Most people think of the world around them in terms of sound and vision. As a young child, I was both deaf and rather short-sighted. Although surgery restored my hearing, and glasses corrected my vision, I’ve always retained a tendency to process the world through colours and scents, rather than other details.
My childhood memories are packed with scents: the seaweed on the salt flats at my grandfather’s house in France; the smell of chalk dust and cut grass at school; my grandmother’s red-and-black apron, which to me always smelt of chocolate.
It took me years to understand that other people didn’t experience scents in quite the same way I did; still more to understand that my experience had a name – synaesthesia: a condition whereby two or more senses overlap, so that sounds may have shapes, or numbers appear in colours, or words can trigger physical sensations.
My particular type of synaesthesia means that colours trigger scents. Sky blue is coconut: bright red is chocolate; bubblegum pink is dentist’s gas. Bright colours are more scented than darker ones and bright light always intensifies them. Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to light, and why I suffer from SAD in winter. It also affects the way I write: I often notice scent before I notice anything else, and that’s why my descriptions are so slanted towards scent and taste. With every one of my novels I have used a different scent to help me get into the creative zone, and to access the feelings and memories I so often need to access when writing. This process – not unlike that of an actor getting into character – provides a short cut into my fictional world and lends its character to the words.
Some authors write to music: I find that I write to scent. CHOCOLAT was Isphahan. BLUEEYEDBOY was L’Heure Bleue. FIVE QUARTERS OF THE ORANGE was Eau Sauvage. My new novel, THE STRAWBERRY
THIEF, was Coromandel. I don’t tend to mention these scents to my readers – they’re just part of my writing process – and yet I’ve often wondered if discussing this aspect of my work might help give an insight to people approaching the books for the first time.
I’ve always thought that reading should be as immersive an experience as possible, which means engaging all the senses; and for some time now I have been trying different approaches to storytelling – reading my own audiobooks; through music and songs with the #Storytime Band; linking fiction to recipes; working with illustrators – all in the hope of finding new ways to bring the senses into the narrative.
But scent is elusive to convey. Its impact is primarily linked to memory and the emotions, which makes it very personal and difficult to articulate. And since those things are at the heart of my writing, and especially of THE STRAWBERRY THIEF, I wanted to try and find a way of bringing some of that experience to my readers.
With that in mind, I asked CPL Aromas to create a scent to accompany a passage from the novel. I wanted the scent to be an illustration of the text in another medium; something that would help paint the scene using something other than pictures. And so I went to their labs in Bishop’s Stortford to see how the process might work – because scents have their own unique narrative, and, like stories, come from a place of imagination and creativity.
Their perfumers had created two fragrances for me; both of which were based on a chapter of my novel. Both were gourmand fragrances, though one was darkly autumnal – a petrichor combination of amber, chypre, cumin, bitter chocolate, cedarwood – and the other was a lighter, drier combination of many of the same ingredients, with a cheery bright note of vanilla and buttery popcorn on the drydown. I loved them both, but I thought the lighter, brighter one might be more suitable for an April launch. To me it smelt of the changing winds; the turning of the seasons. And it was strange and unusual – and not entirely comfortable – and I loved the way it accompanied my narrative, telling a story of its own in its own ephemeral medium.
The book launched last month, and vials of the scent were posted, along with copies of the beautifully jacketed ARCs, to bloggers, authors and influencers all over the world. The reaction was immediate. Even in the jaded world of book reviewing, there was a wave of palpable excitement and interest. I scented three thousand special tip-in sheets for the Waterstones special edition with it: they took me a whole weekend to complete, and my study was scented with it for many days afterwards. We arranged for scented bookmarks to be made available to independent bookshops, and as I approached my book tour I experimented with different ways to enable readers to share in the scent illustrations.
On one occasion I read from the book whilst wafting the scent over the heads of the audience with the help of a black-and-gold Chinese fan. On others, I passed strips of scented blotters around the auditorium. Where the audiences were too large for this to be practical, I simply spritzed the pages of their new books with the scent as readers queued up for signings. The reactions were unexpected and delightful. People bonded over the scent, trying to work out ingredients, telling me how it made them feel. Some shared their own scent memories. Men (always more suspicious of the more sensual aspect of my books), often refused the scent at first, but later, relenting, came back for a spritz. People loved it; discussed it; were surprised, and moved, and astonished by it. People who had heard of it pleaded for a sample. People whose books had lost their scent wrote to me to beg for more. Many, many people have asked me if it will ever be commercially available: I told them it wasn’t up to me, but that I hoped it might be some day.
A story doesn’t need a scent, of course: just as no story really needs pictures. And yet, sometimes, illustrations – be they visual or otherwise - can connect us more closely to a story than words alone. This scent experiment proves that. Scent creates connections. Like music, it heightens emotions and makes the story come to life. This is not the first time that I have tried to illustrate a story with scent, but it is the first time that the public has been allowed to share in the experience. I have found it rewarding in ways that I did not anticipate. And I’m already making plans to try to expand the experiment, perhaps even one day to create a scent of my own.
For the moment, however, this has been a delightful education in the potency of scent; its narrative; its capacity to touch people from all kinds of backgrounds. And for those of you who have not experienced Tim Gage’s scent, Xocolatl, this is the section of the book that inspired its creation:
“I walk into the kitchen. The scent of chocolate is strong, strong enough to silence her voice. The scent of other places rushes in to fill the void; the ozone of the Pacific; the salt tang of the Côte d’Emeraude. I put a handful of Criollo beans into the grinder. Their scent is very far from sweet. I can smell oud, and sandalwood, and the dark scents of cumin and ambergris. Seductive, yet faintly unsavoury, like a beautiful woman with unwashed hair. A moment in the grinder, and the beans are ready to use. Their volatile essence fills the air, freed from one form into another. The Maya tattooed their bodies, you know, in order to placate the wind. No, not the wind. The gods. The gods.
I add hot water to the beans and allow them to percolate. Unlike coffee beans, they release an oily kind of residue. Then I add nutmeg, cardamom and chilli to make the drink that the Aztecs called xocoatl – bitter water.”
For me, chocolate is red, of course. That’s the reason for the sprayed edges of the book proofs, and the bright scarlet lettering of the book jacket. But in spite of this, and in spite of the fact that I wrote it to the strains of Coromandel, THE STRAWBERRY THIEF will henceforth now smell forever of Xocolatl to me.
* Image of Joanne Harris by Kyte Photography