I was fortunate enough to read a preview copy of M. J. Rose's gorgeous new novel, The Collector of Dying Breaths, and was so sad when I ran out of pages. Here, M. J. sits down with me and discusses the specific process of writing this book and answers more general questions about writing.
SG: Can I just say what a joy it was to read your book, and that it was a wonderful coincidence that I did so in a 15th century villa less than an hour from Florence? How did you manage to produce such vivid descriptions of the past in your novel?
MJR: It’s a challenge. I spend a lot of time reading art books, studying antique maps and prints, and wandering in museums looking at paintings created during the time period I write about. I also do pretty exhaustive searches looking for and then reading diaries and letters written by people during the years when the novel is set.
I also have some fairly esoteric rituals. I write my first drafts in longhand with an antique fountain pen and a green ink. I used a particular kind of lined journal that’s been made the same way for over 100 years. I don’t use electric light, and if I can’t write in natural light, I actually light candles and burn old incense.
And lastly, for each novel, I find a talisman from the period that I wear when writing. For Collector, it a was man’s silver and amethyst ring that I found in an antique store that in my imagination was a gift Catherine de Medici gave René le Florentin, her perfumer and the man who created poisons for her to use on her enemies.
SG: As you so passionately show, sometimes there’s only a fine line between potion and poison. Were you also trying to show that there is the same kind of fine line in the emotions felt between brothers and sisters and between lovers who endure through time?
MJR: I wasn’t focused on either of those themes consciously, but it is the fine lines that are the most interesting in life, aren’t they? One of the amazing things I learned about perfumes and poisons is how little it can take to turn a perfume or herbal remedy into a poison…one extra drop of an extract or of crushed seeds can make a lovely tincture a deadly draught.
I think it’s the same way with people. We have to be careful of how we treat each other. Our emotions swing wildly during the course of a relationship…and it’s in the balance that we find our footing.
SG: You had me guessing the whole time…to the very end! Do you have a method for creating that kind of suspense?
MJR: I wish I did because each book might be a bit easier to write. When I start a book I know the beginning of the story, and five or six beats along the way and I know the very end. But I never know how I am going to make the journey, and so as I write I’m actually challenging and surprising myself.
SG: How did you become interested in writing a novel about the idea of capturing someone’s “dying breath?” Where did that concept come from?
MJR: I was doing research on another book and learned that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who both believed in reincarnation, supported the idea that in death, the soul leaves the body with its last breath. Edison’s dying breath, collected by his son, Charles, is in fact on display at the Edison Winter Home in Fort Myers, Florida. I was totally taken with the idea of our souls being expelled in that last breath, and it became the basis of the novel.
SG: Your ability to convey the scents you write about was masterful. I truly was smelling while reading. Have you ever made perfume? Where did your interest in the subject come from?
MJR: I first experimented with making perfume when I was eight years old and read about the process in a book that described mixing flower extracts with alcohol. So I took what I found around the apartment — my mother’s rose and lavender potpourri—added some dried eucalypts leaves since I liked their scent, and then filled up the bowl with vodka (which I took from the liquor cabinet). It smelled horrific, but I fell in love with the idea of being a perfumer.
About twenty years later, I was working in advertising—aka Mad Men land--and was assigned to a fragrance launch, from the very first days of naming it through the TV commercials we shot in Hong Kong and edited at the Lucas Ranch. It was a 40 million dollar launch that culminated with the spots running on the Oscars. During that time, I became re-intrigued and besotted with everything about the 8th art, as fragrance is called, and it’s a passion that’s never left.
SG: You and I have talked about empathy–how important do you think it is to be an empath while a writing a novel. How much more complicated does that make your life?
MJR: I think being empathetic helps enormously, especially in creating full characters. A character shouldn’t be all good or all bad – that makes him or her predictable and boring. Take the character who has just stolen a loaf of bread…. Jean Valjean is a criminal who belongs in jail until you learn he took it to feed his sister’s seven starving children. The minute the reader learns that and empathizes, they are emotionally engaged. That’s when a novel delivers and satisfies the reader (the ways yours always do).
SG: Satisfaction…yes…that’s hard to do without using clichés and being predictable. But I thought you pulled off the “happily ever after” in such a wonderful way.
MJR: Coming from you, I’m especially honored to hear that. I was very worried about giving my characters a HEA; most of my other novels have slightly more ambiguous endings. But these characters created their ending…they just let me in on it so I could write it down.
“What can I say; M.J. Rose has done it again. She presents a story so intricate and mesmerizing that the reader can get lost in the pages…an excellent choice for avid book clubbers to discuss and debate.” (Free Lance-Star)
"Rose’s latest venture into myth and reality is a page-turning, alluring concoction of fiction infused with fantastical yet actual history. Readers will be charmed by her well-drawn and memorable characters, and they will be mesmerized by her enchanting narrative, which takes them on a mystical and magical journey." (Library Journal (starred))
"Crisp, evocative prose elevates this above other paranormal thrillers." (Publishers Weekly)
“A suspenseful and enigmatic story, with gripping historical details and the paranormal subtext Rose has become famous for, which will please her many fans.” (Kirkus )
"Rose masterfully combines romance, mystery, and dual timelines…The storyline and extensive historical details…are fascinating.” (Romantic Times (FOUR-AND-A-HALF STARS TOP PICK))
"Wondrously original... elegantly written. Rose manages to utterly suspend our disbelief in a book that leaves us, appropriately enough, breathless." (Providence Journal)