Author One-on-One: Katherine Neville and M.J. Rose
NYT Bestseller Katherine Neville interviews M.J. Rose about The Book of Lost Frangrances.
Katherine Neville: I have to confess that part of why I was so drawn to The Book of Lost Frangrances is that you and I share a fascination with telling stories that interweave multiple themes--romance, history, science, esoteric, mystery, etc. What do you feel is the challenge and great payoff of stepping off the edge like that?
M.J. Rose: I think it's the ultimate challenge of any book, really--to make every one of those themes and elements you describe strike notes that feel true and surprising and human. But I guess the added challenge--and also the reward, if you've done it right--of 'stepping off the edge' with all those pieces in play is the hope that the notes work together to form a rich and resonant and emotionally satisfying chord by the time the book's done. Even though this is a suspense novel, a lot of my friends have told me that the ending of The Book of Lost Frangrances made them cry--to me that's the ultimate compliment!
Katherine Neville: It's often said that our sense of smell is our earliest memory. The earliest smell I could recall was ice on the branch of a tree, which may explain why I've always been captivated by stories like Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen and the snow scenes and music in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite.
Tell me about your own earliest recollections of scent, and how perhaps they motivated you to write The Book of Lost Fragrances?
M.J. Rose: My mother wore only one perfume her whole life, Shalimar. And that fragrance, and the way it embodied my mother, figures in so many of my earliest memories. I was a very shy child, and when I first started school I always had a hard time when she got ready to leave. We had a routine. I'd cry. She'd take a handkerchief out of her pocketbook and give it to me to dry my tears. And then she'd go. But I'd still have that fragrant handkerchief. And I could still smell her. I suppose it felt that, as long as I had something that smelled of her, she was never too far away, and would always come back.
Despite the fact that my books are labeled suspense, at heart I think I'm a very emotional writer. I think there's magic in how something as simple as my mother's perfume on a white linen cloth could give me so much comfort. I believe you find a character's heart when you discover what sight or sound or smell or taste moves them, or frightens them or makes them feel safe in the dark.
Katherine Neville: You and I both write what might be called Quest novels: the quest being the earliest tradition of literature. But in our books, instead of Parsifal questing after the Holy Grail or Jason seeking the Golden Fleece, or even Indiana Jones looking for the Lost Ark - we have female protagonists who are hunting for a mysterious object of universal power.
What do you feel are the drawbacks, the difficulties, or ultimately the advantages, of having a female protagonist in what was traditionally, until very recently, a "male genre?"
M.J. Rose: I'm not sure it ever occurred to me that I was challenging the status quo, to be honest! For instance, in this book, it seemed totally natural that Jac L'Etoile would take up the search for a 2000 year old fragrance and have as great a chance of finding her holy grail as her brother or any man would.
From first to twelfth grade I went to an all girl's school. When there are no boys around it's very liberating. It's never about "only boys should do this" or "only girls should do this." Instead it's just, what are you interested in, what do you care about? So when I started writing I never questioned the role I was assigning to my female protagonist--I wish I could say I was taking a stand, but really it just felt very natural to me.
Katherine Neville: On a more personal level, PERFUME: I cannot wear it because it "pops" on me about 3:00 in the afternoon. However, I collect it because I love the aromas, and I have my favorites that I love to smell, for various reasons. I have a collection, each reminds me of different phases of my life...
What are your favorites? Do you wear them or keep them to relish privately? How does your relationship with these scents connect with Jac, the protagonist in the new book, and the way her 'destiny' plays itself out in the course of the story?
M.J. Rose: Many of my favorites are vintage scents that are no longer available but of those that are, I'm partial to Vol de Nuit by Guerlain, Citrine by Olivier Durbano, Coromandel by Chanel, Musc Ravageur by Frederic Malle... But the one that's become the most special for me is Âmes Soeurs, which translates as 'the Scent of Soulmates.' It was created by the amazing Frederick Bouchardy of Joya Studios and was actually inspired by this novel!
Jac wouldn't exist if not for my love of scent, and (to go back to that idea of "quest" you mentioned earlier) a search I started about ten years ago to find my own "signature scent." This led me deep into the fascinating world of fragrances, how they're created, and I became obsessed with the idea of a woman so attuned to scent that she could be haunted by it.