Base Notes released this week, the latest from Lara Elena Donnelly. In this heady thriller, Vic is a perfumist whose materials from an uncomfortably natural source. There’s revenge, there’s desperation, there’s some really direct commentary on the dissatisfaction at the crossroads of survival and passion. Today’s interview divulges the origin of this twisty tale and its compelling characters and the experience of switching genres in terms of revision and reception.
Crafting Base Notes
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I feel like Jude Doyle is going to get freaked out at the sheer number of Google alerts I’m generating during book promo. But I read My quest to find the great American perfume way back in 2015 and it got me really into perfume, and the culture around perfume, and it just stewed for a couple of months and then came out fully formed as my short story “The Dirty American,” which I wrote in the first few weeks I lived in New York, which is new to that version of Vic as it was to me.
A lot of life and a lot of writing happened in the interim; I thought I was done with the concept but Vic is just a really compelling, fascinating character, and so satisfying as a lens for observing the world, especially New York City. I kept hearing Vic make snide remarks on things I was seeing. So when it was time to pitch the book that would come after Amberlough, Base Notes was one of those pitches.
How much did you know about Vic and their accomplices going in?
I’m tempted to say I knew a lot about Vic, but I’m not really sure that’s true. I still don’t know a lot about Vic. I know a lot about the image Vic projects to the world, and how much Vic thinks about and works on and polishes that image, until it’s almost good enough to be the real thing. But there’s a lot going on under the hood that I don’t even think Vic knows about, or thinks about, or acknowledges. I think Vic has bought into the hype, which is…probably healthy!
I know Vic is an aesthete and a misanthrope, who nevertheless craves companionship–I don’t think I knew that last part going in. Pretty poignant to discover! Vic is lonely; we learn that in chapter one.
I didn’t know anything about the accomplices at all. I actually just went back to look at the original email pitch I sent to my old agent about this book, and it looks like Giovanni was going to be some kind of major character, possibly the person who brought Vic some kind of big job or opportunity. A much more active, maybe even devious character. But he turned out to be really upstanding, almost rigid: a Good Man who Follows the Rules. I don’t even remember the moment things shifted, but relegating him to one of the trio of helpers really isolated Vic and changed the balance of power in the narrative. And allowed Jane–Jane!–to come to the fore.
I love Jane. I just love her. She’s really close to my heart; I put a lot of my frustration with gender and womanhood and the patriarchy into Jane. I think she carries a lot of what the book really wants to say; Vic is too busy scrambling and panicking and committing murder and arson for the reader to grasp the real tragedy of this life of wanting and never getting, of sacrifice and hustle and grind. Jane is where we see it play out in a way we recognize (especially if we have been raised as a woman, socialized as a woman, or are perceived as a woman).
Beau brought a lot of much needed brightness to the cohort. He just wants things to be nice, so badly. He wants the people he cares about to be happy, fulfilled, satisfied. The strength of his desire is almost magical–early on, his arrival always conjures an air of glamor and celebration. Vic compares him to MacGuyver, conjuring luxury from a bit of string. The strength of his fantasy is seductive, but because he’s so committed to it he isn’t willing to sacrifice like Jane or Vic.
Actually as I’m thinking about this, I’m realizing Giovanni and Beau are both willing to say “it isn’t fair,” but unwilling to engage with the rigged system. Jane and Vic both get their hands dirty, because somebody has to do the work; and a lot of the time they’re also chivvying and nagging and manipulating Beau and Giovanni into actions they perceive as necessary or useful. Which is probably also a subtextual grappling with gender and its attendant social implications. Yikes! I guess I’m pretty angry about patriarchy and the burdens that fall on people socialized as female!
I’m not sure this has actually answered your question–the simple answer is, I knew a lot about Vic, who had already starred in a short story, and almost nothing about the accomplices, who were created for the novel. Learning about them really crept up on me, as it often does with my characters. Their aspects, likes, dislikes, and motivations often only surface when they’re required for some element of the story, and it really is like they’re rising up from some deep pool of the subconscious, where some silent helper has been crafting them unbeknownst to me. The end result is that it feels like I’ve met fully formed people and I am learning things that have always been true about them, rather than purposefully building them piece by piece.
What kind of research did you do?
I was lucky enough to be in contact with a few indie perfumers (shout out to Carter Weeks Maddox of Chronotope and Chris Rusak of Chris Rusak) who were willing and able to answer questions about business and technique and take a look at pieces of the manuscript. I’m also lucky to have a friend who’s a former pathologist and was more than happy to give me some ideas about how you might actually tincture an entire human body. All errors are my own–either accidental or on purpose. Sometimes you have to fudge a fact in favor of the story.
I spent a lot of time scrolling through hobbyist forums reading how people were making their own distillates and tinctures at home, or reading the blogs of perfumers struggling with regulatory issues when they tried to import or export ingredients and finished products. I attended a perfume mixing workshop with Andrea Bifulco of Nose University at the sadly defunct SoHo location of Perfumarie. I devoured Jean-Claude Ellena’s Diary of a Nose. I watched a very amusing documentary, the title of which I completely forget, in which the renowned scientist and perfumer Luca Turin absolutely insisted that Ambergris is whale vomit. (It’s not: it’s whale excrement. Equally unappetizing!)
There was probably a lot of other incidental googling that I’m completely forgetting at this point. I did drive the Taconic Parkway several times during the course of writing this novel, and can safely say it’s a great place to commit a murder and then hide a body. Not that I know from personal experience.
If Base Notes was a perfume, what would it be?
- Notes de Tête: Rain and vetiver
- Notes de Cœur: Burnt coffee, cold asphalt
- Notes de Fond: Excrement, orris root, paper, and sweat
On the Way to Publishing
Did you write Base Notes before or after The Amberlough Dossier?
Way after! Kind of. I sold Amberlough as a standalone in January 2015. In August 2015 I wrote a short story called “The Dirty American,” which was published first in an anthology called The Orange Volume (a fundraiser for the Clarion Workshop, by the class of 2012), and then later reprinted in Nightmare. It was maybe the fastest (and the least painful!) short story I have ever written. It came out like pouring wine from a bottle; it was great.
Amberlough came out in 2017, followed by the other two Dossier books. After the publication of Amnesty, my agent asked what I was working on next. I had a couple of projects that had been simmering on the backburner. Base Notes was actually the least defined of all of them, but something it really caught my editor’s attention at Tor, and so it was the one I ended up developing. And then it turned out to flow just as smoothly the second time around. Or at least, now that it’s done and published, I remember it flowing smoothly. Vic’s point of view was just really natural and satisfying to write from.
Has the experience publishing a thriller been different compared to publishing a secondary world speculative fiction?
Yes, actually! The expectations in the revision phase were geared toward a different genre than I’m used to, and the publicity junket has been with some unfamiliar venues. Exciting though! I’m now a member of International Thriller Writers, and thinking of attending ThrillerFest in New York this year.
I’m also not really clear on readership or reader expectations. I knew the Dossier was going to be weird for some fantasy readers, because I’m really familiar with the conventions of the fantasy genre and more importantly, familiar with the expectations of the readership. I haven’t been steeped in the thriller reader community in the same way, so having my book marketed really heavily to those readers is strange because I wasn’t writing with their expectations in mind (not necessarily writing to expectations, just writing while aware of expectations). So the readership is bringing things to the table that I’m continually kind of surprised by.
Are there any similarities?
Even though I pitched the Dossier as Cabaret meets Le Carré, I don’t think I’d really conceived of them as spy thrillers; they were fantasy novels with many spy thriller features. But looking back, after going through the editorial and the marketing for Base Notes and meeting other thriller writers, I’m like, “wait, yeah, those are thrillers!” It would be really wonderful if Base Notes brought over some political thriller readers who wouldn’t have thought to try out a fantasy novel before.
What books are you looking forward to this year, either new releases or reads on your TBR?
Lote by Shola von Reinhold! I am obsessed with the Bright Young Things of interbellum London, and someone on Twitter recommended this one to me. It was apparently released by a small European press but is coming to the U.S. this year in a big way.
I also need to try out Otessa Mosfegh! I have not read any of her books yet. Someone recommended Eileen to me and it sounds like it’s going to be a rough read but ultimately really satisfying.
Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the Nebula, Lambda, and Locus-nominated trilogy The Amberlough Dossier, as well as short fiction and poetry appearing in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny.
Lara has taught in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as the Catapult Workshop in New York. She is a graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, and has served as on-site staff at the latter, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SFF.