Today I have the lovely Alex Johnson on my blog with a guest post in which she talks about her love of perfume.
A Love of Perfume
I’ve wanted to write a novel with perfume as its main theme for a long time, but always knew it would be a tricky subject to tackle. How can you truly put into words what a perfume smells like? As a journalist, writing about the marketing and selling of perfume every day, you might think I would be well qualified to put into words the mysteries of fragrance. But it’s much harder than you might think.
Take a sniff of your favourite scent. What does it smell of? Do you notice the individual “notes”, such as lavender, rose, or sandalwood? Do you get a rush of memory when you catch a whiff of it? Are there fragrances that strongly remind you of the person who wears it?
All these things and more I find fascinating and want to put into words. Rather than write a non-fiction book about fragrance (and there are plenty of those around!) I decided to put perfume as the central theme of my novel The Perfume Muse.
But first, I needed to do some research, and where better than in Grasse, the world’s perfume capital? It was the perfect excuse for a weekend away.
Nestled between the hills on the French Riviera, Grasse was everything I’d imagined it to be and the perfect setting for my characters Julie, Olivier and Jean-Jacques. The ancient winding streets, the narrow yellow buildings with their pastel blue shutters, the breathtaking views of the rolling hills and of course, the smell of perfume that wafts down the street from the world famous Fragonard perfumery in the centre. I took a tour round the Fragonard museum where I learnt about the ancients methods of making perfume before immersing myself in more fragrance history in the tiny dedicated perfume museum across the road.
But the best bit was visiting the perfume museum gardens outside Grasse and getting up close to the many wonderful plants, flowers and herbs used in perfumery. It was an absolute gem, with its miniature lavender and jasmine fields and plant specimens from across the world, which the visitor is encouraged to smell, feel and even taste. I’d read and written about ingredients such as ylang ylang and tuberose, but seeing, smelling and touching them up close helped me appreciate why perfumers prize these blooms and want to use them in their gorgeous creations.
Not many people have a perfume created just for them, because it’s a lengthy and costly experience. It can also be incredibly intimate and it was this that I wanted to get across in The Perfume Muse. The story is about the difficulties of falling in love: how Julie is torn between two men, both perfumers, who tangle with her affections through the creation of perfume inspired by and exclusively for her.
It was a journey for me as much as for Julie.
We both learnt so much about perfumery, but also about ourselves.
When you let perfume into your life, you must be prepared for the consequences.
About Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson arrived on the writing scene in 2012 with the launch of her first novel Run Away, a story which took root and grew after spending many anxious weeks waiting for emails from her teenage son who was on his Gap Year travelling round South East Asia. Some of his adventures were hair-raising, to say the least, and, in retrospect it was probably a good thing she wasn’t able to follow his travels on Facebook or on twitter!
Run Away also draws on Alex’s “main” career as an award-winning beauty journalist and she has a passion for perfume and cosmetics. By the end of the novel, she felt there was another story waiting to be told, with perfume as its central theme.
So, The Perfume Muse is a sequel to Run Away and takes her main character Julie to the beautiful Grasse region of France, the heart of the perfume industry. Alex was able to explore the mysteries of perfume and its impact on memory and love – with devastating consequences.
Alex has recently finished writing her third novel on a completely different theme that takes her deep into her mother’s past and survival during the Dutch Hunger Winter in World War 2.
Follow Alex on twitter: @oxfordnovelist