I arrived in Jersey on the same flight as poet Jo Bell, which was fantastic as I had someone to talk to/try not to get lost with. When we got to the hotel, we met writer Tania Hershman, who had already sussed out cake opportunities. We went for afternoon tea and chatted about writing and the sessions we’re doing during the festival. Jo and Tania are part of tonight’s cabaret evening at the Arts Centre and are doing a session together at 5pm tomorrow in the Arts Centre. Jo is also doing a full day’s workshop in La Hougue Bie on Sunday. Their plans for the sessions sounded fantastic.
I went to two events yesterday: Anna Sebba and Victoria Hislop, both of whom have a love of recent history in common. Both sessions took place at Jersey Arts Centre, which is a new venue for this year and is a lovely addition.
Anne Sebba talked for an hour of the stories she discovered about women in Paris during the Second World War. These stories, and many more, form her new book Les Parisiennes.
I warmed to Sebba immediately when she said that the book isn’t a women’s history book, it’s a mainstream history book that happens to be about women. She described the book as ‘unashamedly’ a story about the women of Paris, a city which became feminised during the occupation. The book includes stories about resistors, collaborators, milliners, singers, dancers and more. The spectrum of women in Paris at that time is shown here.
Sebba questioned throughout the talk why it had taken so long for these women’s stories to be told. Her answers included that these women were self-effacing and they wanted to return to normalcy. They were also told by DeGaulle to return to their families, have babies and return their chequebooks. Women in France did not get the vote until 1946. Even after their part in the war, society thought they should return to their places. There were also the women whose romantic lives meant they didn’t want their stories known – Catherine Dior, for example, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his children – and those whose romantic lives wouldn’t be accepted by society – Claire Simone, who despite her portrayal by Cate Blanchett in The Momuments Men where she flirts with Frank Stokes played by George Clooney, was a lesbian.
The book came from an interest in Reneé, formerly Rachel, Van Cleef who killed herself in 1942 following the Aryanisation of businesses under occupation. Sebba’s interested stemmed from the disparity between the darkness of the period and the growth in couture and culture in Paris.
Sebba mentioned a lot of women, whose stories I’m not going to repeat here because they’re told in the book, but they include Elsie de Wolfe, Odette Fabius, Beatrice de Camondo and Irène Némirovsky. Many of these women showed enormous courage, carrying out work that went unrecognised until recently. Sebba praised the grandchildren of these women who she said were determined that their grandmothers’ stories would be told.
Victoria Hislop is also interested in telling unknown stories. In her case, these are stories from and about Greece. Last week, she published her fifth novel Cartes Postales from Greece which her and her publisher are describing as ‘the first book of fiction in full colour’.
She told the audience that the book was conceived as a novel with photographs and that she travelled around Greece with a photographer with no preconceptions as to what she wanted him to photograph. As he took photographs and then drove them around, Hislop wrote the stories that make up the book.
The book is about a broken-hearted man called Anthony – because ‘I’ve never met an Anthony I don’t like’. (She reveals later that he’s named after and looks like her friend and neighbour in Crete, Anthony Horowitz.) The book begins with Anthony waiting for the love of his life at a small airport in Greece, with an engagement ring in his pocket. She doesn’t show up and provides no explanation as to her absence. He can’t face returning to London so travels around Greece sending her a postcard from each place which ends with the sentence, ‘Without you this place is nothing’. But the postcards land on the mat of someone else…
Each of the sections are told to Anthony by other people. They are stories about the people who tell them and about Greece. Hislop said she wanted to express the duality of Greece, the beautiful, picture postcard side and the shadows behind it.
She said it would be disingenuous of her to set a novel in contemporary Greece and not acknowledge the difficulties the country’s faced. She spends 30% of her time in Greece and says that there are lots of angry young people who leave because they can’t get work and then don’t return.
Some of the stories told to Anthony are real and others are fictional. Hislop said she’s leaving it to the reader to decide which category they fall into but she does reveal that the story about Lord Byron is fictional. She wanted to look at Byron from a Greek point of view, where he’s more famous for his sexual exploits than his writing, so created a maid in the household who theorises as to what ailment causes Byron’s death. ‘Writing is so much fun!’ Hislop said of the creative licence which allowed her to do this. She said some of the stories move into genres she hadn’t written in before: Gothic and horror, in particular, although she’s keen to point out that there’s humour in the book too. ‘I don’t read Gothic or horror stories. Ever. I don’t like them. I was quite disgusted with myself.’
Hislop said she reads her reviews and that ‘criticisms are usually right’.
The evening ended with a discussion about her debut novel The Island. ‘To me it’s like it’s been written by a child. There’s nothing pretentious about it.’ She told us she didn’t want to be a writer, in fact she actively avoided it having friends who are published novelists. She said it’s only with this book, which is her fifth, that she’s felt able to refer to herself as a writer but not a novelist. ‘That sounds so cringe-making. Ian McEwan is a novelist’. But visiting Spinalonga inspired something that she knew would need more than the articles she was writing as a travel journalist at the time.
Her daughter, Emily, is her ‘ruthless’ early reader but she said it was her husband, Ian (Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular on Have I Got News for You), who told her to remove a joke about leprosy from The Island.
Someone in the audience asks about the television series of The Island, which was made by and for Greek television. At 26 episodes, she said she doubts it will ever be shown in the UK. She was involved in it ‘like a maniac’, she said, due to her concerns that the characters would be treated ‘like monsters’.
Hislop will continue writing about Greece. Although she confessed to an interest in Norway in the 1940s, she said she won’t write anything very different. ‘This is what I do.’