KCARAB talks to Kathleen Tessaro!

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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!

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The Perfume Collector teaser

I’m thrilled to announce that on 11th April we’ll be publishing an interview with the fabulous Kathleen Tessaro, to celebrate the publication of her beautiful new novel, The Perfume Collector. Below is an exclusive extract of the book, something to whet your appetite for the 11th!

 

“Coming down the stairs, Grace paused to check the second post on the hall table.

‘Oh look!’ She held up an envelope. ‘I’ve got airmail! From France. How exciting!’ She tore it open. ‘Who do I know in France?’

‘Is it from your uncle?’ Mallory pulled her coat on.

‘No, he’s in America, lecturing.’ Grace unfolded a letter, began reading.

Mallory waited; tapped her foot impatiently. ‘We must go.’ She took out her car keys. ‘What is it anyway?’

‘This doesn’t make sense.’

‘Is it in French?’

‘No. No, it’s in English.’ Grace sat down on the hall chair. ‘There’s an aeroplane ticket.’

‘An aeroplane ticket? For where?’

‘To Paris.’ Grace looked up, handing her the letter.

‘This is a mistake. Some sort of very bizarre mistake.’

Mallory took it.

It was typed on the kind of heavy, good quality paper that signaled official correspondence. In the corner she noted the name and address of a law firm in central Paris:

Frank, Levin et Beaumont.

 

Dear Mrs Munroe,

Please accept our sincere sympathies for your recent loss. Our firm is handling the estate of the deceased Madame Eva d’Orsey, and it is our duty to inform you that you are named as the chief beneficiary in her will.  We request your presence at our offices at your earliest convenience, so that we may go through the details of your inheritance.

Again, we apologize for this intrusion on your time of grief and look forward to being of service to you in the near future.

Yours sincerely,

Edouard A. Tissot, Esquire

 

‘Oh!’ Mallory looked up. ‘I’m so sorry. I had no idea you’d recently lost someone, Grace.’

Grace’s face was unchanging. ‘Neither had I.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Mallory, I’ve never met any Eva d’Orsey. I have no idea who this woman is.'”

 

Make sure you visit KCARAB in 2 days for our interview with Kathleen!

 

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The Perfume Collector – Kathleen Tessaro

images“A letter turns newly-married Grace Munroe’s life upside down, and she begins a journey which leads Grace through the streets of Paris and into the seductive world of perfumers and their muses. An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank will lead her to unravel the heartbreaking story of her mysterious benefactor, an extraordinary woman who bewitched high society in 1920s New York and Paris.”

I’m a huge fan of Kathleen Tessaro. I loved Elegance, and Innocence is one of my favourite novels. So it was with high hopes that I started The Perfume Collector. The story takes a little while to build up pace, but we’re soon flung into the world of Grace Munroe, an unfulfilled and restless newlywed who suspects that her husband is having an affair. But all thoughts of infidelity are pushed to one side when she receives a letter from a law firm in Paris that names her as the sole beneficiary of the recently deceased Madame Eva d’Orsey’s estate – a women Grace has never heard of.

Unsure of taking money from the sale of a stranger’s house, Grace flies to Paris to find out more about the mysterious Madame d’Orsey. Eduarde Tissot, from the law firm handling Eva’s will, accompanies her on her quest. In her search to uncover Eva’s identity, Grace beings to find hers too, and missing pieces from her past start falling into place.

The grandiose house that Eva has left behind does not portray an accurate representation of her life. We are taken back in time, to 1927, and see 14-year-old Eva start work in a luxurious hotel. Timid and anxious, she is wary of the colourful guests of the hotel, whose rooms she must clean. Three of the most prominent are Mr Lambert – “A communist!”, her fellow employee Sis claims, the glamorous ‘entertainer’ Kay Waverley, and Madame Zed, a world-renowned perfumer who always travels with her apprentice, Andre Valmont. Little does Eva know, as she meets them in turn, that these four people will end up changing her life. When Grace Munroe discovers the relationships between Eva and these people, she stumbles on the biggest secret of all.

Intricately and delicately woven, The Perfume Collector is an exquisitely beautiful and flawless read. Sometimes a book from an author you’ve previously loved can be a disappointment, but Kathleen’s latest literary offering more than exceeds the expectations I had when I started reading it. It’s a sensuous, evocative novel that will have you searching for your own signature scent.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.