So it was exciting for me to welcome Kelli Stanley and to read her blog on perfumes today. Kelli is one of my favorite people and she also celebrated a book launch on the same day as me. It is her eagerly anticipated third Miranda Corble novel, set in San Francisco in 1940. If you want to know what San Francisco was like in the good old days, you only have to read Kelli's books for the city to come to life.
So talk to us about perfumes, Kelli!
Kelli Stanley: Thanks, Rhys.
Fragrance of the Past
Do you remember your first perfume/personal fragrance? Was it fruity or flowery? Musky or spicy? Did you wear it to prom? Do you recall the image you had of yourself when you wore it … carefree, perhaps, tender or maybe even exotic?
For male readers, was an aftershave fragrance part of your first shaving ritual? Was it a gift from a family member? How did it make you feel? Glamorous? Strong? Worldly?
A personal fragrance—perfume or cologne or aftershave—can be incredibly powerful in how we define ourselves, especially when young. I remember the giddy sense of freedom and adulthood I felt when I bought a bottle of “Charlie” as a young teen … I remember the “Avon Lady” coming over once or twice a month during the short period of my childhood when we lived in the suburbs, and the images and evocations associated with the various scents.
I remember the vague feeling of sexy naughtiness in the Enjoli television commercials, a perfume which seemed both liberating and confining (do I really have to “fry it up in a pan?” Can’t I just bring the bacon home??), but embraced and encapsulated the whole 1980s “Super Woman” myth.
The fact is, our good ol’ olfactory sense (commonly known as “The Nose”) is a powerful link to both private and public memory. The smell of a pine tree may bring back recollections of the winter months … the heavy fragrance of a powdery scent may remind you of your grandmother … “Old Spice” may make you think of your first boyfriend.
Some smells are associated with places and times that we don’t really think about until—there—buttered popcorn and we’re back at a Saturday matinee, or the sweet, sticky scent of cotton candy and we’re 12 years old, waiting in line for tickets at a summer carnival. I can’t smell the mixture of sourdough bread, salt water and crab without missing Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
As a little girl, in Tacoma, Washington, the overpowering odor of pulp mills and Puget Sound smelled like home. These days, if I’m traveling north (usually on a trip to sign at the wonderful Seattle Mystery Books!), I can barely catch a sniff of the formerly powerful “Tacoma Aroma”, and when I do—unexpectedly pungent memory magic. J
Smells are embedded in our experience of life. The time, the place, how we feel about ourselves (is it a Love’s Baby Soft night or Chanel No. 5?) They are certainly a big part of my tool kit as a writer, and a big help in bringing 1940 San Francisco to life.
In CITY OF GHOSTS, one of the small mysteries of the Miranda Corbie series is finally solved—part of her back story, part of what makes Miranda tick.
We learned in previous books (CITY OF DRAGONS, CITY OF SECRETS), that Miranda used to wear a fragrance called Je Reviens—part of her identity when she met John, the lover she lost in the Spanish Civil War.
This change on the surface is a key to her image of herself, her refusal to show vulnerability, her desire to keep people at a safe distance. I thoroughly research everything in my books, and perfume is no exception. Je Reviens ( “I will return”) is a very sweet, feminine scent developed by the House of Worth in 1932. The top notes are orange blossom and jasmine, and it’s still made, though the formula has changed a great deal.
[Note: I look for vintage perfumes on Ebay and (if affordable) buy them – even after sixty years, the smell is often truer to the original than a contemporary remake.]
Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) is a storied fragrance from the House of Guerlain, purportedly the favorite of independent, strong women like Katherine Hepburn. Created in 1933 and inspired by and named after the second book of author Antoine Saint Exupery, it’s a perfume that celebrates the heady exuberance and freedom of aviation’s early years, a mad dash for the liberating sky by women like Jacqueline Cochran, and of course the “Queen of the Air”, Amelia Earhart.
Vol de Nuit is a fragrance I’d wear myself and I sometimes do, when I want to feel closer to Miranda. It helps me channel her feelings and how important a sense of freedom is to her self-preservation—which, as readers know, is rather challenged to begin with.
CITY OF GHOSTS tells the story of when, how and why she made the change from Je Reviens to Vol de Nuit. The answers may surprise you. But then—that’s what mysteries are supposed to do, right? J
BOOK GIVEAWAY: So were you a Charlie girl, too? Or Babe? Or Enjoli? Share your first fragrance or aftershave or cologne below and win a signed copy of CITY OF GHOSTS!