Novel ideas - Award-winning author Victoria Hislop

Award-winning author Victoria Hislop talks about travel, teas, fame and flamenco...

Award-winning author Victoria Hislop talks about travel, teas, fame and flamenco

Victoria Hislop is all smiles when I finally manage to work out the security gate to her lovely old wattle and daub home in Sissinghurst, and this is despite the fact she'd only returned late the night before from a fairly gruelling four-day trip to Norway.

But when you've got a new book to promote and are read in 25 different languages, eating nine-course dinners held in your honour by your Norwegian publisher are par for the course. If not great for the digestion.

There is no visible padding, however, on Victoria, who is slim as a teenage boy, and even does her wide belt up an extra notch when I comment - with ill-disguised envy, I'm afraid - on her waistline. Hard to believe Victoria, the wife of TV's Ian Hislop, has just turned 50 and was indeed putting the finishing touches to her party.

"I decided to have a lunch party to celebrate, which sounds a bit middle aged," she laughs. "I made the invitations myself - which is very unlike me - and put a little rose on them, and then thought, that looks like a little old lady's tea party! I was quite annoyed with myself.

"But I have a lot to celebrate, so why not? A lot my age haven't made it, I'm very healthy, I've got lovely children and am very lucky in all sorts of ways."

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And she is also extremely talented - I spent the entire weekend before we met reading her first novel, The Island, which I genuinely loved, and left clutching a signed copy of her second, The Return, with that sense of anticipation you only get with the latest offering from a favourite author.

Her debut novel, which was chosen by Richard and Judy as their summer read of 2006 and sold more than a million copies, was inspired by a family holiday to Crete. "We'd seen all the archaeological sites and Byzantine churches, then heard about this former leper colony - so we took a little boat trip out to see Spinalonga. It had a very strong atmosphere for me and that what was really why I wrote the book.

"It just seemed amazing that no one had written the same story as I had and I kept on expecting to see it in a bookshop," admits Victoria.

Scripts for a 26-part series based on The Island for Greek TV are currently being finalised, ready for filming to start in November, and Victoria reads and corrects each one overnight, once her Greek teacher has translated them.

The Return is largely set in Grenada and revisits the bloody conflict of the Spanish Civil War, although dance - and particularly flamenco - is at its heart. But Victoria insists both books have emanated from the subject matter rather than the selection of a place.

Labour of love

Three years is typical for her to write a novel, and as well as immersing herself in each country and its history, she will also carry out much of her research in the British Library. It's a bit of a mission, setting off at 7.30am to be there for her pre-ordered books when the doors open, but she loves it.

Fans of her writing will have to wait another two years for a third novel, but she certainly isn't idle. "I really enjoy promoting my books, probably a bit too much! Some novelists are a bit reclusive; I'm not like that at all."

Born in Bromley, Victoria's family moved to Tonbridge when she was five. We reminisce about 'the good old days' when the market used to be near her old primary school in The Slade, and the family would visit it every Saturday. "I also remember the old Ritz cinema in Botany, and there was a restaurant where we went for tea with big cakes on a trolley," she adds.

"There used to be a greengrocer's called Berry's in the High Street and my sister and I went out with the two Saturday boys, so I have very fond memories of Berry's!"

Victoria went to Tonbridge Girls Grammar, and, when she bumped into a fellow old girl at a recent charity event, realised some lessons had stuck. "We both immediately launched into our school song!" she laughs.

Victoria's 18-year-old daughter, Emily, goes to Cranbrook Grammar and has won a place at Oxford to read English, just like her parents, who started dating towards the end of their studies and have been together since 1980. Son William, 15, is in his GCSE year.

What's it been like for them, with a famous dad who's on the telly? Victoria grimaces: "The children found it difficult when they were younger, kids just don't like being different. But it is hard when you are in the public eye - we were in a restaurant recently and Kim Cattrall was in the same room and I just couldn't stop staring."

After Oxford, Victoria worked in book publishing, before spending a decade in advertising. "We'd moved to London by then, and it was a good career in the eighties - all power dressing and big company cars.

"But when I had Emily, I went back to work within three months and felt so terribly unhappy that after a week, I'd handed in my notice. The turning point was when someone put a date in my diary for 6pm, which was perfectly normal, but I just couldn't do it."

Family first

The Hislops came to Kent in 2000. "It was very easy having small children in London, but we moved when we realised that when they needed to play sport, they were a 40-minute bus ride away, which seemed quite mad."

Their present home was not chosen from any deep-rooted connection ("I'd been dragged to Sissinghurst Castle once as a child"), but Victoria loves Kent and was keen to return.

"It's perfect for Ian's commuting, not too shattering, Sissinghurst is a pretty place to live and we just fell in love with the house. We both belong to the tennis club, which is very active. Ian is very good and I'm mediocre. I've also done salsa classes and tried flamenco - which is terribly difficult - when I was writing The Return.

"And there's a wonderful cinema in Hawkhurst we go to, the Kino - it's a joy, very small and very classy - a bit like the Curzon, but 100 times nicer."

And Victoria loves any excuse to visit Tunbridge Wells. "It reminds me of when we were teenagers, my sister and I used to go to Binns in the Pantiles for cream teas, just like two little old ladies."

There is definitely a bit of a cake obsession going on here: so how does she stay so slim? "The secret is, don't eat chocolate! I burn up quite a lot of nervous energy; and food is not that important to me really. Ian has been cooking while I've been away, but I'm afraid he's not very domesticated!"

No thoughts of grow-your-own, then? "I did have an ambitious vegetable plot one year, but it was a dry summer and the clay dried out terribly - I may well have another go.

"We've got a fantastic local farm shop in Cranbrook, Hartley Dyke, so I think why labour producing my own, when I can drive three minutes and can get all this lovely local food?"

Why indeed, with books to write and teenagers and a hectically busy husband to organise? And if she wants to swap day jobs, Mrs Hislop asked me twice as many questions as I managed...

Fans of Victoria Hislop's work will be interested to know that she has written a story for the Fire volume of Ox-Tales, one of four anthologies published by Profile Books on 4 July, priced �5 each. Ox-Tales brings together original stories by extraordinary writers, from Kate Atkinson to John Le Carr�. Published to coincide with the first Oxfam Bookfest, every copy sold raises at least 50p for Oxfam.

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