Q & A: Warm Bodies author Isaac Marion writes dead people better than most people write live ones (and smell is part of it)

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Perfume

I can’t stop talking about Warm Bodies. Literally. Can’t. Stop. Talking. It is so good. And yet, so many people I bring it up respond with claims of “Not Being into the Zombie Thing.”

Well, let me tell you that this is no ordinary zombie story. This is a book in which a zombie shows more humanity than characters with beating hearts and the opportunity to transform oneself means more than just a before/after pic.

So for my Halloween post, I thought I could give you a glimpse into just how thoughtful Mr. Marion is with an interview about his use of scent in writing.

More than any other contemporary novel I’ve encountered recently, Warm Bodies: A Novel, and its prequel, The New Hunger: A Warm Bodies Novella (The Warm Bodies Series), present an idea made for the digital age, one that cuts to the core of a truly contemporary problem. Author Isaac Marion’s wandering philosopher zombie with a heart on his sleeve yearns for connection despite his own limitations and the real and imagined barriers he encounters.

Warm Bodies is also one of the smelliest books I’ve ever read, with scent descriptions that made me run to add Marion to my list of great scent writers in the Scent in Literature Project.

Here’s an example of how Marion writes scent.

“As this happens, my sinuses ignite with a new smell, something similar to the life energy of the Living but also vastly different. It’s coming from Julie, it’s her scent, but it’s also mine. It rushes out from us like an explosion of pheromones, so potent I can almost see it.” — “R,” from Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies

Q & A with author Isaac Marion

IsaacMarion Emily: What’s your relationship with your sense of smell? Are you a super-sniffer or just really connected to your olfaction?

Isaac: I don’t know if I have an unusually sharp sense of smell, but I do think I savor it more than some people. I enjoy all my senses on a somewhat heightened level. Not all the time–I don’t walk around shuddering and gasping at every smell and sound–but sometimes I like to zero in on a sensation and really explore all its layers. Our senses provide so much fine detail that we usually ignore and if you examine them closely, you can identify the individual elements and appreciate how they harmonize.

Smell is especially interesting to me since it’s so rarely “used” in daily life. All the other senses are very practical tools for navigating the world, but in humans, smell has retreated into the background as this abstract, subliminal force that just colors our perception of the world in ways we don’t fully understand. It’s kind of a mysterious hidden dimension, and I love that.

 Emily: Why did you decide to use scent as the way the zombies search out their food in your books?

Isaac: Zombies are very animalistic, so it seemed inevitable that they would hunt by scent, but it’s actually not the traditional olfactory sense. Like R says in Warm Bodies, “We don’t smell it with our noses. It hits us deeper inside, near our brains.” They’re not tracking biological odors but the “life scent” which is something more metaphysical. In fact, zombies can’t really smell natural odors at all — except decay and other morbid scents. This is why as R becomes more human, he’s amazed by the beautiful smells that start to creep into his awareness.

Emily: Having a really pronounced sense of smell is often connected to being more animal-like. Dogs smell 1,000 times better than humans, Bears smell 1,000 times better than dogs. And yet, in your books, your characters seem to connect through scent, even after (spoiler alert), they exhume. So does scent make us more like animals or more like humans?

Isaac: Humans have a tricky path to navigate between our animal origins and our loftier aspirations. A lot of our worst qualities come from our primitive nature and we have to fight hard to overcome those, but if we run too far the other way we end up as sterile intellectual beings with no connection to the primal currents that give life color and even “meaning.” So while a lot of this story is about transcending the animal and climbing toward a higher level of existence, it’s also about connecting to the world around us in an immediate and personal way. When “R” marvels over the smell of Julie’s hair, he’s emerging from his lofty contemplation of her qualities and experiencing her as a real, tangible person living in the world, which is a deeper kind of connection beyond just the awareness of her qualities.

Emily: I adore your scent writing. It feels completely organic to your stories. Do you have a philosophy or approach you like to use when incorporating scent into your books?

Isaac: It really varies by the story. Warm Bodies is a visceral story with a lot of sweaty bloody fleshy sensation, so scent has a big role to play, but other stories I’ve written are more about elusive feelings and ideas so I tend to use less sensory detail in those. I think it has to do with how “up close” and intimate I want to be. The more I want to put the reader right there in the mud with the characters, the more sensory detail I include, and if I want a more contemplative aerial view, I scale back the senses.

Emily: Scent seemed to play a larger role in Warm Bodies than in The New Hunger (though I have to say, they are still far smellier than 98% of the fiction out there). Can you give us a hint at what role it will play in the sequels?

Isaac: Its role continues to expand as “R” grows into his humanity, but eventually it starts to go beyond the human spectrum. There are characters with heightened perceptions that look a little like “superpowers.” Senses in general, particularly sight and smell, become part of this mysterious shift that’s happening in the world as humanity is climbing out of the pit toward a new plateau of reality, so I get to write with this godlike POV, swirling around the environments and exploring details that wouldn’t normally be available. It’s really exhilarating.

Emily: Do you have a favorite scent on a person?

THE NEW HUNGER_9781476799650-coverIsaac: I love the smell of a woman’s hair. I don’t know how much of it is just her shampoo and perfume and how much is her natural scent, but it’s unique to each person and since it comes from the head I like to think it’s some kind of personal essence, like the combined scents of all her thoughts and feelings and the places she goes in her life. I also have a weird appreciation for the smell of booze and cigarettes. It was an old flame’s signature scent and will probably always trigger a warm sense of “I should know better but fuck it.”

Emily: Thanks, Isaac! You’ve got a forever fan in me.

The prequel to Warm Bodies, The New Hunger: A Warm Bodies Novella (The Warm Bodies Series), just came out this month, and the word on the street is that there are going to be two sequels. Want more Warm Bodies? Marion did a Q & A with fans over at Goodreads this week.

What’s your take? Does scent make us more human or more animalistic?

The place in Oregon where I’ll never take my kids

Astoria

See that little red hotel that juts out into the river? That’s our place, the Cannery Pier Hotel

I will never take my kids to Astoria. It’s a place I’ve reserved for my husband and me alone, our place, a storybook harbor town filled with people with mermaid tattoos and hidden pirate longings. Kids can stay at home with grandma. We’ve claimed it, its ours, sorry, Charlie, get out your LEGOS ’cause mommy and daddy are going away!

We go once a year, stay in my favorite hotel in Oregon, the Cannery Pier Hotel, and then we play for a few days. I will send friends and visitors to Astoria there until my dying days for the gracious hospitality, free rides around town in a ’58 Chevy, and the way you might just wake up in the middle of the night to a mammoth sea vessel passing silently past your window. Did I mention the sauna and hot tub in the spa on the first floor? Or how you can take the cruiser bikes around town without a lock because everyone in town knows who they belong to?

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Last year was a little different. In November, I was on assignment to write a Perfect Day in Astoria for one of my magazine clients, Sunset. Dream of dreams! The story is out in the current issue, and you can read it here.

But my memories of Astoria are not anything from a magazine, so I thought I’d share a few outtakes:

The Garden of Surging Waves

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Garden of Surging Waves, Astoria

The first time we went to Astoria we stumble upon these giant marble columns laying on their sides down by the wharf. Say what? The next year, we found them here, at a city’s garden of gratitude to one of its most discounted (by history) immigrant populations. Even in the rain it’s the most beautiful public space I’ve been to in Oregon.

Blue Scorcher Co-op

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In my article I mention the Fort George Brewery, but just below is the Blue Scorcher Co-op, a place where we simply feel happy. It’s got this weird 1990s coffee shop vibe, so complete that the last time we were in there they were playing Sublime’s Santeria. Gluten-free baked goods (for me, thank you!), great salads, and lots of toys for someone else’s kids.

The Goonies

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HEY YOU GUYS!!!! It can be a little weird when a town lays claim to the films made there and attaches its identity to it  (ever been to Forks, WA?). Unless that movie is The Goonies. I actually want to see more Goonies in Astoria. The film museum even has a Sloth I posed with for an Iphone pic. Sloth + selfie = #Slothie?

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My kids are still too young for The Goonies. Like 3 and 5 young. I’m glad they can’t watch it yet because that means I can keep leaving them out of this particular trip.

The Astoria Column

Astoria

High above the city you can hike past ancient trees and climb the Astoria column. We haven’t been there since it was restored, but the images show that it’s going to be a beacon of art rising in the mist. I believe we made some paper airplanes on one of our visits and flew them from the top of the column. Did we really do that?

The Astoria Coffeehouse

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Globes in decorating. This place was made with me in mind. Apparently people bring them so many globes that they’ve started refusing them. Tell me how to have this problem.

That time we went to the Arc Arcade after a fancy dinner

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So after we scoped out Albatross (bold name for a restaurant/business, by the way), and had some Prohibition-are cocktails, which did make it into the Sunset piece, we went to the ARC to play… ahem… X-Men, which did NOT make it into Sunset. I got to play some Super Mario Bros., which I used to dominate, but found my 35-year-old 12-bit Nintendo skills do not translate to the arcade version.  This is true love, baby.

UPDATE: Adam tells me I played Wolverine and he was Night Crawler for the superior jump skills.

Neuschwanstein

Finally, I’ll share the little bit of Astoria we took home with us. Wait! That’s Neuschwanstein! Having lived in Germany for three years, I’ve seen Neuschwanstein six times and in every season. Needless to say, I have a problematic relationship to Germany’s most famous castle. For years I thought it was the height of kitsch. If you asked me to go back I’d probably throw myself in a lake. BUT. Having not lived in Germany for more than ten years now, I kind of miss it. I miss what it stands for — someone’s crazy delusional idea that was made in brick and stone. So yes, we bought the hand-carved Neuschwanstein relief. It’s hanging in my office as I write this.

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What can I say? We’re big fans of Astoria.

Do you have a place that you don’t share with anyone else? Tell me about it! I promise I won’t tell  🙂

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: A Clinic on How to Use Scent in Novel Writing

PaulaHawkinsSlider-1024x716PerfumeI finished a book proposal and sent it off to my agent last Friday and celebrated with some real mind candy: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

It’s a debut novel that’s been earning comparison’s to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
for the way it plays with readers’ expectations and works the unreliable narrator angle to fuel its pace.

To my great delight, it is also one of the smelliest books I’ve encountered (highly welcome, considering I’m reading it on a  Kindle Paperwhite).

Here’s the story: Thirty-something divorcee Rachel rides the same train into London every day, past the same rows of houses. In her vast and gloomy imagination she has concocted a backstory for one of the couples she sees over the fence from the train. She calls them Jason and Jess, and to her, they are living the perfect life. Until one day, when she see a scene in the backyard that makes no sense, something that will get her involved in Jason and Jess’s lives and that of another couple down the street.

The Girl on the Train is like going to a tarot card reading. Each new bit of information changes everything. Told through the alternating voices of Rachel, Megan (Jess) and Anna, Rachel’s husband’s new wife, the novel asks what terrible things can happen when the grief of moving on with your life means getting entangled in another person’s story.

Oh, and it’s a murder mystery. But honestly, I find the murder ancillary — to me, this book was all about the psychology of voyeurism and the danger in wanting something other than what you already have.

And also, it was about scent. I did a little search and discovered there are at least 36 references to smell in this this novel, which is about 32 more than most books I’ve read lately. I would go as far to say that this book is a clinic on how to use scent properly in novel writing. She even has a psychiatrist in the book chiming in on how important smell is:

“Smell is particularly important when it comes to recall. Music can be powerful, too. If you are thinking of a particular circumstance, a particular day, you might consider retracing your steps, returning to the scene of the crime, as it were.”

Not all of the references are instructive, and some give important details of the book you shouldn’t know before you read it, so I’ve taken a great effort to hold back game-changing details. However, if you don’t like to know anything before you read your thrillers, go read it now and come back!

Scent in The Girl on the Train

Because scent is associated with a specific emotion for each of the three narrators, I’m going to separate them out and see what these scent markers says about them.

RACHEL

Rachel, though not the exclusive narrator, is our way into the story, so it makes sense that she is the character gifted with the highest number and most specific olfactory details in The Girl On the Train. She struggles with alcoholism, but in the moments when she is most coherent, when she is playing detective and trying to suss out what exactly happened to her during her drinking binges, the author often places some sensory cues to show her clear-mindedness.

Rachel, feeling remorse after a binge:

  • “There was blood on the chopping board, the room smelled of raw meat, the steak was still sitting out on the counter top, turning grey.”
  • “We were standing in the hallway, which, despite my best efforts with the bleach, still smelled a bit sick.”
  • “The room is warm; it smells terrible, rank and sour — I’ve barely left it since Thursday

Rachel, on visiting Scott (Jason). Several times she visits him and his emotional state is described through how Rachel interprets his scent.

  • “He smelled of old sweat, and his dark hair was matted against his head as though he hadn’t showered in a while.”
  • “There was a sharp smell of antiseptic in the room, but Scott himself was a mess, a sweat patch on the back of his T-shirt, his jeans hanging loose on his hips as though they were too big for him.”
  • “The heat in the room seemed to build suddenly, the smell of antiseptic rising from every surface. I felt faint.”
  • “The house was less tidy than it was a week ago, the disinfectant smell displaced by something earthier.”
  • “He’s cut himself shaving: there’s blood on his cheek and on his collar. His hair is damp and he smells of soap and aftershave.”
  • “The first thing I noticed when he opens the door is the smell. Sweat and beer, ran and sour, and under that something else, something worse. Something rotting.”

Rachel, on trying to figure out what she has done during a binge:

  • “The hairs are standing up on the back of my neck. I can smell aftershave under cigarette smoke and I know that I’ve smelled that scent before.”
  • “It’s erotic to me, that smell; it reminds me of being happy.”
  • “There’s no one there, of course, and the flat is empty, too: it feels untouched, it smells empty, but that doesn’t stop me checking every room — under my bed and under Cathy’s, in the wardrobes and the closet in the kitchen that couldn’t conceal a child.”
  • “So when I closed my eyes, when I drifted into a half dream and found myself in that underpass, I may have been able to feel the cold and smell the rank, stale air, I may have been able to see a figure walking towards me, spitting rage, fist raised, but it wasn’t true.”

On wanting her ex-husband back:

  • “He leans across then, and I can hardly breathe, I want to touch him so badly. I want to smell his neck, bury my face in that broad, muscular gap between his shoulder blades.”

On letting go:

  • “Swifts are swooping low in the sky, and I can smell the rain coming. I love that smell.”

***

MEGAN

For Megan, who harbors a terrible secret and who throws herself into dangerous situations in order to feel something, anything at all, scent can be an an indicator of disgust — with the situation at hand, with herself, with her past.

Megan, after leaving her job as a nanny:

  • “When I leave their house I run home, can’t wait to strip my clothes off and get into the shower and wash the baby smell off me.”

As a marker of her sexuality and marital indiscretions:

  • “That smell of cold and damp always sends a little shiver down my spine, it’s like turning over a rock to see what’s underneath: Moss and worms and earth.”
  • “The room is dark, the air close, sweet with the smell of us.”
  • “He doesn’t touch me, but our bodies are close, I can smell his scent, clean in this dirty room, sharp and astringent.”

From a memory of regret:

  • “I can hear it guttering, smell the wax, feel the chill of the air around my neck and shoulders.”
  • “I’d just walk around those dark rooms and I’d hear her crying, I’d smell her skin.”

***

ANNA


We don’t hear much of Anna’s voice in this novel, in part because she isn’t the main agent of change or action. But when we do, we sense she is in as much danger as some of the other characters, and equally disturbing. I found only one reference to scent in her passages, which highlights that she is a particularly cold and calculating figure.

On being afraid:

  • “I can smell the beer on his breath. “Have you been up to no good?”” [he says].

Did you read this Tarot Card Reading of a novel? Did you notice the scent details? I’m always on the lookout for writers who use scent effectively, so if you know of any, pass them along!

Feng shui for Decorative Gourd Season, motherf*ckers!

A big ole autumn wreath to drive away depression.

A big ole autumn wreath to drive away depression.

HouseI play this game with some friends of mine, though quite honestly, I don’t know that they know they are playing. For the past couple of years, every time the air turns crisp, the grapes hang heavy on the wines and the leaves begin to change I wait to see which of them will post Colin Nissan’s funny essay “It’s decorative gourd season, motherf*ckers!” on their Facebook feeds.

This year, I couldn’t hold back, so I was the first.

If you’ve never come across this humor piece, I feel kind of sorry for you, since it is something of a rallying cry around here. You see, Fall drives me kind of nuts. I become all Rilke-wandering-the-woods, my insomnia kicks in for the holidays and I feel, all-in-all, like the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

But what if that hand-basket were, instead, filled with colorful decorative gourds, lined with fake red maple leaves and placed artfully within the places that matter in your home to remind you that it is okay to rage rage rage against the dying of the light?

Is there feng shui for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There is around here!

First, let’s take a look at that essay. My apologies if you don’t like swearing, but there it is again this year in all of its autumnal glory on the McSweeney’s site.

Just how influential is this tiny ecstatic rant about autumn?

When you try to google it it doesn’t even come up first anymore for all of the people who are linking to it, getting inspired by it, putting it as their Twitter covers, or otherwise appropriating it for their own projects. There’s even a decorative gourd season mug. I’ve been following its author, Colin Nissan, on Twitter for some time now, and I took note when he smartly decided to put it in his Twitter bio.

Poor guy. I imagine he’s going to spend the rest of his life being that guy who wrote “It’s decorative gourd season, motherf*ckers!” At least, until he writes something that hits as big. (I liked his last NYer humor column on married people doing bedroom play).

So back to SAD. If you read this blog you know that despite my best intentions I have been falling down the rabbit hole of feng shui. I must not be the only one, since my post “Feng Shui for the Book Lover: How to Pare Down a Library” is, to date, the most popular thing I’ve written on this website.

What I love most about feng shui is that it affords me a sense of control (real or non-existent) in this crazy world. It makes me feel like there is always something I can do when things feel off in my life. I don’t need anyone to tell me this is pure poppycock, but it has certainly allowed me to embrace some activities that I might have thought silly before.

Wreath-making, for instance.

Feng shui holds that your door is the most important part of your house — it is the entryway for all of the energies in your home. Its color should be auspicious, its placement front-and-center, and there is nothing blocking the entry. The door should open and close smoothly. The front door is something you should actively tend, says pretty much every feng shui expert ever.

At the end of last summer I decided to tackle the front door, which, for our 10-year-old, architecturally insignificant house meant getting a new mat, a new glorious paint color and some dusting and cleaning. Painting our boring maroon door bright purple was just one thing I did to bring the happy home. It wasn’t a color I would have picked normally, but after reading about color choices for homes on Red Lotus Letter I thought maybe purple would feel lucky (and it does). The project isn’t done yet, but last weekend I decided to channel my fiery autumnal energy, that thing that makes me feel like the caged pacing panther in that Rilke poem, and make a decorative wreath, motherf*cker!

So did Rilke have Seasonal Affective Disorder or what? Just check out his poem “Autumn Day,” which sounds to me like how I feel come October.

Poseyland, local flower shop was holding a wreath-making class so I went and made this autumn explosion wreath for our front door.

007See the one to the right? That’s the station I picked — slightly non-circular  with crazy wisps, just like me.

009The goal for me at this workshop was to practice restraint — how to choose just the right elements to celebrate the season without ending up with a cornucopia taped to a bunch of twigs.

011I was thinking about my mom the whole time. Since her retirement, she’s been dabbling in floral arranging. Perhaps using the word “dabbling” really undermines what she is doing, which is creating beauty. When she comes to visit we buy her one big bouquet and she drops these little beauty bombs all over the house.

017My new front door! It’s purple, and its high contrast for a Decorative Gourd Season wreath.

I’d like to thank Colin Nissan personally, not just for giving me a laugh come every autumn since 2009, but for sending me a text that says: “It’s okay! Girl, you’re a woman now! You can put a scary colorful wreath on your front door and then every time you see it you’re gonna be happy and you’re gonna forget that the sun is dying earlier every day!”

Does fall turn you into a modernist German poet? Tell me about it!