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Victoria Hislop Fashions Tale From Postcards of the Past

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An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Victoria Hislop
Author of Cartes Postales from Greece (Headline Review, 22 September 2016)

Columnist Anna Roins

 


Cartes Postales from Greece
by Victoria Hislop

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

The Sunday Times best-seller, Cartes Postales from Greece is a new, ground-breaking novel from Victoria Hislop, the internationally acclaimed bestselling author of The Island, The Return, The Thread, and The Sunrise.

Week after week, colourful postcards from Greece arrive at Ellie’s dreary flat in London. They are each signed with the initial, ‘A’. However, with no return address, Ellie cannot forward them on to the rightful owner. Nevertheless, the postcards inspire Ellie to see Greece for herself.

On the morning of her departure, a blue notebook arrives that belongs to ‘A’ whom Ellie discovers is a man who was stood-up by the love of his life at a small airport in the Peloponnese. The journal includes short stories he’s heard along his travels around Greece, reverently illuminated by beautiful photographs, as he nurses his heart back to life.

This latest offering by Victoria Hislop will stay with you a long time after the last page has turned.

“I travelled with the photographer so that he was there at the moment of inspiration for each story. This is why the photographs are unusual, I think.”
—HISLOP

AUTHORLINK: Ms Hislop, thank you for talking to us today about Cartes Postale from Greece, which we thoroughly enjoyed. You create a strong sense of place and charming, moreish tales which leave your readers wanting more. We love how Cartes Postale from Greece departs from established precedent and includes vignettes of coloured photographs to accompany each story – some solemn and gripping, others nostalgic and hopeful.

What came first, the photos, depicted as ‘cartes postale’ i.e. postcards (taken by the talented photographer, Alexandros Kakolyris), or the stories?

HISLOP: They were developed together.  I travelled with the photographer so that he was there at the moment of inspiration for each story.  This is why the photographs are unusual, I think.  It would have been very artificial to send a photographer off to find illustrations to match my stories once I had written them – and in many cases it would have been impossible.  The photos and stories were simultaneously inspired.

AUTHORLINK: Lovely. Writing letters on paper stationery is a dying art nowadays. It’s the same with postcards, which are even more redundant, given the advent of cameras in mobile phones and Instagram. Yet, cartes postale are still available in every souvenir shop in Greece. Do you prefer paper photos or e-photos? Likewise, paper books or e-books? Or both?

HISLOP: It’s so easy and simple for all of us to take photos on our phones – and I do it all the time, almost to keep a diary of life (though I still write a paper diary of course).  But when there is a special photo, or something I want to frame, of course I will print something out.  I prefer paper books – because they can be shared, they have covers, you can make notes in them – they are with you for life.  Though I do download books too (great for travelling – how else do you carry fifty books in your hand luggage).  If I like a book that I have downloaded – I always buy the paper copy after. 

“I am playing with the idea of storytelling. What exactly is it? Why do we tell stories? It’s a really interesting question to ponder…”
—HISLOP

AUTHORLINK: Some of the stories in Cartes Postale from Greece are truly inspired. They infuse the reader with Greece’s contradictions – its whimsy and dilapidation in equal measure. Like the one about the fearsome Maniatis left waiting at the altar at Nafplio; or the 1000 year-old-woman in Ikaria who knew Daedalus. Then there’s the French honeymooner last seen in a bleak, obscure village near Lamia, and the story about Lord Byron in Messolonghi with the ‘evil eye’. My favourite is about the 62-year-old man from Dodoni, who works on his smallholding, his ‘kipo’, every day to avoid his malodorous wife, when he discovers white marble shimmering under the soil. It was the statue of Aphrodite.

Do most of these stories have a base at their heart from which you extrapolated a scenario with your imagination, or are they real legends told to you on your travels? What is your favourite ‘fable’ in Cartes Postale from Greece?

HISLOP: In Cartes Postales from Greece – Anthony actually challenges S Ibbotson in his diary.  He says maybe the stories are made up, maybe they are real or exaggerations of the truth.  “You can decide” he says.  I want to present the same challenge to the reader of this book.  To leave them wondering and asking…and speculating.  I am playing with the idea of storytelling.  What exactly is it? Why do we tell stories?  It’s a really interesting question to ponder…

I don’t think I have a favourite – I enjoyed writing them all and experimenting with some new styles and ideas.

AUTHORLINK: Terrific, thank you. You once said, “The fundamental difference between the UK and Greece is that no one treats you like a stranger here in Greece.” Many people would agree – there is a feeling of ‘togetherness’ amongst the Greek people. Why do you feel that is? Have you noticed this in any other culture? Is the weather really to blame, do you think?

HISLOP: I would say that the weather is to “thank” rather than to “blame” – because this is such a positive thing.  In the UK we have gardens that are out at the back of the house.  We never sit on the front door step – even if this is the only place to find sunshine.  We prefer to seek a private space – but the majority of the time we would be inside our homes in any case because of the weather.  In Greece, this feels different, people seek a public space to sit – so that they can socialise.  I find this very positive and very appealing.  But let’s not exaggerate the feeling of “togetherness” among Greek people.  I think people can be very selfish and unthinking in Greek society – and often they don’t think of others.  This is no different.  I don’t look at dog shit on a Greek pavement and think – “ah, that dog owner really cares about his fellow man.”

AUTHORLINK: I see what you mean. However, wouldn’t that be a matter of local government follow-through? My feeling is that other cultures, like the Australian culture for instance, have been conditioned, to use your example, to tidy up after their dogs, because of the consequences. A fine will be issued on the spot. This doesn’t happen in Greece (currently). And yet this wasn’t always the case in Australia, which was a different creature, even ten years ago. I’m not sure Australians would be as selfless and thoughtful without a nanny-state breathing down their back. I think the Greek government, right down to the local councils (and of course, the people) are just trying to keep their collective heads above water. They have bigger issues to solve rather than instigate fines for these types of offenses (which includes smoking in restaurants; general observance of road rules, etc. to name a couple) for now. What do you think?

HISLOP: I agree with you up to a point – but there are so many examples – smoking around pregnant women in restaurants, parking on the pavement so that people with pushchairs have to walk into the road with their babies – these things should not require legislation. They are basic politeness and thinking of society and others rather than yourself.

“I think it would be disingenuous of me to write about contemporary Greece in a fairytale way. It is not a fairy tale what has happened. “
—HISLOP

AUTHORLINK: Agreed. In relation to this, Cartes Postale from Greece raises some sober observations about the country. Such as the lack of application of perfectly good laws (which we touched upon above); the injustice of the reparations money owed by Germany; tax systems implemented by corrupt politicians; how smoking is more about freedom than about the nicotine itself; the incessant misogyny that exists; the almost inaudible animosity against Turkey, and the Greeks distrust of foreigners – which contradicts their hospitality and strong sense of humanitarianism. Was this book an opportunity for you to express some of your disquiet about your beloved Greece?

HISLOP: Yes.  I think it would be disingenuous of me to write about contemporary Greece in a fairytale way.  It is not a fairy tale what has happened.  And some of my reactions are definitely there, on the page.

AUTHORLINK: It’s good that you have addressed them in your writing. Emilia Kamvysi, the 86-year-old Greek grandmother from Lesvos, recently received two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize by academics and lawmakers alike, for her efforts (and others) towards refugees. What do you think of the humanitarian efforts of the Greek people, despite the hardship they’re experiencing with the financial crisis?

HISLOP:  FANTASTIC!!!!!  When I went to Lesvos in the Spring (I wrote about it in The Times) – this was the most striking thing – the generosity of local people – and they have really paid a high price for what happened in Lesvos – in terms of loss of tourism and so on.  I wish they had all won the Nobel.  I was really disappointed they didn’t.  And I saw Greek people arriving in Victoria Square last year where there were hundreds of refugees camped out – and handing out food and clothes.  My belief is that Greece needs help with helping the 60,000 refugees.  And organisation too.  This story should remain on the front pages.  For a country with the population the size of Greece, this is an enormous challenge.

“It is exciting to have an idea that simply won’t let you go. This is always how it feels for me: that I am slightly possessed by the story, by the characters, by the history that I am researching.”
—HISLOP

AUTHORLINK: Very true. You’ve had incredible success with your books, and they’ve been translated into more than 30 languages! Your first novel, The Island, was remarkable. It touched upon the taboo subject of leprosy, yet held the number one slot in the Sunday Times paperback charts for eight consecutive weeks and sold over two million copies worldwide. Your second novel, The Return, set against the turbulent backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, was also a number one bestseller. With these accolades, and much more, is it daunting to start off a new novel? How long does it take you to write a book, from the first spark – to research – to the final draft, and does it become any easier? Who are your first readers?

HISLOP: It usually takes three years from the idea to publication.  It is exciting to have an idea that simply won’t let you go.  This is always how it feels for me: that I am slightly possessed by the story, by the characters, by the history that I am researching.  My first reader is myself – I am telling myself a story – and I have to keep myself engaged first and foremost.

“I think most successful writers (whichever side of the line they fall on) simply write what and how they feel most comfortable.”
—HISLOP

AUTHORLINK: Thank you for sharing that. A few years back you said, “Perhaps we will stop even thinking about gender in relation to prizes now, as women are sweeping the board.” Do you believe there is still a noticeable discrepancy in the publishing world about what is considered literature and what is regarded as commercial work that correlates with a disguised gender-bias? Further, is the way a book received (and reviewed) about relationships and family different if written by a woman, compared to if it were written by a man, in your opinion?

HISLOP:  I think the line is blurred between commercial and literary – but I am not sure this is a gender issue.  I think most successful writers (whichever side of the line they fall on) simply write what and how they feel most comfortable.  As soon as anyone departs from this honest position, I think the reader will spot it.  For example, I don’t believe that Ian McEwan sits down to write a “literary” book – it’s simply what flows out of his pen.  They are perfect sentences that come from McEwan but they are not full of difficult words or pretentious sentiments.  But it’s always an interesting thing to think about when you are reading.  My greatest dislike is lazy writing – that can come from commercial, literary, male or female.  Writers in all genres can be guilty of that.

AUTHORLINK: That’s an interesting perspective, thank you. Who are your favourite authors and books and why, and if you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?

HISLOP: Nutshell – Ian McEwan – astonishing, original, beautifully written, funny, sad, gripping, memorable…

Shakespeare – can you imagine conversation with such a man – who understood all there is to know about the human condition, could be funny insightful, daring?  I don’t think I would be able to eat!

AUTHORLINK: Nor could I! Cartes Postale from Greece, would make a beautiful gift for Philhellenes, which by all accounts must be everywhere given that Greece was awarded the No 1 Best Country in the World in the World Readers’ Travel Awards of Conde Nast Traveller. Where to from now? What are you working on currently and can you tell us a bit about it?

HISLOP: I am in the London Library as I write, spending a few weeks reading.  So as yet I would prefer not to reveal anything.  But needless to say, I am enjoying some books on Greece.

AUTHORLINK: How delightful; lucky you. Ms Hislop, thank you once again for your time today and doing your part for this extraordinary country. We wish you your continued success with Cartes Postales from Greece and look forward to your next book!

HISLOP: Thanks so much.  It was great to answer your questions!

AUTHORLINK: My pleasure.

About the Author:

Victoria Hislop read English at Oxford, and worked in publishing, PR and as a journalist before becoming a novelist. She is married with two children.

Her first novel, The Island, held the number one slot in the Sunday Times paperback charts for eight consecutive weeks and has sold over two million copies worldwide. Victoria was the Newcomer of the Year at the Galaxy British Book Awards 2007 and won the Richard & Judy Summer Read competition. She also acted as script consultant on the 26-part adaptation of The Island in Greece, which achieved record ratings for Greek television.

Her second novel, The Return, set against the Spanish Civil war was also a Number One bestseller. She returned to Greece for her third novel, The Thread, taking as her backdrop the troubled history of the city of Thessaloniki in a story that spans almost a century, beginning with the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917. Her short story collection, The Last Dance and other Stories, was widely acclaimed.

In 2014, she published The Sunrise, a turbulent family saga set in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion of 1974 which would leave the resort town of Famagusta a ruin ringed by barbed wire for decades to come.

Her most recent book, Cartes Postales from Greece, an illustrated novel, was published in September 2016. Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages.

You can find out more about Victoria Hislop at https://www.victoriahislop.com/, https://www.facebook.com/OfficialVictoriaHislop/, and https://twitter.com/VicHislop

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.

She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.

Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.

You can find out more about Anna Roins at https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins and https://twitter.com/Roinsstar