An often-cited quote asserts that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Substitute “perfume” for “music,” and you get an idea of the challenge perfume writing presents. To communicate how a fragrance smells, a writer often draws from stories, memories, and senses other than smell to evoke perfume’s deep and broad impact. Denyse Beaulieu does all that and more as she tracks the development of Séville à l’aube, an upcoming perfume release by L’Artisan Parfumeur. The result, The Perfume Lover, is a passionate and insightful story not just about the development of a single fragrance, but about how perfume has infused Denyse’s own life. If you enjoy Denyse’s perfume blog, Grain de Musc, you’ll want to read The Perfume Lover.
I consider Denyse a friend, so to avoid a conflict of interest, rather than write a traditional review of The Perfume Lover, I present a handful of questions about the book and Denyse’s responses. Denyse will be checking in, so if you'd like to add your own questions you can leave them in comments.
The Perfume Lover is an unusual combination of memoir, perfume history, and the story of the development of a single fragrance. What led you to choose this format?
I’d say the format chose me. That said, all of the elements in the book have been part of the blog culture from the outset: personal stories, bits of history, interviews, essays… Of course I used lots of bits from Grain de Musc but that wouldn’t have been enough to hold a book together. The first thing that came up in my discussions with my editor Jenny Heller was that the book should almost read like a novel. Perfume doesn’t fully exist until it becomes part of your flesh and mind, of your story, so what I wrote about perfume had to be embodied. As soon as Bertrand Duchaufour decided to compose a perfume based on a story I’d told him, and agreed to let me chronicle the process, warts and all, the development of Séville à l’aube obviously became the main narrative thread. But that story couldn’t come out of the blue: it wouldn’t have made sense for me to just be parachuted into the lab. What led up to that moment needed to be told. How does a person become a perfume lover in the first place? How does someone who comes from outside the industry end up being invited to step through the looking glass? So the second, more personal narrative developed organically from the first. Those two stories are what hold together the essays and encounters, and motivate their appearance in the book.
How has writing The Perfume Lover changed your view of the perfume industry?
Working with Bertrand has made me understand just how hard it is to compose a fragrance that is both true to its inspiration and technically accomplished. How tricky it is to stay attuned to what the fragrance wants to become. How tough it is to make decisions at each branch of the labyrinth; to get the balance of raw materials right, because they often react in such unexpected ways. To know what you want when there are so many different avenues you can take. It’s also made me understand how much harder it must be to get there when you’re freaked out because of deadlines, budgets or the pressures of marketing teams. It can be incredibly frustrating and embittering for perfumers to work in big companies. As a result, too many fragrances smell of fear. Fortunately, since L’Artisan Parfumeur gives total artistic freedom to Bertrand, that was never an issue with Séville à l’aube. But mostly, I’ve learned that the more you delve into the secrets of perfume-making, the more magical the whole process becomes!
In your experience, how do perfumers view perfume blogs?
Many don’t read them, mostly because they don’t have the time or because, well, no one likes to be panned — they get enough of that at work. But those who do are happy to be acknowledged as creative voices, to see that so many people are as passionate about perfume as they are. And they’re surprised that “civilians” can know so much or have so many things to say about it. Some consider it’s interesting to see the point of view of the consumer, since they have little direct contact with the public. A few hope that by defending creative perfumery, blogs will induce decision-makers to trust the perfumers a bit more.
Any news on a U.S. release of The Perfume Lover?
Indeed! The Perfume Lover will be published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Press and in Canada by Penguin in early 2013.
Do you have plans for another book project? Or a perfume project?
Right now I’m translating The Perfume Lover into French so I haven’t had time to work on further book projects. As for perfumes… once you’ve stepped through the looking glass, you don’t look back.
Thanks for this interesting Q&A.
I’ve enjoyed Denyse’s writing on grain de musc since I discovered her blog. Her posts are a delightful mix of intelligent thought provoking (if not provoking tout court? ) prose and fascinating insights in the world of artistic perfumery.
Her writing is…tasty.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the few perfume bloggers with perfume tastes simliar to mine… which comes in handy when you’re overwhelmed by too many releases.
I’ve not bought the book yet, but I will.
I am sure it will surprise me. In a positive way.
It’s always nice to find a blogger who matches your perfume taste–or who is exactly the opposite–as a sort of “preview” perfume tester.
I hope you enjoy the book!
I very much enjoyed this Q & A with its insights into the background to the book. I am about 3/4 of the way through, and have found it as pleasurable a read as The Perfect Scent, and as you say, an “unusual combination” of different genres. I think it will definitely hit the spot with the perfumista crowd.
At least Denyse doesn’t need to translate the odd French phrase in the book like “meme pas peur”! : – ) (“not even afraid”).
Isn’t it great that she’s also doing the French translation of her book? It will be about as true a translation as could possibly exist.
Thank you for the interview. I can’t wait to read this book when it becomes available in the US.
Yay for upcoming U.S. publication – I can’t wait to read this!
I know, it was good to hear it will be out in the U.S.!
Thanks Angela for this Q&A
The perfect book for me!
I love reading … and I love perfume so I’m sure I’ll love this book too.
It’s too much “love”…but it’s true!
There just isn’t enough good perfume reading out there–I hope you enjoy the book!
“Too many fragrances smell of fear.” That’s a quote I think I’ll always remember.
Truly an excellent quote. And so true.
You are so right, Olfacta!
And fear is apparently kind of fruity smelling!
Who knew, LOL!
Huge thanks, Angela and Denyse, for this Q&A!
I always read Grain de Musc, and I don’t always end up loving the same perfumes as Denyse, but I do know that anything she reviews is always worth spending some time with. In addition to Grain de Musc, I thoroughly enjoyed her earlier book, Sex Games – A Cultural History of Sexuality, and was unimaginatively expecting something in a similar format. That would have been just fine, but this, of course, sounds way better, and it has Duchaufour, too, and there will be an actual perfume! *rips off clothes and runs through the forest in ecstacy*
I remember LT saying that he tried being a perfume editor, but it didn’t work because if a perfume smelled good, he didn’t have the heart to critique that work and press for changes. I can see Denyse having (in addition to the intelligence, taste and insight) the resolve and charm to get an even better performance out of each perfumer or line. No idea what’s meant in staying on the other side of the mirror, really, but I’d absolutely sample and very likely buy anything she was involved with.
I haven’t yet smelled the new perfume, but I’m eager to. People seem to be loving it. I think Denyse has terrific taste, and I loved Nuit de Tubereuse and Havane Vanille by L’Artisan and Duchaufour most recently, so I’d best be smart and start saving up for a bottle right now.
Great Q&A session, Angela. I am also lucky enough to consider Denyse a friend and so have been at least aware of the book’s progress. It is so exciting that it is now here (although WHERE is my pre ordered copy Amazon??!) and I love how you have been the means of revealing how the different threads and stories in the book are interwoven so inextricably.
I hope that books arrives soon. It’s so frustrating when you’re looking forward to something and checking the mail every day and it just hasn’t come yet. Enjoy the book, too!