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How Smells Move: An Interview with Jeff Zentner

Years ago, I started concentrating on my five senses as a way to reduce anxiety. By focusing on what is actually happening around me right now, I am brought into the present moment and release my fear of horrible future possibilities.

I also realized that incorporating the five senses into your writing brings the reader into your work in a more vivid and visceral way. When I was writing Sophie and Spot, one of my critique partners urged me to elaborate on the sense of taste and describe what the food Sophie was eating tasted like. You know, as in more than just “Um . . . delicious?”

That was the first time I realized I didn’t really have a vocabulary for tastes and smells. So I decided to build one. I started actively paying attention to my senses whenever I was out in the world. I created a spreadsheet and started writing lists in each category: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Under the taste category, I wrote things like “creamy” or “sour” or, if I was feeling especially inspired, “tangy dill turns to bitter disappointment in my mouth, and tears prickle at my eyes.”

As I expanded my list of smells, I realized that I love the aroma of pavement after a warm summer rain and overripe apples in the fall. Even though my vocabulary was expanding, I still struggled with how to incorporate these nouns into my writing. In other words, how do smells move? What verbs best illustrate the movement of fragrance? You can only say “It smelled like...” or “I caught a scent of...” so many times.

I found my answer in Jeff Zentner’s new book, In the Wild Light, which he describes as “A poignant coming-of-age novel about two best friends whose friendship is tested when they get the opportunity to leave their impoverished small town for an elite prep school” and Randy Ribay glowingly calls “A novel with the soul of a poem.”

While the plot and characters are incredible, what inspired me to share Jeff’s story with you was his phenomenal use of the five senses, in particular the sense of smell. Here are some of my favorite examples:

“It’s a lie that water is odorless. Water smells like water. The way wind smells like wind and dirt smells like dirt. The mossy, metallic fragrance of the river wafts around us in the syrupy humidity, mixing with the flinty scent of wet stone and the yeasty tang of mud.” Ch. 8.

“We exit the bus, glassy-eyed, the spiky mechanical stink of diesel exhaust singeing our noses.” Ch. 17

“Apple picking is exactly the sort of frivolity I shouldn’t be spending my money on. But I wasn’t going to miss a chance to be outside on a mild October day, with friends, the blushing, heady freshness of sun-warmed apples perfuming the orchard around me.” Ch. 35.

“The sky is a festive tinsel silver, and a brisk, stiff wind forces our hands into our pockets and tinges our cheeks pink as it rushes between the buildings like it’s late for something.” Ch. 41.

“We get to our stop and emerge from underground into the ecstatic hum and buzz of the city. I can taste the live-wire energy immediately, metallic on my tongue.” Ch. 41.

“Dr. Adkins was right about her. She’s a brilliant poet. Her lines are sinewy and muscular. They land with the heat and energy of lightning strikes.” Ch. 41.

“A hard rain had come two days prior and brought the biting cold, low pewter skies, and piercing, insistent wind that whistled through the naked branches and drove the leaves hissing across the ground, rattling plastic bags impaled on barbwire fences. The air smelled like wood smoke, damp soil, and the sweet rot of fallen apples.” Ch. 59.

“The light faded as the day wore on, and the sky darkened from the color of a new quarter to the color of a tarnished one.” Ch. 59.

I immediately fell in love with Jeff's writing, and it opened up language for me in a wild and beautiful way that reshaped my previous understanding of what writing could be.

Where did you get the idea for the many exquisite examples of the five senses in this book?

First of all, thank you! Pure observation. I try to be a keen observer of the world around me and form sense memories. All of the examples you see in the book are moments of sense-engagement that I filed away for later.

And specifically, how did you come up with verbs like wafting, mixing, singeing, and perfuming to describe the movement of each scent? Did you envision the scent itself or its movement through the air first?

Because I love to write about scent so much, I’ve had to develop a wide vocabulary of phrases surrounding scent and how scent arrives at our senses. I’ve spent a lot of time with my thesaurus. When I’m envisioning a scent, the first thing I do is smell it in my mind. Then I think about how we perceive that scent or similar ones. For example, the smell of honeysuckle tends to waft to our noses. The smell of bleu cheese punches us in the nose. The smell of baking bread embraces us.

What was your writing process like in terms of describing the five senses? Did they naturally emerge as you wrote or did you intentionally choose to focus on these elements during the revision process?

The sense descriptions sort of emerge naturally as I envision a scene. I never envision a scene with just one sense. It’s always multiple senses. From there, I describe those details that are most evocative.

Do you always focus on the sense of smell in your writing? If not, what inspired you to incorporate this into In the Wild Light? How do you think this deepened the story?

I do always focus on smell in my writing. I joke that I’d love to have a job as a copywriter for Bath & Body Works or Yankee Candle. It’s funny to me that we look for ways to feed all of our other senses⏤we feed taste through food and drink; touch through massage and physical affection; sight through painting, dance, photography, film; hearing through music; and scent through ??? I think our sense of smell is just as important, if not more so, than the other senses. After all, when we’re infants, it’s one of the first senses we use, in bonding with our mothers. Our eyes are poorly developed at that stage. So it’s smell we use. We also know that smell is a straight shot to the memory center of our brains, which I think is what deepens the immersion with the story when you use scent descriptions.

One of the subplots in this book is Cash learning to write the poetry of his soul. How do you think the five senses and poetry interact with each other?

Poetry is a very synesthetic art form, by which I mean that poetry imagery often cross-wires the sense, so that morning sunlight falls across your face like the tang of fresh strawberries on your tongue, etc. Poetry is all about enlivening the senses and trying to arrive at descriptions of what it means to be human, which necessarily entails some exploration of the senses.

Do you notice the five senses, especially the sense of smell, in your everyday life? If so, what impact does that have on your life?

Absolutely. I live my life seeking out ways to feed my senses in pleasing ways, including my sense of smell. This seems to me like one of the most fundamental upsides to inhabiting a conscious body.

I know this doesn’t relate specifically to the five senses, but what inspired you to write?

I was a musician for many years, but when it became clear that I would not be able to see to fruition my dream of making my living as a professional musician, I began volunteering at a music camp for teenagers, to try to give them the tools for the success that eluded me. While doing that, I fell in love with the relationship that young adults form with the art they love⏤how they let it define them and save them. I thought it would be amazing to create art for the young adult audience. At that point, I had neither the youth nor the inclination to try to make the sort of music that gets marketed to young adults. So I decided to go with the sort of books that get marketed to young adults.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with my blog readers?

I think that about covers it! I hope you’ll read my books!

Thank you so much for being interviewed, Jeff! To learn more about Jeff and read his books, please visit his website here:

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