Friday 2 June 2017

A Conversation With Isabel Costello

Isabel Costello is a London-based author and host of the Literary Sofa blog. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Stories for Homes in aid of Shelter. In 2016 her debut novel Paris Mon Amour was published in digital by Canelo and she has recently released a paperback edition under a new Literary Sofa imprint. Isabel has been involved with the WoMentoring Project since it began and runs workshops on Perseverance and Motivation for Writers with author and psychologist Voula Grand.

Isabel Costello’s lifelong connections with France started through her mother, a languages teacher, and developed into a passion for books, languages and travel. A degree in French and German led to a career in marketing and communications and on to writing fiction and founding the Literary Sofa blog. She lives in London with her husband and sons but is often to be found on the other side of the Channel.

Paris Mon Amour has been praised by readers for its vivid sense of the ‘real’ Paris and ‘grown-up’ take on sexual politics and relationships

A tale of lust, love and loss with a beautifully described Paris as its backdrop. I galloped through it in a couple of days

                                                                  - Claire Fuller

Alexandra has built a new life in Paris, finding happiness she never expected with her husband Philippe. But lately she suspects he has someone else. Can we ever truly know another person?

Philippe values the comfort and intimacy of his second marriage to Alexandra. Hard to believe he’d risk it all. Does anyone know what they really want?

Jean-Luc is the son of Philippe’s best friend. He wants Alexandra, and once she’s involved there is no way out. Do we ever stop to think how it’s going to end?

We'd like to thank Isabel for taking part in A Conversation...and wish her all the very best with her new venture into publishing with the Literary Sofa and huge congratulations on the beautifully written Paris Mon Amour.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

It was an immense relief when I finally took up creative writing in 2009 – I had been suppressing what I now realise was an actual need to do it for years. It’s taken eight and a half years to hold my first published novel in my hand, but it’s absolutely been worth the many highs and lows along the way. The first novel I wrote got me an agent within five years of setting out (not bad going) but it hit me very hard when that book didn’t get published. Somehow I managed to fire myself up to write Paris Mon Amour and I’ve since become very interested in the psychology of motivation and ‘resilient thinking’. Running my blog, the Literary Sofa, in tandem with my writing has been a great way to share my love of reading, support other writers and make some wonderful friends. There isn’t a single part of my life that hasn’t been transformed by writing.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I don’t think of it as a role and have never had much time for the whole ‘Being a Writer’ thing, as if that’s an end in itself. There’s something powerful and intimate about the written word that enables me to connect with people in a different way to anything else; I think some of my closest friends have been quite thrown by this, but not in a bad way! Good fiction asks provocative questions and I’m instinctively driven to explore loaded topics and moral ambiguity. My novel centres on an affair between a 40-year-old married woman, Alexandra, and the much younger son of her husband’s best friend. It questions ‘rules’ about who we are allowed to fall in love with (the British fascination with President Macron’s private life is a case in point), the link between love and sex and whether certain types of behaviour are invariably wrong. I find it liberating and exciting to write ‘in all honesty’ – it’s the only way I know to bring my characters to life and (hopefully) make it feel like a true story. The author’s relationship with the text is a very mysterious and complicated one: you have to put so much of yourself into it but at the same time try not to get in the reader’s way.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes, because that’s entirely possible where characters exist in every dimension – as in real life, nobody is entirely good or bad and I always think the issue is less whether a character is ‘likeable’ but whether the reader finds them in any way empathetic or interesting, and obviously that will vary hugely from one person to the next so it’s not under my control. I wouldn’t choose to hang out with my character Geneviève, ‘friend’ of my narrator and mother of her lover (as I said, it’s pretty messy); Alexandra finds her superior, controlling and emotionally cold but over time, she gains some insight into what makes Geneviève tick and comes to understand and feel for her. As for Alexandra herself, I held out against pressure to ‘warm her up’, make her less difficult, damaged, compromised, etc. because I always believed readers would respond to her the way she is, without necessarily liking her or wanting to be her friend. (Although I do like her a lot.) The pressure to make female characters nice is something I feel a strong obligation to kick against – it’s sexist and patronising.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

Most of my fiction is set in big cities (to date, London, New York and Paris) so it would be unthinkable not to reflect their multi-culturalism – I’ve lived in London for over 25 years, my children have grown up here and one of the things I love most about it is that the whole world is on our doorstep. Paris Mon Amour includes Muslim characters of North African origin, sometimes in connection with difficult political or social issues, sometimes just going about their daily business like the ordinary French citizens they are. Portraying a wide spectrum in terms of sexuality and social class comes more naturally to me as the boundaries and definitions are more flexible and subjective.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

The Cape Peninsula near Cape Town in South Africa would be very high on my wish list – I was there last Christmas having first visited the area 16 years ago and often returned in my mind in between, especially during depressing British winters. I love long walks, stunning coastal scenery and fabulous weather, all of which I could enjoy from a verandah with an ocean view. Whether I would get any work done is another matter!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Despite my admiration for countless authors and their work, amazingly I have never had that thought. My favourite books couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

I get asked this a lot, so here goes: Be bold. Scare yourself. Touch a nerve.

It’s not advice, exactly, but last year I wrote this piece called Seven years to publication, seven things I’ve learned for Writers’ Workshop – it’s all the stuff that helped me keep going.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

The last four months have been very busy as I grappled with learning the workings of the publishing business to bring out Paris Mon Amour in paperback under my own imprint. It’s been too long since I’ve had the time for any actual writing but I’m really looking forward to starting on my next novel, also set in Paris, hopefully this summer. You’re going to have to be patient, I’m afraid!

Who is your favourite literary character and why?

It would have to be Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Emma exemplifies just about everything that fascinates me in literature and life itself. She is flawed, passionate, fragile, full of contradictions. There’s something so relatable about her desire for intensity; her creator was the first of many to think ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi…

Thank you to Literary Sofa for the review copy.

You can follow Isabel on Twitter here: @isabelcostello

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