We were invited to a party the other night. That’s a rare enough occurrence on its own—we hardly ever go out anymore—but this party was special. It wasn’t really a party at all, in fact, or not just a party. It was a tiny, secret show hosted by two musicians whose careers I’ve followed on and off over the years, the way you can in Austin, even if you hardly every go out anymore.
It was the kind of thing that people think happens all the time in Austin, and maybe it does, somewhere I haven’t been lately, but it seems more like the kind of thing that used to happen all the time in Austin, back when you could buy or rent a house for cheap and sort of make a living playing in the bars. Back when the ghosts of the blues trail and the chitlin’ circuit still made their presence felt and a lot of older musicians had sort of made a living long enough to be able to settle in and hang out in a lot of back yards with a lot of younger musicians who came here hoping to do exactly that.
So it was special. We knew that and so did everyone else who was there. The backyard was just the right size. Small enough for us to fill it up, but not too small for a few hay bales and a picnic table and a fire pit and a dog and a horse. A horse? “He’s just visiting,” said our host, “It’s a sleepover. We’re gonna do the Ouija board later.” There was wine and lemonade and chips and salsa and there were hot dogs to roast on the fire. We stood around and introduced ourselves and every now and then the horse pushed his nose into the conversation because he was a sociable horse, accustomed to attending parties.
“In the middle of [writing] a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical center of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of the novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it.” – Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind
I’ve always loved Zadie Smith’s description of how it feels to be in the middle of a big writing project. In the section I’ve quoted from, she goes on to describe the magical thinking that accompanies this state of mind. The way everything in the world seems relevant to what you’re working on and everything you see, hear and read becomes another lesson or hint about what you need to write next. It’s the ecstasy of writing–the flow, the madness.
The middle of the new book is where I want to be for the rest of this summer, possibly longer. I’m not there yet, but the car’s all loaded up and I’ve put a hold on my mail and I don’t care if the lawn dies. Let’s go.
Image: The unexpectedly sexy gutter of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible via a post on restoring the same from the blog of The National Museum of American History.
Coming to My Senses is going to London! (And so am I!)
When my friend Persolaise heard I was coming to London he kindly offered to help set up a small event. If you are in the area we’d love to see you. I’ll read a bit, we’ll chat and we’ll smell lots of gorgeous rare things. It’s free to attend but seating is limited (and whoa, we’re already half full!) so please reserve your spot here on eventbrite.
Persolaise is an award-winning perfume writer and I happen to know there will be lots of very interesting people in the audience–perfumistas, writers, artists. It should be quite a party. And it’s at a venerable pub (founded in 1745!) called Dirty Dicks. Which makes me giggle because I am American and have never completely grown up.
As those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook already know, I’ve recorded the first chapter and several short excerpts from Coming to My Senses. You can find them all right here on my Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/alyssaharad
They are free to share, stream and download, and I’ll be putting a couple more up soon. I hope you enjoy them!
P.S. I am still dizzy from my three days in D.C. and will be back to describe some of that soon. Happy Ph.D’s who left the academy! Scholarly discussions of civet and smelling salts! A fancy performance hall at a beautiful museum filled with women doused in vintage perfume!
My outfit won’t be quite as dazzling as Kay Johnson’s is in this still from “Madame Satan” (and I definitely won’t be smoking on stage) but I will be very glad to see you at any of the events below. At my reading/talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on Saturday, there will be lots to sniff and I’ll be signing books. All events are free and open to the public!
(Note: I am looking for some volunteers on Saturday to act as human scent strips so we can really get a feel for the vintage perfumes I’ll be bringing. If you’ll be there and are willing to extend a wrist or the back of your hand to strangers, send me a message by email (alyssa at alyssaharad dot com) or you can contact me via Twitter or Facebook. ETA: Or leave a comment! The comments work again! Yay!)
Thursday, 2/20, 4-6 pm (Reception: 6-7 pm) Roundtable on #altac/#postac: Rethinking the Humanities PhD Job Search Rome 771, George Washington University Dept. of English, 801 22nd Street, NW
I’ll be talking about my path from English Ph.D. to author along with a group of other very smart and interesting people with humanities Ph.D’s who are working outside of academia, some of whom have thought about the current structure of the academy a lot more than I have. The roundtable is designed to be a conversation and all are welcome no matter what your current relationship to the academy.
Friday, February 21, 11-1pm: Perfumed Letters Roundtable George Washington University, Marvin Center—Room 301, 800 21st Street, NW
Why do so many writers I know love perfume? How have writers used scent in their work? I’ll be talking about the intersections between literature and perfume with a poet and several scholars. Everyone on the panel is knowledgable about a different time period, but we all have a strong interest in gender, scent, history and power among other things. All participants have been encouraged to bring along a scent to share. This should be a lot of fun.
I’ll be reading from Coming to My Senses and telling a few stories about women, art and perfume and what they’ve had to do with each other over the years. In particular, I’ll be talking about the groundbreaking perfumer Germaine Cellier, a charismatic but mysterious figure whose perfumes speak volumes about her sense of what was possible for women. I’ll also discuss artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s collaboration with the Jacqueline Cochran Corporation to create an early celebrity perfume very different from most of the ones we have today. I will be bringing vintage perfumes to smell (see my call for volunteers above) and some raw materials as well.
I will also be chatting with my friend, Professor Holly Dugan, whose fascinating book The Ephemeral History of Perfume traces the language, customs and culture around scent in early modern England by focusing on the fragrances of incense, rose, sassafras, rosemary, ambergris, and jasmine. Professor Dugan will be part of the Perfumed Letters Roundtable on Friday as well, and is the person responsible for making all of these events possible. Thank you, Holly!
Coming to My Senses and The Ephemeral History of Perfume will be available for sale and signing at the event.
Folks, I know there’s been a problem with commenting on the posts for awhile. I think we’ve got it fixed. Could you pretty please tell me something–what you smell like right now, or how your day is going, or what kind of pet you have, or anything that’s been on your mind –so we know for sure?
OK, thanks for the report. It appears you are all still getting a message that asks you to put in a password when you try to comment. We're on it. (Again.)]
Blog comments are at last working again! Chat away!
The bio on Angeliska Polacheck ‘s website says she is a “WRITER, AMBIANCEUSE, WITCH, SOOTHSAYER, SILVERSMITH, OCEAN-HARPIST, ANTIQUE DEALER,” and “SPECTACLE-MAKER.” She is also Sister Temperance, Tarot card reader extraordinaire. (I’m still working up my courage to schedule a reading.) We connected online–Angeliska is also a perfume fan–and I had been wanting to meet her in person for quite some time, so when she posted an invitation on FB to her birthday party/exhibit (Angeliska can never be or do just one thing at a time) I couldn’t pass it up. It was fate.
I am delighted to announce that February’s sample collection from the niche perfume subscription service Olfactif will feature perfumes from Coming to My Senses and some notes and surprises from me throughout the month. If you want to get to the good stuff you can skip everything below and just go here. This is the story of how it happened:
I first discovered Olfactif on Twitter, when one of my non-perfumista friends–or so I thought–tweeted about receiving her monthly box of samples. Wait, I said, your what? Yes, she said, it’s a subscription service for niche perfume. Every month a new box arrives with three samples. There are stories and perfumer interviews on the blog, and a discount if you buy a full bottle.
What? I said, again. How did I not know this? So off I went to the website where among many amusing, helpful things I read this, in the FAQ’s:
There are only three rules when trying a perfume. Uncap the vial, smell the wand, then:
1. If you like it, put it on.
2. If you’re not sure, put it on.
3. If you hate it, definitely put it on.
Yes! I said, aloud, to an empty room. Yes!
The site goes on to explain that perfume is very different on skin than it is on paper or in the vial, so you should always try it on and give it time to expand before you judge it. Which is true. But it is also true that when you are first starting to explore perfume you should definitely put on the one you think you hate. Hate is a strong emotion. It indicates you’re already involved with the scent in some way. And–perhaps not just with perfume–it’s remarkable how quickly hate can flip over and become love. Some of my favorite perfumes are scents that first made me draw back in disgust and then, perversely, come back for a second sniff. Any perfume person can tell you the same thing.
I immediately wrote a fan letter to Tara Swords1 the brave and witty person handing out this advice. Hello! I said. This is terrific! I’ve written a book that makes some similar points. Maybe we could do something together?
It took some gumption for me to write that letter. I was nervous about it. So I was surprised and very happy when Tara wrote back to say, essentially, why yes, I’ve read that book and have been meaning to contact you. That’s pretty much how this collaboration has gone from beginning to end. A true back and forth connection.
It was Tara who suggested we collaborate on the February collection. She’d been looking for a non-traditional way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and thought Coming to My Senses would do the trick. This made me very happy, not only because I think Valentine’s Day should be about more than a very narrow definition of romance, but because I’ve always thought of Coming to My Senses as a love letter. This little project allows me to send you all another one.
1 Can we pause a moment to note what a great name Tara has? She’s practically a Tarot card.
Image: Jean Honore Fragonard, The Love Letter, early 1770′s
I love to read out loud. I always have. It’s been a joy to read from Coming to My Senses at my book events, and audience members often ask me if the audio book is available. Alas, it isn’t. In most cases, the publisher owns the audio rights to a book. If they don’t sell the rights to an audio book producer, there’s no audio book. So far, that’s the case for mine.
In the meantime, I decided to find out how hard it would be to record a small portion of the book. Not very, it turned out. In fact, Joel Block over at The Block House made it easy (and affordable!). So after getting permission from my publisher, I recorded the first chapter of CTMS last week in one take. I learned a lot about breath control, super-sensitive microphones, and how I might edit my work in the future (oh dear). It was so much fun that I decided I’d like to record a few more brief passages. I have my favorites, scenes I’ve read more than once at events, but I’d like to give you a vote, too.
Is there a scene or passage from Coming to My Senses that you’d like to hear me read aloud? Please let me know.
As soon as the recording is ready–probably sometime in the next couple of weeks–I’ll put up a link here and you’ll be able to listen and download it for free. I hope you’ll like it.
Image: A fossilized whale ear V. gave me several years ago.
Those of you who still come by now and then will have noticed it’s been very quiet around here. Things slowed down last spring and summer and then this past August they came to complete stop. It took me longer to quiet down on Facebook, but I’ve been almost completely absent over there, too. (Though very present, for reasons I’ll explain, on Twitter.) Once I stopped posting I found it very difficult to resume. I even considered taking down the blog altogether.
But as soon as I let myself imagine quitting I began to have ideas for blog posts and other ways I wanted to continue communicating with you all, so I’m clearly not done over here. I do think, though, that the way I use this space is going to change, and I want to see if I can explain a bit about how and why and to say something about where I’ve been and where I’m going.