Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Q&A with My Buddy Alyssa Harad Re: Her New FABULOUS Book-- Coming to My Senses

SG: First of all, congratulations. I LOVE your book. I slurped it down. I don't think we can    ever hear enough stories about the Excitement of Selling a Book to a Publisher. How did that go  for you-- did you start by getting an agent interested in a proposal, or did you write the book first? And also, along the lines of process, how long was it from inception to published book?

Thanks for the compliments! I love the word "slurped." That is exactly how I want people to feel.

I got my book contract the way I've done most other things, completely backwards and through a side door. I started out as an obsessed fangirl, trying to turn my favorite perfume blog posts into an anthology/guide to loving and understanding perfume. That project gave me the courage to try and find an agent (which is a whole other side door kind of story--we started off by agreeing we were wrong for one another but met for lunch anyway).

When we were shopping the first project around a couple of the editors said, basically, "Hey, I don't want this book but you're a very good writer. Why are you trying to do a guide? Why don't you just go write your own book?" One editor in particular expressed very strong interest in seeing another proposal for a memoir. I had already written some short personal pieces for the proposal we were trying to sell, so I said to my agent, "Oh, no problem, just give me a few days." Then I lay down on the floor and had a small panic attack. Six weeks later I had an initial draft of a proposal, but it took me almost a year to truly get it into shape and to write the two sample chapters we submitted, mostly because I had to keep taking little breaks to lie down on the floor again. I was teaching myself as I went--I'd never written anything like this before and had no idea if I could. The first time I wrote a scene with dialogue I had this feeling of relief: "Oh, look! I do know how to write dialogue! Who knew?"

I signed my contract at the end of July 2009, and it gave me 18 months to write the book. After that there was six months of revision--one round of major restructuring, and then two more rounds of line edits and copy-editing with a fair amount of waiting around in between each submission. I'm going blank on the date of my final submission--I'd have to look at emails--but I think it was the beginning of October 2011. That probably seems like a long time to most people, but am a very slow writer (it took me nearly four years to write my dissertation) so it seems astoundingly speedy to me. Except for the waiting around to hear back after the first round. That seemed like an eternity.

SG: Of the many things I love, I really think you did a great, honest job of describing how you went from being serious doctoral candidate, dedicated feminist, etc to perfume lover and pending bride. I can't overstate how much I appreciate the authenticity of your voice-- I read too many articles/books (before tossing them across the room) where it feels like the writer is trying to force a false narrative, created after the fact, to please a publisher. But I find your journey and your voice very real. When you first began writing on topics not associated with feminism, did you have any feelings of guilt or betrayal or just weirdness or did it just feel real from the get-go?

Oh, I felt tremendous guilt and worry! Especially in the beginning. I had the same boring argument with myself about selling out every five minutes or so. But that was less about my feminism per se, than about my general lefty politics, especially my politics regarding class, and a certain kind of  literary snobbery that I'd picked up in graduate school. I had spent years being critical of memoirs not unlike the one I was about to write, and even longer championing books that were dedicated to telling stories about people and events that usually get excluded from the mainstream. Not only was I writing about myself, I was going on and on about a high-end luxury product with no redeeming value other than its beauty. But those worries and internal conflicts were part of the story I was trying to tell--the way my desire to be good, to live an engaged life, had turned me into a much narrower person than I needed to be--and they were also the source of a lot of comedy.

Really, it was my feminism that allowed me to write the book. It taught me to look closely at anything that gets dismissed as frivolous and feminine to see if something subversive might be going on. And it gave me a lot to say about women and femininity and pleasure that I hope goes beyond perfume.
SG: Something else I so admire-- the narrative arc felt really natural. I'm in awe of your storytelling skills, how you build up suspense, introduce so many interesting characters, and weave in the perfume story and the wedding story. Was your writing process tortured or did the pages just pour out of you? Did you take many writing classes in school or are you to the quill born? 

This question made me laugh out loud for a long time. Then I wrote to my editor and asked if she had heard me laughing all the way in New York. Thank you so much for the lovely compliment but no, building a narrative arc is not at all natural for me. I digress, I say everything three times, I spend too much time on details and I'm always trying to pack too much in to too small a space.  I took a few writing classes as an undergraduate but I was trying to be a poet so they taught me nothing about narrative. I did learn something from my brief career as a journalist and I learned a tremendous amount about writing for a specific audience by reading and writing for the perfume blogs that led me down the rabbit hole. And once I knew more about the kind of book I wanted to write I read dozens of memoirs, good and bad, looking for things to steal and avoid, and just teaching myself more about the genre. I'm an incorrigible eavesdropper and a pretty good mimic so dialogue and characterization turned out to be fairly natural for me.  My editor helped a great deal with the overall structure of the book--the three sections were her idea.  But mostly I just wrote and re-wrote and started over and over again until I got at least halfway to what I could imagine. 

SG: I'm always curious about how characters that appear in memoirs feel about the way they are depicted. In your case, I happen to know some of the folks in your book and I felt like you really captured their spirits well. Have you had any feedback from them? Any advice for aspiring memoirists who are struggling with the desire to write about people in their life vs. upsetting those people? 

Most of the direct feedback I've had has been very positive, though I expect people are talking to one another more than they are talking to me, which is just fine. (I don't have to know everything, and people have a right to feel more than one way.)  I told all the major players in the book that they would appear and I asked permission to include certain stories. I even offered to show drafts, but no one took me up on it. I also gave nearly everyone pseudonyms, and I tried to make it clear in the book that I was not telling all that could be told--that these people would have their own versions of the events at stake.

It's very scary to write about real, living people. My book is basically a romantic comedy--I'm not trying to expose any wrongdoing or bear witness to trauma--but I still felt like it was a possibility I could alienate myself from people and communities I loved. I don't know if I have any useful advice for people beyond trying to remember that every single human being is complex enough to deserve a book--or dozens of books--of their own. I feel like it's my job as a writer to imagine as much of that complexity as I can, even if only a tiny amount of that story makes it into the book. It's not always possible to have that kind of perspective in daily life, of course, but I think it's something we can do as writers--it's an opportunity we shouldn't pass up. 

SG: I went into the book really despising perfume but as I read along the descriptions, which are awesomely pornographic (I mean that in the best sense of pornography), I felt like, "Hey, maybe I should try this perfume stuff." And you know, sometimes now I will put on a little spritz when I'm out shopping, to see if maybe I can awaken a latent love of perfume. I have to confess I still don't like perfume (though I dig some essential oils like lavender) but I'm impressed that your writing could convince me that maybe I had it all wrong. And in your adventures, you have converted a number of previous non-believers. What's it like for you, these conversion experiences?

I think you should let me come over to your house with my portable chest and let you find out firsthand! I'm convinced the for most people perfume is like poetry. They say they don't like it, but they really mean they don't know what to do with it, how to find the thing they can love. Of course some people won't ever care about it, just as some people don't like wine or food or music or animals and that's fine, too. I am truly more interested in perfume as a gateway to waking up, to sensuality, play and pleasure, than I am in converting people to the stuff itself.

But to answer your question--most of these little conversion sessions I have with people are very moving. We're talking about scent memories and the way they see themselves walking through the world. It usually goes much deeper than, "Do you like this?" And even when it doesn't sniffing things together is a very silly, very intimate thing to do. There's a lot of giggling and delight. There's a sense of daring, exploration and expansion. How could I not love that?
SG: I'm spending a lot of time here talking about the perfume side of the book. As for the wedding part-- so, okay, looking back and knowing what you know now, what are three tips you would offer brides preparing for their weddings? 

1) I think the most important thing I learned was that unless you plan on eloping, weddings are as much or more about family and community as they are about brides and grooms, which is to say they are difficult, messy, joyous neogtiations that begin the second you tell people you're engaged. This also means that...

2) You can try to make your fantasies of a special day come true, but be prepared for the fact that you will probably run up against a whole lot of other people's fantasies while you're doing so, from your mother's ideas of a perfect party to the white-dress dreams of complete strangers who feel free to give you advice. As a bride you're part of a powerful story (I was very surprised by just how powerful) that's much bigger and older than you are. You've become a symbol and, in many cases, a chance to make money (never tell people you're shopping for a wedding). Try not to take it too personally. But do...

3) Reserve a few parts of the wedding that are yours alone, and a few that belong to you and your groom. For the two of us it was the ceremony. For me it was perfume.

SG: What's next for you-- book tour? Working on a new book? And where can we find you on the internet?

I had a very tiny tour--San Francisco, Austin and New York--that will officially end in September with a trip to Boise to read in front of lots and lots of people who are in the book. Yikes. I'm going to need a little time to sit and think and write before I'm sure of my next project, but I want very much to be in the middle of a new book, it's my absolute favorite thing to do even when I'm complaining about it. In the meantime, I'm getting a blog up and running on my will also be full of  reviews, recommendations, recipes and who knows what else. And you can find me on Facebook ( and Twitter ( a little too often. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this interview, fun read. I was in Book People today and saw the book in the "new/local" section and picked it up. Congrats to Alyssa!