CULTURE

International best-seller by British author puts forgotten one-time leper colony back on the map

The ultimate Greek island for Victoria Hislop is neither Myconos nor Corfu. It is Spinalonga, east of Crete. Forgotten by many, Spinalonga with its bushy geraniums and curtains billowing through the windows of the houses in the wind, did not conjure up any ghosts as Hislop, a few years ago, first set eyes on it from the prow of a boat. «I expected to find an empty, depressing, depressed place,» she says of the former leper colony. «The reversal of expectations was very surprising. It was so obvious that this island once had a community of people who lived their lives, that I felt as though I were being engulfed by it. That is how ‘The Island’ was born.» The novel was born and it put a former leper colony back on the map as a place of mystery and love, while also becoming a publishing sensation as it was translated into 22 languages, including Chinese. In Greece (published by Dioptra and translated by Michalis Delengos) it even went into second print with 20,000 copies already sold. For Hislop it has been an impressive acceptance from the country she has come to love like a second home – so much so that she has started to learn Greek. «To nisi» (The Island), she says somewhat timidly in Greek, as she caresses the cover of the Greek edition. This is a bright and vibrant woman, full of joie de vivre, who sees the hot sun scorching Athens as a «bright light.» She is a bit uncomfortable, however, when asked about being a woman who has made a publishing splash rather than as Victoria Hislop. Success, she instantly assures us, came as a complete surprise. «I sat down and wrote a book because my body was asking for it. I expected nothing.» These low expectations and a clear understanding that it is not «high literature» show Hislop to be a down-to-earth person with both feet planted firmly on the ground. «The patient falling in love with her doctor is such a banal story,» she says, bursting the bubble. «It has no depth. The plot is not very clever. It is not what we would call literature that will become a classic.» With so much seeming to ride against it, the urge to grab «The Island» and protect it is great. But this novel needs no protection. For Hislop it was a labor of love (she admits to crying while writing it) and its aura of authenticity is overpowering. «I am very glad that it is not a work of literature that has critics bowing down before it. Just think how many of those kinds of book have been left half-read. Thousands all over the world. When I was at university I got into the habit of finishing every book I started, but not anymore. I’m not going to punish myself. Time is limited,» says the British author. Her husband, children and mother are part of her everyday conversation, as are England, Greece and Spain, her other favorite country. «Yes, I am writing another book,» says Hislop, answering the unavoidable question. «It is a novel about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. I am doing a lot of research, especially after discovering that 14,000 books have already been written about this period. In England I often meet the children of Spaniards who fled the country during Franco’s rule.» Hislop has taken on an enormous task, but says she enjoys it, especially as she is trained in responding to different messages. As a writer for the Sunday Telegraph, she had the best job. «I wrote travel pieces and got to go all around the world,» she says. Greece, however, was not part of the job. «I came to Greece in 1976 with my mother on a very cheap package tour that put us up in a hotel in Glyfada. Even though the airplanes kept us awake, we had a magical time.» After graduating from university she came back, traveling with a busload of other students to the Peloponnese. Later it was Paros and Crete and then Spinalonga. «A friend of ours, Richard, who is a dermatologist, explained very soberly that leprosy is just another skin condition. For those of us who had those horrifying scenes from ‘Ben Hur’ in mind, it was very comforting to know. I based the character of the doctor in ‘The Island’ on Richard.» On the subject of the novel, Hislop remembers the early days. «At first I had mostly female readers. I knew from the e-mails I received. Gradually, the men appeared. I think they are attracted to the emotion. People like to let go. Crying is cathartic. Don’t you find that many writers have a very clinical manner? But when you write you are completely free. There are no codes or standards. The freedom you have to go anywhere you want is a great strength. «I would not say that happiness is a matter of talent, but it can certainly be a goal.»