Coming to My Senses ~ Q & A with Alyssa Harad

Coming to My Senses by Alyssa HaradAlyssa Harad

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

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  1. Robin says:

    A reader from yesterday’s excerpt wants to know if the book will be published in Europe?

    • alyssa says:

      Right now the book is out in Canada and the U.S. I have my fingers crossed for Europe and the rest of the world–partly it depends on how well the book does here.

      • Robin says:

        Thanks Alyssa!

      • lynnbee says:

        Alyssa, I’m in Canada and just got your book today. I’m so excited to read it! Congratulations on getting this book published!

    • tulp says:

      Thank you Robin and Alyssa!

  2. maggiecat says:

    Congratulations, Alyssa, and I’m looking forward to reading your book!

  3. Mpuff says:

    Congrats Alyssa! I look forward to reading your book!!

  4. FragrantWitch says:

    I can’t wait to read your book, Alyssa! I’ve ordered a copy to be sent to my mom in the States so she can send it along to me here in England. That is of course if she doesn’t nab it for herself!

    • alyssa says:

      Ha! Well, if she does perhaps she’ll send some perfume with the second copy. :-) Does your mom understand and support your perfume life?

      • FragrantWitch says:

        For the most part, yes. Thinks the bottles and samples are a bit OTT but understands the love behind them. She herself is more a signature fragrance person, choosing KL (original with the grey cap) and Opium.

        • alyssa says:

          I don’t know how old you are, but I find the Signature Scent idea is partly generational. The era of big classics and fewer releases lent itself to loyalty.

  5. missie sue says:

    I love hearing the details about your book’s beautiful cover. As a design junkie, I feel like that extra bit of gorgeous makes it even more of a treasure.

    • alyssa says:

      Thanks, Missie Sue. I love knowing the name of the person who did the design. Most authors don’t get that level of detail.

  6. annemarie says:

    Alyssa, I think you have completely nailed it with your remarks about why university trained professional people are attracted to perfume. I love the sense of the ever-expanding subject too.

    I don’t do any formal categorisation of my perfumes myself, although I know many people love their charts and spreadsheets. I have enough of that at work. Perfume is my escape, actually, my chance to dream. It’s great to be able to say to myself: ‘I like this. I don’t have to explain why or justify my choice. I don;t have to measure it against formal criteria. I just LIKE it. Okay? Okay.’

    • alyssa says:

      Oh, yes! I feel that way, too, but I had to sort of train myself up into not justifying my opinion. I still have trouble with that sometimes.

      I don’t do any formal spreadsheets, but I do enjoy learning about different fragrance families, historical lineage, the ever evolving category of “chypre,” that kind of thing.

  7. poodle says:

    Congrats on your book! I always admire anyone who can actually write a book and do it well.

    • alyssa says:

      Thank you! I think I have even more admiration for good books and talented authors now that I’ve taken a run at it myself.

  8. Kiliwia says:

    Congratulations on your book! I just bought it this morning and look forward to reading it.

  9. dolcesarah says:

    What perfume did you wear your wedding day?

    • alyssa says:

      I tell you in the book, so I think I will let you find out… :-)

  10. bluepinegrove says:

    Alyssa, I loved your book. You wrote so well about being an intellectual surrounded by intellectuals who scoff (initially, at least) at such frivolous pursuits as perfume. As a new perfumista I found your book to be a beacon of insight. Thanks for writing it!

    • alyssa says:

      I’m very happy that you feel that way. One of my hopes is that the book will make people feel braver about the things they love and give new perfumistas a guide to our community.

  11. Cheryl says:

    Congratulations! I just read your book while traveling, and found myself passing the Kindle to my husband with an enthusiastic: “Read this part!” I love the way you describe the steps toward your perfumed awakening. You manage to reach perfume lovers while initiating readers who have not yet found their inner perfumista. As an academic who remained in the closet –-no…the cool , dark drawer?— for some time, I especially enjoyed your recounting of that early reluctance to let others in on your secret. I was moved by the graciousness and generosity of your writing.

    I also especially enjoyed the suspense of virtually blind sniffing through your book: Is that Songes? I’m sure she’s talking about Songes… No, wait…

    • Jessica says:

      (I second all of this!)

    • alyssa says:

      Hee, hee! I love the thought of being in a cool dark drawer instead of the traditional closet. Thank you so much for all your kind words. I did try to use a few commonly used perfumista phrases in my descriptions of the major perfumes so the insiders would be able to guess what I was talking about. I’ll also be writing about the perfumes chapter by chapter over on my blog once things settle down a bit.

    • AnnS says:

      Cheryl: Ha, ha – I’m *still* in the cool dark drawer! Only a handful of people really know about my fragrance “hobby”, and it’s best that it’s well concealed and protected. Few people would appreciate my scores of precious smelly bottles! Thankfully my husband is very supportive.

  12. hajusuuri says:

    I went to Barnes & Noble today to read your book in-store with my Nook. I was touched by your Dedication AND hooked from that point on. I barely finished Chapter One and have found you to be supremely readable. It also felt like you were telling me your story, sitting right next to me. Normally, I would just keep going back to B&N to read the book for free one hour at a time but I ended up purchasing it so that I can read it at my leisure.

    Bravo! I hope this is one of many books you author that we’ll have the pleasure of reading!

    • Jessica says:

      (Hear, hear!!)

    • alyssa says:

      Thank you for this great comment! It was very much my goal to feel like I was leaning in and talking to my readers so I’m especially pleased that’s how it came across to you. And of course I’m delighted that you found the book worth purchasing!

  13. AnnS says:

    Alyssa: Sorry it’s taken me so many days to respond. I am REALLY looking forward to reading this book, and I don’t say that often at current releases. I love your concept of the intellectual sensualist. I agree with everything you said in that paragraph above. If living in the mind means that I take the time to learn and enjoy, well, that’s OK by me,and it’s entirely true. Getting into fragrances certainly spoke to the same tendencies I have which took me in the direction of archaeology, art history, and then librarianship.

    But I digress…. I was at a big library event in our county over the weekend, and picked up a little monthly rag we librarians use called “Booklist” which is a PR, review and readers guide tool that is normally distributed to the public for free. I was cruising through it, when voila, there was a really wonderful little review of your book. I showed my husband, I was like, hey, here’s that one lady from that blog I read. Anyway, if you haven’t or can’t see the review of your lovely little book, let me know and I’ll send it to you via snail mail.

    My favorite part of the review, and I’m grossly paraphrasing here, is that the reviewer said your memoir was truly refreshing because it wasn’t based in any kind of trauma that we are so used to reading these days (and I agree!), but rather a joyful discovery. It all sounds good to me! Congrats and I can’t wait to get this in my collection at my library. I’m even trying to figure out how I can do a special program for sniffing and reading!

    • alyssa says:

      Hi, Ann. Glad you’re looking forward to reading! Yes, I’ve seen the review you’re talking about. I was super excited about it because it was so smart and because BookPage made me their top pick for July. A week later I was even more thrilled when they put the book on their must-read memoir list for 2012 along with a bumch of heavy hitter bestsellers. Whoa. It seems to be having an effect, because I keep getting notes from people who found the book at the library.

      • AnnS says:

        I’m so glad that you’ve seen it and it’s been so helpful! Sorry I got the title wrong – we also have a booklist periodical. So many review sources, so little time! In any case, I think your book may bring a new type of creature out for book club. Who cares about coffee when you can compare smellies!

        • alyssa says:

          I love thinking that it might bring some newbie perfumistas your way at the library. You might have to come out of your cool dark drawer to lead a discussion, Ann!

  14. Emily says:

    Alyssa, I’ve been reading your book during my vacation (hence the extremely late-to-the-party comment) and like many other commenters here, I found much to treasure in your description of your academic persona vs. your budding perfumista persona. (I was also stunned by the similarities in our backgrounds — I’ve worked at weekly papers, started [but abandoned] a Ph.D. in English lit, and am currently an editor at a standardized-testing outfit.)

    Your remarks in the book and in this Q&A about the appeal of perfume to intellectual types, the ever-evolving nature of femininity and feminism, and — above all — your defense of pleasure are all spot-on. (The two paragraphs that end Chapter 1 actually brought me to tears, and that doesn’t happen often.) Brava, Alyssa, and I can’t wait to see where the perfume rabbit-hole leads you from here.

    • alyssa says:

      Thanks so much, Emily! And goodness, yes, that’s a lot of overlap in our trajectories. But maybe it’s not so surprising–if you love to read and write and want to try and make a living at it there aren’t so many routes available. I used to refer to No Child Left Behind as the Secret Republican Subsidy Program for the Arts because so many of my fellow test question writers and editors were journalists, novelists, painters and so on.

      • Emily says:

        Ha! The same is true of my colleagues — I think you’re on to something here. (BTW, I finished the book this afternoon, and would like to upgrade my previous “brava” to “bravissima.” Especially loved the part about your rediscovery of poetry via perfume, and I’d kind of suspected all along that there was a bit of a poet in you.)

        • alyssa says:

          Awww, just seeing this comment today and it’s making me smile. Thanks so much. Re: the poetry thing–I did start out that way. And this week People Magazine called me a “poet and perfume blogger” in their mention of the book for no clear reason… ;-)

  15. Anne from Makeupwoot says:

    Finished it last night! I really enjoyed it. Makes me wish I’d opted for a perfume bridal shower myself.

  16. opiumfan says:

    Ordered a book immediately after seeing it on NST( I live in Croatia, Europe, so it’s not available here). Received it yesterday and enjoy in reading very much. I will recommend to all perfume-loving friends, amuzing and lovely written

  17. susan1326 says:

    I finished Alyssa’s book last week and loved the writing as well as her journey! I found myself giggling happily as I recognized myself in each phase of her discovery of the world of perfume. She is a gifted writer who manages to make us feel the intangible emotions that different scents create. I look forward to reading even more of her beautiful prose.

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