The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose

By Sandra Parshall

M.J. Rose’s new novel, THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES, arrives on a wave of extraordinary praise, including a starred PUBLISHERS WEEKLY review that called it a “deliciously sensual” tale featuring “characters with rich internal lives in a complex plot that races to a satisfying finish.” NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Douglas Preston described it as “Amazing…utterly engrossing. Elegantly written, with unforgettable characters.”

Like Rose’s previous suspense novels, THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES blends elements of several genres. Mixing history, international intrigue, an eternal romance, murder mystery, and a touch of the paranormal, the story spans several centuries and circles the globe, but at its heart is a modern heroine, young Jac L’Etoile. Along with her brother, Jac is heir to a famed French perfume dynasty. When her brother hints at an earth-shattering discovery in the family archives, then suddenly goes missing—leaving a dead body behind—Jac is plunged into a world of intrigue and danger. While investigating her brother’s disappearance, Jac becomes haunted by the legend the House of L’Etoile has espoused since 1799. Does Cleopatra’s lost book of fragrances still exist? Does it contain the recipe for a scent that can unlock the mystery of reincarnation?

Rose, a founding member and board member of ITW, is the international bestselling author of 11 previous novels—but her penchant for crossing genre lines almost kept her career from getting off the ground. When her first book, LIP SERVICE, was rejected by publishers because it didn’t neatly fit into any category, she self-published it. After selling more than 2500 copies in e-book and trade paperback formats, LIP SERVICE became the first e-book and the first self-published novel selected by the Literary Guild/Doubleday Book Club and the first e-book to be picked up by a traditional New York publisher.

In addition to her career as a novelist, Rose is a prolific nonfiction writer and the founder and director of AuthorBuzz, a promotion service for writers.

Recently she talked with me about her new book, which goes on sale March 13.

THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES seems a perfect example of a high concept, “big” book. Did you see it that way from the beginning, or did it grow and evolve in directions you hadn’t originally imagined?

I still don’t see it as a big book. I would be delighted if it turned out to be one though. I worked on several perfume accounts when I was in advertising and fell in love with what some call the 8th art and always wanted to visit this world in fiction and everything just fell into place with this novel when I got the idea of a lost ancient perfume being found—one that would have mystical qualities.

Your book does something that most people love in a novel: in the context of an engrossing story, it also teaches readers about a topic—in this case, the role of perfumes in human history—that they might never have considered before. How did you become intrigued by perfumes, and how much of a learning experience was this book for you?

As I mentioned, when I worked in MAD MEN land I had the opportunity to work a new fragrance from the very first days of naming it through to full up TV commercials we shot in Hong Kong and edited at the Lucas Ranch. It was a 40 million dollar launch that culminated with the spots running on the Oscars. During all that, I became intrigued and besotted with everything about fragrance and it’s a passion that’s never left. But I didn’t know about the history of fragrance before and found it fascinating.

Cleopatra’s lost book of scents, the holy grail at the heart of your story, actually existed, didn’t it? According to the legend, she hoped to create a scent that would magically reunite her with her true love, Julius Caesar. Would you tell us a bit of the true story behind this document that wreaks havoc in your fictional world? Many people probably have no idea that Cleopatra made perfumes.

Cleopatra (69 BCE to 30BCE), who was the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, was fascinated with and some say obsessed by scent. Marc Anthony built her a fragrance factory where he planted now extinct flora and fauna including groves of balsam trees  (important in the creation of perfume at the time) confiscated from Herod.

In the 1980s a team of Italian and Israeli archaeologists believe they unearthed the factory at the south end of the Dead Sea, 30 km from Ein Gedi. Residues of ancient perfumes along with seats where customers received beauty treatments were found there.

Cleopatra was said to have kept a recipe book for her perfumes, entitled CLEOPATRA GYNAECIARUM LIBRI. The book has been described in writings by historians Dioscorides, Homer and Pliny the Elder. No known copy of the book exists today.

The market for women’s perfumes has always been huge. Why do you think the love of perfume persists in the modern world? Why do independent, strong women still dab scent behind their ears, on their throats and wrists? And are men getting into the act too?

Interestingly, men’s fragrance is a huge category, becoming bigger every year. I don’t think I can do your question justice in this interview but I’ll try. We only have five senses. Smell is one of them. People learn about each other and are attracted to each other through scent. Perfumes and perfumed products can enhance and affect and pleasure and stimulate. Through the choices we make about how we smell, we say something about who we are and who we want to be. And not just to others. I wear perfume as much for my own delight as for any one else’s. It becomes part of a woman’s wardrobe, her signature, her style. Even not wearing perfume can be a statement.

Were you surprised that a perfume company offered to create a fragrance as a tie-in to your novel? How did that come about? Had you considered commissioning a perfume on your own?

Yes, I had wanted to commission one and looked into it but to do it well with a really quality perfumer was astronomically expensive. Far more than I got paid for the book.  I gave up on that idea early on.

When I was writing the book—to keep in the world of scent—I burned a lot of candles. When I finished writing, I gave a copy of the book to the perfumer who’d created the candles that had inspired me the most, Frederick Bouchardy (Joya Studios).

After he read the novel he contacted me and we met for tea in the Peninsula Hotel in NYC. He told me he loved the book and wanted to create his version of the fragrance at the heart of the novel. I was so astonished and honored, I actually started to cry.

Bouchardy even named the fragrance after one in the book: Âmes Sœurs, the scent of soul mates. It has hints of frankincense, myrrh, orange blossom and jasmine. I think it has a smoky uncommon finish that suggests the past and the future, and lost souls reunited.

It takes a brave writer to carry a story back and forth over vast stretches of time and geography, and a talented one to make it work. How did you construct the story? Did you have to outline in great detail to avoid any missteps and maintain the suspense? How long did the writing take?

Once the bulk of the research was done, the book took about 18 months to write. I wrote a 25 point outline with the three to five main scenes in each of the stories. I don’t like to outline in too much detail because then there’s no surprise for me in the writing. After the outline, I wrote a fast first draft. Then a few more. It’s all a blur now now. It always is for me once the book is over. It’s like labor. They say if a woman could relive the pain of giving birth no second babies would ever be born. My process is pretty arduous and I block it out as soon as I can.

Do you plan to continue writing about the present-day characters introduced in THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES? If so, will the follow-up books also dip into the past?

Yes, the main character, Jac L’Eotile will be in my next two books. And we’ll be going back and forth again. But very differently in the next book.

Many writers know you as the founder of AuthorBuzz, a marketing service for writers. How much of your time does AuthorBuzz take these days, and how do you fit writing and researching novels into your schedule?

I don’t sleep much and my reading and movie going has suffered. I work six days a week, at least a ten hour a day and split that between AuthorBuzz and my fiction. Some days it’s equal. Others its novel six, AuthorBuzz four or visa versa. But I am expanding the AuthorBuzz staff in April to get a bit more time back.

You were a pioneer in e-book publishing, so I have to ask what you think of the current turmoil in publishing as e-books threaten to take over the market. Do you see e-book self-publishing as a smart move for a beginning writer? It helped you get a contract with a traditional print publisher, but is it realistic for most writers to go into it expecting that to happen to them? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are considering self-publishing their work as e-books?

Hard questions. I don’t think anyone really knows what will happen with e versus print. I have a ten-year-old niece who does so much on line she only wants to read print books. I think it’s here to stay but I don’t think print is doomed.

As for self-pubbed vs traditional, we are in the greatest time of change in publishing in anyone’s lifetime. Where it’s going to wind up is anyone’s guess.

What I’m certain of for now is: no one path is right for everyone.

We are in the middle of a total revolution—which is always the most difficult period to live through. Even the best minds who think they know what is going to happen—don’t. There are no good guys and bad guys here. There are a lot of people trying to keep up with the changes—adapt—and succeed. Some are managing that. Others aren’t. It’s the Wild West in so many ways.

When I was in advertising my boss used to say that when the creative department—the men and women who wrote and art-directed the ads—left for the day, the company’s inventory walked out the door.

Publishers need books to publish. Editors need books to edit. Agents need books to sell. Readers need books to read. Booksellers need books to sell.

That’s why writers will survive no matter what.

At the same time it’s dangerous for us writers to think we don’t need any of those people. I have so much respect for Amanda Hocking. I’ve been on both sides of the publishing /self-publishing paradigm, and she’s right—it takes a ton of effort and is an amazing amount of work to do it on your own. And it’s not for everyone.

For instance, I would never try to publish without a terrific editor. I can’t see my own mistakes. I can’t get the distance needed to make the book the best it can be.

My advice is no matter how you are being published… it’s all about the book.
You have to write the absofuckinglutely best book you can.

Readers have such a huge choice when it comes to what to buy. And they don’t have to buy blind. They can read excerpts, reviews, etc. So whether you self or traditionally publish your book is going to sell because it captures the reader. Because it makes them want to keep reading. Nothing else matters. And there are no shortcuts to that. Find your voice. Find your métier. Do the best you can.

*****

M.J. Rose is the international best selling author of eleven novels and two non-fiction books on marketing. Her next novel THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES (Atria/S&S) will be published in March 2012. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in many magazines and reviews including Oprah Magazine. She has been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, USA Today and on the Today Show, and NPR radio. Rose graduated from Syracuse University, spent the ’80s in advertising, has a commercial in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and since 2005 has run the first marketing company for authors – Authorbuzz.com

The television series PAST LIFE, was based on Rose’s novels in the Renincarnationist series. She is one of the founding board members of International Thriller Writers and runs the blog- Buzz, Balls & Hype. She is also the co-founder of Peroozal.com and BookTrib.com.

To learn more about M.J., please visit her website.

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