When love and perfume lead to "a side hustle in murder for hire"

Salon spoke to the author of the novel "Base Notes," which has all the ingredients for an anti-Valentine's Day read

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published February 14, 2022 7:35PM (EST)

A glass perfume bottle shatters and bright spring flowers and clouds of blue and purple vapor burst out of it (Getty Images/Anton Frunze)
A glass perfume bottle shatters and bright spring flowers and clouds of blue and purple vapor burst out of it (Getty Images/Anton Frunze)

Art. Love. Scent. And murder. Lara Elena Donnelly's new book has it all.

Set in New York City, Donnelly's novel "Base Notes" follows Vic Fowler, a perfumer whose specialty is creating bespoke scents: very specific perfumes that evoke emotional memories for clients. Scent is, after all, the sense most closely aligned with memory. Unfortunately, some memories require someone pay the ultimate price: death, in order to be retrieved and recreated for the paying patrons Vic so desperately needs. 

And that's only the beginning. 

"Base Notes" walks the line between art and obsession — and art and crime. How far will you go to create something? How much are you willing to sacrifice for your art? How can art — and Vic most certainly believes perfume-making is art — pay the bills? What if a patron demands more than you can possibly give?

Donnelly is the author of The Amberlough Dossier, a trilogy that includes the books "Amberlough," "Armistice" and "Amnesty." Nominated for the Nebula, Lambda and Locus awards, her writing has also appeared in Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare and Uncanny. She teaches in New York.

"Base Notes" is a stand-alone novel that draws upon Donnelly's father's fascination with scents, and her own deep research into "scent culture," famous barbers — and perfumer murders. The title of the novel "Base Notes" refers to the element of a fragrance that lasts the longest. Also known as signature notes, base notes are the most dense and most intense components of a perfume: what you might remember the most.

Vic remembers home as having the smell of cantaloupe, which also smells like the sea: "You won't understand until someone who knows all the things you want to know tells you why you have felt like a castaway all your life." The perfumer makes a "clear" scent for someone dear to them, a scent like "an evocation of absence." And tries to make another perfume for her to understand who Vic is as person, a fragrance to explain themselves.

As Vic's mentor tells the perfumer: Like love, patrons "never know what they really want ... Half the time, they're afraid to find out."

Donnelly spoke with Salon about her memories of perfumes, diving into the scent community and the lengths one goes to as an artist.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First of all, I wanted to ask for somebody who's maybe not familiar with your work, how would you describe the new book? 

It's definitely a thriller, which I would say is a new thing for me except my last three novels, which were all technically fantasy novels, were also basically thrillers. So, it's a new, old genre for me. It's a thriller about a serial killer who is disguised . . . Vic Fowler is a niche perfumer in New York City trying to get by — like we all are — but failing. The business is operating in the red, and Vic has opted to pick up a side hustle like many people do just to keep everything afloat. And that side hustle involves creating very special perfumes on commission and these perfumes allow people to relive treasured memories – not just remind them, like the smell of fresh-cut grass can remind you of your childhood or your summer vacation. This is really reliving, like being sucked into the reality of the moment as if it is happening to you right now. 

The only catch is, in order to remember whatever moment you want to remember, the people who are in that moment need to be put into the perfume as ingredients. So, Vic has picked up what is effectively a side hustle in murder for hire. 

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What was your past experience with perfumes and with scent? Do you normally wear perfume? Did you know a lot about perfume or did you have to research for the book? It feels like a lot of research went into this.

I did have to do a lot of research, but that's true of any book even if you're really familiar with your subject matter. My mom has an allergy to perfume — now we're sort of thinking it might be an allergy to some ingredients in some cheaper perfumes. But when I was little it was like, "We can't have perfume in the house. Mom is allergic." She still had some perfumes, which I guess had been gifted to her that she didn't really wear. They sat on her vanity and I remember the bottles very clearly — so much so that I was describing to her just last year these bottles that used to sit on her vanity and what they looked like and what they smelled like. She said, "I don't remember these at all." She went home and she found them in a drawer.

Oh, wow.

She said, "Oh my God, you're right. They're exactly how you describe them." I remember my dad had a bottle of Geo. F. Trumper Extract of Limes that sat on the back of the toilet. He would talk about his experience with perfumes when he was studying in Oxford and would go into London. He would go into the Geo. F. Trumper  barber shop/cologne store and smell things. He's the one who told me about the plot of "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," which I guess really stuck with me. But I didn't really wear perfumes.

Someone gave me as a child a bottle of plumeria perfume that I sprayed all over my stuffed animals. I was probably four or five, so my stuffed animals all smelled like plumeria for a really long time. But I didn't wear perfume really until probably around the time that I read that article in The Guardian "My quest to find the great American perfume," and I started getting very fascinated with just the idea of the complexity of scents in general. I find perfumes really fascinating. I love smell as a sense and a sensation. I think it's tragically, tragically underrepresented or underappreciated. 

When I was researching for this book, it was a great excuse to just go to perfume shops all over New York and order myself sample packs. I got into doing swaps with other perfume people where I'd say, "I have these. I could decant them." Or, "I have these samplers. They don't smell good on me. What do you have? Do you want to trade?" And we would send them in the mail back and forth. Now, I have a whole bunch of weird, tiny, hand-labeled bottles of stuff that people have decanted for me, and that's very fun.

My child got into perfume briefly when he was little. I think I had gotten a sample in the mail, and he just loved to collect the little bottles. Now, he's really into science. So, I think it was the science of it for him and what you just said about how different it can be. The scent maybe didn't smell good on you, but it might on somebody else. Like body chemistry and how individual scent is.

Yeah, absolutely. There are perfumes that conceptually, I read about what's in them and I think, "Oh, the idea of this sounds like it would smell so good." And then when I put it on, I'm like, "Whoa, not for me, thank you."

There's a perception — I think maybe more from people who don't make art per se — that you have to suffer for your art or that you have to be a "tortured artist." Do you think your main character Vic would feel that way? The notion that you have to suffer to make good art?

I think Vic really doesn't want to suffer in the sense of Vic doesn't like being broke. Vic doesn't like being a starving artist. I think there are several moments where Vic is talking about this relationship that they had with their mentor, Jonathan Bright, where there are scenes of Jonathan locking himself in his lab and forgetting to eat and just really getting on a creative tear. Which I guess is a form of suffering. But Vic doesn't think that suffering creates good art. Vic thinks that art comes before all other things, which obviously can lead to suffering. But I don't think that Vic's conception of it is that having unpleasant and painful experience makes an artist better at their craft. It's just sort of like, well, art comes first always. And if that means that you have an uncomfortable or painful experience, then it is what it is. 

You touched on this, but a part of the book is trying to survive as an artist or a perfumer and trying to get by, trying to make enough money to live. How do your characters deal with that? And maybe if you feel comfortable speaking to it, how do you deal with it as a writer? How do you balance being an artist with being a person in the world who has to make money to live?

Well, I have a day job! So, I don't just subscribe to this belief necessarily that my art should always 100% come first even ahead of things like paying rent and feeding myself or, for instance, health insurance, which I find to be incredibly useful. I think there are some characters in the book who also feel that way. Jane, for instance. There's an instance in the book where Jane's fiancé thinks that he is covered by state medical care. Then it turns out that they've submitted the wrong paperwork and so he doesn't have health insurance. And so, he doesn't go to the doctor for preventative care and then has to go to the emergency room and have emergency surgery and they end up in a lot of medical debt, which is a big driving force behind their willingness to commit murder for Vic. 

This story actually comes straight out of my real life. I didn't have to seek emergency medical care, but I was unemployed for quite some time before getting my latest day job. And I was on the state health exchange and I thought I had submitted proof of income, which you have to do. I sent them my tax return for the previous year. Then I went to book a doctor's appointment and the day before I was going to go in, the office called me and said, "We couldn't find any records of your health insurance. Are you insured?" After a lot of phone calls and frustration, it turned out all that they wanted me to submit was an Excel spreadsheet of my estimated income for the next three months and because I had failed to do that, I had no health insurance. So, my experience being unemployed and an artist in the city definitely fed into this book.

I wouldn't do it again. Except — I had a lot of time to write. I had a lot of time to have conversations with creative friends. I had a lot of time to just let ideas percolate. I was teaching, which I had never done before and found really, really helpful for my own craft. 

So, it's definitely a trade off. And I think there are several characters in this book who are on different sides of that trade off. One of the big dynamics that I found really satisfying to work with was, Vic clearly believes that it is worth it to trade everything to pursue your craft. Jane, who ends up romantically entangled with Vic, is really sort of jealous in a way, both disdainful and jealous of the choices that Vic has made because Jane made the opposite choice: To stop pursuing her art entirely in order to get a job as a bartender to make good tips while she's putting herself through school . . .  She's just so tired of the struggle that she's just given up entirely. Watching her want what Vic has, but also to have chosen absolutely the opposite — it was a really fascinating tension to play with.

I think it's good to hear all that and it's good to read that in the book too because we do get a spectrum of how to be an artist in the world. A world that isn't really set up to support artists or doesn't care to support artists. It's nice to see how the different characters try to handle that and that there's no one way to do it, trying to make the artist life work.

Yeah. It's a lot.

Are you working on a new project now or do you know what's next for you?

The two projects I'm working on right now include the next novel, which I hope is going to be a loose literary retelling of Tallinn, this old Scottish ballad about a fairy knight or a human knight who's kidnapped by the fairies and going to be sacrificed to Satan as part of a deal with the devil that the fairy god has. Except it takes place in a multinational media consulting firm that's based in New York City. And the characters in the ballad have sort of been fast-forwarded to struggling millennials. It's very in the vein of "Base Notes" in the sense that it's about people who are just really trying to make it and are making some dubious decisions on some big sacrifices for things like stability or their art . . . But it's much more like queer 20-somethings in the city making bad choices.

If I had to talk about them in terms of color, which is what I do with my books, I think of them as having a broad color palette for the entire concept. So, "Base Notes" is definitely grays and blacks and a little bit of orange and yellow. It's very autumn-in-the-city sort of color palette.

Which the cover also has.

Yeah, I was talking to a friend about it who does kind of the same thing and we said it's like a form of synesthesia almost where you can't really think about your book without seeing colors associated with it. Not even with words or scenes or anything, just the concept of the book has a color for you . . . If "Base Notes" is gray and orange, this next book is very neon. It's like the cover of a New Wave album. A lot of neon, a lot of bright white and dark black.

So it's a fun bubble gum version of "Base Notes" almost. And then the other project is my fun project that I don't know if I'll ever be able to sell, but it's making my life a little bit nicer right now because I just don't care about it. Sometimes, when you really care about a book or it's on deadline or under contract, it loses some of the "I'm having a fun time writing that."

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Do you have a favorite perfume at the moment? Or do you have a favorite scent? 

So, my favorite perfume right now — this is so hard.

I'm sorry!

Well, it depends on the day. It depends on my mood, but some of my favorites are Nasomatto Nudiflorum, which is this wonderful sort of cinnamon, spicy teddy bear, warm smell. And I like to wear that when it's very cold outside. And then in the summer, I really like to wear Imaginary Authors, The Cobra and The Canary, which is this sort of dusty lemon. It smells sweaty to me, but in a sexy way. And I think that's because it has orris root in it, which is very earthy. It smells just like a body in a very sexy way. So my summer perfume is this like sweaty leather, dusty road trip perfume and my winter perfume is Nudiflorum, which really just smells like Christmas to me. Those are my two favorite perfumes.

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Books Interview Lara Elena Donnelly Murder Novel Perfume