About The Author
Bestselling author Victoria Hislop’s latest novel Cartes Postales from Greece tells the story of Ellie, and the postcards which arrive at her home addressed to a name she doesn't know. Showing an alluring vision of Greece, with its sunny skies and blue seas, these cartes postales brighten her life and cast a spell: she must see this country for herself.
Hislop is no stranger to accolades: a Sunday Times bestseller, she won the Galaxy British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year in 2007, and has been selected twice for Richard and Judy’s book club -- for her first novel The Island, and again this year with Cartes Postales. Her books are carefully crafted homages to place, capable of transporting the reader somewhere and sometime else.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Hislop introduces Cartes Postales and talks about the importance of images to both her new book and herself. Further below you'll find an interview, with Jonathan Ruppin, in which she discusses her previous novel The Thread -- about how learning to speak another language helped her to develop her characters, about the morality of greed, and why her Greek fans don't think of her as a 'beach read'.
The Author At Foyles
I have always taken lots of photographs while researching my books in Greece — and surrounded myself with them while I was back in London writing — just so that I could feel that I was still in the location. But I often wished I could actually include them in the book itself. It led me to some wandering around bookshops in the UK and in Greece to see if any works of fiction included pictures. I realised that something happens to literature. From early childhood onwards, little by little, the pictures used to illustrate books are replaced entirely with words (apart from graphic novels of course, which is another story). But it’s as if someone decided – ‘Adults, you can’t have pictures. Just words for you.’
I very much wanted to include colour photographs to illustrate a fictional work on Greece — and my own were clearly not the right quality. So I commissioned a Greek photographer and we travelled together to create Cartes Postales. And now the result of this collaboration is completed and I have a feeling that people will enjoy this combination of words and pictures. It’s not exactly an unfamiliar one…
Greece is full of tumbledown buildings. It is normal for the inheritance of houses to be divided between many members of a family and the result is that they sometimes fall into ruin because no single individual takes responsibility. Such an image as this is typical. For me there is a strange romance in such dereliction, which is undeniably inspirational for a fictional story.
This hotel, in a superb location, must have been built with such optimism and excitement. Its ragged exterior suggests that it was never even given a second coat of paint. One theory that suggests itself to me is this: if there is a marvellous view or the location is spectacular, then the building can be plain. So perhaps this justifies the simplicity of the design — or maybe I am merely looking for an excuse for the worst of Greek architecture.
This picture was taken in a hotel on one of the islands and occupied the most spectacular beachside position imaginable, with stunning views from every window. It was a mere skeleton with its basic structure still in place, but nothing else remained. It had become a canvas for graffiti-artists and, in some of the rooms, there were abandoned pieces of furniture. It was one of the hotels built by the government under the Junta, and this style of modernist architecture is almost fashionable once again.
Blue and white is a very common colour combination in Greece. Whitewashed buildings against a bright blue sky, the blue and white stripes of the national flag, blue and white checked tablecloths in tavernas. . . The freshness of these two shades is quintessentially Greek. Somehow, this fallen door represents the antithesis of the normally optimistic effect of blue and white together — and the fallen door provides a poetic conclusion to the story, a visual way of writing: ‘The End’.
This is the exterior of a magnificent church, Agios Andreas in Patras, consecrated in 1974. It is supposedly one of the largest orthodox churches in the Balkans and is the antithesis of the tiny Byzantine churches that are so ubiquitous in Greece. I was very put off by its exterior initially, because it seemed quite brash and over-ornate, but the interior was a revelation, a spiritual experience, honest and bright.
The interior, unlike so many churches, was very bright. The architect had ensured that it was illuminated with natural light, and accentuated the luminosity with the exaggerated quantities of gold leaf, chandeliers and pale marble. The experience of simply standing in the church was uplifting and exciting, the very opposite of the gloomy, rather oppressive effect that church visits sometimes have on me.
The emptiness of the kafenion is a focal point of the plot but I particularly loved this place. It looked as if it had been untouched for decades, quite retro in its colour scheme, but very much in the here and now. There are card tables and backgammon sets, and I wondered what was inside the closed book on the table. It was impossible to find out because the kafenion was shut, but this only made me more curious.
The smell of these candles in a Greek orthodox church is one of the most intoxicating scents that I can think of. Their beautiful dark golden colour in the boxes and the way they gleam in the light make this photograph especially beautiful, I think. It captures the very tactile feel of the candles and lighting one or more is an essential part of any visit to a church.
Both parts of this image — the icon and the vacuum cleaner - play an important role in the story. The appearance of them together is quite tongue in cheek but the image was very real and was taken after the story was written.
The sight of this gentleman beneath what is actually a pharmacy cross in the street was a lovely juxtaposition, a fleeting moment captured by the photographer. The man is very smartly dressed in his suit (a formality which is followed by elderly men) but watching him struggle to carry heavy vegetables in plastic bags, seemed so at odds with his clothing and the dilapidated path on which he walks. The cracked and ancient archway through which he is about to pass looks as if it will collapse on top of him. There is so much happening in this one photo, so much detail, so many stories and questions. I think I could write another ten stories just based on this one photograph.
Questions & Answers
Interview by Jonathan Ruppin about The Thread
In the prologue to the book, young Dimitri assists a blind man who explains that he still retains a very clear image of Thessaloniki harbour. Does this mirror your role as a novelist of creating images in the mind of the reader?
Would you believe I haven't considered this before — but it's a really perceptive question! And yes, I would like to think that's what a novelist's role is. I thought of the blind man as someone who could sense the atmospheric traces of past events, but more broadly I hope, as a novelist, I could do the same.
Dmitri is appalled that his father, a prosperous businessman, is a willing collaborator with Greece's Nazi occupiers. Do you feel that Konstantinos is fundamentally an immoral man or a man misled by his business instincts?
I think he is probably an immoral man — or perhaps even amoral. Yes, he is led by his desire for money, but ultimately he does not enjoy the fruits of his success or the things that his money buys. He is one of those people (and I think there are many) for whom the competition, the hunt, the challenge is the enjoyable part. I think if we said he is 'misled' then that would be too sympathetic a description. I think his fundamental misanthropy makes him a very dangerous individual and yes, definitely immoral.
Katerina's loveless marriage to a wealthy and unscrupulous businessman stands in the way of her love for Dimitri, so she hastens his end in an unconventional way. How can we judge Katerina's actions in the context of the widespread cruelty she witnessed during World War II and Greece's subsequent civil conflict?
I think it's up to the reader how they interpret Katerina's actions. I think they will know my own view of how she behaves from the context. What she is doing is simply allowing him to pursue his greed, so he hastens his own destiny. Gourgouris' greed for food is the same greed that has made him behave as he has against the Jews — I think he was probably less anti-semitic than purely greedy for a bigger shop. So his demise is really of his own making....
As you depict it, Thessaloniki's Jewish population was almost wiped out by the Nazis. Do many traces of their society remain in the city?
Very few, I am afraid. Many people I meet are surprised to find out that there was ever a Jewish population there at all. There is one synagogue, the superb and incredibly sad but beautifully assembled museum (in Agia Mina street), a monument to the Jews who perished (in Eleftheria Square) and I think perhaps some of the tailors still have Jewish origins.
All three of your novels juxtapose very personal stories with explorations of the history of places. Does this wider narrative tend to shape your storylines or does it simply provide a context for the reader to understand your characters?
The history very much comes first. This is my starting point — and with all three novels it has taken me about two years to explore the background before writing the story itself. Once I think I have a grasp of what happened (and I am not a historian by any means, so I am usually starting from scratch) I ask the questions that then begin to shape the story 'How would that have felt?', 'What would it have been like to experience that?', 'How did people survive such things?', 'What were the implications for women? For families?'
Since you wrote The Island, you've become fluent in Greek. Did this have an impact on the way you researched the background for this book?
With many Greek friends now, and the chance to observe the Greeks at close quarters I think this has had an effect on my portrayal of characters but speaking Greek did not comprise a formal part of my research. As with the other books, I have deliberately not based any of the characters on real figures — and alas my Greek is still not good enough to read Greek histories or archives. All my reading was done in the British Library and the London Library.
You were principally a travel writer before you started writing novels. Was the impulse to turn to fiction driven by a need to say more about the places you've visited? And are there other places you've visited that appeal as places in which to set future books?
Yes, I think it was, I felt there was so much to say about places that could not be contained in 1200-word pieces. And never having studied history, I selfishly thought it was time to find more out about the past for myself, and perhaps to explore some slightly lost or less well known aspects of those events. I am sure there will be other places — but I don't know where they are yet! With all three novels to date, the trigger for my interest has been unexpected, a surprise. So I don't yet know where or if there will be another unexpected moment of inspiration... I hope there will be one.
Your first novel, The Island, was success a in many countries aside from the UK, but most particularly in Greece. Have you noticed a difference in the way the British and Greek readers responded to the book?
The Greeks find it very strange that in the UK I am described as a beach read. They regard that as rather belittling - but as they would ever in a million summers bother to read a book on a beach so that might explain why. But they respond similarly — in a very emotional way. I have met people in Greece who have read it three or four times, they are quite fanatical about it... which is very nice but sometimes a bit disconcerting.
You turned down bids for the film rights of The Island in favour of a proposal for a 26-part Greek television series. Could you ever envisage a Hollywood version of any of your books?
I hope one day that The Island will be made into a film. Possibly not a Hollywood film. I still get film offers — I had a couple only last week — but it will have to be the right one and I will need to feel that the story of those people effectively imprisoned through no fault of their own will be treated sensitively. Potentially it could be sensationalised, and I suppose that's not what I want. But yes, in my dreams, it will happen.
And The Return and The Thread are possibly 'filmic' — but that's not why I write novels — I write novels because the imagination is the most powerful force perhaps in the universe. A book is a thing in itself. It stands alone. Even though I would quite like to meet George Clooney, the red carpet fantasy is not really one that I have!
Visit Victoria's official website here.