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Hay Festival 2017: Victoria Hislop And Paula Hawkins

A photograph of Victoria Hislop

Early on Saturday morning, a fair audience gathered in the Oxfam Moot tent to to hear from Victoria Hislop, at Hay to discuss her latest book, Cartes Postales From Greece. Rosie Goldsmith introduced the book and, putting it into context with Hislop’s backlist, she pointed out that all the books, bar one, were love letters to Greece. Hislop speaks fluent Greek and is famous in the country; not a visit goes by without recognition.

“When you’re writing about contemporary Greece,” said Hislop, “you can’t just write about the beauty”. She went on to talk about how it would be disingenuous to have written her latest without referring to the darker elements of what is going on in the country and remarked that Greek people are very good at making ugly things beautiful.

Hislop often wrote whilst travelling; her photographer did the driving, and this work set up was different for her. It felt logical to Hislop to include the photographs in her book, to really show the places she was writing about. The book began as an idea, she said, as she turned on the projector screen to show a photo of a young boy in a silver suit, the atmosphere of the picture making him a little ghostly; it immediately gave her an ‘in’ to the story. In this vein, a photo of a man on a mountain top was used for the end of a chapter, but like the ghostly boy, it was also a beginning moment insofar as the idea.

The author said that Greece will be her inspiration for the foreseeable future.

A photograph of Paula Hawkins at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Joseph Albert Hainey.

That evening, Paula Hawkins joined Georgina Godwin in the small, sparkly Starlight tent to talk thrillers. Both author and chair are originally from Zimbabwe, and so the conversation started with Hawkins’ childhood. Born when the country was still Rhodesia, she spent her early years there before moving to London for university. Her home in Zimbabwe was, in literal terms, far from the war, and so she insulted from it, but she learned what was happening at school.

Hawkins said she had wanted to get away from Zimbabwe, her life of privilege as a white person in the country, but upon moving to England she found it difficult. There were so many white people in England, she found it weird. Weird, too, was the relative lack of space. Public transport was new to her, and it was a train journey from Putney to Earl’s Court that inspired The Girl On The Train; she wondered what would happen if she saw something interesting out of the train window. This journey melded together with her childhood and the feeling of being an outsider, that disconnection that has to some degree remained with her.

The success of the book surprised her in its extent. Relief followed the bidding war as she realised she’d be able to keep writing and pay her bills. Asked why we enjoy thrillers, she said, “we can explore fears in a safeish space”. Not a fan of the term ‘grip lit’ and those like it, she is happy to label herself a crime writer.

Is the book about gaslighting and manipulation? Maybe, but it’s also about the way we can tell made-up stories we think are true. “I’m of the degree that all first person narration is unreliable,” she said later, adding that we manipulate things and forget what really went on.

Hawkins wasn’t very involved in the film process, but she was confident the director would get it right. The location change wasn’t a problem for her; the film and the book are very separate things and are “different people’s visions”.

She has no plans at present to write about Zimbabwe in case she “gets it wrong”. The lasting point was that there are enough white people telling stories about Africa.


Tracy Terry

June 13, 2017, 4:23 pm

As always, wishing I’d have been there.

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