Jane Rusbridge Author of The Devils Music and Rook

PIECE on PLACE: A City Through Different Eyes, with Isabel Costello

This month I’m delighted to welcome Isabel Costello as my third guest writer to share a PIECE on PLACE. 

Isabel can often be found on the Literary Sofa interviewing authors & reviewing books. Her debut novel, currently on submission to publishers, is partly set in Brooklyn and Isabel tells me she is drawn to cities. Here, with perfect timing for spring, Isabel takes us to Paris where she leads us off the tourist track to point out the sights and sounds which trigger her imagination:

‘Despite my rural upbringing – or maybe because of it – as an adult I quickly turned into a big city person.  I’ve now lived in London for more than half my life and also have a great love of Berlin, Paris and New York, which appears in my first novel in the form of 1970s Brooklyn.

I’d like to write a book set in Paris. When I was there recently seeing it in that context for the first time I realised that the way I relate to cities feeds directly into the way I write about them.  I hate pollution, crime and overcrowded transport as much as the next person but I actually relish other things which many dislike: the frantic pace, the anonymity and barely suppressed chaos.  I enjoy being surrounded by the faces and voices of people from all over the world (a different cultural mix wherever you go), that sense of millions of lives glancing off each other: of randomness, of possibility.

When setting a story in a place like Paris which has such a strong hold on the popular imagination a fresh slant is a must.  I’m immensely susceptible to the beauty of cities but I have a compulsion to seek out the ‘other side’ and often find something there which touches me just as much, if not more.

My sons are resigned to this, knowing that at some point on a trip I will drag them to an obscure or gritty neighbourhood and start taking pictures of grafitti, derelict buildings and overflowing dustbins.  This time we walked along the Canal St Martin deep into the 19th arondissement where we ate at a cheap Vietnamese buffet alongside workers on their lunchbreak.  Later the same day we crossed the city to stroll along the only currently accessible stretch of the Petite Ceinture Verte in the 15th, a disused circular railway which is being rehabilitated as a walking trail, offering a new perspective above street level.

Unsurprisingly, I enjoy reading novels set in cities but regardless of the location, a book with a strong sense of place is one which couldn’t be set anywhere else.  I think the key is to see it through the characters’ eyes, to convey the way they experience it and for that to be intrinsic to who they are and whatever they are going through.

What really fascinates me is how people live in cities which is why I avoid hotels wherever possible and rent a flat to help me get a feel for the everyday (and save money).  As I stood on my tiny balcony looking down a narrow street in the Marais at night, I knew there was a strong chance that I was being observed myself from one of the rooftop mansard windows opposite.

Compared to London, Paris isn’t that big and can mostly be navigated on foot, which is ideal for picking up on the subtle (or not) contrasts between neighbourhoods.  If I do take the Metro or bus, instead of reading, I watch, listen and ‘record’.  The photos here wouldn’t win any prizes but they serve as a visual reminder of colour, texture, shape, shadow – all the little touches which can light up a description and transport me from my north London desk in an instant.

I relish the legwork of on-site research (it would be beyond me to set a novel in a place I’d never been) and like most writers I am an inveterate people-watcher, but watching is not enough.  The research I enjoy most is anecdotal – talking to people who really know Brooklyn and Paris, who belong to various communities and can give me the inside angle.  I’ll be doing more of this when I go back in June – I seem to be incredibly lucky when it comes to enlisting friendly and helpful experts.  Already I’m discovering facets of Paris and France previously hidden to me, and that’s exciting.

There’s an expression in French which I first saw daubed on a wall as a teenager:  La vie est ailleurs.  It has all kinds of socio-political connotations, but I like it taken literally:  life is elsewhere.

Life is everywhere of course, but it’s cities which have given me an awareness of how complex, intense and beautiful it can be.’

Thank you, Isabel, for sharing your fascinations and for drawing our attention away from tourist attractions towards the way the pulse of a city is driven by the comings and goings of people, what they eat and drink and where they sleep or work. Plus, I just love the texture in that final photograph – that’s an image which takes me right there!


Isabel Costello is represented by Diana Beaumont of the Rupert Heath Literary Agency. 


Posted in General | Written By March 21, 2014