Victoria Hislop is thoughtful, erudite and exudes a poise and kindness that’s quite lovely.
This charm runs through her books too, including her latest, One August Night.
The sequel to her 2005 bestseller The Island – which focussed on Spinalonga off Crete, home to a Greek leper colony – it picks up after the colony has closed, amidst a celebration disrupted by violence.
We caught up with Hislop, 61, whose mother Mary died in March last year, to discuss lockdown, grief, and the value of taking care of yourself…
You wrote your new book during the first lockdown. Did it feel like a kind of therapy?
“At the moment, we all feel just completely out of control in a very different way from anything we’ve felt before.
And we just have to accept the fact we’re out of control. Writing something, or creating something, definitely, I’d call it a kind of therapy. Writing always is a therapy for me, but somehow this year more so.
What made you want to write it?
“My mum was in a care home and she died the second week of March. It was really unexpected, so I was already totally discombobulated by that, and then we went into lockdown and there was the idea of an incurable disease swirling around us.
I just thought: ‘I need a distraction, I need a routine, I need to start writing again’. I was still mulling about what to do next and this idea – I thought, ‘Well that’s something I can do’.
If it doesn’t work, it won’t matter, but I’m going to sit at my desk every morning and get on with something. It was sanity saving.”
You weren’t able to be with your mum at the end. That must have been incredibly difficult.
“I always imagined I’d be with mum [when she passed]. That was never a question. I would be holding her hand.
And it was a shock. I couldn’t feel guilty because I’d been given no choice, but I did over the next few weeks, of course, when that whole Dominic Cummings thing came out, him going off on his unnecessary journeys.
I’d been so law-abiding, like most of us have, and hadn’t gone further than the end of the road. I wish I’d gone to see her – if I’d known she was about to leave us.
“I think very often, a different kind of grief is when there’s an emptiness, when you feel or wish ‘I had said…’, and I can really say there’s nothing that was left unsaid. Just apart from being with her at the end.”
How do you feel about ageing and time passing?
“I realised a few months ago that I’m probably in my last quarter. A friend of mine was about to be 40 and she was going, ‘Oh god, I’m going to be 40, isn’t it awful’, and I just lost it a little bit.
I said, ‘You’re talking to somebody of 61! You’re halfway through, you’ve still got half – you’re talking to somebody who’s got a quarter left!’ It ended the conversation.
I thought, ‘You’re complaining, but you’ve got 50% left of your life! I’m one who theoretically might only have 25%!’”
Do you worry about being in your ‘final quarter’?
“Enjoy life, because I think you’ve only got one. There’s no point in lamenting each day going by, and that’s why I don’t really like Advent calendars or Advent candles.
You burn them down; I find that really depressing. You end up with this horrid little stub and you watch the month disappearing, and I think, ‘I’m glad we don’t do this every month’.”
You and Ian Hislop have been married 32 years – what’s the secret to a happy marriage?
“We met at university and haven’t really been apart since. But we both really enjoy what we do and support each other.
We have independence, because I’m not involved in his work and he’s not involved in mine, but we know that work is important to the other one in the same way.
“When I look back, people that are 20 are only just coming out of childhood, but of course, we didn’t think of it that way. It’s worked, it’s a good partnership, a good friendship.”
How do you take care of your own wellbeing?
“Looking after your wellbeing means something that took me a long time to accept; you’ve got to love yourself, feel that you’re worth it, like the L’Oreal shampoo ad.
But I think, definitely in your final quarter – it sounds so depressing, ha! – it’s a priority, it really is. Physically, mentally as well.
“I do a lot of Pilates. I just find it really suits me. I do it four or five times a week now for an hour, and I walk a lot.
When I was younger, I wouldn’t take the time to do something that made me feel that much better, I’d always think there was something more important to do.
But I actually think, if you make yourself feel good, you’ve got more energy and mental space then to look after other people as well.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Love yourself – it sounds so fridge magnet-y, but it is true. And you know when you’re overdoing it, and that’s key, to have a bit of self-criticism, so you know if you’re being boastful or braggy. But you can pat yourself on the back, hold your head up – and don’t look in the mirror and just see the faults.”
What gets you through tough times?
“Sometimes it’s as simple as a chilled glass of white wine. And I don’t deny myself that, because I know I’m not going to drink the whole bottle. I don’t reach for the herbal tea when I’ve had a bad day!
“And there’s the immense impact of having a pet. Colin [the Hislops’ late cat, who is thanked in the book], for that first period of [lockdown] stress and sadness, was the most fantastic support.
Cats live the perfect life; they live in the present, they sleep, they get fed, I think they’re aware when they’re giving pleasure by sitting with you, so having a cat was a really major part of getting through the last few months. It was then very annoying that he then chose to leave us.
As I said to Ian, I have never lived without a cat, and I don’t intend to for very long this time. He was wonderful.”
What does happiness mean to you?
“A psychiatrist friend once told me, ‘Happiness isn’t a human right’, and I profoundly disagreed with her. Happiness is really important, it makes you stronger, it really does, and occasionally you meet someone who has a martyrship about them, they feel they’re not meant to be happy, that life isn’t meant to be easy, they take a difficult path, and I think happiness is really crucial. If you’re not happy, you need to find the reason, root it out and resolve that, and life will feel much more worth living.
“Happiness isn’t felt 24 hours a day, but it shouldn’t be something you only occasionally feel. It’s really central to a life.”
One August Night by Victoria Hislop, the sequel to The Island, is published by Headline, priced £14.99 in hardback. Available now.