Monday, July 2, 2012

Talking with Alyssa Harad, author of Coming to My Senses

The July issue of Open Letters is live, and includes a long interview with Alyssa Harad, whose new memoir, Coming to My Senses, will be officially released on July 5. Alyssa and I spoke on Skype a few months ago and she had so many fascinating things to say about her journey into perfume I could not fit them all onto one web page, so I'll be posting a few more bits from our conversation here in the coming weeks (watch this space!). In the meantime, please do read the interview to learn about Alyssa's book and get her take on the rules of perfume (hint: first rule is there are no rules), perfume as gift economy, how perfume writing is like the liner notes from a jazz LP, why it's OK to love "beautiful, useless things" and much more. Here's a brief excerpt:
I find it interesting that some people can never get past that initial suspicion, like if you say “This smells like jasmine and rose,” they say, “I don’t believe you’re really smelling that.” But some people just get it, they’ll smell something and say, Oh, that smells really green. I think it’s somewhere between a knack and just being open-minded – to realize we’re not all lying! 
I was showing a friend of mine Paestum Rose, and I started going through the whole story with her, saying, OK, this opens on a very clear, bracing resinous note, and then in 20 minutes it quiets down and gets smoky and then this beautiful dark rose opens up in the middle of it. This particular friend has a very good nose, probably better than mine, and she is overwhelmed by most commercial perfume. So she smells it at the beginning and says, “Oh, yeah, it’s like going for a walk in the woods, it’s really great.” Then we talked for a while and she smelled it again and she said, “Oh my gosh – it really does change! I thought you were making that part up!”

Ha! See? The skeptics! It’s the same thing with wine tasting, you just don’t believe it if you’ve never paid that much attention. Like, no way, no way wine can taste like cedar and hot dogs, I just don’t believe it.

I think those kinds of descriptions are very easy to parody because they sound really over the top, which is also why I’m in love with them. I love the over-the-top, drag-queen quality of these long, poetic recitations of unlikely things that somehow all fit together in these perfumes, but I think that there are a lot of people for whom that kind of language is just inherently suspicious. Either they think that the scents are going to be lacking in some way because they’re missing something, or that you’re just really pretentious. But people who think you’re being pretentious are mostly just worried about being made fun of or not understanding something. And frankly, in any area where there’s connoisseurship happening, where people are obsessed with something and they have their own vocabulary for it and they’re lavishing attention on this object that other people may or may not care about it, there’s a huge opportunity for being pretentious.

It makes me think of really esoteric indie music journalism with those subcategories and genres like shoegazing and dubstep, and nobody outside of that world knows what those things mean.

Now that you’re saying that I realize that my love of obscure language goes outside of perfume and wine and food. I used to spend a lot of time looking through my dad’s jazz LP collection, because they have these amazing liner notes, like someone had just toked up and gone to their typewriter after being at the clubs till 2 am. It was very clear that something incredibly passionate was happening even if I couldn’t understand a single word of it.
I also contributed to the Summer Reading feature, recommending three books about "youth and malice":
I love books about children bearing witness to acts of brutality, committing those acts themselves, or simply getting their first glimpse of the common cruelties of adult life. That psychological shock adds much needed darkness to the coming-of-age genre, which too often focuses on teenage sex over deeper-cut losses of innocence. In summer, especially, when light beach reading is in order and nostalgia hits a peak, young-adult adventure, fantasy, and/or romance novels are popular with everyone. Allow me to suggest these three novels as an alternative to the latest YA bestseller, each a classic or near-classic that features shrewd young characters confronting evil and heartache (in the heat of high summer, no less).
You can read more about my recs (A High Wind in Jamaica, The Member of the Wedding, and The Quick & the Dead) here.


  1. My mom saw the review of Alyssa's book in the NYTimes and thought it you, Elisa, who wrote it and she got all excited and sent me a pic of the review from her phone. Now I'm excited to send her the link to your interview of Alyssa.

    1. I WISH I wrote a perfume book getting reviewed in the New York Times! Maybe next decade. Tell your parents I say hi!