California-born writer, journalist for TIME Magazine and France correspondent for The Irish Times, Lara Marlowe, talks to Orna Mulcahy
Lara Marlowe is a leading journalist on French politics and life, writing as France correspondent for The Irish Times where she has also worked as US Correspondent. Previously, the California-born writer spent 15 years as a journalist with TIME magazine, rising to the position of Bureau Chief in Beirut. Her 2013 book The Things I’ve Seen draws on her three decades as a foreign correspondent in war-ravaged countries from Afghanistan to Lebanon, to Yugoslavia and the Palestinian territories.
In 1988, Marlowe married the late Robert Fisk, a hugely influential Middle East journalist who she describes as the finest of his generation. For over a decade they worked together in war zones, surviving encounters with gunmen at checkpoints, sheltering together under bombardment in Beirut, Belgrade and Baghdad. When their marriage ended, Fisk divided his time between Beirut and Dalkey, while Marlowe settled in Paris, perfecting her French and immersing herself in the culture of the city, eventually becoming a French citizen in 2019. In 2006, Marlowe was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur for her contribution to Franco-Irish understanding. Marlowe continues to write about all aspects of French cultural and political life, and the things that bind Ireland to La Belle France. According to Marlowe, “Ireland needs France for its elegance, sophistication, perfectionism, wine and cuisine. The Bretons need Ireland as their Celtic mother country, and the rest of France needs Ireland to teach it simplicity, fraternity and the ability to smile through adversity.”
Marlowe’s feline companion of many years, Spike, died last year at almost 20 years of age. His life and antics had occasionally been mentioned in her Irish Times pieces, one of which was selected as Leaving Certificate English exam text. She has since become the owner of a Russian Blue kitten, Molly, who, like Marlowe, divides her time between Paris and Dublin.
ON MY NEIGHBOURHOOD I have spent most of the past quarter-century in the seventh arrondissement of Paris. It’s a quiet neighbourhood of government ministries, embassies, museums, 18th-century townhouses and 19th-century apartment buildings. I stop to look at Notre Dame and the Louvre when I take the footbridge across the Seine on early morning walks to the Tuileries. The people I encounter daily – my concierge, neighbours, the newspaper vendor, and shopkeepers – give my elegant district the feel of a friendly village.
ON HOME Home is where my friends, cat, books, and possessions are. My apartment is filled with carpets, inlaid furniture, mirrors, and lamps that I lugged back from Beirut, Damascus, Marrakech and Tehran. I found other treasures in the flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt, and in an antique shop in a village in eastern France where I visit friends several times a year. I can happily spend days at a time without going out, especially in winter. Mentally, the English and French languages are my home.
ON MY DESK I bought my scratched old walnut desk with brass pulls on the drawers and a leather top at the flea market in Basta, Beirut, in the 1990s. It faces a window looking due west, over the garden of a government ministry. As I write this, the leaves are turning on the six-storey- high chestnut trees. In winter, I’ll see the top of the Eiffel Tower through the bare branches. In spring, I’ll watch the leaves bud, then turn into a wall of green. A painting to the left of my desk, by the father of a close friend, reminds me of my origins. It shows Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty under construction, surrounded by scaffolding and rising up over the rue de Chazelles, where I lived when I landed my first job in Paris after university. To the right of my desk is a cat tree where Molly, my Russian Blue kitten, plays and sleeps while I am working.
ON ROOTS I am a distillation of European emigration to the US, including an Irish great grandmother called Callie Hurney. My ancestors kept moving until they reached California, which is where I grew up. But those roots have become distended as I’ve advanced in life. I set down new roots, in France and Ireland, and in the middle eastern countries where I lived and worked. People take me for a foreigner everywhere I go, including in the US. I feel foreign everywhere. I suspect that is a good thing for an aspiring writer.
ON WRITING Thomas Mann said writers were people for whom writing is harder than it is for everyone else. I have always been in awe of “real” writers and would feel pretentious to count myself among them. In fortuitous moments, ideas and phrases rush into my mind in such rapid succession that I race to write them down before they escape me. At other times, I am tormented by the blank page and procrastinate. Michel Déon, who died in Galway five years ago at the age of 97, told me he put off writing not out of fear, but to prolong the anticipation of an act he considered a pleasure to be savoured.
ON LOVE IN A TIME OF WAR This book, a memoir of my late former husband, the British journalist Robert Fisk, has been the focus of my existence since Robert died unexpectedly on October 30, 2020. The Irish book distributor Simon Hess read a piece that I wrote about Robert in The Irish Times and contacted my agent, Jonathan Williams, and Neil Belton, the Irish publisher at Head of Zeus in London. They asked me to write a book based on that article. I initially declined, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I took three and a half months off work and shipped 50 kilos of archives to Howth, including Robert’s letters and books and my articles and diaries from the years we were together. Robert and I had been divorced for eleven years when he died, but those documents were incredibly evocative. I sorted everything into chronological order and gradually reconstructed 20 years of my life, starting with our first meeting in Damascus in 1983 and our four-year courtship, during which I made the mistake of marrying someone else. I recount living in Beirut with Robert during the last years of the Lebanese civil war and the hostage crisis, reporting trips to revolutionary Iran, the Islamist revolt in Algeria, the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars – all this against the backdrop of our romance and eventual breakup. Despite the sadness, the experience left me with renewed appreciation for Robert’s genius as a journalist, and gratitude for having known him.
ON WHAT’S NEXT Now that the book is out, I must concentrate on my day job. I look forward to covering the French presidency of the EU, and especially the French presidential election campaign between now and next April. After that, I dream of writing a historical novel, set in 19th-century Paris …
In conversation with Orna Mulcahy. Love in a Time of War, My Years with Robert Fisk, is published by Head of Zeus, €22.
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