Scent/ Isabel Costello/ Muswell Press/ April 2021
Paris or Provence? Why? And what specific location embodies the character of that place for you?
I love both places with such a passion I hope never to have to choose. Paris has played the larger part in my life, and for longer. It’s grabbed me by the heart and soul since my late teens – there’s a version of me that only exists in France (and French) and I’ve experienced a lot of things seen as typically French there: joie de vivre, existential crises, sleeping with the wrong people, etc. Although I love the river, I’d have to say the 6th arrondissement and especially the Jardin du Luxembourg – the geographic centre of Scent. Having said all that, if I had to choose, Provence would win. I crave sunshine, blue sky and the sea.
Forewords, dedications, quotations – these details always hold great fascination for me. In Paris Mon Amour you use a quotation from Charles Baudelaire; in Scent, Victor Hugo. What led you to use these quotations/authors in each novel? Are they an afterthought or a starting point?
Actually, they are neither, but both epigraphs encapsulate the essence of the novel in one line or I would not have included them. When I was editing Scent last summer several things struck me differently, and I think the epigraph from Victor Hugo: ‘For the greatest burden is to exist without living’ – has acquired an extra layer of resonance now we all know how that feels.
Your novels have quite a focus on the international nature of families and business. Although this is certainly the case for a lot of modern families, a reader suspects there is a more personal authorial stamp here that lends an extra authority and connection. I very much see this as part of an Isabel Costello marker when recommending your work to a potential reader. Given the ongoing pandemic and what will inevitably be a prolonged aftermath of recovery, how do you see the international nature of family/work dynamics in your next work? Will you incorporate anything to do with the pandemic?
That’s an emphatic no! I do not want to be reminded of this time either by reading or writing about it. Apart from anything else, unless it’s the specific focus, pandemic logistics would just get in the way of story. I’ve not found it necessary to specify which year my novels are set (2014 and 2018, if anyone’s interested), although there are references readers could pick up on. I’m sure any novel of mine would have the international angles you mention simply because this interests me.
Translated phrases and foreign language in English text often have a tendency to appear and be heard as rather clipped and abrupt. Your approach to this problem leaves a more natural flow on the page. Translators are, in my view, the royalty of writers. What is your relationship/history with languages other than English?
There is quite a lot of French in the text but considerably less than before my wonderful editor Sarah got her hands on it – as most of the characters are French in this novel, that’s how I heard the dialogue in my head and often how it landed on the page. French has been part of my life from an early age – my late mother was a French teacher and I’ve spent at least five years there if you add it all up – in normal times I spend 4-6 weeks a year in France. I’m not bilingual but I can rattle away nineteen to the dozen. I read French and German at university and have since learned Spanish to a reasonable standard. It’s a beautiful language which I find easy for its similarity to French. When things calm down I’d like to brush up on it as I would like to do some volunteer work in a Spanish-speaking country one day.
The details of perfume creation are far too meticulous to be merely the product of research. Would you like to reveal your relationship with perfume?
That’s very pleasing to hear, thank you! I did do a lot of perfumery research but you’re right there’s more to it. I have a very acute sense of smell and am a professionally qualified aromatherapist. I was always more drawn to the creative side than the therapeutic, and love coming up with my own blends. Discovering the overlaps and striking differences between the two fields was fascinating. I then had to work on getting the balance right from the reader’s point of view: not too technical, not too sketchy. It helped that it’s a first person narrative, so Clémentine isn’t going to be explaining it to herself!
Structurally, Scent is more complex and less linear than Paris Mon Amour. Flashbacks to 1990’s Provence from present day Paris provide a textured depth to the narrative, not unlike the development of a perfume as it is inhaled. Do you think this is a natural progression in your writing career or is it just the way the story unfolded this time? Or perhaps a combination of both?
It may surprise you to hear that the first novel I ever wrote, which my agent signed me for back in 2014, also had this more complex timeline. (It didn’t get published but I am still hopeful that it will.) I do hold with the adage that ‘nothing is ever wasted’ in writing; put simply, that experience taught me how to write a novel. Baptism of fire also comes to mind – it’s not in my nature to do anything by halves. With Scent, it was an intuitive choice to have two timelines, because Clémentine’s complicated entanglements with Racha and Ludo aged twenty are so intrinsic to the way her life has panned out – when the two women meet again they are 46.
You cover a lot of ground in your writing, whether it’s about age gap relationships, racism, health, sexual awakening, disappointment, fulfilment… These issues are all given an importance and a certain amount of space for the reader to connect with them. Relevant issues, yet not forced in the text. Is there any topic/issue you wouldn’t approach in your work?
I’m not a fast writer and I find myself living with the story around the clock, which means I choose to explore subjects which really interest me and want an excuse to think and learn more about. With Scent, this included the history of France and Algeria; female sexuality in addition to perfumery. In both novels I engage with dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships and with grief, which are painful but bearable, and have led me to a greater understanding of these in my own life. Topics I would absolutely avoid are dementia and child abuse, and any topic I felt personally unqualified to tackle – I need to write from a place of conviction.
Along with the publication of Scent, a re-issue of PMA is coming out. Any comments on the publishing journey you’ve had so far?
What can I say? It’s been heaven, it’s been hell. It’s been worth it.
As founder and reviewer at the marvellous Literary Sofa, you have come across a wide range of books and authors. How do you think reading as a reviewer has shaped your own fiction, your own approach to writing?
Reading great work by other writers is undoubtedly a huge inspiration for me. I’m conscious of a desire to connect with the reader in the way that other people’s novels have moved, entertained and consoled me. More than anything, I think immersing myself in fiction has raised the bar on the writing itself; there’s nothing more exciting than opening a book and getting that back of neck tingle when you instantly realise the author knows what they’re doing.
Full disclosure – I’ve read a lot of sex scenes in my time. It is a fine art getting the correct balance of sex and emotion across to a reader. You achieve a carnal delicacy that feels entirely appropriate to each character, whether male or female. Initially, did you set out to delve into these moments of eroticism? Or did events simply take over?
Since relationships – conventional and otherwise – are at the core of my writing, I can’t imagine not including sex scenes. I don’t really get why it’s such a hang-up in the anglophone world – I’m an adult and so is the reader. I’m of the ‘either go there or don’t’ school of thought; I’d rather read a filthy sex scene any day than an awkward one stuffed with dreadful metaphors. Reading first person testimony was a big breakthrough for me, when I realised that the way other women think about sex was far more carnal, as you put it, than is generally portrayed. I could afford to be direct and realistic and hope this would be relatable. (You would not believe how many comments I’ve had about Alexandra wiping the sofa down in Paris Mon Amour!)
As an author, are you afraid of being labelled in a particular genre or style?
Ha, really not! I’ve been called all kinds of things.
What’s next? Will future work feature any of the surroundings or characters or countries we’ve already met in Paris Mon Amour and Scent? (A special plea for the return of the inimitable purple-talon-ed Suzanne who features in both Paris Mon Amour and Scent.)
I’d rate both Provence and Suzanne’s chances of reappearing – I brought her back as a main character in Scent by popular demand – as Clémentine says, ‘Suzanne pushes everyone’s buttons one way or another’. We still don’t know what happened to her during that gap on her non-existent CV…
Perfume-related books I can think of are: Perfume (Patrick Süskind), Perfumes (Luca Turin, Tania Sanchez), A Rose Petal Summer (Katie Fforde). And now Scent! Is there any perfume related fiction/non-fiction that you would recommend?
Perfume – A Century of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom and Journal d’un parfumeur by Jean-Claude Ellena of Hermès. But you beat me to it with the go-to Turin/Sanchez bible.
In the Walter Presents/Hollywood adaptation of Scent, who are your leading cast members?
I’ve got as far as Sophie Marceau as both young and current Clémentine, the broadcaster Laurent Delahousse as her husband Édouard, American model Ezra Miller as their son Bastien, Hafsia Herzi as the young Racha and Brazilian model Rodrigo Guirao Diaz as Ludo. If you want the optics, here’s my Pinterest board.
En fin, as one perfume lover to another, what would be an Isabel Costello signature scent?
It already exists! I made my own fragrance Paris Mon Amour at the fabulous Experimental Perfume Club in the course of my research. It’s nothing like my usual citrusy style (I love Eau d’Hadrien by Annick Goutal and Eau de Citron Noir by Hermès) – instead it’s quite sexy and feminine, with rose, jasmine, neroli, sandalwood and several of the synthetics I learned a lot about during my research, including leather. I love wearing it and get lots of compliments – I should send you a scented Thank you for having me note.
Many thanks for conversing, Isabel CostelloThe Librocubicularist
Isabel Costello’s first novel, Paris Mon Amour, was published to great acclaim in 2016 and her short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. She has run the Literary Sofa blog since 2011 and co-founded the Resilience for Writers project.