Hi Kathleen! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. I absolutely love your writing so it’s great to welcome you to Keep Calm and Read a Book. I’d like to ask you some questions about The Perfume Collector in celebration of its publication date today! I reviewed it a little while ago and it’s my favourite book of 2013 so far.
Thank you so much for taking an interest – I truly appreciate it!
First of all, can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the novel?
Ever since I read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I’ve been fascinated by novels with two main plots, set in different time periods, that weave together to create a larger story. So, I’ve been playing with that structure in various forms for a while. With The Perfume Collector, I knew I wanted to write about the world of perfume because it’s such a poetic art form and also one that every woman has an intimate relationship with already. And I liked the idea of a progression of three perfumes “telling” the secret history of someone’s life. The idea of inheriting a flat from a stranger was actually based on a true story – the beneficiary turned out to be the love child of an aristocratic mother and her secret bohemian lover. The daughter only discovered her true parentage when she inherited her dead father’s flat in Paris. It was far too good a story not to steal but what I remembered most about the daughter telling me this was how it shattered her world and her idea of who she was. Many years later, it still haunted her.
What would you like readers to take from the novel?
More than anything I want them to be entertained without being underestimated. I want to give them another world they can enter that’s compelling and mirrors the complexities of life but that also ultimately functions as a refuge for their imaginations. I certainly have no moral or philosophical agenda.
Grace is a woman with a fractured identity – one that she pieces together as she delves further and further into Madame d’Orsey’s life. Do you think your book can inspire women who have lost pieces of themselves, through traumatic childhood experiences or events, to gain them back?
I don’t know. If there are readers who identify with Grace’s journey, I would hope that the story might give them comfort and allow them to entertain the process of self-discovery; perhaps to be a little kinder to themselves. In my experience, even the seemingly broken parts of ourselves can be transformed into unexpected strengths when we accept them.
You’ve created a great array of vastly different characters – all of which turn out to be completely different to our first impressions of them. Which is your favorite character, and what inspired them?
I have a fondness for Madame Zed. Her character was taken from a fistful of facts about the real perfumer of the same name, who worked for the Paris design house of Lanvin and famously created My Sin in 1924. All that’s known about her is that she was probably Russian in origin, extremely talented, and that she formulated at least fourteen perfumes for Lanvin then simply disappeared. How could one not be intrigued?
Perfume making is a really unique and complex process, but you managed to achieve such an authentic voice in the novel. How much research did you have to do on it?
I did as much as I could, and now have stacks of books, though I wish I could’ve travelled to the Osmotheque, the perfume conservatory and museum near Versailles. I’m looking forward to going as soon as I can. I can highly recommend this kind of research though. For any reader who’s interested, becoming a perfume connoisseur can be a real pleasure. It’s an ongoing education that involves browsing around as many perfume shops you can, collecting samples, traveling to different cities to find rare scent… doesn’t sound half bad, does it?
Did you get your own perfume blended while you were writing the story? As soon as I’d finished reading the book, I wanted to go out and make one myself!
I wish I could afford to! Though I have treated myself to some rare blends. My favorite at the moment is from New York perfumer Christopher Brosius and his line of custom blended scents called, I Hate Perfume. I enjoy visiting perfumeries and expanding my pallet more than buying lots of different fragrances. I find I can appreciate formulations that I wouldn’t personally wear. I think of it like going to an art gallery to admire the work rather than buy it. And my husband has taken to giving me vintage perfume bottles as gifts. Thanks to him, I have a budding collection of really beautiful pieces.
As you write in the novel, hotels are such intriguing places because of all the different guests that stay there. Was there any hotel in particular that inspired your novel?
I researched and used the Warwick Hotel in New York City, which has the kind of glamorous history that embodied the extravagant, wildly optimistic spirit of the age. Built in 1925 by William Randolph Hearst, it catered to the needs of his Hollywood friends and especially his mistress, Ziegfeld Follies, and screen star Marion Davies, who had her own specially designed floor. It was always a show business hotel and so was from the outset, was accustomed to dealing with outrageous and larger than life characters. It was also the New York home of Carey Grant for twelve years.
Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of living in a five star hotel – preferably in a suite. The combination of luxury and anonymity appeals to me. Apart from people, anything I really value can fit in a suitcase. And life is such an impermanent business – I like the idea of checking in and checking out.
Do you find writing in the past more difficult, or do you prefer it to a modern setting?
I enjoy a strong element of mystery in my stories and writing in the past makes that easier to pull off. Also, creating another world for readers to escape into is a huge function of writing; there’s something both comforting and relaxing about disappearing into another world, even if there’s tension and conflict in the plotline. We need to lose ourselves in fiction. Certainly writing in another time period makes that alternative world that much easier to achieve.
What was your favorite part of The Perfume Collector to write?
I enjoyed the scenes in New York during the 1920’s. Eva is quite young then and the people in the hotel are such strong characters; she’s receiving an education on a number of different levels. Also, New York in the 1920’s is an undeniably exciting, if unstable era that’s fascinating in it’s contrasts.
I’m a big fan of yours and can’t wait to read your next book – have you got anything in the pipeline at the moment that you can tell us about?
I’m extremely flattered and very grateful for your support!
My next book is set in Boston, in 1933, with the working title Rare Objects. My main character is a young woman from an Irish immigrant background working in an Antiques shop with a series of rather eccentric, academic characters. When they receive an unexpected shipment containing two extremely rare Greek vases, this young woman becomes involved with a wealthy client expanding his collection and gains a glimpse into the stratosphere of Boston Brahmin high society. There she renews a childhood friendship that dared to cross the strict social divides and becomes the confident of the collector’s beautiful, bright and dangerously self-destructive wife. Only there’s something hidden in one of the vases, an ancient ring known to be an ominous omen. And the vases themselves have a more recent history that’s disturbing and sinister; a history that threatens not only the collector’s marriage, but also their whole way of life.
Thanks so much for talking to us, and I wish you the best of luck with the book!