As we’ve announced, and as you very well may have heard elsewhere, Alyssa Harad has just published a memoir titled Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride (and if you missed it, see the excerpt we posted yesterday). It’s a highly readable and moving account of the year in which Alyssa married her longtime beau and developed an obsessive interest in perfume, and a meditation on the ways that those two turning points brought her to think differently about her own identity as a woman and a writer.
Since I consider Alyssa a friend and we all know her as a Now Smell This contributor, I’ll be having an e-mail “question and answer” conversation with her rather than writing a traditional book review.
Alyssa will be checking in throughout the day, so if you have a question or comment of your own, please do share it.
Jessica: On a personal note, I completely empathized with the early chapters of your book, in which you recall your graduate education and the reasons that perfume would have been viewed with distrust as a “romantic distraction” in that world. I understand that experience all too well, having tried to suppress my love for fashion and perfume and cosmetics during my own long grad-school career! Do you think there’s some shared sensibility that accounts for all the academics-turned-scent-obsessives in the online fragrance-world, or is it just coincidence or the law of averages?
Alyssa: I’ve noticed there are not only a lot of former (and current) academics in the perfume blogosphere, but plenty of writers, librarians, curators, and scientists, too. The book polls on Now Smell This also suggest that perfumistas in general are big readers. It’s possible that perfume provides a counterpoint for people who live in their heads, but I’d guess it’s just as true that many of us who become truly obsessed with perfume have a taste for research and exploration. We’re OK with learning a lot of new words and not understanding everything right away, and we like describing and categorizing things. We love the arcana of perfume, the sense of an ever-expanding subject. We are nerdy, intellectual sensualists. I’ve always been thrilled by the interdisciplinary nature of perfume — the way it refuses to respect the boundaries between science, art, history, psychology and commerce. And I love the sense of discovering all that magic at the beauty counter, a place I’d been taught to view with great suspicion.
Jessica: When you made that transition from scholarship and teaching to your writing for Perfume Smellin’ Things and Now Smell This, did you find that your background was ever a help or a hindrance to your new work, and why?
Alyssa: Both! I had to do a lot of unlearning. I’m still not very good at writing a pithy blog post. I digress, I bring up too much background information, I try to stuff in too many ideas. I learned a great deal from reading the blogs about how to communicate directly with an audience and how vitally important it is to me to be able to imagine I’m speaking to someone. The whole time I’m writing, I’m always speaking out loud to someone, or a group of someones — leaning in, trying to get a little closer. But all my teaching experience has served me in good stead. Standing in front of a classroom, leading a workshop, answering comments — all these things feel very similar to me.
Jessica: I especially enjoyed reading about your fragrance-pilgrimage travels to New York, since you allowed me to “visit” my own city through your eyes. Even now, I still have those magical moments of discovery (and self-discovery) in NYC. What do you think makes New York such a likely place for that kind of experience?
Alyssa: I’m so pleased my descriptions made sense to a New Yorker. As someone accustomed to urban sprawl, a big part of what makes Manhattan magical to me is that so many different kinds of people and neighborhoods are crammed into such a tiny, walkable space. I love the everyday street theater of New York. Also, I’m a talker and New York is a whole city of talkers — everyone knows how to pick up a line, join in the patter. So in spite of the fact that there are many closed, secret spaces in the city there’s also a tremendous openness, a sense of being in the mix. Of course, it helps that I’m an out-of-towner with a wide-open face and time enough to listen to everyone’s jokes and stories and advice. Part of why I can never permanently move to the city is that I don’t want to lose that newness.
Jessica: One of your advance reviewers, Michael Sims, describes your book as having “a novelistic parade of quirky characters,” and I agree. Can you share any particular event or character that didn’t make their way into the final manuscript?
Alyssa: Ha! Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? I can’t think of a person I cut, but I certainly left out a lot of details. I really love all the people who appear in the book and I wanted to respect their privacy and complexity. And one or two of the people I describe were so wonderfully unique that I had to tone them down a bit to make them more believable!
Jessica: As a person obsessed with images as well as smells, I need to ask: can you tell us a little more about the fantastic cover design for “Coming to My Senses”? What did you hope for? What did you possibly fear? And what was your reaction to the final design?
Alyssa: I got very, very lucky with my cover, especially as a first-time unknown author. I originally submitted a lot of lush, art deco-style images, including many illustrated vintage perfume ads. I would have been perfectly happy with that style, but the art director at Viking felt very inspired by the title and hired illustrator and typographer Si Scott to create the gorgeous Puccini-meets-Aubrey-Beardsley hand drawn font on the cover. It doesn’t look like anything else out there, because it’s the product of a single vision rather than a committee. At first I worried a little bit about the bravery of that move — would people still understand what kind of book it was? — but now I love it. And how could I not be incredibly flattered and gratified that an art director liked my title?
Jessica: A high point of the book is your recollection of your bridal shower, at which you reunite with your mother and all the honorary “aunts” who watched you grow up. What advice would you offer to young women of the next generation about defining and inhabiting their own femininity? What perfumes would you most like to share with them, despite potential discontinuation and reformulation, across time?
Alyssa: Well, I think one of the most difficult things about femininity is that each generation — each woman, really — has to figure it out for herself. I feel the same way about feminism. We don’t advance forward in an orderly, ever-more-progressive way. We’re always losing our stories and having to look for them or make them up all over again. So giving advice is tough. But I know one of the things that was most important for me was figuring out how to understand the strengths and challenges of previous generations. I had to realize I wasn’t a new thing — I think a lot of us feel we are brand-new and unique in our early twenties. That’s why I talk a lot about the character of vintage perfumes in the book — the warmth and grandeur of Mitsouko, the over-the-top femininity of Fracas, the whip-cracking power of Bandit. It took me a long time to understand those kinds of perfumes, but they’re worth learning to love, or at least admire.
Jessica: Thinking of perfume as a scented passport, where do you hope it will bring you next?
Alyssa: This whole thing has been such a huge surprise to me — from discovering perfume all the way through publishing the book — that I don’t really know what’s going to happen next. I can only hope that perfume will keep on reminding me, daily, of all the beauty and I’ve found over the past six years, and of how much there is yet to discover.
Many thanks to Alyssa for her time and thoughts. You can find out more about “Coming to My Senses” and its publication events on Alyssa’s website.