Denyse Beaulieu (Grain de Musc / The Perfume Lover) Interview

The Perfume Lover by Denyse Beaulieu
'The Perfume Lover' by Denyse Beaulieu - Image Courtesy of Harper Collins

Last year when I visited Paris for my first true fragrance journey, I held in my hands the tour from the Grain de Musc blog – which highlighted just about every perfumer point of interest on both banks. When I posted my first day write up on Basenotes, I linked to the tour and to my great delight, I received an eMail from blogger Denyse Beaulieu. We met the next day for coffee and I was enamored by her knowledge, experience, candor, and passion for all things fragrance. She typifies the term “bawdy broad” – the ultimate compliment that I give to a woman who speaks her mind and tells it like it really is. In her debut book The Perfume Lover, A Personal History of Scent (recently published in the UK and coming in 2013 to the USA), she tells the story of meeting perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and the creation of Seville a l’aube, using it to frame a life of loving fragrance, men, and life (but not necessarily in that order). The book is not only an amazing introduction to the world of fragrance but a refreshing course in perfumery told through narcotic vignettes that will force you to keep reading. I had the honor of interviewing Denyse on the phone recently, and here is what we spoke of.

RS: Your love and passion for fragrance and life comes through in your writing, both in your blog and your book. What inspired you to start blogging about fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: Basically, because it is so hard to write about fragrance, it was a real challenge for me as a writer. I have always loved fragrance, and the book was a way of exploring not only the making of a fragrance, but the making of a perfume lover. How do you become a perfume lover? How do you come to make sense of your life through scent?

RS: Was it a challenge to go from blogging to writing the full book, or was it a natural progression?
Denyse Beaulieu: I couldn’t just expand the blog. I took bits and pieces out of the blog to feed the book, but I had been asked to write a first person narrative by my editor. That narrative was provided almost miraculously while I was already in talks with the editor. Bertrand Duchaufour decided that he wanted to make a perfume based on a story that I had told him. He then agreed for me to be able to chronicle the whole development. That was really the narrative thread that I needed.

Denyse Beaulieu
Denyse Beaulieu

RS: So the two just happened at the same time? You didn’t have to come up with the idea to write about fragrance and your editor didn’t tell you to find a perfumer to write about?
Denyse Beaulieu: No, not at all. It all just happened almost at the same time and things clicked into place. I had been preparing a different project with my agent, who was seeing different editors. During the time that I was pursuing talks with the woman who did become my editor, Jenny Heller, I happened to mention that there was a perfumer who was interested in making a perfume based on a story of mine. She suggested making the development the narrative thread of the book. So I had to go back to Bertrand and see if he would accept the disclosing and he did. Things really happened when and how they were supposed to happen. The miraculous thing is that I never really sought out any of this. It sounds like a dream to say it. It just sort of happened.

RS: I love how the book is structured, every story brings up an image, flashback or a perfume lesson. Did you chart it out in your head? How did you do the structure like that?
Denyse Beaulieu: It really came organically. I wrote the book as Bertrand and I were developing the fragrance. As it evolved, it dictated the flashbacks, memories, the technical and historical explanations, or meeting people. For example, I sought out Serge Lutens because A: he had been very important in my life as a perfume lover and B: I wanted to find out how he worked with Christopher Sheldrake. He didn’t really tell me his secret, but he did say exactly what I needed to hear, which was to listen to what the perfume needed to become.

RS: I noticed when you speak to French people about perfume they don’t always make clear what they are trying to say and you need to surmise what they are saying.
Denyse Beaulieu: When you are working on a perfume in progress it is going to dictate its own terms. The difficulty is getting to achieve a form with smells that speaks to you deeply, that speaks to your initial story. That’s the difficult thing, you can lose track. Perfume making is like writing, or composing music. It is elaborate, at each fork you have to decide which ways you are going to go and sometimes double back. It is really a protracted process, so you really shouldn’t lose sight of the initial ‘wow’ that made you say that this is going to make a great perfume. That was my role- to not lose track of that.

RS: I noticed several times as you were making the fragrance, something new would come along and change the way that you were going and you would double back and change it to where it was going before.
Denyse Beaulieu: Not necessarily to where it was before, but Bertrand would go into a direction and I would really have to go back and center myself on the initial story. A couple of times I felt that he was pursuing something that interested him, but it wasn’t really the story. We would have our moments of doubt, and it was very scary because I had never done that before and he really demanded that I weigh in. I was scared that my opinion would make him take a wrong turn : that could really frustrate and confuse him. There were actually a few crises like that during the development.

RS: In a way, you were like the editor of the fragrance. As a blogger, you are free to write whatever you want pretty much. Was it a challenge to work with an editor in your book writing?
Denyse Beaulieu: Not too much though I sometimes got defensive about her suggestions. There is a culture in the Anglo-Saxon world of creative writing workshops, where you submit your work to a group and hear a lot of critiques, but in France, where I spent most of my life, writers don’t work like that. I really didn’t want too many people interfering, so the editor was the only person that I really listened to. I started by listening to myself, and after a while some of what she said made sense. It ultimately had to come from me. That is the same relationship that I had with Bertrand. I would bring something forward, he couldn’t listen at that point and then later on it all just clicked into place. At times he would bring in an element of the perfume and I said no, no- for example, lavender. The very first submission that he made to me had lavender in it. For me, that was a really masculine note and I rejected it. He brought it back much later, and all of a sudden it just clicked and shed light on the whole structure. That was the moment where I said, ‘yes, we are there.’ Of course we weren’t there yet, he still had dozens and dozens of mods to make. Sometimes he would listen to me, but other times he would go back to his ideas because he is a stubborn man. He clearly knows what he is doing, though. It is a dialogue which requires a lot of respect, listening, and trust.

RS: How long did it take to write the book and make the fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: They both took about a year and a half.

RS: Was it always the idea to package and sample the fragrance with the book?
Denyse Beaulieu: They actually aren’t going to be packaged together because the fragrance is coming out a few months later than the book. I do not work for L’Artisan Parfumeur, I was merely Bertrand’s guest during the process. They gave him freedom and he used that freedom to invite me, but I was not working for the brand at any point. Of course, when L’Artisan Parfumeur decided to put out the fragrance, they had discussions with HarperCollins. There is coordination, but either product can live without the other.

RS: At the end, how many revisions of the fragrance were there?
Denyse Beaulieu: We were up to 130 at the end and there were a couple more tiny tweaks. Since Bertrand had me to talk to on one hand and the team from L’Artisan Parfumeur on the other, he didn’t have that many people weighing in. Fortunately, everyone was in accordance at every major step. Nobody disagreed about what should be done. It goes a lot more quickly that way. It is still a super long process, a year and a half. I haven’t counted how many work sessions that we had, but there were dozens and dozens of little vials.

RS: Do you still wear any of the sample mod vials as much, or more than the final version?
Denyse Beaulieu: No, the final version is really the only one that I wear. I think that it will be my signature scent for a while. There were a couple of mods that really moved me, but they were not the complete perfumes.

RS: Has creating a fragrance changed the way that you critique other fragrances?
Denyse Beaulieu: Yes, of course. Now I know how hard it is to do. Bertrand is independent and people seek him out for his own style. It is a very different approach to somebody who is working for a big company and has to take into account what the marketing team is saying and what the consumer panels say. Those are the guys to whom I cut more slack because they are in the system. They aren’t necessarily giving everything that they can because that is not how the system works. When you have a lot of people interfering in the process, you are not going to produce something as moving or powerful.

RS: So with the independent perfumers, you may demand more of them because it is their unaffected vision, as opposed to something coming from corporate which has a more affected vision of it?
Denyse Beaulieu: It is difficult to tell, because if you have your own company, you’re really the only one deciding what you want to put out. When the company owner is the perfumer, you can say that he is expressing his undiluted vision. Sometimes perfumers work for niche companies but they are still in the system. It is difficult to know what’s going on if you are not actually there in the labs to see.

RS: Did you coin the term “scent slut” or did that come from somewhere else?
Denyse Beaulieu: I think that I coined it, but other people may have found it also because it sounds so good.

RS: In your book did you ever feel like you were exposing too much of your personal and sensual life?
Denyse Beaulieu: I have always talked that way and written that way. Freely, the way I live. I am accountable to no one and nothing but the writing. My life is my material, because it’s an eventful, novelesque life ! Since the perfume was based on a very erotic, sensual memory, it kind of drew those other memories of my life. Perfume has always been about death, life, healing, religion and eroticism. They are very powerful emotions and the perfume really pulled that out of me.

RS: Have you thought about your book being used as a text book for one of your fragrance appreciation classes?
Denyse Beaulieu: I would really hope that they would read it. Which means I would have to come up with other stuff to teach them ! Fortunately, there is still so much to be done in exploring the world of fragrance. I will never be short of material to develop.

RS: Have your parents or students read the book?
Denyse Beaulieu: My parents haven’t read the book that I know of. I know my mother reads my blog.

RS: Have you read the critiques of your book online?
Denyse Beaulieu: No, not really. What’s the use ? The book is done, it’s out there, people will make what they want of it.

RS: When you started your fragrance journey, did you ever imagine that you would have a fragrance made based on one of your stories?
Denyse Beaulieu: Not for a second. Not being a brand owner or able to commission a perfume with my own money, I never imagined it would happen that way.

RS: Now that you have worked with Duchafour, is there another perfumer that you would like to make a fragrance with, or are you strictly a one perfumer girl?
Denyse Beaulieu: I would love to work with different people. I am also thinking that I would love to seek out younger perfumers before they are all bent by the system. Great perfumers can certainly make very beautiful things within the corporate world, but it is not that easy. It is pretty frustrating most of the time. The young people can be creative and fearless and I would love to go reach out to them.

RS: They would have to be a strong one to stand up to you though.
Denyse Beaulieu: Not necessarily. We can be in tune with each other. I think that perfumers love to be brought to places that they wouldn’t go by themselves.

RS: Good answer. Do you think that your upbringing in an anti-fragrance household contributed to your passion for fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: It is a possibility. People usually assume that I am interested in fragrance because it was forbidden when I was a kid. My father maintains that I am sort of reinventing that story a little bit. I was a kid, so that was how I perceived it. He says that it wasn’t that bad and he just couldn’t stand it when it was too strong.

RS: I loved your chapter on blogs when you basically traced the history of the phenomena. Where do you see the world of fragrance blogging going next?
Denyse Beaulieu: That is a good question. I think that it is developing exactly like the perfume market. There are mainstream blogs and niche blogs that have their own particular sensibility and that have their own specific readership. I don’t know how much the readership can expand. I suppose that it can expand a lot still. When I started out reading blogs there were about five or six. Everyone knew each other and commented on each other’s blogs. Everybody had the same readership. It has become a much bigger world now.

RS: In the fashion world, fashion bloggers are a really big influence where designers court the bloggers. Do you see fragrance going the same way as that?
Denyse Beaulieu: Yes, it is an interesting thing. The fragrance world has lagged very much behind the fashion world in embracing that sort of coverage. In fashion it is perhaps easier to have a fashion culture because it is visual. Our culture is visual. You can post pictures of shows, etc. Perfume is more technical and you have a lot of trade secrets in it. It has been much more difficult for the industry to embrace outsiders looking in. For example; if you have a launch, it is going to be about 3 months before the perfume comes out. If you invite bloggers, they can obviously write about it the next day and you are going to ruin your roll out. The PR people do have their jobs to do and it is tricky for them to decide how to deal with bloggers. We can provide free PR, but we’re also loose cannons.

RS: With that being said, I have always found that when I read an article about fragrance, it really has nothing to do with what I am actually smelling. That is one of the reasons why I have always liked blogs more, it is more real. That’s where I thought that blogging would replace the mainstream journalism version of fragrance. What do you think about that?
Denyse Beaulieu: I am not sure that it will replace it, it does bring another view point since the bloggers are, in principle, independent. There is a limit of what you can write about fragrance in magazines since the magazine has perfume companies as advertisers. That’s why beauty editors don’t have much wiggle room to express themselves, though many are very knowledgeable about fragrance. There are some codes to go by since the advertisers want their perfumes discussed in a certain way. If you displease them it might cause friction with the advertising department.

RS: After Oud, what do you see as the next big note or trend in fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: I haven’t really thought about that! Oud is still going strong – Francis Kurkdjian just launched one. I think that Oud will shift. It would be interesting to see Oud become a note among other notes. To be used not only in French-Arabian perfumery but in the palette as a woody animalic note.

RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Denyse Beaulieu: I hope that they enjoy the perfume and the book. The perfume is outstanding, not just because I participated in it, but because it is utterly gorgeous. I hope they’ll enjoy it when it comes out this summer.

The Perfume Lover is available in the UK and will be released in the US/Canada in early 2013.  Denyse’s blog Grain de Musc is definitely worth bookmarking for regular reading.

Interview conducted March 2012.