You’re joining me on a very happy day as the paperback edition of my second novel Scent is released. It’s had a gorgeous summery makeover by designer Jamie Keenan that evokes the Provence thread of the story, and the pink colour wash reminds me of the stunning Lubéron skies around sunset (and possibly sunrise, I’m never up that early).
There’s a huge list of people to thank, starting with my publishers Sarah and Kate Beal of Muswell Press, my publicist Fiona Brownlee, my agent Diana Beaumont, my ‘creative advisers’ Matt Bates, Voula Tsoflias and Kristin Celms and absolutely everyone who’s got behind the book by selling it, buying it, reading it and helping to spread the word via blogs, vlogs, reviews, podcasts, social media or good old-fashioned conversation. This is doubly important to the success of books from small independents without a big budget for marketing and we were delighted that it was highlighted by The Bookseller in their recent LGBT+ special issue.
Last Wednesday I finally got to host the party I’d dreamed of to celebrate publication of Scent (it originally came out during lockdown). It was such an emotional and joyful evening surrounded by wonderful, supportive people from almost every stage of my life, one I’ll never forget. (I’m still high on the atmosphere.) We’ve all been through a lot over the last two years and to have so many friends and colleagues show up for me was overwhelming, as you can tell from the look on my face. Thank you to everyone who came or sent good wishes – and to anyone trudging the rocky road to publication: I know how hard it is but it’s worth everything when you get there!
In one of many generous cover quotes, Rowan Pelling describes Scent as being ‘as much about perfume, marriage and parenthood as it is about sexual identity’. Clémentine is an unfulfilled middle-aged perfumer whose entire life has been marked by an intense same-sex love affair twenty-five years earlier. When her former girlfriend Racha resurfaces unexpectedly it changes everything and telling Clémentine’s story has unexpectedly changed everything for me.
I’m going to get a bit personal now.
In my speech I thanked my sub-conscious (What? My podiatrist is in the Acknowledgements) for directing me to write a novel in which I would end up outing myself to myself. Even so, I had no intention of coming out in public when it was first released (not sure how I thought that was going to work!) but I have. This isn’t the only factor that’s held me back but it’s a huge relief to feel comfortable being myself at last.
Fast forward to this Monday, when I accompanied my younger son to his Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award ceremony in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. I was moved by the speech by Johannes Radebe, who grew up in a township in South Africa and had to overcome racism and homophobia to achieve success as a dancer and choreographer. (He was half of the first same-sex couple on Strictly Come Dancing.) ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ he said, talking about representation and role models, and this struck a chord with me. For a long time I resisted the shift in my sexuality because it didn’t fit my/society’s narrative, because this happening to women ‘wasn’t a thing’ (Note: it totally is a thing) and, undoubtedly, because of internalised biphobia. It was seeing other women over 40 in the book world proudly embrace their queer identity that made me realise if they could be brave enough, so could I. Julie and Abi, you’re my heroes.
As I said the other night, nothing means more to me than readers connecting with my writing because that deep, intimate connection is the reason I read myself, those moments you get that ‘it’s not just me’ or gain understanding of something far beyond your own experience. Readers’ responses to Scent have touched me deeply for all kinds of reasons, but none more so than the women who’ve told me they relate to Clémentine’s situation or mine (and they are not the same at all) and in some cases have never felt able to tell anyone. Coming from a background where almost everything that matters was cloaked in shame and silence, it seems to be my mission to write about things we don’t often talk about but probably should. I didn’t know what I was setting out to say with this book, but I managed to say it anyway as well as sharing my passion for perfume.
Scent is about desire and grief, connection and loneliness, Paris in autumn and a hot, sexy summer in Provence – it reflects my fascination with how we become who we are and my belief that change is always possible. I’m told it’s much warmer and more emotionally open than my debut. Funny, that…
I’m excited to think of Scent being all over the place (including Twitter and Instagram!) this summer and if you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it as much as I loved writing it.
My Summer Reads selection will be released in two parts this year, in mid-June and mid-July.
Isabel, you look beautiful. Congratulations.
Lovely to see you looking so happy – certainly sounds like you’ve been on a helluva journey! x