Margot Berwin: Scent of Darkness

Author Margot Berwin’s new novel Scent of Darkness examines the power of scent and how it alters a young woman’s life. The book takes readers on a journey “deep into the bayous of Louisiana, to a world filled with fortune-tellers, soothsayers and potent elixirs.”

Here is a portion of the book’s synopsis from the website of publisher Pantheon/Knopf Doubleday:

“Evangeline grows up understanding the extraordinary effects of fragrance. Her grandmother Louise is a gifted aromata, a master of scent-making and perfume. When Eva is eighteen, Louise leaves her the ultimate gift—a scent created just for her. The small perfume vial is accompanied by a note in Louise’s slanted script: “Do not remove the stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change.”

From the moment Eva places a drop—the essence of fire, leather, rose, and jasmine—on her neck, men dance closer to her, women bury their noses deep into her hair, even the cats outside her bedroom cry to be near her. After a lifetime spent blending into the background, Eva is suddenly the object of intense desire to everyone around her. Strangers follow her down the street; a young boy appears at her door asking for a favor; and two men, one kind and good, the other dark and seductive, fall deeply, madly in love with her. As her greatest gift becomes an unbearable curse, Eva must uncover the secret of her scent and the message her grandmother, the woman who loved her most, wanted to tell her.”

Courtesy Pantheon/Knopf Doubleday

Courtesy Pantheon/Knopf Doubleday

Berwin’s best-selling debut novel, Hot House Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, was published in 2009 by Pantheon and was translated into 20 languages and optioned by SONY Pictures. Berwin earned her MFA from the New School in 2005 and her stories have appeared on Nerve.com and in the New York Press. She lives in New York City and you can follow her on Twitter @MargotBerwin.

After returning from a recent book tour, she was kind enough to answer a few questions about Scent of Darkness and her writing process. So I will turn it over to her …

How did the idea for Scent of Darkness originate?

Scent of Darkness is about sexual obsession, shaving and of course perfume.

When I was a kid I used to mix perfumes in the bathroom like a little four-foot chemist. Much to my mother’s dismay I’d pull the stopper out of her Chanel #5 and pour in a little of my dad’s Aqua Velva just for good measure.

As a writer I’m also a huge reader. At some point I became obsessed with books on scent and scent making such as The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr and Perfume by Suskind. I found myself learning all I could about the major perfume houses in the south of France—Guerlain, Hermes, Chanel, Creed, Houbigant, Givenchy and many more. It got to the point where I was spending all of my free time in the perfume section of Sephora or Bergdorf Goodman spraying and waving little white strips of paper in the air.

Eventually I started to make my own scents. I hit upon a combination of essential oils in a base of sunflower oil and people in restaurants and bars would come up to me and ask me what I was wearing!

I briefly thought about marketing the scent (well, actually still thinking about it) but instead I combined my love of perfume with my love of writing and turned them into a novel.

What do you hope readers will find appealing about the book?

I hope people will be intrigued enough to learn more about how perfume is constructed.

There are flowers and plants and fruits in perfumes but there are also much darker things inside of those beautiful little bottles—very dirty elements called animalics. They include ambergris, which is made from whale sperm. Not sperm whales, but whale sperm. Civet, which comes from the anal gland of the civet cat. Castoreum from the beaver. And of course musk, which comes from the anus of the musk deer.

These glands, which we remove from the animal to make perfumes, contain the sprays that animals use to mark their territory. And we use them for exactly the same reason. Just remember the next time you hug someone and you get a bit of perfume on their neck you are literally using the anal gland of an animal to mark your territory.

Then there is sado/masochistic element of the relationship between Evangeline and Michael vs. the less passionate but more sustainable relationship between her and Gabriel. I think the age old question of being in love with two men at the same time, one of whom is good and the other, evil, will resonate with readers.

Can you talk about the joys and challenges of navigating a story with elements of magical realism? It must have been a lot of fun writing the character of Evangeline and following her on her journey.

I’m not sure I love the term magical realism. I don’t know why people in our culture are so skeptical and/or cynical about the more magical aspects of life—certainly they exist and are all around us so while my work has had the magical realism term put upon it, to me what I write is actually very realistic!

I love the work of Haruki Murakami. He’s been my favorite writer over the last several years and he is a master at this style of writing. He seamlessly combines odd elements that can appear magical with the rest of mundane existence. I’ve read everything he’s written over and over again to see how it’s done. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a great example of this style.

Can you take us through your process a bit, from the initial kernel of an idea for a novel to a completed first draft? For example do you do extensive plot outlining or do you dive right in and figure out the story as you go along?

To be honest, I’m not totally sure how to answer this question. I try not to over think how a novel happens for fear that I will chase it away. For me so much of the planning of a book takes place subconsciously—and then all of a sudden I’m writing again. I never know exactly when the time to write a new book is going to arrive. And then, suddenly, I just know. I can’t explain that.

I usually sit down and write an entire first draft, quickly, without editing myself too much along the way. This can take a few months. I like to write late at night into the morning. I drink wine listen to music and sometimes read for inspiration. I take long, leisurely hours when no one else is awake and write and write till I can’t anymore. Then I wait a month or so and look at the draft again and begin honing and editing.

After four books, two of which have been published, it’s still a very mysterious process. I never know when it’s going to arrive or what will come out of it. I do use outlines, but they’re in my head. I won’t commit them to paper because it would make me feel less free in my writing. Maybe I should try it. Maybe it would make the process simpler. Maybe next time.

What were the challenges in bringing the book to life?

Writing in NYC is a big challenge for me. There’s something going on, every single second, on every block and every street corner. Couples kissing, people fighting, crying, and laughing. Ambulances screaming down the street, little kids running, trains roaring, homeless people asking for money, and food vendors hawking. It never stops, which is great for getting ideas, but bad for writing because it’s really hard to find a quiet space to think.

So while I love my city, I leave it often—pretty much whenever I’ve got an idea for a book.

With Scent of Darkness, the place I went came easily.

I was at freelancing, writing websites for an ad agency, bitching about how I couldn’t find a quiet place to write when a co-worker of mine offered me his apartment in the French Quarter. He basically handed me the keys for very little money and a month later I was living in New Orleans. I fell immediately and completely in love with the place and I thought, hmmm, how can I get this book to take place here so I can have an excuse to stay and write. So there’s a character in medical school in NYC and I thought well I’m the writer, I’ll just get him accepted to Tulane instead of Columbia. And that’s exactly what I did and I set the second half of the book in the French Quarter.

Since the blogging community is filled with writers can you offer any advice to emerging writers, whether they are fiction writers, journalists etc.?

A lot of creative writing teachers will tell you to write what you know. I say write what you don’t know. Or rather, write about what you’re interested in. The whole fun of writing, for me anyway, is learning. I would hate to spend my time writing about things and people that I already totally understand. Seems like a waste of time. Challenge your mind and write about something that is new to yourself. If it’s eye opening and mind expanding to you, it will probably feel the same to your readers. If it’s boring to you, it will definitely be boring to them.

What if anything do you enjoy about the process of promoting a book, including using social media and making author appearances.

Funny you should ask since I got home from my book tour just a week ago.

I have to say that this tour was much easier than the one for my first book. I was super-nervous all the time back then. I hated public speaking and I felt sick every time I stepped up to the mic.

This time was totally different. I loved it and I didn’t want it to end—that was one of the best things about getting published—it forced me to get over my fear of being in the spotlight. Plus they sent me down south in the middle of the winter … not a bad gig.

Scent of Darkness has been reviewed by a lot of bloggers—and it’s always really strange to read what people have to say about the book. Two separate reviewers have described my book as being about broken children. I’m pretty sure I wrote a book about perfume so I guess one person’s perfume is another’s broken child.

That said I really enjoy being a guest blogger—so thanks so much for having me!!

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