Interviews Exclusive Interview with Deanna Raybourn

Exclusive Interview with Deanna Raybourn

01/09/14 13:41:21 (4 comments)

by: Suzy Nightingale

The ways in which some authors connect to their characters and the methods they use to channel these voices are myriad, but in my experience usually involve some kind of instinctive sensory change. Be it a particular genre of music or watching films from the era the novel is set in, visiting locations to see at first hand the sights their character would have or even changing the food they eat or perfume they wear to match the setting of the story; all of these mood-altering methodologies allow the author to focus their perception to that of the character's, a portal to the world that already exits within them, as many seem to explain it, and therefore gives them a direct way of experiencing that for themselves.

It always puts me in mind of actors who subscribe to the "method" way of immersing themselves so fully in the fictional setting that they live and breathe the life of the character they are portraying. For a period of time they actually strive to become the character, inside and out. Of course lots of authors don't use any such meditative ways of connecting while writing, and it is perhaps a good thing they don't attempt to "become" some of their characters, but rare is the novel that hasn't at some point been sensorily researched for an authenticity that springs from the page and into the reader's imagination.

One of my favorite authors of the past few years is Deanna Raybourn, a writer who manages to create intriguingly flawed but fascinating characters inhabiting page-turning historically set stories—so much more than the label of "romance" can hope to describe—full of luscious descriptions that I have remembered long after closing the book. Having been intrigued by the author herself and wanting to find out more, I subscribed to her blog, and was delighted—though not at all surprised—to discover that she was a fellow perfume fanatic. Quite subliminally, I think, my favorite writers tend to be skilled at drawing the reader into their world by sensorily describing it so well you feel you are right there, seeing what the characters see, smelling the air they themselves breathe, creating an olfactory immediacy. I don't think I can truly enjoy a story in which I don't know what the world I am reading about smells like, which may sound incredibly weird to some people but I know Fragrantica readers are bound to understand and empathize with!

In her blog, Deanna often talks about her relationship to fragrance, the memories that are triggered by it and the way she uses it to enhance her connection to the characters she creates.

In one entry she describes how "... fragrance can conjure a character better than almost any other sense, I've found. I bought a tea olive candle in New Orleans and burn it while I'm writing. (It reminds me of standing in a French Quarter courtyard under a tea olive tree that was just beginning to bloom.) I've taken a bundle of vetiver tied with a ribbon and tucked it into a bookcase to sniff from time to time. And, perhaps not too strangely, I've found myself gravitating toward perfumes that my character might have worn, nothing flowery or feminine, but gutsy, bold fragrances that are decidedly masculine."

In another post Deanna goes into great detail when suggesting to readers how they might also like to recreate the atmosphere of her novel A Spear of Summer Grass:

"If you’re reading the book, you might want to set the mood. Put on some speakeasy jazz—preferably Duke Ellington’s East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, the song I had on repeat as I wrote. Mix up a Black Velvet cocktail if you dare—champagne and Guinness and not for the faint of heart. Dab on a little of L’Artisan’s “Passage d’Enfer”, a perfume I think Delilah would stroke behind her knees to waft behind her as she walks. And don’t forget to pay a visit to the Café d’Enfer, the inspiration behind the Club d’Enfer, Delilah’s favorite haunt in Paris."

Answering a fan's question as to the perfumes one of her characters may have chosen to wear, Deanna explained that "In the book, I mention her wearing Shalimar--very new and fashionable for the time. She'd wear Orientals, not flirty florals, that much is certain. (Joy was created a few years after my book is set, and it would NOT have been a favorite of this girl's, although she might well have dabbled in Chanel No. 5 because the innovative use of aldehydes would appeal to her.) Because she is half-Southern, the tea olive and vetiver scents would be very nostalgic for her, and while she might not wear them, she would certainly have them in her home. Any perfume that is exotic or based in incense or amber or vetiver would appeal to her." It seems that Deanna doesn't merely imagine what fragrance a given character would wear (or not wear), she *knows* it instinctively.

In another blog entry, Deanna ponders the triggering of memories by suddenly smelling something and being transported back to a very particular time or place, or remembering a loved one. Talking about an olfactory memory that took her completely by surprise, she describes smelling Youth Dew:

" ... According to legend, it was created for a Russian princess, and I am inclined to believe it. It is bold and spicy, and for a very long time I didn't realize it was the only fragrance my favorite great-aunt wore. But a few months ago I was passing an Estée Lauder counter and whipped around at the familiar smell. I tested several bottles until I hit upon Youth Dew and it was as if someone had bottled up my darling great-aunt. I almost bought a bottle, but decided against it. For me, Youth Dew is unapologetically and forever hers."

Indeed, Deanna created a scent memory for her own daughter by using perfume: "When she was a small child, I only ever wore Chanel No. 5, and for her, that perfume, warmed by my skin, is the purest form of comfort. I wear a few dozen scents now, but whenever we're feeling a little fragile and in need of emotional sustenance, I reach for the black-topped bottle with the interlocking C's. I know that when she is an old woman, that scent above all others, will conjure my memory for her. Curious how fragrance, so fleeting and so intangible, can evoke such strong emotions. I read once that the olfactory sense is the one linked most closely to memory, and it's certainly true in my experience."

As well as using a scent to conjure a character's voice within her, or to re-live her own memories, Deanna talks candidly with her readers about her own flirtations with fragrance:

" ... The Perfumed Court is my vice of choice. Usually when my husband is out of town and I'm feeling bored and fretful, I head over there to order a sample pack of something. This timehe was in Chicago and I was out of sortsI chose rose. It's my birth flower, and I've always loved the lushness of the scent, although I do concede it often conjures images of Granny's parlor. But as usual, the fragrance divas over at The Perfumed Court chose well. I've been experimenting with the samples, and here are the results so far:

*Frederic Malle Une RoseI don't think the man blends a bad perfume. The reviews said this would smell like a whole rose, and it does. It has a touch of greenness about it that makes it cool, like a dewy garden rose still growing on the bush. His En Passant is by far better on me, but this is a lovely option if you're feeling the need for roses.

*I profumi di Firenze Miele RosaWhen I first wore this, I likened it to an expensive mortuary, but that seems a bit unfair. Rather than the honeyed rose of the name, I found an incense note lingering behind, and it makes me think of a Lady chapel devoted to the worship of the Virgin, where beeswax polish and sacred smoke still linger with the fragrance of crumbling roses laid at her feet. A Catholic scent, in both senses of the word."

It gives me great pleasure to know that an author I enjoy and respect is as barmy about perfume as I am, and I was delighted when Deanna responded favorably to my request to interview her and find out more about her perfume passions, how she uses fragrance when writing, or simply to enjoy on a daily basis.

Suzy Nightingale: Deanna, you often share your experiences of trying new perfumes and your reactions to them with the readers of your blog, in fact we might go so far as to say you're a self-confessed perfume nut—something the Fragrantica readers can obviously relate to! Can you recall your first memory of a perfume—either one you wore yourself or that of a relative?

Deanna Raybourn: I think the first perfume I remember is my mother’s Tabu. She moved on to Emeraude and Rive Gauche, but it’s been so long since I’ve smelled them, I can hardly recall. I’m sure if I were to encounter the now, it would all come roaring back! I caught a whiff of Youth Dew a few weeks ago and it was as if my favorite great aunt was standing next to me again. And the vanity table I own—which has come down in the family—once held my great-grandmother’s Avon orders. You can still catch a whisper of Sweet Honesty if you close your eyes and put your nose right up against the drawer.

Suzy: I think we can often track our developing personalities in the perfumes we choose to wear for prolonged periods of our lives, do you agree? What would a snapshot of your fragrance timeline look like, or did you find a signature scent early on and stick with it until your forays into the world of sampling lots of differing perfumes?

Deanna: I was a teen of the 80s, so my first real perfume was Lauren. I also dabbled in Oscar de la Renta, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I didn’t like smelling just like everyone else and florals were not really suited to me. By the time I was in college, I discovered Niki de Saint Phalle and I loved it because it was so different from what other girls wore. I alternated that with Paloma Picasso, so I was clearly developing a style—woodsy, earthy, musky. I have a theory that no woman should wear Chanel No. 5 until she turns thirty, so that was my gift on my birthday that year. I wore it exclusively for awhile, but I’m far too fickle and love to experiment. I started branching out and have an assortment of fragrances now, although No. 5 will always have a place on my vanity table.

Suzy: How do you like to test perfumes on yourself? Do you make a snap decision at first sniff, wait for it to settle down on your skin or even live with a perfume for several days before deciding if it's for you?

Deanna: I always sample before purchasing because fragrances change drastically on my skin. I tend to run very warm as a rule, and I will burn through top notes pretty quickly. I like to know exactly what the drydown and sillage are before I buy, and I’ll usually try a perfume several times before I commit. I try to note the differences in a perfume over the course of several days—and they do change subtly depending on what I’ve eaten, what my hormones are doing, the weather. I’ve made too many expensive mistakes by purchasing too quickly; I’ve learned my lesson!

Suzy: Have you ever revisited a perfume you used to love but now find you cannot wear or even stomach the smell of anymore, or have your tastes remained pretty consistent over the years? I ask because having sampled so many perfumes while writing for Fragrantica, I find I am braver now and cast my net wider to seek out scents to adore, so wondered if within your adventures of testing new perfumes that you found your personal taste is developing?

Deanna: Absolutely! I’ve discovered through trial and error that woodsy, musky fragrances and chypres are much better for me than heavy florals or standard orientals. And I find if I’m more thoughtful about my selections and stay true to myself instead of going with what’s trendy, I tend to enjoy them much more. I bought a bottle of Lancome’s La Vie est Belle on a whim and regretted it almost instantly because the sweet praline just overwhelms me and it doesn’t change! It comes on in a blast of burnt sugar and just sits there, poking at me, demanding attention. It suits my daughter so I passed it along to her with the cave at that I would prefer her not to wear it around me. I can’t even tolerate it now. Candy and fruit are just not good scents for me.

Suzy: I know that in your blog you have answered fans questions as to the perfumes a particular character may have worn, but do you know what all of your characters would smell like? Is it only usually the female leads you attribute definite fragrances to, or are the male ones equally "known" to you in an olfactory sense?

Deanna: I definitely know my characters by scent! Creating a full picture of them makes them far more real to me and that includes knowing what fragrances they prefer—or if they wear them at all. And that’s certainly true of the male characters as well. One of my strongest olfactory memories is of making Earl Grey tea with my grandfather when I was very young. He passed away when I was six, and I didn’t think about those times until I was a teenager and smelled bergamot for the first time in more than a decade. Instantly, I was back in the kitchen with him. So I definitely associate scents with my male characters even if they aren’t actually wearing cologne. Bay rum, vetiver, book and saddle leather, pipe tobacco, ink, clean sweat—I think I’ve used all of those to conjure my men. The females in my Victorian series lean towards soliflores. I give them more romantic scents like rose and violet or something sweetly herbal. And readers pay attention! I changed a character’s signature scent in my series from lemon verbena to violet and I actually got reader mail pointing it out. The 1920s heroines I’m writing now wear much more complex scents, sexier fragrances that would have been very modern in their time.

Suzy: You have talked about changing the scents around you to create an atmosphere akin to the world you are writing about at that time, even changing the perfumes you wear to further enhance the mood—do you find you can wear these perfumes afterwards or do they become irrevocably tied to the novel you were writing while wearing them, so perhaps they serve as a distraction if you wear them again?

Deanna: I can’t wear them again! When I was writing A Spear of Summer Grass, I had a heroine who was from New Orleans. I paid a visit to Hove, the perfumers in the French Quarter, and bought some fragrances they’ve been making for decades. They’re rich and heavy and lush—just perfect for this larger-than-life character. I wore them when I was writing, but as soon as the book was over, I couldn’t face them. I passed them around when I was giving a workshop on incorporating sensory detail into your writing, and the participants were shocked at how strong they were, how specific they were. There was absolutely nothing modern about them, and because of that they conjured just the right sense of time and place for me. But they don’t work for me now that I’m out of that book. My next trip to Hove will be for something much less atmospheric!

Suzy: Clearly you are very connected to your senses and particularly that of smell, so I'd be fascinated to know how you choose the perfume you are going to wear that day. Does it depend on the occasion, for example, or do you use perfume according to the mood you happen to wake up in? If you were experiencing a fit of melancholia, would you seek to snap yourself out of it by choosing a fragrance you usually associate with happiness, or might you allow yourself to wallow pleasantly by picking a scent that typifies that feeling for you?

Deanna: I always choose by mood. If I’m feeling blue, I reach for a citrus to buoy my mood—either a perfume or straight grapefruit essential oil for my oil burner. Winter is when I pull out the incense-heavy scents, and I like oud for autumn. Spring is when I tend to grab the chypres, although having said all this, I freely admit to wearing whatever I feel like any time of year. I’m extremely changeable. I may stick with a scent every day for a few months and then not wear it again for years. Then I’ll wear something different each day for weeks on end. It might be a Gemini thing …

Suzy: You have spoken on your blog about wearing Chanel No. 5 on days that both you and your daughter require soothing, because she associates the smell of that perfume on your skin with feeling comforted and loved. That really made me smile, because the perfume my mother most often wears—Clinique's Aromatics Elixir —always calms me and makes me think of her hugging me. Do you find you wear fragrances often to please others as well as yourself, or is just that special one? In fact, if someone you loved took against a perfume you really enjoyed wearing—your husband or a friend said they weren't keen on—would you stop wearing it in their presence or spray whatever you liked and be damned, it's your skin and you get to choose what to put on it?

Deanna: When my daughter was small, I wanted to create a scent memory for her. I deliberately chose Chanel No. 5 because it is so classic and so beautiful. So I wore it exclusively for a long time when she was little and she would curl into me, sniffing my skin as I held her. And one day, she smelled it somewhere else and brightened up and said, “Mama!” That’s when I knew that wherever she went and whatever she did, a whiff of that perfume would conjure me. I wanted that sense of security to be wrapped in something truly lovely for her. She’s nineteen now and Chanel No. 5 is still the smell of her mother to her even though she’s smelled a hundred other perfumes on me.

Aside from that, I do try to tailor what I’m wearing when I’m with certain people. My mother has the nose of a truffle hound and is very sensitive, so I don’t wear the heavier things that I know are going to give her a headache when I’m around her. And if I find my husband doesn’t care for a new experiment, I won’t wear it near him either. Perfume is about identity, but it’s also about pleasure—giving and receiving—so I try not to assault them with something they’d rather not smell! Luckily, I work alone, so I can indulge myself in whatever I like most of the time—although I have to say, my husband has an excellent nose. Whenever he hasn’t liked something, he’s turned out to be right. I’ve ended up not enjoying the perfume myself after awhile. I suspect he smells the off-putting notes before I do since his sense of smell is so much keener.

Suzy: I know that you like to try lots of new perfumes, so I wont be cruel and ask the question impossible to any perfumista—"what is your favorite perfume?"—but instead, could you say which are the perfumes you find yourself returning to most often recently? Do you specifically keep some fragrances back to use when you want to perk yourself up or feel sexy while wearing?

Deanna: Oh, that would be a cruel question! But I do have a handful of “desert island” scents—the things I don’t want to be caught without. Chanel No. 5, of course. I’ve been known to wear it to bed and spray it inside my closet although I hear that’s very bad for your clothes. My favorite citrus—and the only Guerlain I can wear—is Aqua Allegoria Mandarine-Basilic. I spritz it on in hot weather or whenever  I need energizing because it’s just so cheerful. When I’m feeling very powerful, I grab Profumum’s Fumidus. It’s the booziest, smokiest, peatiest vetiver you can imagine and it is NOT for the faint of heart. It smells like the day after a decadent cocktail party—a wet ashtray where cigar ashes mingle with spilled Scotch and a whisper of aftershave. But it’s sublimely sexy. I am devoted to L’Artisan’s Passage d’Enfer—cold stone and incense and musk. It smells like Heloise and Abelard having sex behind the altar. The fifth and final would have to be Byredo’s Baudelaire. Incense, leather, juniper, amber—it’s masculine and luscious but not overwhelmingly so. It’s red velvet, carrying a riding crop. It’s also the only fragrance I adore that don’t currently have in my collection! I almost cried when I ran out of it.

Suzy: Are there perfumers or fragrance houses you admire particularly, either for their consistent "signature" style of blending a perfume or the sheer breadth of their talent and diversity of imagination?

Deanna: I am irrevocably smitten with L’Artisan. I love the stories behind their perfumes, the mythology they create, the attempt to bottle not just a fragrance, but an exquisite moment. I love Byredo’s brashness. There’s a sort of “take it or leave it” approach that I think is immensely appealing. For me they bridge the ground between the very accessible fragrances that lots of people would wear and the very experimental things that are so whiffy they cater to a very specific crowd. I love the history of Guerlain and wish dearly I could wear their perfumes, but apart from the Aqua Allegoria line, their fragrances are just too powdery for me. I always imagine someone with very pale, very cool skin bringing out the best in them. I need something earthier and warmer. I’m intrigued by the work of Serge Lutens, Olivia Giacobetti, and Frederic Malle and have fragrances from all of them in my collection. Their artistry is just breathtaking.

Suzy: What would you say is your favorite way to experience perfumes for the first time—in a department store or independent boutique setting, or to try them "blind," simply from their description alone, by buying online and taking your chances?

Deanna: I actually loathe trying them in public. Perfume is intimate, it’s a relationship. You have to take it home, get to know it, let it get to know you, and see if you can communicate. The best intentions don’t always work out and a scent that is perfect on paper might be utterly wrong once it’s on. That’s just awkward in public. I much prefer to collect samples and then try them out, although I will confess I never put them on immediately. I like to line them up and gloat a little first.

Suzy: When you are starting a new novel, do you like to actively surround yourself with objects and smells that invoke the mood you want to create before you write a single word, or do you find it's more of an unconscious thing that builds up during the writing process—suddenly you realize you are wearing a fragrance your character may have chosen or are burning a candle that makes you think of the landscape they inhabit? Or does it alter with each novel?

Deanna: I deliberately collect as many sensory details as I can before I begin the book. I assemble a sort of tool kit of sense triggers—fragrances, tastes, textures, music. I create a collage of images that set the scene for me, and I gather up candles, essential oils, perfumes, whatever scents will help spark my imagination. For A Spear of Summer Grass, I had the perfumes from New Orleans but I also had a bundle of dried vetiver I purchased from the same shop. I ended up writing a scene where the heroine stitches some of it into the seams of the uniform of her husband before he goes off to war as a protective charm. Fragrance is a powerful tool for conjuring both memory and imagination and I try to use it to the fullest.

Suzy: Are you aware of other authors who share your passion for perfume, particularly using it for inspiration during the writing process, or do you get funny looks from your contemporaries when you talk about it?

Deanna: They tend to look at me as if I were mad, but I’m used to it by now! And very often they end up finding it fascinating. So much of what I do is unusual that I incorporated several of my quirks into a writers’ workshop to great effect. They particularly loved how I use grapefruit oil as a mood enhancer! Several of them went out and bought their own bottles and are sniffing away whenever they need a mood boost.

Suzy: Do you have a list of perfumes you are desperate to try having read reviews or descriptions of them—if so, which are you most anxious to try next? Or is it more whimsical than that, do you pick them randomly and on impulse?

Deanna: It’s usually impulse. I keep a wish list, but I’m more tempted if I find a new fragrance by a house or perfumer I admire or catch a whiff of something delectable. I seldom bother the sales people because I am the world’s worst perfume customer. “I want something feminine but also masculine, woodsy but not too woodsy, smoky but not too smoky, leather but not too leathery …” If I were them, I’d run if I saw me coming.

Suzy: Are you in the process of writing at the moment, or planning your next novel? What are the scents you are currently surrounding yourself with, and what mood do they evoke?

Deanna: I’m always writing! My next novel, City of Jasmine, an adventure set in 1920s Damascus, is out March 1, and readers can pre-order the free digital prequel novella, Whisper of Jasmine now. As you can tell from the title, perfume plays a significant role in the first meeting of my two main characters! I’m working on the following books now, and they’re set in Damascus and Egypt so I’m sniffing jasmine and rosewater and oud with a touch of pomegranate …

It's pretty obvious that Deanna is "one of us," a fully certified fragrance fiend, and while knowing this somehow makes me love her even more it also certainly explains why I find it so easy to connect to her characters and the worlds they inhabit, even if they are actually unfamiliar to me and something I have never personally experienced first hand. I truly believe those who don't merely enjoy perfume but crave it on an an almost spiritual level are far more in touch with all of their senses and are often able to communicate and express their feelings in this way.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite novel that may not even mention what fragrance a leading character is wearing, yet somehow instinctively you just know the perfume or cologne they would wear?

City of Jasmine is released on March 1st and, as Deanna said, has a digital novella available for pre-order now. It's called Whisper of Jasmine and it's free! Here are a few links you might want to explore to find out more:

Deanna's website:
Books page:

"Fragrantica readers are also welcome to follow me on Twitter or Facebook, and I blog two days a week at"


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خیلی جالب بود مرسی
Magnificent. . Thank you


Fantastic interview!

Jitterbug Perfume Lover
Jitterbug Perfume Lover

Great interview! Now I am dying to read her books. I love it when the author goes the extra mile to give us readers a full sensory experience, in as much as they can.
Thank you


Another great interview, Suzy! Raybourn is definitely a member of the tribe, and has excellent taste to boot!


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