– some thoughts on a fourth blogoversary and the evolution of a perfume writer.
Around the time my first novel Quantum Demonology was published last winter, I was PMed on Facebook by someone I consider a friend even though we have yet to meet in person. You can bet your perfume budget on some sunshiney day, we certainly will. This is someone many people would consider famous and justly celebrated for that thing he does, so much even I once upon a time completely freaked out he deigned to converse with nobody, nonentity me.
“How does it feel,” he asked me, “to be famous?”
<insert discombobulated Elmer Fudd moment here>
I told him I wasn’t entirely there just yet. (True.)
“But when they make it into a movie…” he blithely continued.
And when they do…
You see, as John Lennon once (famously) said, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
On August 2nd, 2010, I was dueling the first draft of the very long, very last chapter of my book to the death – or at least to where I could type THE END. Meanwhile, it was a hot summer night and the household was asleep, except for one insomniac writer wannabe nearing the last of her third glass of wine in her Hemingway search for inspiration.
Ya know, I remember I thought that night, I could start a perfume blog. What was the worst thing that could happen?
Well, I could become a better writer, maybe.
Four or five years before, I began my own descent into the perfumed maelstrom by lurking in the shadows on those perfume and beauty blogs I found particularly inspiring; Indie Perfumes, Perfume Shrine, Yesterday’s Perfume, the Non Blonde, and of course Perfume Posse. They all wrote about perfumes I had never heard of from brands I never knew, in compelling, illuminating ways that almost made them tangible for someone who at the time had no perfume at all, but I could almost reach out through the computer screen and sniff them, almost wonder what it must be like to own and enjoy such evocative essences.
It was perfume by proxy – a highly refined form of torture – but it taught me a lot I didn’t know and cemented much I already did. Somehow, it also satisfied an aesthetic itch/need I wasn’t aware I had – a craving for beauty my own quotidian life at the time could never fulfill. Which also explains why I then proceeded to wish for perfume on all birthdays and Christmases so I could find out what all the fuss was about.
And in August of 2010, that’s where I began – with the five bottles in my perfume cabinet. My first ever review was of the vintage version of Balmain’s Ivoire, and I was idiot enough to think I was simply writing in much the same style as all those other bloggers and with some semblance of the same structure I had absorbed by observation and five years of perfume blog reading.
Which was so very wrong in so many ways!
By December that same year, I approached the end of my rope and my undistinguished career as a perfume blogger – I owned no more perfumes to review. Samples in Denmark were unheard of in those days (which still holds true in some places to this day, especially with Estée Lauder), I couldn’t even afford to buy samples and then what would I do? I made stealth undercover visits to local perfume stores and hosed myself down with tester bottles before I rushed back home to review them. (True story!)
Yet by that time, two scented seismic shifts occurred, both of them paramount to the perfume writer I would later become.
The first of these was biting the bullet and sending off an email request for les petits livres, those fragrant booklets full of wax samples of the perfumes of Serge Lutens. I had been reading about/dreaming about Serge Lutens’ perfumes for seven years, and that intensity of curiosity will kill you…
If any one brand paved the way for the epiphanies to come and taught me to recalibrate my nose by several thousand degrees, it would be Serge Lutens. They were the outright weirdest ‘perfumes’ I had ever encountered in my life. Yet I couldn’t stop sniffing no matter how I tried.
Until that ordinary day the penny dropped, and I got them, got what they were trying to say in essence and absolute, understood them to bedrock and bone marrow…
It’s no coincidence all the perfumes the protagonist of Quantum Demonology wears (and even gives away) are Lutens/Sheldrake creations. To this day and until the day I die, I’ll be an acolyte of the diabolical temple to Oncles Serge and Christopher at the Palais Royal in Paris.
The second seismic shift I owe to Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids. Just as les oncles paved the way for niche perfumery, Ellen opened my nose and Jacobsen’s organ to US indie perfumery, and nothing was ever quite the same again.
You see, Ellen’s astonishing perfumes made me without question into the perfume writer I am today.
Something in those sample vials she first sent me caused me to pull out words and descriptions and phrases I never even knew I contained. For this reason and not a few more, Ellen has her own niche in my perfume Pantheon, and there she stays to this day, because she, too, has evolved and grown into a creator of some truly spectacular perfumes. But best and by far greatest of all, we’ve also become friends and mutual fan clubs.
A Seminal Year
In 2011, Scent Less Sensibilities (the first incarnation of my perfume blog) exploded. Literally. Suddenly, a solitary (and rather lonely) voice in the cyberspace void was heard, was read, was getting noticed… all at the same time my personal life was also – literally – falling apart. Perfume reviewing became my refuge and my escape, and never in my life had the mailman been so eagerly anticipated, because in finally stuffing my perpetual self-doubts where they belonged and pouring out my liquid passions on the virtual page, I found a warm welcome into the blogging community. Thanks to the support, encouragement and astonishing generous care packages of Lucy, Carrie, Dee, Suzanne, Olfactoria, Ines of AllIAmARedhead, Joanne, Portia and many more, I wrote about marvels I never knew.
‘Wrote’, I type these three and a half years later, but what was I truly doing besides attempting to capture the intangible, make it breathe and come alive as best I could for the reader? Even then, there were quite a few perfume blogs, and even then, I had an urge to be distinctive, to do things differently, to push my limits and my words as far and as hard as they could go.
So I ordered the few samples of a few niche houses that caught my imagination, and waited to see what transpired.
In Search of Epiphany
If all good things come in threes, then my third fragrant epiphany was plonking down what was then an insane amount of money – 22€ – on two samples of a line I wanted to knock down to size.
To this day, those two samples remain among the best money I’ve ever spent on perfume in my life.
You see, around the time I had that Zinfandel flash of inspiration to write about perfume, I was beginning to despair of the whole business of perfume. Once upon a time, we could be knocked off our feet in department stores by fragrances to inspire us, seduce us, transport us to otherwise and elsewhere. Why wasn’t that happening any more?
On a dismal, gray winter’s day, I sprayed one of those expensive samples. And was instantly so overcome, I had to sit down.
I had not sniffed – never mind sprayed – something so exquisite, so complex, so huge, so refined and so opulent in decades.
I remember I spluttered a few (highly profane) words I can’t repeat on a perfume blog. I had not one idea in Hades how I’d find the words to write about it. That night, I sat down in front of my computer intending to do my best straight-up review.
Instead and to my own complete surprise, I wrote a story, because with certain perfumes and on certain occasions, a story will do so very much to convey the mood, the emotions, the ambience, the transport and the evolution of a perfume far better than a ‘this is what it smells like’ review. Nothing against those reviews in the slightest, but with me, the storyteller overrules the perfume blogger, which was how I began to even write in the first place a long, long time ago.
This was how I began to write about Amouage. By now, I’ve written almost 400 reviews since of brands both great and small, known and less so, and three years on, ten of those story reviews have been Amouages. Few other brands’ creations grasp my imagination quite so tightly and no other brand is so impossible to review, because sweet Saint Mary Magdalene, where in the multiverse do I start to convey those teeming, seething multitudes of meaning?
Almost four years on, that’s a question I still can’t answer. But by Golly, I’ll die trying!
You might have noticed that generally, the Genie doesn’t guest blog or have guest bloggers. Not because I’m opposed to the idea you understand, but partly because I’m a raging megalomaniac writer who wants to hog all the glory for myself and partly for lack of invitations.
Nevertheless, 2011 was also the year I was offered three chances to collaborate elsewhere: as a guest blogger for Penhaligon’s Adventures in Scent, as a participant in a unique and fertile crossroads of literature and perfume called the Clarimonde Project and as a fellow instigator of a perfume project of my own.
Part of my research for the Penhaligon’s guest blog involved an incredible story of a solo journey down the Nile in 1870, when respectable ladies of a certain class simply didn’t do that sort of scandalous, adventurous thing. Even so, I suspect Penhaligon’s was not quite prepared for having their perfumes turned into characters or an irreverent 1890s story of a runaway bride in two installments.
But dear readers, why should writing about perfume always be so high-minded and serious? Channeling Agatha Christie (although I wasn’t aware of it and didn’t read her at the time) was a lot of fun.
The Clarimonde Project was a very different matter – equally as much fun, not least for indulging in all my inherent Gothic inclinations and minuscule talent for emulating 19th-century violet prose, but more importantly because I really had to up the ante on my words, since those staggering perfumes inspired by Théophile Gautier’s 1837 story of a priest and a vampire were journeys into night and shade compelling in their haunting beauty. And not once, but twice, I was compelled to continue Gautier’s story from two different perspectives – one told by his housekeeper, the other the protagonist’s dying thoughts. Even today, I count those two stories as some of the finest writing I’ve ever done. Anywhere.
Speaking of fun…
At one point in 2011, Ellen Covey threw down the gauntlet and double-dared me into another perfume project – the Devilscent Project. Only this time, the inspiration came from my own twisted mind.
My novel and my perfume blog are forever intertwined. Without one, the other would not exist, and my own existence at least would be much diminished for it. To drum up a little interest in Quantum Demonology, Ellen suggested we create a project around the story, and to create perfumes for the titanic antagonist Lilith, Queen of the Succubi, and even for the Devil himself as they’re both described in the book. I’m still not sure I was or even am entirely worthy of the perfumes and incense that followed by Ellen, by Neil Morris, by Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl of House of Cherry Bomb, Amanda Feeley of Esscentual Alchemy, Monica Miller, Kedra Hart of Opus Oils and Katlyn Breene of Mermade Magickal Arts. The world lacks no end of fragrances marketed as ‘dangerously erotic’ or with a bad-boy, rock’n’roll aesthetic. All too often, none of them truly are.
All the perfumes for the Devilscent Project should be banned by Papal bull, whether you choose to accentuate the d in ‘danger’ or capitalize the e in ‘erotic’.
All Good Things
Once upon a storied time, I heard myself saying that all good things have come into my life because of perfume. Only afterwards did I realize just how true that off-the-cuff statement actually was.
Because it is nothing more nor less than the absolute truth.
All good things have come into my life because of perfume.
Without writing about perfume, I would never have become a published novelist. Without perfume, I would never have decided to throw all caution to the wind and define myself simply as a writer.
Without perfume, I would never have forged the friendships, the fellowship or the connections I cherish every single day. And last, but never least, despite being technically unemployed for the past five years (although I have more or less ‘worked’ full-time in various projects to earn my unemployment stipend) and despite being so destitute I can count the amount of full bottles I’ve been able to afford to buy these past four years on one hand, I’ve never felt richer, happier or smelled more fabulous in my entire life.
At one point in Quantum Demonology, the protagonist states the following:
Why did I become a writer? Simple. I sucked at everything else.
True story, for her and for the woman who created her from bits and pieces of her own self, as artists always do.
Then again, that’s not the whole truth.
Because thanks to perfume, I came to envision a new kind of future for the woman I’ve become these past four years, a future I chose, a future I conjured from the aether and channeled from essence and absolute. As I did, as I sniffed and marveled (and sometimes scrubbed), I sent out a grateful thank you to the wind, for being so incredibly privileged to experience something so beautiful and write about it too, to share my experience with my readers and above all else, to conjure friendships with likeminded souls who share my inclinations and my passion, who read what I write, and whose astonishing generosity I dearly wish I could have reciprocated, but unfortunately still can’t.
Yet for four years, I’ve paid my friends and my readers back the only way I can – with my words.
To be honest, I have no idea where I’ll be four years from now, although I rather doubt it will be here.
But here’s what I do know: it can never happen without you, my friends, my readers and my (dangerous!) facilitators.
Thank YOU for these past four fabulous years.
Are you up for four more?
With special thanks to Lucy, Ellen, Neela, Portia, Val, Maria, Alexis, Maggie, Monica, Kedra, Katlyn, Mandy, Christopher, Vero, Andy, Shelley, Dawn, Neil, Ida, Thomas, Persolaise, Barbara, Elena, Gaia, Carrie, Dee, JoAnne, Suzanne, Ines, Caro, Ruth the Perfume Dragon, Tami and of course, Carlos. And the countless thousands I surely forgot to mention!