Victoria Hislop reads from The Return
VICTORIA HISLOP INTERVIEW
That same sunshine that attracts so many of us to Andalucia also drew Victoria Hislop to Granada in search of a story of love, passion and tragedy as she researched Spain’s Civil War. The Return is an historical novel set between present and past, north and south as the book’s protagonists play out personal dilemmas revolving around Spain and the war that tore even families apart.
Recently Andalucia.com spoke with Victoria Hislop to learn about the making of the book.
AC- The Return, which is set in Granada, is your second novel. Your first – The Island – was set in Greece. What attracts you to Mediterranean settings?
VH- Well, I supposed primarily it's the amazing climate. Although I live in the UK, I'd be very happy to live somewhere with blue skies and a great deal more warmth and light than we have here. So I suppose that's principally the attraction. But I love the culture as well in Greece and Spain particularly.
AC- I understand you spent quite a lot of time in Granada researching The Return. What did you like most about life in Granada?
VH- Life in Granada seems to me full of people with plenty of time to sit in cafes and enjoy watching the world go by and I became one of those people and used to start my day at about 8:00 in the morning with tostadas and tomatoes and what I think is the best coffee in the world. It's better than Italian, French, and Greek. Spanish coffee is absolutely the most incredible taste. So that was a lovely part of it for me. And then in the evening, I would - as often as I possibly could - go and listen to music and watch people dancing.
AC- On the cover of The Return we read, “Pain and passion at the heart of war torn Spain”. Inside the cover you take us on a meticulously researched journey of the Spanish Civil War via two lovers who are torn apart by the conflict. Tell us how you became so fascinated with this tragic era in Spain’s history.
VH- Well, oddly it’s a period of history that I think most British people know little about – just a tiny little bit that we’re all given a taste of in school. Then it’s sidelined completely in our history lessons by the Second World War and then, of course, the interesting thing is that the Second World War, when it came to an end it was much more clear cut. But with Spain it has a sort of follow on period until 1975 when Franco died. But anyway a lot of us know very little.
I got very hooked by the story when I was in Granada and I went to see the house of Federico Garcia Lorca which is just on the edge of the city. It was his family’s summer home. And I knew a little bit about Lorca. I’d seen a few of his plays and read a bit of his poetry. But what I didn’t know until I visited his house was that he was an early victim of the Spanish Civil War. When the coup took place in July, a month later he was arrested in Granada and very soon after executed. And I was completely shocked by what an awful thing must have been going on at that time. And I just love to read and I read and read and read. And my stories and characters evolved during that process.
AC- Sonia is the modern-day protagonist in The Return. How did you fashion her character? Are there any aspects of her that come from yourself or from other people you’ve known?
VH- In some ways, she is inspired by a friend of mine who became absolutely addicted to dancing. She started doing it, I think really, as an outlet for an unhappy marriage rather like Sonia’s, although alcohol wasn’t the reason her marriage was unhappy. But this friend’s marriage did eventually break up. And my friend continued to dance and sort of found a new and happier life. And in fact she became a dance teacher. She didn’t go and live in Spain, however. That’s the kind of aspect that’s completely fictional. I understand her, this friend, and indeed Sonia’s passion for dancing. And I think it’s a very, very life enhancing activity. So, little bits of me and quite a lot of this friend of mine is the basis for the book.
AC- Mercedes is our Civil War protagonist, growing up in the Spain of the 1930’s. She must have required some fairly specialised research.
VH- Yes, she did. In fact, the whole story is of the Civil War, which is the backdrop to The Return, which first of all required lots of reading. When I started reading, the figure quoted for the number of books written about the Spanish Civil War was 15,000, and now the figure that’s being used by historians is about 20,000, so obviously there is no shortage of reading material.
And then there’s the flamenco aspect of the novel, which is very important. It’s a sort of theme in the background. I learnt some flamenco myself. And, as I said before, I watched it a great deal. There’s quite a lot of good flamenco that comes to London. So, I saw a lot here and I saw a lot in Spain as well.
The research probably took about two years for that book, but every bit of it was fascinating in its own way.
AC- I’ve read a lot about the Spanish Civil War, but I had only vague notions regarding what happened to the children who were sent abroad during the conflict. What kind of research did that section of The Return involve?
VH- Well, again from reading. But the most important bit of it for me was to find some of the children who are obviously now in their 80’s who are still living in the UK. There was actually only one boat that the UK government allowed to land here with refugee children. We were very strict about it because the UK signed a pact of non-intervention, which basically said we would not support either side. We did not want to get involved with the Spanish Civil War. But under the energies of one particular woman, who was called the Dutchess of Atholl – she must have been an amazing lady – a boat was organised for 4,000 children to arrive here when Bilbao had fallen, or just before it was about to fall. So I traced some of those children through an association called the “Basque Children of 37 Association”. And those wonderful people shared their memories of that episode with me.
AC- That must have been amazing.
VH- It was. I think most of them must have been sort of eight or nine when they came and I expect the trauma of arriving in a foreign country like the UK when they had come from Spain… Some of them had never been outside their own village or city. So their memories were extremely vivid. And obviously they ones I met couldn’t go back home for tragic reasons, either their parents were imprisoned or had died. So yes, they were wonderful people and I have a great deal to thank them for.
AC- What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
VH- Well I suppose having the excuse to make endless visits to Granada, which is a city I love. And I had the time and the space to watch people and to just breathe in the culture of Spain. It’s a process you can’t hurry. You can’t just say I’m going to spend an hour today to research this very specific thing. It’s more of a sort of immersion into the place. And that’s what I love doing.
AC- Now, heading back to the time you spent researching in Granada, we’d love to have a recommendation or two from you regarding places you enjoyed visiting and perhaps a restaurant or bar you particularly enjoyed.
VH- The bar I loved most, if I can start with eating and drinking, because that is so important there, is the Bodega Castañeda. That’s quite close to the Cathedral and they do the most wonderful tapas there, which they serve to you with every glass of wine or beer. So I always felt I was getting a free meal as well, which is very kind of them. And then there’s the Casa Enrique, which is not much bigger than a small cubicle really. It’s a tiny bar, and they do probably more upmarket wines, but then equally upmarket tapas as well.
So those are places I ate and drank quite a lot. And for a wonderful flamenco show, I used to go to Los Tarantos, which is up in the gypsy area in one of the cuevas. The dancing there is pretty stupendous.
I recommend anybody who goes to Granada to go up to the Alhambra, which is very beautiful and requires a good half a day to wander around and visit, but is really well worth it. And the Cathedral is wonderful. And, of course Lorca’s house just on the outskirts of the city. But it’s really just sitting around and having coffee and enjoying the atmosphere of Granada. That’s the thing that people should make time for, not just going to see the historical monuments.
AC- Also, I understand you visited Marbella and spent an evening at the Patio de los Perfumes. How did you find the food and flamenco?
VH- The food was quite fantastic. It wasn’t the tapas kind of food. It was a huge plate. It was delicious Spanish food. I don’t think I could get through half of it; the portions were so generous. And we were under the stars in the patio, which is very magical. And the flamenco was terrific. It was less earthy, and what I’d call traditional, than a lot of the flamenco I’d seen in Granada. It was slightly more choreographed, more of a show, but it was very fabulous and the dancing was immaculate. And they changed costumes about six times during half an hour, so that was a feat in itself. I would recommend the Patio de los Perfumes very strongly.
AC- Finally, can you give us a peep into the future? What projects are on your horizon?
VH- I haven’t begun my third novel yet. I’m in the process of evolving an idea, but I can certainly reveal that it won’t be set in the UK. It’s going to be once again in a warm Mediterranean setting. And just like I’ve done with my two novels so far, engaging myself perhaps with a bit of forgotten history, I’d very much hope to be doing that again with the next book.