Perfume: A Little Piece of Fiction to Wear Against Your Skin

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

My dad has a story he used to tell about the Rose Lady. She was a regular customer at the upscale restaurant where he waited tables, and the whole staff could smell her coming from down the block. “She wore so much rose perfume,” he said. “It was like she’d showered in it. I think she’d burned out her nose and couldn’t smell it anymore.”

From this oft-repeated story, I got a sense that perfume was something tasteless and impolite. Something that you imposed on other people who weren’t entirely into the idea. This was reinforced by my mother’s perfume allergy, by the scent-free sanctuary at our U.U. fellowship, by my father’s disdain for the cloying, powdery Bath and Body Works lotion I insisted on wearing throughout high school.

“It smells like a grandmother,” he said. And then he’d launch into the story about the Rose Lady.

The irony here is that my father has excellent taste in cologne—something I didn’t realize until much later. I do remember, as a kid, looking at his bottles of Geo. F. Trumper eau de toilette and wondering how to pronounce “Marlborough,” and if “Extract of Limes” was something you were supposed to cook with or eat.

I started writing about perfume before I started wearing it. In my novel Amberlough, I was attempting to create a decadent, anachronistic world evocative of the early ‘30s: glamorous, opulent, teetering on the brink of disaster. By this time I’d figured out there was an art to wearing perfume—one utterly lost on the Rose Lady—which my monied, taste-making characters had perfected.

But I was writing mostly on speculation and imagination, never having worn much beyond the infamous old lady moisturizer, and I knew I didn’t want to smell like a grandma. Amberlough plays with sexuality and gender roles, as did the perfumes that most appealed to me: “masculine” scents heavy on leather, civet, and oak moss. Bitter and complex. So my first purchase was a sample of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Troll: a burnt, smoky-smelling mixture of vetiver, musk, and cumin. The first time I wore it out of the house, I absolutely panicked.

Everyone could smell me, I just knew it. I was as bad as the Rose Lady, maybe worse. It was too much, too in-your-face. I was sure everyone would look at each other behind my back and grimace. I was forcing my overpowering stink on fragrance-free innocents.

It didn’t matter that I loved the way I smelled; the fact that I could smell myself at all was terrifying. No one else was wearing perfume, let alone something that reeked of burnt spices. Was I not only rude, but a weirdo?

Vindication came with a Guardian article, “My quest to find the great American perfume.” Apparently, perfume paranoia isn’t uncommon in this country. Americans don’t, as a rule, like to smell too strongly, or too strange, whereas in Europe they’ve been wearing goop scraped off of cats’ balls, with pride, for centuries.

It was in this article that I discovered a link to Imaginary Authors, where each scent is inspired by the novel of an author who never existed. Their stand-out scent is City on Fire, a spicy mix of labdanum and burnt matches. The first time I put it on, my roommate walked in and asked “What smells like a fart?” But it settles down into a sweet, smoky haze once the sulfurous top notes disperse, and lingers on your skin and clothes for days.

AwkwardRobots-OrangeThe idea of disgusting smells made sexy stuck with me—much like City on Fire—until my Clarion class started putting together our annual fundraiser anthology and I needed to write a short story.

Clarion is a science fiction and fantasy writing workshop—one of the longest-running workshops of its kind. It’s six weeks long and for our class, it resulted in big career boosts and familial bonding on the order of a hivemind. We try to give back to the workshop by offering a pay-what-you-can anthology each year, filled with science fiction and fantasy, with all proceeds going to the Clarion Foundation.

Unfortunately, what came out when I sat down to write was a strange amalgamation of E.L. James and Peter Süskind: a violent, sensual story about scent and betrayal, sans robots, magic, or tentacled horrors. Still, into the anthology it went. When my dad bought his copy and read it, I got an email filled with more enthusiastic swearing than I’ve ever seen him use. “You nailed it,” he said. I should have known it would appeal to him. This is a man who described to me, in vivid detail, the plot of Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, long before I ever cracked its pages.

Around the time I was writing this short story, I had lunch with my editor. As we finished the meal, she pulled out a tiny drawstring bag. Inside was a brown glass bottle, filled with a custom perfume based on one I had invented for Amberlough: vetiver, lemons, diesel, and burnt wood. I had been avoiding citrus—too bright and usually too sweet—but the smokiness of this scent toned it down and darkened it. It’s my go-to now for evening author events: a little piece of fiction to wear against my skin.

And skin is important, in this game. Individual body chemistry reacts differently with different scents. What smells good on one person might reek on another. Once you discover what suits you, wearing that scent becomes an act of confidence and daring.

No one wants to be the Rose Lady, screaming their olfactory presence from a football field away. But properly worn, perfume transforms you into that arresting person who walks into a party a little bit late, causing a shudder of awareness through the crowd without disrupting the flow of conversation.

Perfume is tasteless and impolite, in the sexiest, most sophisticated way. It announces your personality to the people around you so you never need to say a word. When you enter a room, it’s an announcement: Like it or not, here I am.

Lara Elena Donnelly lives in a magical Brooklyn apartment with two swell humans and two needy pets. She is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writers’ workshops, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in Mythic Delirium, Escape Pod, and Strange Horizons, among other venues. Her vintage-glam spy thriller Amberlough is forthcoming from Tor in January 2017. Her scent-centric story, “The Dirty American,” can be found in The Orange Volume, a fundraiser anthology put together by the Clarion Class of 2012, available on a pay-what-you-can basis. For more information, visit awkwardrobots.org.

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