’s something you don’t include’. So I said, ‘What’s that?’, and she said, ‘Well, you know it’s not only the Greek Cypriots who suffered’. And I said ‘No, I didn’t know that’.”
Really? She didn’t know?
“No, not really. Because I’d spent a lot of time with Greeks and Greek Cypriots, and they don’t tend to talk about the Turkish Cypriots.”
This could be a problem, at least with some people. Any book that tries to be fair-minded, painting the suffering of Turkish Cypriots as equivalent to that of Greek Cypriots, goes against the ‘victim’ narrative we’ve been peddling (with some justification) for the past 40 years. And of course there’s something else – because Victoria is British, and this is the first of her books where being British makes a difference. Britain’s a player in Cyprus, and always has been; it’s tricky for a Brit writing about 1974 to convince the world (or our small island world) of her good faith.
What’s the attraction, anyway? What brings her here? How does a girl from the market town of Tonbridge in Kent end up writing books about far-off conflicts in Mediterranean countries? Admittedly, she’s not the first English writer to be drawn to the Greek milieu; others, from Byron to Durrell, have ploughed this particular furrow – but those were mostly public-school lads feeling the effects of a classical education, whereas Victoria’s different. Her CV says that she read English at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford but that’s slightly misleading, at least insofar as it makes you think of a studious, bookish girl from the Oxbridge elite. In fact her parents weren’t rich (she was on a full state grant) and her dream as a teenager was to be a tennis player because it was glamorous, well-paid and outdoors-y; she shouldn’t even have studied English, she says now (she was much better at Languages), and never really fit in at Oxford where everyone oozed moneyed confidence and “I didn’t feel I had the right clothes”. She did meet her husband there – she’s been married to Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You stalwart Ian Hislop since 1988 – but, all in all, “they weren’t my best three years”.
Maybe Oxford was too institutional for her; there’s something quite free-spirited about Victoria Hislop – not necessarily anarchic or rebellious, just a rogue streak of bubbly spontaneity. She’s impulsive, and enthusiastic; she tends to blurt things out. When I ask for her favourite film, she replies that her favourite film is always one that she’s liked best recently (many people would say the opposite), singles out Locke – the recent British drama starring Tom Hardy – and raves about it at length: “Watch it! It will inspire you!” (She’s even more animated when I mention that its cinematography is by a Cypriot, Haris Zambarloukos, letting out an excited “Ooooh!”.) One might say she’s adventurous – then again, it’s like that first trip to Cyprus in 1978: she answered the ad, and went on the adventure, but hated the uncomfortable tents and shunned the coarse-minded soldiers (some of the other girls went out with the Turks; Victoria stayed behind). It “wasn’t really my thing”.
I suspect the controlled adventure of researching and writing books about hot, turbulent countries fits her perfectly; it’s like a holiday from responsibility. “Britain is a fantastic country,” she explains. “It’s well-run. People are well looked after, on the whole. We have a solid history, good education system, blah blah blah. But, in the end, it can be quite dreary”. It’s not just the weather, though of course that’s a major drawback; even the law-abiding orderliness of the place can get you down. Look at that, she exclaims, pointing out the graffiti that disfigures most of the walls around Phaneromeni. Yes, it’s wrong in a way – “I’d be furious if I’d just cleaned that wall” – yet it’s also angry and edgy, “I quite like it”. People in Greece and Cyprus are “less respectful of institutions. We’re very respectful. And, you know, if it says [in the UK] that you’ll get fined for graffiti, then you will get fined. If you’re told you mustn’t use your mobile phone in the car then you don’t use it, because you will get stopped by the police. Whereas in Greece…”
“I just find the Greek way of life much more attractive, and fun, and staying up late – I mean, in London you come out of the theatre maybe at 10.30, you go and see three hours of Shakespeare and you’d quite like something to eat, and a drink. But by the time you come out and look around, you go into a restaurant [and they say] ‘Sorry, we’re shut’. That’s boring!”
That said, her own life in London – now her kids are grown up – sounds quite pleasant. She and Ian live in Chelsea; she likes to walk as much as possible, avoiding the stress of the Tube. When she’s writing a book, she’ll go to the London Library at St. James’s Square, “and I’m there at 9.30 when it opens, and I go to the same desk every day”. There are no distractions in a library, “no-one can get you”; you’re not allowed to talk, or use your phone. There’s a whole gang of them at the London Library, professional writers working on their books, “and we all go and have soup together, but we only leave the library for about 40 minutes”. She’s a slow writer, 1,000 words on a good day, but the book slowly gets written – then, when it’s published, “I give half of what I earn back to the government, and I’m really happy to do that”; not paying tax, she says, is “basically stealing”. I decide not to mention that avoiding tax has been part of the “Greek way of life” for decades.
That’s the thing about Victoria Hislop: she’s a Northern European with a rogue streak of Southern European. I suspect she likes a well-ordered life, the house, the theatre, the library – but she also likes a splash of chaos, a swirl of illicit graffiti, a bit of adventure now and then. I haven’t read The Sunrise but I think it must be fair-minded, and I know she’ll be mortified if it falls foul (I hope it doesn’t) of the more irrational type of Cypriot – yet maybe she’d also appreciate that kind of irrational passion. It’s like when I ask about her politics, and she breathlessly replies that “I’m very naturally left-wing, and I’m always very excited here [in Cyprus] because I meet people who are Communists, and to me Communism is…” She shakes her head in wonder: “We just don’t have Communism in England!”
What’s the first word that comes to mind, if she had to describe herself? “Optimistic,” she replies at once. She’s a glass-half-full person, a bubbly person; it’s part of her free-spirited side. On paper, her life seems amazingly well-planned: she had fun in her 20s, married at 29, raised a family in her 30s, became a famous novelist in her 40s. In reality, “I’ve never had a plan – I still don’t have a plan!”. Even The Island wasn’t intended as a novel (in fact, she’d never planned to write fiction); she went to Spinalonga for a travel piece, which took on a life of its own. It’s all turned out well, almost without her help. It’s like her way of raising children, which is not to raise them in any particular way: “My children have never done anything I’ve told them – or they’ve done it in their own way – since they were old enough to speak”.
Britain, too, has changed along with Victoria Hislop, now a very different place to the one she left, looking for adventure, back in 1978. It’s now multi-cultural, diverse, a good place for free spirits. Why doesn’t she write a book set in Britain next, maybe something about foreign immigrants? “The thought of it!” she shrieks, and laughs again. “Can’t imagine writing a book set in England. I’d have to stay there!” She has a point.