Your first novel, The Island, is set in Crete, your third in Thessaloniki. How did you become interested initially in Crete and then in Thessaloniki? What made you return to Greece for your third novel?
My passion for Greece began over 30 years ago when I first visited the country. The Island was born during a family holiday in which we visited Spinalonga, an extraordinary place full of atmosphere, and a very important historical landmark for the 20th century that my little guidebook told me had been a leprosy colony until the 1950s: the time I was born. On my first visit to Spinalonga, I was almost immediately captivated by the atmosphere and, after the 40 minute walk around the island I knew I was going to write a novel about it; about the people and the lives they had once lived there. In some spiritual way, I never felt I chose to write The Island, but that it chose me. Someone was always meant to write that novel.
Regarding Thessaloniki, I was invited some years later by the British Council to visit the city’s university and give a talk to the creative writing department there. I had never been to Thessaloniki, and at first I was completely horrified by both the city and the university, which were both covered in incredibly radical and explicitly political graffiti. As a student, I went to a very perfect Oxford college where if you put graffiti on the walls you’d have had parts of your body sawn off (she laughs), so I was slightly intimidated and amazed by the feel of Thessaloniki. As I wandered around the city and noticed the minarets and the monument to the 50,000 Jews who had lived there, I felt rather ashamed that despite my passion for Greece, I had no idea of the whole population exchange story. It was then that I started to read more about Thessaloniki and realised I wanted to write a story set there. Again, I wasn’t really looking for the story; the story seemed to be all around me. All I did was tie it together in The Thread.
Why is your book called The Thread? Or, to use the Greek title, To Nima?
There are three levels to the title. The first is that all the women and the men in the story use thread to make their living, so sewing and weaving is a pragmatic part of their lives. When I was first inventing my characters, I wanted my women to be independent, since during this historical period most men were at war and women had to support themselves. The sewing tradition of Thessaloniki was thus almost a gift to me, as it gave me something my characters could do for a living. The second level of the title that grew in my mind as I was writing the novel is that there is a very strong thread that runs through Greek history preventing the compartmentalisation of events; what happened in the 1960s and 70s would not have happened without the 1920s and so on. There is this link, and the thread comes up to 2012. Finally, in Greek there is a third level to the title that the British audience doesn’t always appreciate: To Nima is the Moirae, the three nymphs of fate who in Greek mythology spin the thread and decide how long each person’s bit will be, that is, how long their lives will be.
You call your first novel, The Island, “quite a naive book.” Why is that? What makes The Thread more mature?
I think The Island is an incredibly simple story. The point of view from which it is told is insular, there is a unity of place, the writing style is just about as simple as it could be and it also feels quite naïve because at the time I didn’t really know that much about Greece. This may, however, be the reason so many people like it. People of all ages, generations and educational levels find it very accessible. But, I don’t think I can write like that now: my writing style matured as I grew older.
Your stories are often epic family sagas. What are the challenges and rewards of this genre for an author?
Looking back at the content of my books, they seem often to focus a lot on mothers and daughters, or even grandmothers and granddaughters. This just happens to be what I know a lot about. I grew up in a very female-dominated environment. My father was practically absent through my whole childhood and I lived with my mother, grandmother, sister and two cats who were also both female (laughs).There was nothing masculine in our house at all. This was the best thing about my childhood, and I guess in a way it was quite Greek really. All I can really write about is what I know, though I transplant it to another country. I hope that answers your question.
Apart from narrative, are there any other writing genres you’re interested in exploring as well?
I secretly write poetry, but then again a lot of people do (laughs). I often write poetry when I want to express something, and I very rarely show it to anyone, with the exception of one poem I wrote that was adapted to music for The Island, the television series. I am very proud of that. I also write short stories and I am vaguely interested in writing scripts, but it’s not something I feel like pursuing at the moment.
Your books always display a clearly defined concern with history and politics. If you were to choose politics as a profession, where would you stand and why?
That’s a good question! Probably some dithering place on the fence (laughs), or a coalition. I’m very inconsistent with what I vote for. I feel I am naturally a socialist. Clearly it’s the right thing that everyone should have the same and that we should share what we have. I suppose that makes me a communist (laughs). This is why the characters I admire most in The Thread fight more on the left than on the right. Having said that, it’s clear from reading about the Greek Civil War that communism can be misread in such a way as to be extremely unpleasant and vicious. But where would I stand? I’ve voted for everything. I’m extremely inconsistent with my politics.
What comment do you have to make about the current crisis in Greece? Is it more than just a financial crisis?
It probably is. The crisis feels like a huge explosion that has come about as a result of many different chemicals getting together and going bad at the same time. There is no doubt that the Greeks are very strong, and that the country will survive, as it has been through worse things than what it is going through now. However, I hope it will bring about change because there are certain things that happen in the country that drive everyone who goes to Greece mad, whether they are Greek or not. Attitudes to tax must change, and that change must filter down through every level of society if real progress is to be made. The situation today has been triggered by a handful of people but perpetuated by everyone. This must stop.
UEA is one of few universities in the UK to offer courses in Modern Greek. Do you think young people today should learn Greek? If so, why?
Greek is an incredible language. My son studied Ancient Greek at school and only recently realised that if only for a little extra tuition he would have been able to speak a living language and not just a dead one because there is really not a huge divide between Ancient and Modern Greek. Language learning in this country is a disgrace, despite the fact that it is such an essential skill. One day we will wake up and realise that English is not the dominant language in the world anymore, so I definitely believe that young people should learn new and different languages if they are given the chance.
Love in your novels is deep and long lasting. You met your husband whilst you were both students at Oxford and you are still together today. What would you say is the secret in making love last in a world that is so fast paced and selfishly inclined?
I have just read an amazing new novel called The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’ Farrell. The main character has just had an accident and forgotten everything in his life, even his own name, so he finds himself having to get to know his wife all over again. What he realises is that they are getting divorced, something that had been going on for the last five years and finally, in a week from this moment, the papers will be finalised, so he decides to try and stop that from happening. The novel shows love to be all about appreciating what you have and making sure you hang onto the good things. In my case, 25 years of marriage seems quite an achievement actually, especially considering the fact we’ve been together longer than that. I don’t know what “our secret” was … perhaps having lots of our individual interests as well as doing things together. I know that boyfriends and girlfriends at university tend to become inseparable, but for me being married means not being inseparable. I go off and write novels in foreign countries, Ian does what he does in London and it has worked.
Fiction aims to uncover some kind of reality: how is it that a writer is able to tell the truth by telling lies? Can reality ever exist in art?
No. It is always one person’s view, in much the same way as The Threadis my view of Greek history. I suppose there is truth with a capital T but everything is subjective, everything we observe is seen, and can only ever be seen through our own individual perspective.
Which writers have influenced you most?
It is the writers whose books I really love to read. One of them is Ian McEwan, who I believe studied at UEA.
Here at UEA we take pride in our excellent creative writing department. What advice would you give young writers today as they embark on their artistic journey?
I think writing is something you can get better at as you get older, and it’s definitely not something where success necessarily comes quickly. What I would tell young writers today is to enjoy it, to get pleasure out of their own writing and write about what they know.
Virginia Woolf once said: “A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write.” What do you need Mrs Hislop?