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.