Your Voice in My Head: Book/Fragrance Pairing at Scent Bar

During my years living in London in the 1990s, I was well aware of Emma Forrest (above, left) -- the young journalist who'd made a splash writing about music and pop culture in The Guardian and The London Sunday Times. The fact that she'd launched her writing career at age 16 was part of her novelty, but her deft and witty wordsmithery is the reason why she's still delivering the goods -- novels and screenplays now -- today.

Emma's latest work is Your Voice in My Head – a nimble and unsparing memoir detailing the aftermath of a nervous breakdown at age 21 (the downside of being an early bloomer, I guess), as well as a moving homage to the therapist who guided her through the dark woods of manic depression, bad boyfriends and self-harm.

Your Voice in My Head is set in the VIP sections of Hollywood and New York City, and I'm tempted to slap on the log line: “Girl, Interrupted meets Sex and the City.” The book is juicily top-loaded with celebrity cameos, as well as Emma's torrid love affair with a movie star, while also supplying a self-aware and unflinching account of the emotional battleground of her 20s. But reading past my log line flippancy, you'll find the dry, sardonic voice of Dorothy Parker and Holly Golightly in the zip of her bittersweet story. Emma doesn't wallow.

It was Scent Bar's Steve Gontarski who cleverly match-made us for a synesthetic book event at the fragrance shop: the idea was for me to pair perfumes with various themes and extracts from Emma's story. Talk about a challenge -- smellscaping a crack-up is a delicate business indeed. But Emma's curiosity about what I was going to come up with was encouraging, and it was fascinating to witness her visceral reactions to my choices.

As I told the Scent Bar audience, it was a book reading presented in glorious Smell-O-Vision. I intro'd each of the eight excerpts with its associated scent, and blotters sprayed with the perfume were handed out the crowd to smell while they listened to Emma read her passages. The following are Emma's themes and my fragrance pairings:

Theme 1: Ophelia -- Hamlet's tragic heroine, with whom Emma identified a little too dangerously.

Scent: Heeley Ophelia -- White florals and their green stems. Fragile, evanescent, watery -- the antithesis of tough.

Theme 2: English Private School -- Struggling to fit in with the posh kids.

Scent: Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet -- With its lime, lavender, pine and black pepper, everything in this fragrance conspires to make you wake up, stand up straight, do your duty.

Theme 3: New York City -- Emma's first time exploring the eccentric delights of NYC.

Scent: Comme des Garçons Odeur 53 -- Ozone, metal, burnt rubber, asphalt. Like NYC, the individual components may be brutal, but together they soften and add up into something pleasing and exciting.

Theme 4: Mania -- Emma's untamed, chaotic energy both attracts and frightens the people in her life.

Scent: Comme des Garçons Daphne -- High strung and dramatic, going in lots of exciting directions at once. You just know Daphne Guinness was rapid-fire talking at perfumer Antoine Lie: “I like oranges and oud and roses and sex and candy and tuberose and saffron and kittens and monkeys and coconut and incense!”

Daphne takes over the whole space when you wear it. It's a perfume with no boundaries, no sense of what's appropriate.

Theme 5: Depression -- Emma slides into the metaphorical dark waters alongside Ophelia. Here's how she puts it in the book:

"Mania flows like a river approaching a waterfall. Depression is a stagnant lake. There are dead things floating and the water has the same blue-black tinge as your lips. You stay completely still because you’re so afraid of what is brushing your leg, (even though it could be nothing because your mind is already gone). That’s why you lay in your bed, (in the center, with my dark blue sheets. The silver curtains are a nod to mania. They were something that seemed like a good idea at the time). My bras are hung on the wall behind my bed, crucified for my sins. I have thirty six bras. I counted. I hold my hands over my breasts in my days and weeks and months in bed, as if someone might steal them.”

Scent: Serge Lutens Gris Clair... -- The cool stew of lavender and incense seasoned with iris and dry wood is somber and melancholic. When she first smelled it, Emma clutched her heart and blurted out “It's so sad!

Theme 6: Lust -- Emma tumbles into a rapturous love affair with a charismatic movie star who sends her pictures of the moon by cell phone, and poems written on his funky man-smellin' T-shirt.

Scent: Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue Pour le Soir -- a savory, sexual blend of cumin, ylang-ylang, rose honey, incense and sandalwood. It's a little B.O., a little “uh-oh!”

Theme 7: Mom -- Emma's mother is whimsical, smart and gentle, but tough enough to pull her daughter back from the brink of ending her own life.

Scent: By Kilian Beyond Love -- Tuberose times ten, with coconut and jasmine. Emma told me that as a 14-year-old, she remembered her mum wearing clouds of Chloé (the original Lagerfeld one) as Emma sulked alongside her on long car rides. The big tuberose that used to be the target of her sullen teen ire is now symbolic of her mother's generous, loving spirit. I love Beyond Love's enfolding, muggy, alive tuberose as a tribute to Emma's mom.

Theme 8: Protection -- Emma's book ends hopefully, with the recognition of love as a force field, as protection...the flow that connects everyone beloved in her life, and keeps them safe.

Scent: Protection by Rossy de Palma from Etat Libre d'Orange – I took my cue here from Emma, whose signature scent this is. Protection is a jagged swirl of rose, incense, and chocolatey patchouli, spiked with ginger and black pepper. The effect is a sharp, metallic/earthy rose, the smell of a rose turned flesh. Roses crushed passionately/protectively to one's chest.

The P.S. to Your Voice in My Head is that it's going to be turned into a movie, screenplay by Emma.)

*Bonus Emma: Read Emma Forrest's evocative Elizabeth Taylor appreciation in The Telegraph.

Photo credits: Adam Eastwood, Steve Gontarski


  1. Katie (and now, Emma) - this is a fantastic, fantastic idea. May I borrow it where I live? I recently attended a writer's meetup here and we all had to rep ourselves and our writing. When I told my group I was starting to get into fragrance writing, they all kind of smirked (especially the men!)

    But when I started talking about WHY I write about scent, a whole new dialogue opened up. I think it would be awesome to do this project with people I know here.

    Fantastic post, and bonus points for doing it at the Scent Bar, which for me would be Mecca (one day, one day I'll get back out West and have this experience.)

    You two women have huge, bountiful, fierce and glorious lives. Now go kick ass.

  2. Wow, what an absolutely brilliant idea! Love, love, love it. So wish I'd have been there.

  3. Fabulous Katie!!!

    I'm always turned on when various art forms collide to create a new (I cringe at even using the word...) "niche", but this is really brilliant. I wonder how long it will be before books come with "scratch and sniff" pages so you can smell the "world/atmosphere" that the writer has created. (with the rise in Downloadable Books, I wonder if books as we know them will still be in existence at the end of our lives?)

    Anyway, back to perfume - I love your perfume choices for the reading and only wish I was there to experience the event in person.

    I'm only about an hour from L.A. - how can I get on a mailing list so I don't miss events like this in the future?

  4. this is seriously the best idea ever for a reading! such a great way to introduce a book, and a bunch of scents, and to invigorate the audience about both. i read & loved 'your voice in my head,' but now i want to read it again with these scent strips in hand... i hope you'll do more events like this, and i hope i'll be lucky enough to be in LA for one!

  5. What a great concept Katie! As for the fragrances I have an opinion on most of them. I can't seem to enjoy Absolue Pour le Soir. Too much B.O. and not enough uh-oh. I had high hopes because I read how sexy it was. Major let down in my humble opinion. I don't see how it can trip any woman's trigger. :)

  6. Loved this Katie. Both Emma's words and your inspired perfume picks really resonated with me. Daphne and Gris Clair in particular are spot on. I will be sure to get Emma's book.

    BTW it was so good to find you again via your blog after watching you on the telly in the 90s and even better to find out you are a fumie!

  7. What wonderful feedback - I wish you all could have been there, too! I'd never seen an audience so absorbed at a book reading - smelling the perfumes put them right in Emma's scenes. Just as Elizabeth remarked, it was a nifty way to lock people's focus in on both the words and the scent.

    tara - isn't it funny when you find out about people's secret lives? I'm glad you've sniffed out mine.

    Anonymous - of course, these perfumes will resonate differently from person to person. For Emma, Absolue PLS conjured her ex-loverman's stanky/horny man smell, so she was all over the stuff in terms of verisimilitude.

    My pen pal Dan just wrote to me that for him, Odeur 53 would be his depression scent. He finds it askew and disorienting, as it takes a "downward trajectory" on his skin. But he still likes it! (He's contrary that way.)

  8. Marko - you're so right, this really was a "when worlds collide" evening.

    You can get on the events mailing list though Scent Bar's website here:

  9. Stefush - I'm all for you utilizing the scent/words pairing idea for your writer's group, especially since nothing will wipe the smirks off their faces faster than when they realize what a brain-teaser it is to write about smell.

    Scent Bar is my Mecca, too.

  10. Katie - how did you arrange the reading? Did you have the scent strips away on another table with references to the text, or did Emma pause while people got to sample each while she read? I'm interested in the set up in case I can stage something similar here.

  11. Stefush, as I introduced the theme and its accompanying perfume, 1 or 2 helpers sprayed the scent strips and handed them around. So when Emma began to read her excerpt, the audience were all set with their strips.

  12. Awesome - got it.

    Although that also makes me want to hire two helpers who just hand out scent strips at random during quotidian daily events.

  13. i may be revealing myself to be a hardcore comments-nerd here, but stefush, was it you who once mentioned colonial drug in harvard square? if so, and if you live in the boston-area and need scent-strip helpers (or volunteers to help make an event like this happen around here), allow me to offer my services. i've worked as both a "cake girl" in a dessert auction and as a teacher, so my walking around in a crowd/passing things out abilities are finely honed.

  14. Ha! Elizabeth, I've feared being seen as a "comment nerd," myself.

    Katie--how awesome! You must have had a great time. So jealous.

  15. Oh, and Stefush--thanks for asking how stuff was passed out, I thought maybe I had just skipped over it!

  16. Thank the heavens for comments nerds! This blog is powered by comments nerds.

  17. love it! Though my depression scent would be Tauer's Vetiver Dance

  18. Loooove this idea. Now I must read this book!

  19. Bloody F - depression comes in many flavors.

  20. "Thank the heavens for comments nerds! This blog is powered by comments nerds."

    I may hold you to that....

    *pushes up glasses*

  21. It was wonderful to finally meet you, Katie. My daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with both you and Emma. This was one of the best scent events I have ever attended.


  22. violetnoir/Robin - it was a pleasure to meet you and your lovely daughter the other night! I was so tickled that we had a meeting of the minds re Donna Karan Fuel. And very pleased that you enjoyed what Emma and I cooked up.

  23. I love the fragrance Hugo Energize and Givenchy Pei New Diesel Fuel for Life and Tri Hermes