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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Kathleen Tessaro, Gifted Author Extraordinaire Our Coverage Sponsored by Stribling and Associates

Kathleen Tessaro

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When Kathleen Tessaro was younger, she never had ambitions to be a writer. Instead, she dreamed of a career as an art historian, a choreographer or an actress. After a brief spell at the University of Pittsburgh, she was accepted into the drama program at Carnegie-Mellon to train as an actress. However, in the middle of her sophomore year, she journeyed to London to study for three months and ended up staying for twenty-three years.

Life as an actress was uneventful for Tessaro. After a few commercials, stage plays and television episodes, work ground to a halt.  So instead, Tessaro began working with young opera singers, teaching them acting skills while training to be a voice and drama coach in the evenings. During that time, she was approached by a friend, author Jill Robinson, and encouraged to begin writing. Having no formal training as a writer and therefore completely ignorant of the task ahead, she cheerfully began her first novel.

Jill hosted a regular writer’s group every Tuesday night at her home in Marylebone known as the Wimpole Street Writers Workshop. Every week, young female authors gathered round Jill’s large dining room table to eat delicious food and read their latest work. The rule was, you had to have three new pages of material in order to be able to eat (and Jill is a marvelous cook).

In this way, week after week, Kathleen learned to write. Each member of the workshop took turns to read and then offer constructive criticism. As Jill always pointed out, what a writer needs most is encouragement, an audience and a deadline. Her methods were amazingly successful; of the fifteen or so originally members at least eight have been published by major publishing houses. 

Kathleen’s first novel, Elegance, went to auction in both the UK and the US, became a bestseller, and was optioned by Scott Free for film rights. Her subsequent novels, Innocence, The Flirt, The Debutante and more recently The Perfume Collector, have been published all over the world and in many languages. 

In 2009, she moved back to her hometown of Pittsburgh with her son, Eddie. She lives there now with her family and is currently working on her sixth novel for Harper Collins.   Whom You Know Highly Recommended The Perfume Collector earlier this summer, thanks to the complete brilliance of Liz Esman of Harper Collins and her suggestion.  Our panel unanimously believes this is the best book we have read in quite some time and this definitely is the book of the summer.  We are absolutely thrilled to present Kathleen Tessaro as our latest Mover and Shaker! Peachy Deegan interviewed Kathleen for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What is your first artistic memory?
Kathleen Tessaro: 
When I was six I convinced my older sister that I was from the planet Venus and that I possessed magical powers for an entire week. She calls it lying; I call it drama.

What was your first literary endeavor?
I didn't begin writing till later but I used to entertain my younger brothers with stories acted out with my dolls and stuffed animals that lasted for days on end. I count any success at holding another person's attention with plot, characters and the occasional pop tart as a literary triumph.

What are your top 5 favorite perfumes of all time and why?
Christalle by Chanel - the first perfume I ever bought myself; beautiful and cold as a Greek marble statue
Philosykos by Diptyque - I can still recall smelling it for the first time in a boutique called Les Senteurs in London in the 90's and going to any lengths to own it, even though I hadn't a penny at the time
Crushed Fig Leaf by CB I Hate Perfume - some spilled on my wooden dresser the other day and now my whole bedroom radiates with the gentle warmth of figs 
L'Air de Rien by Miller Harris - nothing has quite the same dusty, English loucheness about it - it's the only thing I want to smell like come Autumn 
Eternal Return by CB I Hate Perfume - a whisper of a fragrance; sunlight on water 

Of the perfumes we've featured among our 1,850 product alert posts, which do you like best?
I notice that you've featured Penhaligon's, Jo Malone and Demeter....all favorites of mine.

How were you inspired to write The Perfume Collector?
I knew a woman in London who was a well-known socialite and aristocrat. One day she confided in me that when she was a young woman, she suddenly inherited a flat in Paris from a man she knew nothing about. It turned out he was her biological father, that her mother, a wild debutante herself, had had an affair in the early 60's. This woman's whole identity was challenged by this information; I don't think she ever really came to terms with it. It was deeply disturbing for her to realize she wasn't truly related to her father or the family whose name and heritage she bore so publicly. 

The novel has many twists and turns and a fantastic plot. What was your strategy when weaving it all together?
Thank you - I'm relieved it reads that way! I'm afraid I made a lot of blunders and false starts though - I could write another book with all the material I removed! My best strategy is just to keep on going. And to pay close attention to the notes I'm given from my agents and editors that help tell the story in a more cohesive way.

Is it difficult to keep all the details and specifics organized and in the right order especially when you jump around from place to place?
It's basically writing two completely separate novels at the same time and then weaving them together. The biggest challenge is to balance both story lines so that one doesn't completely overshadow the other.

Are parts of the perfume histories true or is this not one ounce historical fiction?
Madame Zed was a real person and she did work for Lanvin, creating about fourteen different fragrances including My Sin. (Sometimes it's spelled Madame Zede.) Very little is known about her other than that she was probably Russian and disappeared from the perfume business after her incredible success with My Sin, though no one knows why. Most of the other characters are composites of real perfumers. The three perfumes that Eva inspires are fabrications of my imagination. Though wouldn't you wear something called "Aureole Noire"? 

How did you learn so much about the past at the Warwick? We love to go there for the shoe show and see Mover and Shaker Anthony Marinelli.
The Warwick has a rich history and there's some brilliant archive material out there. Of course I visited it as well. However for the staff scenes, I also took inspiration from a book I found about the inner workings of Claridges Hotel in London. Both hail from a similar time period. 

Can you turn this book into a movie and star in it and then be an actress as well for the work?
Oh, I'm a dreadful actress! Oh no, you really don't want to see me act, believe me!

What should we know about Jill Robinson?
Have you ever been lucky enough to have a female mentor; someone who believed in you and pushed you hard at the same time? Jill's a powerful, but loving force of nature. Without her, I wouldn't be a writer today. She continues to run workshops in Los Angeles.

After New York, more readers live in London than anywhere else. What do you love about London?
London is completely paradoxical. It's staunchly traditional and hugely irreverent and innovative at the same time. Think about Alexander McQueen....and then remember Kate Middleton wearing a gown from his design house to be married in. We're talking about the same man who created bumsters. Who had a masked, over-weight woman, nude, lounging in a glass box covered in butterflies centre stage for one of his shows. A working class, Cockney gay man who pushed the boundaries of feminine beauty and identity - dressing the bride at the royal wedding. The British are proud of their perversity. They're complex, urbane people. And London mirrors that endless ambiguity and sophistication.

What should our readers know about Pittsburgh?
It's actually much prettier than you think it will be.

Do you like the Penguins and do you have any analysis for us on the 2013 NHL playoffs thus far?
I love the Pens and, like most Pittsburghers, am a huge fan. Crosby is the finest player in the NHL and we're lucky to have him. But I know for a fact that you're an expert in these matters, Peachy, so I won't embarrass myself by offering any analysis for the playoffs! 

What will your next book be on?
It's called Rare Objects. It takes place in 1933 in an antiques shop in Boston. We've got a woman with something to hide, a rare Greek artifact smuggled into the country, and a very dangerous love triangle. 

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
I don't pursue excellence - it's much too daunting! And I'm not certain I would even recognize it. I simply do the best I can at the time with the abilities and resources I have. Excellence sounds dangerously like perfectionism, which is of no use to me. In fact, I think it hampers creativity because it presupposes a particular result or outcome. Art is about happy mistakes. I'm an advocate for the fine art of failing. And then getting up, brushing yourself off and making a cup of tea.

What are you proudest of and why? 
My little boy, Eddie, for all the obvious reasons. And beyond that, my friendships. I have the great fortune of knowing some brilliant, wildly funny and intelligent women. They've always been there for me, and I for them. It's a real honor to be part of someone's life in that way.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
I'd like to write a play. A good play. Actually, a really good play.

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
Well, I've been published.....that's kinda it.

What one word best describes you and why?
Affected. I have a dreadful trans-Atlantic accent from living abroad for so long that I can't seem to shake (not that I can be bothered to try that hard). 

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
In bed at the St. Regis, early morning, drinking coffee.....a whole glorious day spread out in front of me.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
I haven't got one; the joy of Manhattan is exploring the new and unknown. But I favor small privately owned local businesses. 

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why?
Jeeves. I badly need a personal valet.

What is your favorite drink?
Coffee - especially the first cup of the morning.

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party?
I was at a private club in Soho, London with some friends waiting for the start of an end of season party for the RSC, but we were all poor actors and none of us had any money. It was a hot day and we were gasping. I spotted a well-heeled stranger standing on his own at the bar, so, on a whim, I waltzed up and sang Happy Birthday to him very sweetly and enthusiastically. Everyone joined in; soon the whole room was laughing and clapping over nothing...He was so delighted he bought us a bottle of champagne on the spot. That's not really funny, I know. But we were broke, badly in need of a drink and now one of those broke actor friends is the famous David Tenant, whose legendary seasons as Dr. Who set a new standard for the iconic British character. It makes me laugh to think of how far we've all come.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
I don't think I've been to it yet.

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature?
I'm an Anita Loos fan. My favorite character would be Dorothy Shaw from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Edith Wharton (another hero of mine) called it "the great American novel".

Who would you like to be for a day and why?
Someone with the power to change the gun control laws in this country. It's repulsive that nothing has been done in the wake of Sandy Hook.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?
An educational and support facility for adolecents who need a second chance in life. I've needed lots of second chances.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
Skating in Rockefeller Center along with all the other tourists. I was terrified, as I'm a lousy skater. It's such a relief to see they're all just as hopelessly uncoordinated as you are.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Walk. Or rather stroll. Strolling around New York City, late at night, after a delicious supper with friends...there's nothing more glamourous or hopeful....that luxurious feeling that the city belongs to you. 

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why?
Josephine Baker. She sounds like a pistol! Talent, resourcefulness, true compassion, original, radiant beauty and style, courage (she smuggled coded messages in her sheet music during World War Two) and that best of all qualities, the ability to laugh at herself. I really admire her. 

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
Sadly, I missed it - I wanted to go to the Alexander McQueen exhibit.

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
I believe the good we do should remain anonymous. Claiming credit for acts of kindness and compassion diminishes the acts themselves. 

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
I think many of us assume we're owed happiness by life. We search for the intoxicating highs and signs of success, depriving ourselves of the calm, quiet contentment that might be ours if we only sat still a moment. 
My greatest fear is that I will look back on my life someday and realize I was actually very happy; I just never developed the ability to appreciate it at the time. 
So the short answer is: the mad pursuit of success and everything you have to do to keep hold of it is overrated and time spent reading the Sunday papers in bed with your husband is underrated. 

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
I was delighted by the piece you did on the edible flowers by Fresh Origins! Who doesn't want to chomp down a rose?

Have you tried The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not?
No. Clearly I'm not hanging with the right crowd!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
I'll talk your ear off if you let me.

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?

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