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Writer to Writer: A Conversation with M.J. Rose

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M.J. Rose is the international best-selling author of 13 novels and three non-fiction books. Her most recent novel, Seduction, has received rave reviews from USA Today, Publisher's Weekly and many others.

Ms. Rose launched her publishing career in 1998 when she self-published her first novel, Lip Service. Traditional publishers rejected it, uncertain about a novel that did not fit a distinct genre. So, she set up a website where readers could download the book, and began promoting it online. The novel was chosen as a selection by the Literary Guild/Doubleday Book Club and became the first e-book to be published by a mainstream publisher.

The rest is history.

Ms. Rose's recent novels focus on reincarnation and other supernatural phenomena. The Recreationist, the basis for the Fox television series Past Life, was followed by The Memorist, The Hypnotist, The Book of Lost Fragrances and now, Seduction.

How did you make the transition from advertising to writing novels?
When I was in advertising, I did a great deal of work on television commercials. A co-worker and I wrote a screenplay which led to a few more screenplays and some were optioned by production companies. I was advised to move to California, but didn't want to make the move. I decided to use another form of storytelling, so I wrote a novel.

Your last few novels, particularly The Book of Lost Fragrances and Seduction have dealt with reincarnation; the importance of the past; the collective unconscious and the power of memory. Can you share some of your thoughts concerning the importance of the past and memory?

I've always been fascinated by how the past impacts the present. For the first half of my career as a novelist, I wrote psychological suspense mysteries. I wanted to be a therapist but was told that while I was a fine diagnostician, I would be a terrible therapist because I wanted to solve everyone's problems. So I wrote four novels about a New York City sex therapist. I then decided to write something historical because I was so interested in the past. I had an idea of writing novels that brought together the past and the present. I've always been fascinated by the concept of reincarnation. I learned that many brilliant people were interested in reincarnation, including Carl Jung. I'm a big Jungian. So I began writing novels involving theories integrating past and present, even if the past element in the novel took place 500 or 1,000 years ago. They say every writer really just writes about one thing over and over. I guess my one thing is how the past impacts the present.

Is that how you feel about your own life and the lives of people you know?
I think so. I think that people can change. I've known people who have changed in therapy. I recall reading that those who do well in therapy tend to be people who would do well without therapy, too. They're bright; well-read; and educated. They also tend to be optimistic. However, on a certain level, you must live with your past. But your response to it can change.

Of course, when I'm writing, I'm simply trying to tell a story. I use the past as a trope. It's a fascinating way to explore someone's character and identity, trying to imagine who they might have been in the past, and how that might have affected them.

You mention exploring someone by imagining who they might have been in the past. Is there anyone you would love to have been?
I've never thought about that. I went to a past life therapist in my 20s because I was writing a screenplay about reincarnation. There was only one time when I was hypnotized deeply enough that I saw myself walking on a rocky path. I looked down and saw my shoes. They were the kind Pilgrims wore. That was the extent of my past life memory. Of course, that could be something I made up. We're capable of spinning amazing tales; after all, we're writers. So I don't know if I ever actually had a past life memory.

When I read Seduction, I felt you captured the voice of Victor Hugo exquisitely. You must have done an enormous amount of research for the novel.
I'd read about Victor Hugo believing in reincarnation and about his getting involved in séances to reach his dead daughter. I'd always known that one of the books in this series would involve Victor Hugo as the element of the past. I did a great deal of research about him and his having spent three years on the Isle of Jersey. He was writing Les Miserables at the time.

When I sat down to write the book, I just couldn't write. I suddenly realized I had taken on the most insane task in my life. Victor Hugo was one of the greatest novelists of all time. And I was going to write a novel in which one third of it would be him telling us about his séances in his own voice. I was worried it would be seen as an amazing kind of hubris to think I could write like Victor Hugo. After a few months of not being able to write, I called my agent and said I couldn't do it. I wanted to change the book and buy back the contract from the publisher. My agent came up with the idea of reading Hugo's letters because they were probably written in a more ordinary voice than his novels. I wouldn't be trying to write in the voice of a great French novelist if I read these more prosaic letters.

I read ten or fifteen letters of his. But I still couldn't write a word of the novel. Then, the strangest thing happened. I accidentally knocked over an antique jar of pens on my desk; one of the pens fell onto my laptop. I looked at it and had a flash.

I uncapped the pen and pulled out an unlined journal I'd bought in France. I dipped the pen in some ink, turned off the light, and began writing in natural daylight. I wrote in the voice of Victor Hugo, the way he wrote: with pen, ink and paper. The voice was there. I wrote 120,000 words, by hand, in journals. It was the first time I wrote a novel by hand.

In a Jungian sort of way, I felt I'd tapped into the collective unconscious and Victor Hugo's spirit. I must say, that when I typed the handwritten manuscript into the computer, I didn't remember writing any of the Victor Hugo part.

Reading Seduction, I was struck by the prominent role of olfaction--scents, fragrances and memories. Can you tell us a bit about that?

The olfactory center is next to the memory center of the brain. When you smell something, you can remember the moment in a far more clear and vivid way than when you see or hear it. Perfume was always in my life: my mother and grandmother were very loving. They also brought perfume back from Europe. I remember as a girl trying to make perfume from eucalyptus leaves. It really came together for me when I was in advertising and got involved with a campaign for a new fragrance. I became involved with the entire process of making a perfume, and no pun intended, it got under my skin.

When I began researching reincarnation, I learned, among other things, that the word perfume actually means through smoke. The ancient Egyptians believed the soul left the body and travelled on the smoke of incense to the afterlife. So perfume and spirituality were intrinsically connected. The more I read, the more involved I became.

When I write, I'm very conscious of the five senses. I now use them unconsciously; but I focused very consciously on them early in my career. I use them to create and experience characters. Various writers have different ways of exploring and creating characters. My first instinct is to describe what is seen, heard, tasted, felt and smelled.

Conventional wisdom says a writer should stay with a specific genre for commercial and other reasons. Your novels have been characterized as thrillers, paranormal novels, as Gothic, suspense and as historical thrillers. How have you managed to blend genres so successfully?

I just write the novels I want to read. It's hurt my career from a commercial point of view but not from a critical perspective.

If you want to be a successful commercial novelist, I wouldn't recommend doing what I did. But I decided early on, that the day I felt the pressure to mold what I was writing to make my books commercially viable, I would go back into advertising. I didn't want to write for the market, because that's what you do in advertising, where you get paid really well. I'd written three books about a New York City sex therapist. I felt that if I continued writing about that, it would get very stale for me. Everyone said I was making a terrible mistake; people loved the books and I was told I had a chance to make a franchise out of this character.

I felt I couldn't do it any longer. I've been very lucky: I wrote what I wanted to and have had publishers who have published my work. But the downside is I don't have a genre-specific following. The readers who loved the sex-therapy books didn't follow me into the metaphysical suspense novels, while those who enjoy what I now write aren't interested in me earlier work.

You mentioned you like writing the novel you want to read. Whom do you enjoy reading?

There's C.W. Gortner. I love Kate Mosse's books. Another is Kate Forsythe, an Australian writer. I love Lee Child's Jack Reacher books; Barry Eisler's John Rain books; Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon novels. I enjoy reading Carol O'Connell; Allison Richmond; Daphne Du Maurier; F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others.

If you could have dinner with any writers or historical figures from any time in history, who would they be?
I would love to have Ayn Rand there because she's so controversial. I would want her to talk about the things she doesn't believe, and expose the Tea party for what it is. I would want Beethoven, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jung, maybe Greta Garbo so I could learn some of her secrets. I think that would make for a great dinner party.

What would you be talking about?
I think we'd discuss how truly horrible our culture has become. There's so little innovation now, and we might talk about why so many people whine a great deal.

What advice, if any, would you give young writers today?

Writing is an art and publishing is a business. And it's a very broken business right now. I would tell every young writer a few things:

First and most important: write because you love writing, and for no other reason.

The press has made lots of noise about self-published writers, some of whom were created by companies wanting to encourage people to self-publish so they could become part of their business model. Now, Amazon is great--I love Amazon and owe them a great deal for helping my career. Amazon has helped level the playing field, and the company did direct marketing for some self-published authors to show how their books could become successful. The press picked up on this--making it look like it was easy to become a very successful self-published author. The truth is, it's incredibly difficult if you're starting out. I would advise young writers not to read the press.

You should only write if you can accept that you might reach only a few readers, one at a time; and that might be all you ever accomplish. You have to love the process of writing. The process is incredible. Writing is such an amazing and magical experience. If you can't love that, the rest of it is just too hard.

What's coming next from M.J. Rose?
I'm finishing a novel called The Collector of Dying Breath. It will be out in April. It features Jac L'Etoile again. As for the past, it's about Catherine de Medici's perfumer whom she brought with her from Florence to France. In the present, Jac goes to Barbizon, France where she gets involved with a woman who has collected a series of bottles that hold dying breaths. Is there or is there not, a formula by which a dying breath can be reanimated?

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison believed the soul leaves the body in your dying breath. Thomas Edison's dying breath is in his house, on display there. When I read about it, I became fascinated with this concept; namely, what would happen if you could reanimate a person through a dying breath?

To hear a podcast of this entire interview, please visit author Mark Rubinstein's
"Writer to Writer" on