'Ian is more intellectual than me...I'm anxious when he reads my manuscript’
Victoria Hislop's new book centres on family secrets, something she knows all about. She talks about the sister she never knew and life with her Private Eye editor husband Ian.
The Hislop family is undoubtedly a super-bright one. Bestselling novelist Victoria and Private Eye editor Ian met at Oxford University, their daughter Emily graduated from the same esteemed establishment and their son William is currently studying history there.
"Ian is much cleverer than I am," insists Victoria, whose debut 2005 novel The Island has to date sold more than three million copies worldwide, been translated into 31 languages and was made into a hit 26-part Greek TV series, in which both Victoria and Ian had walk-on parts.
We meet in her mother's town house in Chelsea, where Victoria pens large segments of her novels when she's not away in Greece doing research or staying at their house in Crete, where she spent this summer.
The 55-year-old author, who has written four novels and one book of short stories, always gets her husband's feedback before sending her manuscript to the publisher.
"It takes him about two days to go through it, and at the end of the two days he gives me a tutorial. It's not problematic. We were at the same university doing the same degree (English) at the same time.
"Ian is much more intellectual than I am. At university, he used to lend people his essays so they could copy them. He should have rented them out at 50p a go because it would have paid his bar bill.
"I know for a fact that people marking that paper in our finals must have wondered why we were all saying the same thing.
"So I am anxious when I give my manuscript to him, as to what he's going to find," she continues. "It's not very comfortable, because I want serious comment. He doesn't do a lot of detail, but he gives me feedback which I take in and absorb."
Thankfully, he didn't have anything drastic to say about her latest novel, The Sunrise, set in the sunshine resort of Famagusta in Cyprus in 1972, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots live in harmony. It centres on an ambitious couple who open the most glitzy hotel there – The Sunrise – only for prosperity and happiness to be scuppered by the conflict between Turkey and Greece, with devastating effects on both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.
Victoria first visited the city on a gap year in 1978, when the war had split the north from the south of the island, only to find that Famagusta – once a thriving city and tourist haven with a myriad of beachfront hotels – was now a ghost town surrounded by barbed wire netting, fencing off the hotels, manned by Turkish armed guards.
"We weren't allowed to go anywhere near the beach, which is the main focal point of the book," she explains. When she returned years later, nothing had changed.
"It's the first book I've written about a place where you can't go. The buildings have remained derelict or ransacked. I assume that the rats and the mice don't bother to go in there, because there can't be any food left."
As in many of her books, the latest features a string of family secrets, something she's familiar with.
"The one that really motivated me was the fact that I discovered I had a sister who I never knew existed. That had a big impact on me at the time. She died before I was born, but she'd sort of been erased, as a way of dealing with grief.
"Growing up, we never had any pictures in frames, which I thought was normal. My dad (who by then had separated from her mother) mentioned it when I was about 30 and I was really shocked.
"Slowly, I asked my mother about it. She was still very upset talking about it, but it seemed a fairly enormous thing not to have known."
The daughter of a journalist, Victoria grew up in Kent and after graduating from Oxford, went into book publishing, public relations and then journalism.
She recalls meeting Ian in the English library at Oxford University.
"He was already quite well known, because he edited the Oxford version of Private Eye and some of my friends distributed it for him. I think their payment was going to a party at the end of the year."
They married seven years later, and when Emily was born, Victoria decided to work from home. Later, on holiday in Crete, she was inspired by a visit to Spinalonga, the abandoned Greek leprosy colony, to write The Island.
"They printed 5,000 copies in hardback and I had a disproportionately enormous party. But I always knew it was a good story, although initially, it had been very hard to get published. It wasn't snapped up, there was no auction, people weren't fighting over it. The subject matter of leprosy wasn't commercial."
However, the book earned Victoria the title of Newcomer of the Year at the British Book Awards, and the powerful reaction to it prompted her to learn Greek, which she says she speaks with a French accent, and become an ambassador for leprosy charity Lepra. When the TV series was made, Victoria had script approval, music approval and casting approval, as well as a walk-on part as a leprosy patient. Ian played the English father of one of the characters in the opening scene.
Today, she still finds inspiration in Greece and spends a lot of time at their house in Crete, where she can to soak up the atmosphere and write.
"Ian likes being active; going out on boats, swimming and learning to dive. He's very good at switching off. I find it easy to be inspired there."
She is recognised more in Greece than she is in the UK, and deliberately omits her picture from the paperback editions, as she prefers to remain anonymous in public.
"I simply don't want to be recognised. I'm never recognised in England unless I'm out with Ian and people might work out the link, but if I'm in a cafe in Greece, nine times out of 10, somebody comes up to me."
She's used to her husband being approached when they're out in this country, but their social circle doesn't feature many TV faces, she observes.
"There are some TV people who mostly socialise with TV people. Ian's TV work is an aside to his other work. We might have dinner with Paul (Merton, Ian's Have I Got News For You colleague) and his wife once between series, but we wouldn't ring each other up to go to the pub. I hate dinner parties, but if we had one, there wouldn't be many famous faces. A lot of celebrities don't really like each other, so why would you put them all round a table together?"
She'll be doing an autumn book tour and isn't yet working on the next novel, but she suspects that future books will be set in Greece.
"I don't particularly want to have to learn another language at this stage," she muses.
- The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop is out this Thursday, Headline Review, £19.99