By Nancy Bilyeau
M.J. Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances is the sort of read I adore: well-crafted suspense, vivid description, romantic tension, and, best of all, fascinating historical passages. I was lucky enough to score an advance copy a few months ago and I’m still luxuriating in its richness. The virtual blog tour for my own novel, The Crown, is still going strong, thanks to the divine Amy Bruno’s Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. When I saw that M.J. Rose just launched her own tour, I had to raise my hand. For the first time, I’m interviewing a fellow thriller author—and it’s great fun to use my journalistic background to take a seat on the other side of the (virtual) desk.
First, let me share a description of M.J.’s book, The Book of Lost Fragrances:
"A sweeping and suspenseful tale of secrets, intrigue, and lovers separated by time, all connected through the mystical qualities of a perfume created in the days of Cleopatra—and lost for 2,000 years.
Jac L’Etoile has always been haunted by the past, her memories infused with the exotic scents that she grew up surrounded by as the heir to a storied French perfume company. In order to flee the pain of those remembrances—and of her mother’s suicide—she moves to America, leaving the company in the hands of her brother Robbie. But when Robbie hints at an earth-shattering discovery in the family archives and then suddenly goes missing—leaving a dead body in his wake—Jac is plunged into a world she thought she’d left behind.
Back in Paris to investigate her brother’s disappearance, Jac discovers a secret the House of L’Etoile has been hiding since 1799: a scent that unlocks the mysteries of reincarnation. The Book of Lost Fragrances fuses history, passion, and suspense, moving from Cleopatra’s Egypt and the terrors of revolutionary France to Tibet’s battle with China and the glamour of modern-day Paris. Jac’s quest for the ancient perfume someone is willing to kill for becomes the key to understanding her own troubled past. The ancient perfume someone is willing to kill for becomes the key to understanding her own troubled past."
M.J. Rose is an internationally best-selling author of 11 novels and two books of nonfiction. 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.
Nancy Bilyeau: Hello, M.J.! How did you get the original idea for The Book of Lost Fragrances?
M.J. Rose: I was reading about Cleopatra (69 BCE to 30BCE), who was the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, and found she 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) that were 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.
When I read about that book, I knew I had the idea for a new novel.
N.B.: You have at least one character in this book that has appeared in previous books? But would you describe “Lost Fragrances” as a series?
M.J.R.: It’s a very loose series and it doesn’t have to be read in order. On purpose all of the books are written to be stand-alones. What does tie them together is each one touches on reincarnation. I am fascinated on how the past influences the present.
And yes, Malachai Samuels does show up as a character in all the books but he’s never the main character. He’s a reincarnationist in search of legendary lost “memory tools” which can help us access our past life memories.
N.B.: In this novel, I particularly liked the way you used point of view—you leap around very nimbly in the present and then you open up the past to describe very key events. What are the secrets to writing multiple points of view –and on different time tracks?
M.J.R.: I don’t know the secret. I didn’t even know there was one☺ But thanks so much for the compliment. I write and then rewrite forever.
N.B.: How do you research the past times in the book?
M.J.R.: I read a lot and make collages of images I find. Researching all these time periods is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing these books.
N.B.: Did you have a favorite past place to lose yourself in: Paris or Egypt?
M.J.R.: Paris for sure. The most magical city. I can’t spend enough time there.
N.B.: Do you use different “rules” for dialogue and action and descriptive writing in the past than in the modern-day sections?
M.J.R.: Not really rules, no. When I write, the scene plays out in my mind like a movie and the characters seems to help me stay in the right time.
N.B.: I really fell in love with the chapter early in “Fragrances” set in the family crypt. The way you described it made me feel as if I were there. Did you use a specific place to inspire you or was it all from imagination?
M.J.R.: Thank you. So much. I had once seen a photo of the angel sculpture I used in the tomb – I built the whole structure around that angle bathed in cobalt blue light.
N.B.: How much did you know of the history of fragrance creation before you started researching this book? How much additional research did you do?
M.J.R.: When I was in advertising I had a perfume account (one of the fragrances I did was Opium). I learned a lot about the current industry but only learned about the history when I started thinking about this novel. I did more than two years of research, reading dozens of books, meeting with many people in the business, and experimenting a bit with perfume myself.
N.B.: Do you have your own theories on reincarnation and how did they come into play in the book?
M.J.R.: I don’t have my own theories, no. But I’m endlessly fascinated by it.
N.B.: What about the power of scent and how it intertwines with reincarnation? Did you uncover fascinating little known facts and theories when writing this book?
M.J.R.: I think so, yes. One being that ancient cultures used incense – sometimes slightly hallucinogenic incense — to induce meditative states during which you could discover your past life.
N.B.: Finally, what is your favorite scent—and why?
I love many but I’d have say that my favorite is Âmes Soeurs, the Scent of Soul mates. It was created for my novel – a dream I had but never imagined would come true.
I had wanted to commission a fragrance from the tine I started writing the book and looked into it but to do it well with a really quality perfumer was astronomically expensive. And 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 sense 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.
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Thank you for a fascinating interview, M.J. Rose! This novel, published by Atria Books, goes on sale March 13, 2012.