TCR Talks with Anna Dorn, author of Perfume & Pain

Interviewed by Breen Nolan Schoen

Astrid Dahl, the protagonist of Anna Dorn’s third novel, Perfume & Pain, tries to be good, but her bad behavior keeps getting in the way. Recently canceled for saying something offensive at a book reading, Dahl suffers from writer’s block and is in search of inspiration through any means necessary—including toxic relationships with the wrong women, perfume, and a magic cocktail of drugs and booze. 

Written with Dorn’s distinctive humor, wry observations, and satirical pop culture commentary, Perfume & Pain further cements Dorn’s talent for rendering the millennial milieu. TCR caught up with Dorn to talk about writing habits, Patricia Highsmith, and the paradisiacal dreamland that is California. 

The Coachella Review: You described Perfume & Pain as your contemporary ode to lesbian pulp fiction. What can you tell me about the genre?

 Anna Dorn: Lesbian pulp fiction describes ’50s and ’60s paperbacks that featured sapphic romances. Much of it was written by men, for men, and was pretty male gazey. But there were a handful of lesbians writing and reading it. Patricia Highsmith wrote probably the most famous lesbian pulp novel, The Price of Salt, under the pen name Claire Morgan, which was adapted by Todd Haynes in [the film] Carol. [Highsmith’s] lover, Marijane Meaker, also wrote a famous pulp called Spring Fire under the pen name Vin Packer. These books were sent through postal service, which made them subject to government censorship, meaning publishers insisted that the [fictional] women be punished for their homosexuality. They often ended with the main characters going back to their husbands, ending up in a psych ward, or committing suicide. Price of Salt is famous for being one of the few pulps where the lesbian lovers end up together in the end.

 TCR: Speaking of Patricia Highsmith, your main character, Astrid—a pleasure seeking, slightly drug addicted writer—gets through her days with a cocktail of alcohol, sativa, Adderall, and cigarettes that she calls, “the Patricia Highsmith.” What prompted you to name this cocktail after another author?  

AD: I originally called it “The Magic Cocktail,” but an early reader suggested I give it a name like “The Judy Garland.” I knew it had to be “The Patricia Highsmith.” For one, she was an uber-successful lesbian novelist who wrote pulp. I’m a big fan of her writing—The Talented Mr. RipleyStrangers on a TrainThe Price of Salt—as is Astrid.  [Highsmith] was also a misanthropic alcoholic who never had a girlfriend for more than a few months. Taking the Patricia Highsmith cocktail turns Astrid into a Patricia Highsmith-like figure—hostile, unhealthy, a player. She needs to stop taking it to thrive.

 TCR: I’m curious about the decision to cancel Astrid. Did that happen organically, or did you go into writing the book with that as a main theme?

 AD: The cancellation came later. An early reader suggested it, and it felt perfect. And became a huge theme of the novel. I wrote the bulk of the book in 2021, sort of the height of cancel culture. I see part of my job as a writer to be fearless and risky with language. I’m drawn to irreverence and moral gray areas. I’m also a chaotic extemporaneous speaker like Astrid. So I’m always worried about saying something during book promotion that will offend people or get me canceled. So, I explored this tension—between wanting to be provocative on the page without getting canceled off it—via Astrid.    

 TCR: When you’re creating characters, do you have a person or group of people you’re thinking about as your intended audience? 

 AD: I joke that I only write for an audience. I’ve never journaled or anything. I only really write with the idea that someone is going to see it. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d really try. I’m a pretty messy writer as it is. I’m mostly thinking of a faceless, anonymous audience. I want to make them laugh and feel less lonely.

 TCR:  California is as much a character as it is a place in this book. What is it about California that inspires you?

 AD: I grew up on the East Coast fantasizing about California as this paradisiacal dreamland where everyone was free. I’m obsessed with Lana Del Rey, another woman who was raised on the East Coast and built a career around mythologizing California. She has this line, “Baby if you wanna leave, come to California, be a freak like me, too.” That really resonates. I think I came to California to be a freak. There’s also that Saul Bellow line: “In Los Angeles all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn’t tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.” I’m a loose object, I suppose.  

TCR: What Lana Del Rey songs inspire you the most when writing about California?

AD: Very few Lana songs don’t inspire me, but some with evocative references to California other than “Freak” include “Let Me Love You Like a Woman,” “Bartender,” “Violets for Roses,” “Arcadia,” “Sweet,” [and] “13 Beaches.” Also, I just realized that “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard” mentions Camarillo, where Astrid and Ivy go on a date. Del Rey’s allegedly referencing the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, which is rumored to be the “Hotel California” to which the Eagles referred. God, she’s such a fantastic lyricist!

TCR: That’s so cool, and I love noticing connections in writing after the fact! I want to talk about the names of your characters; they all fit so well with each character’s personality. Do you have a process for coming up with names? I’m also curious about the inspiration behind Astrid’s name.

AD: That’s funny, some early readers had notes about Astrid’s name not working. My girlfriend also said it didn’t work. So I’m glad it works for you because I obviously didn’t listen to them. I picked it because it’s a Swedish name and I think it fits someone who is abrasive but in a charming way. I love naming characters, so thank you for commenting on this. I just started writing something new and spent an entire two days coming up with the main characters’ names. I do a lot of research, look at a lot of baby naming websites, and look up popular names for certain years. I like to know what all the names mean and their origins. Names are so important to me.

 TCR: How much did perfume play a role in the process of writing this book? Also, what is your favorite scent?

 AD: The perfume aspect of the novel happened randomly. At first, the book had nothing to do with perfume. Then during the drafting, I got this idea that Astrid plagiarizes a lesbian pulp book for her Zoom writing group. So I was researching lesbian pulp and came across this book Perfume & Pain by Kimberly Kemp. I was obsessed with the title and the cover and just knew Astrid was going to plagiarize that novel for her writing group and I was going to plagiarize the title for this book. And I have a tendency to write my life into existence, not on purpose, but by the third or fourth draft I had developed this independent obsession with perfume. I’m not sure how it happened, but perfume was becoming trendier. And I’m incapable of having a casual interest in anything, so I was spending hours a night on Fragrantica, a perfume rating website. So I knew I had to put my new knowledge into the book. And perfume is all about seduction and femininity, which are themes of the book, so it was really a no-brainer to put it in here. And my favorite scent? I’m a Virgo, so I like really boring scents that smell like laundry or nothing. Also, I’m cheap, so my go-to scent is Nemat Amber because it’s $11 and people say it smells like nothing!

 TCR: I’ve read that generating ideas has never been a problem for you. Have you ever experienced writer’s block?

 AD: Never! I struggle in a lot of other areas—small talk, driving on freeways, air travel, assembling furniture, filling out forms, anything involving my car… the list goes on. But when I sit down in front of a blank document, I can easily generate words. One might say I’m blessed; others could say compulsive. But writing is my most healthy coping mechanism by far.

 TCR: How do you structure your work days?

AD: I get up, make coffee, and write for about two to four hours. Every day, even weekends. On the rare occasion I don’t have a major writing project—I recently took a few weeks off—I’ll answer emails and do client work [as a freelance editor]. Then I take a break in the middle of the day to exercise and eat lunch. Then I write for two to four hours and/or do client work in the afternoon. Occasionally this will be broken up with meetings. I tend to schedule meetings in the afternoons [because] it’s not my favorite time to write. Then I’ll either go out and meet a friend or eat dinner at home with my girlfriend. We’ll typically watch reality TV. If I stay in, I usually write for a few hours after dinner. Recently I’ve been into writing at night.

 TCR: How many words a day are you writing, on average? 

AD: I never used to keep track, but recently I’ve been paying more attention. I typically write a first draft in one to three months. The last book I wrote, I had a draft in about one and a half months. And I was writing around four thousand words a day. It depends. I don’t really have to push myself in this arena because I have no trouble generating text, although often it isn’t very good. Mostly I’m trying to get myself to slow down.  

 TCR: What does your revision process look like after you’ve gotten a first draft down?

AD: My first drafts tend to be skeletal. Like between 45,000 and 60,000 words. Getting smart eyes on the draft is a crucial part of building out the story. I’ll typically reach out to writer friends to see if they want to exchange drafts. I’ll also typically send a draft to my writing group. I’m shameless about showing my bad first drafts. In fact, my writing group is called Shitty First Drafts. After sending it out, I’ll incorporate the edits that resonate and try to bulk it up to at least 65,000 words before sending it to my agent. Then my agent will have edits. My agent and I will typically go back and forth a few times and get the draft up to 70- 80,000 words. Then if it hooks an editor, there are a few more rounds of revisions. The final draft tends to be around 90,000, so often over twice the length of the original baby draft. 

TCR: Now that your fourth book and third novel is out in the world, can you talk about what you’re working on next?

 AD: I’m superstitious so I’m not going to say too much. But I’m always working on something, normally multiple things. I’ve written a lot of books that will never see the light of day. But hopefully some of what I’ve been working on in the last few years will make it into the world.

Breen Nolan Schoen is a writer from Rochester, New York. She is a current MFA candidate in the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert low-residency program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts and is an associate editor at The Coachella Review. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her family.