06/03/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Collector of Dying Breaths : A Talk with M.J. Rose


It's been said that each of M.J. Rose's bestselling novels revolves around an enthralling secret. Her reincarnation novels include The Book of Lost Fragrances and Seduction. Her just released novel, The Collector of Dying Breaths is set alternately in the Sixteenth Century with Catherine de Medici's perfumer, Rene le Florentin, and in modern day France, featuring her recurring character, Jac L'Etoile. Jac is consumed by the quest to unlock Rene's secret to immortality -- to capture a dying person's last breath to bring a loved one back to life.

The Collector of Dying Breaths is a fascinating mixture of mystery, the paranormal, suspense, gothic and historical fiction. You've talked before about being something of a hybrid novelist. Tell us more about that.

When I was a kid, I read many of my mom's books. Sometimes, there were mysteries, but there were no delineations and my mother never talked about book genres. Nor did we differentiate genres in school. I was an avid reader, but never thought seriously about writing a novel until I was in my thirties. I took no formal fiction-writing courses and never thought about these categories when I wrote my first novel. I was surprised when my agent said she would have difficulty placing my books because they didn't fit into any specific genre. She educated me about the different fiction genres.

I began tailoring my books to cater to one or another universe of readers. I found it incredibly boring; and frankly, it felt stultifying. I'd previously been in advertising. I felt if I was going to create something to fit a specific market, I might as well have stayed with advertising. In that field, I had to know my market and talk directly to potential buyers. I tailored my message for them, which is what advertising is all about. But I was no longer in the advertising business and didn't want to use that paradigm with my fiction.

I've always felt writing is an art. Publishing is a business. I felt strongly if I was going to write, I would write what I wanted to, and if the "market" didn't respond, there was nothing I could really do about it. I decided I wasn't going to write for any one niche. I was just going to write for myself and not worry about getting published. As a result, my novels still don't fit any specific genre. I simply do my best to write what I, and I hope my readers consider a good book. I guess the old adage applies, "Write what you would love to read."

You wrote alternating portions of The Collector of Dying Breaths through the perspectives of Rene le Florentin and Jac E'toile. Rene's was in the first person while Jac's was in the third person. Is there a reason why you wrote in two different points of view?

Some characters demand to be written in the first person. I prefer writing that way. Jac has been a difficult character to write and it would be hard to put her in the first person. She's so disturbed and has some very dark places within her, So, I was afraid to go there in the first person. I felt Rene's story could be told better in the first person. When I write in the first person, it's as though I become that person as opposed to the third person, where I'm seeing the person from the outside. In writing the three novels with Jac, I felt there were certain things she wasn't yet ready to see or understand, so I avoided writing her perspective in the first person. But I do like being the character more than looking at her.

Where did you get the notion of capturing someone's dying breath?

I always do research and keep a notebook of ideas for future novels. I was studying reincarnation and read about Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford, who were good friends. They were also avid reincarnationists. They concocted a concept that the soul was embodied in a person's dying breath. If you could capture someone's dying breath, you would capture the soul. They thought that perhaps one day, there would be a way to insert that soul into a different body--a baby, or someone in a coma. Or, into someone who already had a soul which would result in a person having two souls. It was quite crazy, but it was intriguing. They were so obsessed with this idea, they made arrangements to have their dying breaths captured. Thomas Edison did have his dying breath preserved and it's in a test tube at the Henry Ford Museum.

Portions of the The Collector of Dying Breaths concerning Rene le Florentin, are artfully erotic. Many novelists have difficulty doing that. Any thoughts?

I don't set out to write about the act of sex. I write about how people feel having sexual relations. I don't struggle with the erotica. I always write with music playing -- it's the same album of Gregorian chants, any time I'm writing. It puts me in some kind of meditative state. I write the erotic scenes in an almost-mesmerized state. Of all the things I write, the erotic scenes need the least copyediting. I'm not sure what that may mean. Actually, during the writing of any book, I'm unaware of my surroundings. It's usually about six-thirty in the morning--the phone is quiet and there are no interruptions -- and I write for between two and four hours. I see and hear the scenes in the book, but I'm not completely conscious of what's around me. It's almost as if it's some other way of being.

Do you also smell what you write about while in this state? I ask because fragrances are so important in this and your other reincarnation novels.

It's an interesting question. I guess I must. Whatever I'm "seeing" in my mind's eye as I write, includes the five senses. It's not only visual and auditory as would be the case in a movie. It's a full, sensory experience in my head, which would include fragrances. It's a sense of being inside these fictional people.

So, it's the artist's ability to be transported to another realm.

I'm sure every novelist has some version of that experience. In fact, I don't have any specific memory of ever writing any book I've completed. When I read it through, it seems foreign to me, as though I didn't actually write it. It seems to have come from someplace or someone outside myself. In fact, I once received a manuscript back from a copyeditor and thought she had made extensive changes in what I'd written. When we spoke, she said emphatically she hadn't changed a word of it, but made only minor grammatical alterations. Yet, it all seemed foreign to me. It's a very strange phenomenon.

The Collector of Dying Breaths says important things about love and relationships. Without giving away the ending, will you comment on that?

The best way for me to do that is to quote directly from part of the novel. It goes like this:

"We don't need a magical elixir to reanimate a dying breath and bring someone back to life. We don't need meditation tools or ancient formulas or hypnosis. The secret, which is not so secret after all, is that the people who we love live on in our hearts, in the beat of our blood. The dead live as long as someone who loves them lives."

Congratulations on writing another novel that slips through the years, intertwines lives that are centuries apart, and has a timeless message for us all.


Mark Rubinstein, Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier