In writing her latest Greece-themed, critically acclaimed book, “Cartes Postales,” a book of stories linked through the voyage of a heartbroken man, Victoria Hislop adopted an experimental approach. Usually gathering a vast body of research notes and reference images and then sitting down to write, a process the author says takes her around three years from idea to completion, this time she wrote mainly while traveling: “The journeys I made for research took me all around the country and the inspiration for different parts of the book came very easily – so I was scribbling a lot of the time as I was actually on the move,” she says.
Apart from being a book rich in evocative personal stories set in fascinating Greek locations such as Delphi, Meteora, Andros, Ikaria and Preveza, the book bequeaths the reader with two other pleasures – one is the nostalgia-inducing experience of reading postcards, something people nowadays rarely get to do, and the other is that the texts are punctuated by poignant images which verge from the abstract to the illustrative.
Joining her on this somewhat unorthodox novel-writing adventure was her photographer friend Alexandros Kakolyris, who understood exactly where she was coming from when she came up with the idea for the book. “Children’s books have pictures and a few words. Then there are less and less images, and then there are just words, no more pictures!
“And I thought, why? We live in a world where we’re seeing things all the time, and a lot of the newspapers, magazines as well as non-fiction books have masses of pictures. Why should fiction be any different? So I met the photographer and we talked about how what you see at that moment can actually be the basis of the story.”
“The journeys I made for research took me all around the country and the inspiration for different parts of the book came very easily – so I was scribbling a lot of the time as I was actually on the move”
Very much like Anthony, the protagonist of the book, who travels from destination to destination without any set purpose, the author’s journey around Greece was not entirely pre-planned: “We didn’t know what to expect, whether each place would deliver something picturesque or interesting to us. At some point we even relied on a weather app to decide where we should go next! But the photographs were very integral to the story I tell, and what I saw and what the photographer saw did affect the course of the book.
“For example when we were in Preveza, I woke up to the sound of church bells and went to breakfast and asked what was going on. It had gone from being a dead place the evening before to an explosion of crowds and noise – and it turned out it was the day of the Theofania (Epiphany or Blessing of the Waters). We went to the church and then down to the water, where we saw the men all lining up to jump into the water for the cross – so for me it was a completely novel, unexpected situation. Another example is the photo of a man standing on the top of a misty mountain in Meteora; we were driving and the photographer stopped the car, got out and took it – we don’t know who that was, or why he was there, or whether he was happy or sad, but he provided the final moment for the story.”
Through her books set in Greece (“The Island”, which sold over two million copies worldwide, “The Thread” and “The Last Dance”), Hislop’s work has generated a great deal of publicity for the country. As a BBC Breakfast TV presenter interviewing her recently quipped, “The Greek tourism board must like you!” Nonetheless, she has described “Cartes Postales” as a love letter to Greece, complete with some elements of criticism.
“I wanted to write something that reflected what Greece is today, so that’s why there’s a discussion about tax, or there’s a picture of a man going through the bins, so that there’s a glimpse of the reality. The fact that I love the country so much, doesn’t mean to say I don’t see its faults. There are dark things about Greece, and I will always be an outsider, so I see them.”
What we distinguish and most appreciate in any artwork roots in a deeply personal and individual state, thus I am very curious to discover what Hislop’s favorite parts of her own book are: “I have many.” she says. “One of them is when Athina is in Delphi and she has an epiphany – not a vision exactly, but something that is revealed to her almost supernaturally. And another is when the old lady in Ikaria holds out a feather. I love moments that present us with a sense of something beyond the pragmatic – that suggest that there is something other than what we can see or touch.” Indeed, the greatest charm of “Cartes Postales” and Hislop’s work overall is exactly that – moving for the imagination and heart at once, while deeply rooted in some concrete pragmatism, and in this way, she manages to win her readers over again and again.
IN HER OWN WORDS
“Getting Greek citizenship would be fantastic – especially since there’s a new fear I have that being British we won’t be in Europe anymore.
The view from my house in Crete is my favorite view in the whole world. It is of the Bay of Mirabello in North Crete. I didn’t know that blue came in a thousand different shades until I lived with that view.
One of my favorite things to do is to go to the museums in Athens. I find that there’s no reason to not go to the Acropolis Museum a thousand times – it’s always exciting. I just love the building, and being in there, even if only to look at one thing. And I love going to the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Benaki Museum – it’s where I find some peace, in a sense.
It would be fantastic to make a feature length film out of one of my stories. My preference would be for a Greek director/producer – but with US/UK production behind it which would make it more likely to be shown elsewhere in the world. I think the landscapes of Greece would be appreciated abroad even more than in Greece itself, where they are already familiar.”