Mark Your Territory
An interview with Margot Berwin
by B. Lynn Goodwin

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When I approached Margot Berwinís publicist about an interview I had an
ulterior motive. Sheíd written about something missing in my life: my sense of
smell. It doesnít work, so I was especially interested in talking to a woman
whose book focused on the power of scents. So I read Margot Berwinís Scent
of Darkness with both interest and curiosity. I hoped to get a feel for the
texture of scent and the images of scent, since I had no concept of what
scents themselves are like.

I found a rich, earthy, sensual world of love and seduction in Scent of
Darkness. Her answers confirmed that I can appreciate some of the effects of
scent, even if I have no concept of the sensory experience itself. Berwinís
book is as original as her answers to my questions.

Eighteen-year-old Evangeline learns the danger of pheromones. When her
grandmother dies, she leaves her a unique perfume, created from Evangelineís
own scents. The minute she tries it out, people find her irresistible and all the
attention sends her into a state of confusion. Is she truly loveable or is it only
her personal perfume that drives everyone-from her husband, Michael, and a
local painter named Gabriel, to strangers-- crazy. Once she uses the perfume,
Evangeline no longer knows who or what to trust, and thatís a high price for
the thrill of being the most sought-after woman in the room. 

In smooth, lustrous prose Berwin shows us the darker side of New Orleans.
She draws us into a world of magic and mystery. In this Q & A Berwin tells us
how she created that world and much more.

LG: Tell us about your writing career. Why did you decide to pursue an MFA
and how did it help you become a better author?

MB: Itís been one twisty, turny road! I knew I wanted to be a writer when I
was very young-like six years old. I wrote all the time as a kid, journals,
letters, songs, and stories, but I didnít actively think about writing as a career
until I was around 28.

I didnít take creative writing classes in college. And afterwards I went into
advertising and became a copywriter working on websites and print ads. But
in the back of my mind I knew I would write books. I wrote two in a row at 28
and 30 years old. They just kind of burst out of me. I love them still. They
were never published but I used one of the books as my grad school
application and it won me a scholarship.

I decided to pursue grad school because my agent said that editors at
publishing houses use it as a weeding out process. They receive so many
manuscripts that they look to see who went to grad school and they look at

ďGet short stories published in any way you can. On or off-line.Ē  --Margot Berwin
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those manuscripts first. I know, that sux, but thatís the way it is. What did I learn in grad school? I learned how to show my work to others. I learned
a few writing techniques. And I got published right after.

Personally I donít believe writing can be taught. You are either a writer or youíre not. And you know it on the inside. Grad school was fun though. And
I made some long-lasting writer friends.

LG: Interesting to know that editors use your education as a part of a weeding out process. Did Scent of Darkness start with one of the characters, a
particular scent, or somewhere else?

MB: When I was a kid I used to mix perfumes in the bathroom like a little four-foot chemist. Much to my mother's dismay I'd pull the stopper out of her
Chanel #5 and pour in a little of my dad's Aqua Velva just for good measure.

As a writer Iím also a huge reader. At some point I became obsessed with books on scent and scent making such as The Perfect Scent by Chandler
Burr and Perfume by Suskind. I learned all I could about the major perfume houses in the south of France--Guerlain, Hermes, Chanel, Creed,
Houbigant, Givenchy and many more. It got to the point where I was spending all of my free time in the perfume section of Sephora or Bergdorf
Goodman spraying and waving little white strips of paper in the air.

Eventually I started to make my own scents. I hit upon a combination of essential oils in a base of sunflower oil and people in restaurants and bars
would come up to me and ask me what I was wearing!

I briefly thought about marketing the scent (well, actually still thinking about it) but instead I combined my love of perfume with my love of writing
and turned them into a novel.

LG: This is fascinating. Any tips for exploring unique, vibrant characters?

MB: I had a long, tortured, borderline s/m relationship with a famous artist (who shall remain nameless). He is the character of Michael in the book. I
kind of exorcised that particular demon while writing Scent of Darkness. So taking characters from your own life is one way of writing.

Creating characters from scratch, that you would love to know, or even be, is another way. Levon is my favorite character in the book. Heís young,
exotic, beautiful, sensual, and gifted at reading the tarot. I made him because I want to know someone like him.

LG: What kinds of research did you do for the book?

MB: New Orleans is warm and soft, tough and scary. Itís tarot card readings and voodoo shops. Itís Marie Laveau the voodoo queen of New Orleans.
Itís poí boys and crawfish boils in Mid-City with hot sauce that will make your eyeballs ache. Itís graves that sit on top of the ground instead of
underneath. For sure itís a perfumed city--scented with 30 foot magnolia trees, Carolina Jessamine, Wisteria, Gardenia, and of course, Jasmine. And
mostly and above all and floating on top of everythingÖis music.

I went for a month, stayed for almost a year, and wrote the entire first draft of Scent of Darkness. Moving there to write the book was a big part of
my research.

LG: I like that approach. How would you explain the concepts in The Scent of Darkness so that someone who cannot smell will understand them as
well as someone who can?

MB: There are a few ideas floating around in this book that I hope will appeal to different readers. There is of course the idea of scent and scent
making. I hope readers will be intrigued enough to find out more about how perfume is constructed and what exactly it is that you are putting on your
body-you might be surprised to find out! (Read the next question!)

Then there is sado/masochistic element of the relationship between Evangeline and Michael vs. the less passionate but more sustainable relationship
between her and Gabriel. The age old question of being in love with two men at the same time.

I think the main conflict in my story is about choice. Should Evangeline choose the guy whoís good for her, the one thatís kind and confident and has
a great future. Or the one that sheís physically attracted to in a way that she canít forget or ignore. In a way itís a classic story of good and evil.
And it poses the question: Is it possible to love someone who is evil?

LG: What message do you hope people will take from The Scent of Darkness?

MB: There are many messages in this book. But I hope people will entertained and intrigued enough to learn more about how perfume is constructed.

There are flowers and plants and fruits in perfumes but there are also much darker things inside of those beautiful little bottles-- very dirty elements
called animalics. They include ambergris, which is made from whale sperm. Not sperm whales, but whale sperm. Civet, which comes from the anal
gland of the civet cat. Castoreum from the beaver. And of course musk, which comes from the anus of the musk deer.

These glands, which we remove from the animal to make perfumes, contain the sprays that animals use to mark their territory. And we use them for
exactly the same reason. Just remember the next time you hug someone and you get a bit of perfume on their neck you are literally using the anal
gland of an animal to mark your territory.

LG: Now that is a genuinely original answer. What tips would you give emerging writers about polishing their work and getting it published?

MB: Writers today need a platform for their work. Theyíre much more likely to get published if they have a blog or a site with a large following.
Publishers look for writers who can help them with the marketing side of things by already having a built in audience. Itís a pain, almost a second job,
but itís sort of a necessity today. I didnít do it but I wish I had.

Get short stories published in any way you can. On or off-line. It really helps to have those under your belt when youíre ready to hand in a novel.

Get an MFA if you can, if only for the networking opportunities it can provide. Join writers groups. I belong to a place called Paragraph here in NYC
and itís where I met my agent and a very supportive group of writers.

LG: What are you working on now and how hard is it to publicize this book while working on another one?

MB: Itís really hard. I still freelance in advertising, while writing, and promoting my latest book. Iím not going to say itís easy; itís not, not even for a
well-published writer. Maybe if I didnít live in NYC it would be simpler to live off of my royalties and advances. I think about thatÖa lot..:o)

LG: Where can people learn more about you and your work?

MB: Read my books:
Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire
Scent of Darkness
2033: Future of Misbehavior. (short stories)
I also have quite a bit of erotica published on

Thank you, Margot Berwin. Your unique voice comes through in your interview answers as well as your book. Youíve started me thinking-again-about
getting an MFA.

Enjoy Berwinís unique vision. Youíll experience the seductive world of New Orleans in a whole new way as you read Scent of Darkness. Itís an
entertaining and intriguing novel. Pick up a copy today.
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