Melanie Cantor's debut fiction is risqué in all the right ways.
I wrote a sex scene. In my novel. You’d be surprised how difficult they are to write. No writer sets out to sound ridiculous or cringe worthy. No writer that I know of aspires to win the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. So I tried to be as realistic and sensual as possible and using the power of scent for me was intrinsic to this.
One scene in particular seems to have captured readers’ imagination. It involved my protagonist having sex on Hampstead Heath - in broad daylight. I know! Radical. When I wrote it, I wasn’t trying to be controversial because I knew it was a totally credible situation for my character to find herself in. Happily, I’ve had so much positive feedback from readers regarding that particular scene, I feel vindicated. Obviously danger mixed with desire appeals and a situation we wouldn’t necessarily place ourselves in, can be vicariously enjoyed through the written word.
'It’s a book about hope, friendship and finding your voice'
The truth is, when I was sitting at my dining table three years’ ago, typing away, conceiving that scene, I had no idea that my novel was even going to get published. My previous three, written over a period of ten years, had all been rejected and this was what I had come to expect. Fortunately, my personal story comes under the heading ‘Never Give Up’ so I wrote the sex scene with a total disregard to being judged yet in the hope that one day it might have an audience. And hope came good! Death & Other Happy Endings was published here in June, in July in the US, with nine other territories to follow including Russia and China. Who knew?
Anyhow, back to Hampstead Heath. It’s autumn which puts a new scent in the air. The smell of damp grass, the mulch of leaves, a fresh earthiness. I’m someone very affected by perfume. Like many people, perfume for me conjures up people, places, the past, good times, bad times. It’s worth knowing that the sense of smell is more closely linked to memory than any other of the senses. Scent is incredibly evocative and with two complete strangers having sex on the heath, it can be a defining stimulant.
You probably need to understand the premise of the novel in order for me to justify my characters’ reckless action. Jennifer, my protagonist, has been given three months to live. At 43 years old, that’s a devastating blow so that when she meets this stranger, she can’t help but respond to the urge to kiss him, knowing she has nothing to lose. And once she starts kissing him…well you know where that takes her.
One of the small but key moments is when her face tumbles to his chest. As she falls to rest against his jumper, she gets a hint of his scent. I wanted to give him something masculine but not macho. Without doubt this man would be a feminist. He is kind, considerate and most importantly in this situation, sexy. I wanted him to suggest all those things, so I chose amber. It’s warm, rich and musky, highly sensual. For me it wasn’t that he was wearing aftershave, he definitely wasn’t. This was the scent that lingered in his wardrobe because his clothes smelt of him. And being on Hampstead Heath, with all its woody, grassy notes, I thought amber fitted, making him very much part of the rightness of that moment which truthfully in other circumstances would have been so wrong!
For fear of leading you astray, let me be clear, Death & Other Happy Endings is not an erotic novel. I guess the clue might be in the title! It’s actually a book about hope, friendship and finding your voice. But there’s a place in it for sex because sex plays an important part in all our lives. As does scent. So there are several other moments in the book where scent has a role. The smell of Christmas, the smell of a room, the smell of anxiety. These are all components which conjure up a feeling of place, atmosphere and emotion. I hope that by including them, the reader can feel present in those situations; going on the journey hand in hand with my characters, in the same way I did. And if I’ve been successful in achieving that difficult skill, then all my years of writing based on a tenuous yet unerring belief in triumph over failure, have come good. And that, dear reader, is the sweetest smell of all.
What an inspiring woman you are, Melanie.