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Places, Writers on Location, Writing

A Week in Marseille

I’ve recently returned from a glorious week in Marseille staying with my lifelong friend G, the younger daughter of my French godmother (my own French story is here, and it’s a long one…)  This isn’t a full-on travel post as it wasn’t a holiday as such, although you could be forgiven for thinking so – the weather was incredible. The deal G and I struck and miraculously stuck to, was that I would work on my first draft for several hours a day – that’s as much as I ever manage in this phase where everything has to be prised out of my head, although later I can edit for 8 or 10 hours.  I used to find it impossible to work away from home but over the last year, due to noisy neighbours and an escalation in the incessant building work in the area, I’ve got used to working on trains, planes and in a local library.  Having experienced the view from G’s terrace 18 months ago, I thought I could probably hack it, and the formula worked so well, it could become a habit…

There’s more to life than writing, fortunately, and there’s a lot more to a novel than the hours hunched over a laptop.  G and I have seen each other often over the years but we hadn’t spent any length of time together since we were teenagers.  One of my recurrent themes, particularly in the WIP, is how, as humans moving through life, we both are and aren’t the same people we used to be.  There’s mileage in this, as per my long conversations with G, in which we talked about everything (and I mean everything).  Speaking and laughing French for a week always ‘changes my ideas’, as they say over there.  I’ve been lucky to meet many wonderful people over the years, and particularly through writing, but there’s something priceless about close friendships which have lasted decades, or in the case of our families, generations.

Everyone knows I have a major thing for Paris, but over the last 20 years it’s Provence which has developed the strongest pull on me – and my husband, for whom it’s ideal cycling terrain.  I hope it will be home at some point in the not too distant future (thanks to my Irish passport, in case you’re wondering – if there’s one thing I really don’t enjoy about overseas travel, it’s being asked what I think about Brexit, or worse, why is it happening? Isn’t it going to…?  YES *pours half a pint of rosé*)

Part of my new book is set in the Lubéron, inland from Marseille, a beautiful rural area I know very well, but there is a Marseille angle too.  It may not be a major strand but I take my homework concerning real places seriously. I’ve been reading non-fiction about France’s notoriously complicated and divided second city (Journalist Philippe Pujol’s La Fabrique du Monstre, on the northern quartiers is excellent) and, less seriously, devouring the TV series Marseille, starring Gérard Depardieu as its mayor, on Netflix.  It’s trashy as anything and there’s a ludicrous amount of gratuitous sex in the first series (what is it about balconies?), but whilst it’s no Borgen, it’s very entertaining with lots of gorgeous panoramic shots.

Because as you can see, there’s no substitute for being there and this is the kind of research I like best, seeing for myself (I’d only ever visited briefly before) and talking to people who know it ‘in real life’.  I met several of G’s friends, spent a lot of time listening to them, asking questions, soaking up impressions from our trips around the city and beyond to Cassis and the Calanques (fjords). It was noticeable how often I heard, in a tone of affectionate resignation, ‘Ah, but this is Marseille…’ I haven’t been many places where guarding against crime (or committing it, I guess) is such an intrinsic part of the mentality and yet clearly for many this is a great place to live.  It’s far less uptight than Paris, has better weather and whilst it’s less high-culture, there’s loads happening.  On Friday night we went to a brilliant U2 Tribute gig by a band called Dust, playing to a big crowd of people our age – those earlier versions are still in there! But best of all, this is the third novel I’ve written and the first in which I’ve experienced the crucial ‘Fuck it’ moment this early on (with Paris Mon Amour it only happened in the final draft when I thought nobody was going to publish it) and I have Marseille and my beloved friend G to thank for that.


No post next week as I have absolutely  GOT to get on with the book and hopefully you will be busy doing lovely things over the long weekend/holidays.  More great guest posts from my Spring Sofa Spotlight authors coming soon.


About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


2 thoughts on “A Week in Marseille

  1. Read this piece with a mixture of joy and let’s be honest, envy. Joy that it is possible to write in place of beauty (and the photos proved it) so congratulations on that. And envy that you were there and not I!

    Posted by Pamela Holmes | March 27, 2018, 14:42
  2. Love the photos of the turquoise and dark blue sea!

    Posted by shanghaiskies | March 28, 2018, 02:22

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