Chandler Burr: James Fallows once said to me that the joy of being a journalist is having the freedom to stumble on something extremely interesting, learn about it in depth, share your knowledge and excitement with others, and then dive into something completely different. I got my MA in int'l econ and Japanese political economy because I was fascinated -- frustrated, baffled, intrigued -- by the rise of Japan and the decline of the United States. I wanted to understand why such huge shifts happen. I also thought I might wind up working for a Japanese company. Thank Christ I didn't, I would've offed myself; it would have been a hellish life for me, although it can be great for some people, including Westerners.
So I graduate with this degree, and because I like to write I write a play about differences in the Japanese and American economic systems and cultural values, and it gets produced. Meanwhile I send a piece I'd researched in Japan on cultural barriers to the import of foreign cars in the Japanese market, I send it to Jim, and he really likes it and sends it to the Atlantic's editors. He and I become friends, and I come out to him. A month later, he comes back and says the Atlantic would really like me to do a piece on sexual orientation; how does homosexuality in particular work biologically? I wasn't into it at first; I was an economist. But I did it and found it completely fascinating. My agent suggests I write a book from that piece (A Separate Creation). After the book, I'm writing about science and by complete chance I meet a scientist who's a perfume genius. I write a book about him (The Emperor of Scent). The New Yorker asks me to write a piece about the creation of a perfume, which at first I don't really want to write because now I'm a science writer. I go inside Hermes for a year and write The New Yorker piece, which I wind up finding fascinating and turn it into a book (The Perfect Scent). While writing it, I get a call from The NY Times. They want me to write on perfume for them. I say sure, if you make me the Times perfume critic. It's all logical, it's all happenstance, it's all about the ability to be open to things, and it's a little weird, but it's been fun.
3Q: Do you see the vibrational model gaining further acceptance and eventually becoming the accepted scientific explanation of the mechanics of scent?
CB: I get to answer that question this way: I don't care either way in as far as I found a terrific story and got to tell it. This scientist was, and is, brilliant, iconoclastic, hugely imaginative, difficult, earnest, stunningly interesting, quixotic, and terrific fun. His unusual theory was not just met with skepticism; established scientists in the field actively sought to repress it, acted juvenile about it, and were jaw-droppingly unprofessional and dishonest in their assessment of it. That's my story. I know nothing more about inelastic electron tunneling than I learned in writing Emperor, and I'm not a scientist. I'll be extremely interested when they find the answer, which may or may not be in my lifetime, but I would never prognosticate about the theory's acceptance or validity. As a journalist, that's not my job. My job is to describe events and reveal to the reader both the facts and wonder of the story.
3Q: What is the single worst thing you have ever smelled, and what is the worst scent you have ever heard described?
CB: There are a lot of worst things. There are some smells in the streets of New York, in Mumbai, in Tokyo that are hideous. The smell of natto, Japanese fermented soy bean, is horrible, so it durian fruit in the Philippines and (why I have no idea) the smell in the RER trains in Paris, which smells like the Comme des Garcons brutalist perfume "Odeur 53," burning rubber, charred metal, stale air, and melting plastic. I can't believe people ride that train every day. As for the worst perfume -- I assume you're asking me about a perfume -- the worst may is probably Malibu, which was created for Pamela Anderson. It was much, much worse than almost any scent made for a basic shampoo. Pretty shocking. I gave it zero stars in The Times, and it's the only time I wished there was a negative 1.
Many thanks to the interviewee for his assistance and advice!