Note: Alyssa Harad is the author of Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, published in hardback last year. The new paperback edition comes out later this month. You can read our Q&A with Alyssa here, or read an excerpt from the book, The Tuberose of My Resistance. Also check out this video interview from Idaho Public Television, or just read through all her old posts on Now Smell This — she used to be a regular contributor here.
Well friends, it's been quite a year. When Robin first suggested I someday write a guest post about the move "from blog to book," I was living in the frenetic state of suspended animation common to new authors a month before publication. There were endless things to do, but none of them felt real. Every morning when I woke up, my palms tingled, a symptom I still haven't deciphered. Life was so uncertain that I slipped into perfume monogamy, reaching for the cheerful elegance of L'Artisan's Fleur d'Oranger over and over again.
My primary emotions were excitement, terror and gratitude. I was excited because the thing I had just spent nearly three years working on was about to make its way into the world. I was terrified for exactly the same reason.
Coming to My Senses is a true story, a portrait of people and communities I love. I wrote it hoping I could recreate for others the intensity of the pleasure I'd found, not just in perfume and its beauties, but the people and stories — a whole new way of life, really — that came along with it. One of my dearest wishes was that some day someone like me, maybe even one of you, would hand the book to a friend puzzled by all those bottles on the shelf and say, Here. This is what I'm talking about. I wrote it with your voices in my head.
But — this is where the terror came in — what if I'd gotten it wrong? What if I offended the people I meant to celebrate? (Or worse, bored them.) What if, by writing the book, I cut myself off from the communities that had made me want to write it in the first place?
To me, the biggest difference between writing a blog and writing a book is not the difficulty of the work, the size of the audience, or the quality of the story it's possible to tell, but the way the work gets done and how people read and respond to it.* When I wrote for Perfume Smellin' Things and Now Smell This I was part of a team, and my posts were part of an ongoing conversation. I wrote Coming to My Senses in long stretches of solitude punctuated by intense exchanges with a few select people.
By and large, that is how people read books, too: alone, page after page, stopping now and then to read a sentence aloud, or comment to a friend. But when they're done, they want to talk. And in the case of Coming to My Senses — here's where the gratitude comes in — many of them wanted to talk to me.
The first notes came months before the book was published. With my heart in my mouth, I'd sent the friends and family who were in the book advanced copies, including all my favorite bloggers, the ones who turned me into a fangirl in the first place. One by one, their warm, gracious notes arrived, and I began to think I might survive publication after all.
The next round came soon after the book was published. This time, the messages arrived in a huge wave — emails, messages on Facebook and Twitter, reviews, offers to help, even a few real live letters — lifting me up and carrying me forward. Overwhelming evidence of what I already knew: perfume people are the best.
And then, after a month or two had gone by, the notes began to come from strangers.
I heard from an enthusiastic librarian in a town of 473 people who wanted to tell me there was a waiting list of readers for my book. Though the book has only officially been published in the U.S. and Canada, I heard from a businesswoman in Australia who told me that after reading the book she made time to browse in the duty free shops and to visit the botanical gardens in the cities where she traveled. Then I heard from Denmark, Switzerland, France, Estonia, New Zealand and Croatia.
I heard from people who'd always loved perfume, and people who wanted to explore it, and people who promised not to complain about it anymore.
I heard from many people about the perfumes their mothers used to wear, and I helped a few of them find those perfumes again.
I heard from a whip-smart young feminist who had been struggling with the same embarrassment I'd felt over loving perfume, who taught me a few things I didn't know about what I'd said in my own book. I heard from a woman in her late 70's, living alone, who wrote to tell me that she liked to save up catalogues from Aedes de Venustas, and that her mother, who had died recently, wore my own mother's signature scent, Rochas Femme, and would I like to have the unfinished bottle? (I thanked her profusely, but thought she should keep it for herself.) The day after Christmas I heard from a woman who said that she'd read my book a chapter at a time, very late at night after her husband had gone to sleep, because that was the time she kept for herself and herself alone. I could see by the time signature on the email that she'd written to me then, too. And I felt my throat get tighten because I know those stolen middle-of-the-night hours. They're the same hours I used to stay up reading perfume blogs when I was pretending to be working on another freelance deadline.
Many other things happened to me this year in my new life as an author, but none of them felt as real or as important as these letters. The thing is, most days, I don't feel like an "author" at all. I still work alone, dressed like an unmade bed, full of uncertainty, terror, excitement and gratitude. (Though it's true, I often wear red lipstick now. And of course, I smell fantastic.) So it seemed important to tell you about a few of these people — to introduce you to a few of the invisible members of our far flung community who may never show up online. Now I'm writing with their voices in my head, too.
*I have never understood the snobbery some people have about books vs. blogs and I can get pretty cranky when confronted with it in person. There are two different animals with their own equal difficulties and possibilities. (I say this as a struggling blogger myself.) Wonderful writing can happen anywhere. Terrible writing can, too.