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Friday, February 08, 2008

The Making Of 'The Perfect Scent'

By Chandler Burr

Like every good editor, George Hodgman, my editor at Henry Holt Publishers, was crucial in the creation of my book. He advised me, battled with me, cajoled me, and demanded cuts and changes throughout the manuscript. I my Acknowledgments, I wrote: "Editing a book is an exercise in humility, and sometimes in abject debasement.... George Hodgman, my editor at Henry Holt, has been insightful and demanding and infuriating and supportive and implacable and should, for the job he did on this book, be sainted, as George himself would be the very first to point out. I don't know if his dedication or his expertise is greater. It doesn't matter; both are awesome."

My book-- no title proposed-- was "acquired," to use the industry term, for a quarter of a million dollars by then-Henry Holt editor Jennifer Barth, working under Publisher John Sterling. As often happens in this business, Jennifer left Henry Holt for another editorial position at a different house just as I finished the first draft, and Holt put me with George. It turned out to be an excellent fit, and George was a wonderful editor, so I was very lucky. After my first rewrite for him, and after he'd returned the manuscript dripping with edits, I took several days to absorb them all (it's always pretty devastating the first time your first book draft comes back from your editor). Then I took a deep breath and started the business of responding. The below email will give you a look into the heart of the process of creating the book, a taste of what we were thinking about as we set out to rework what was, in its first draft, a manuscript both too long and too complex. We needed to strip away the excess and find the narrative threads, and this will give you a sense of how much the book evolved.

Here is the email:

Dear George,

So you've read the first draft, and I've got your comments, which I've read thoroughly. Here are my responses, and I'm trying to be very precise here so we can start getting down to the essential narratives.

- Verb tenses. I'd originally written the Hermes narrative in past tense, the Hermes dialogue scenes in present tense. I assume we'll change them all to past, but I'm not going to go through that until we figure out exactly what we're keeping. Please DON'T mark each of them on this next round; no need. Let's first decide how we want them to work. I personally like the mixture of past and present. I see using past for exposition and expository narrative and present for the narrative scenes with dialogue.

- Indicating dates to the reader: I have to say that I have an instinct (and I'm not sure why) against telling the reader exactly when this SJP story was happening. I just feel like specific dates, in this book, distracts rather than clarifies.

- The section that starts on page 349: You wanted it moved up to the top as set up for the book, and I agree completely, but I've put it at the start of "Chapter 2-Hermes"

- Why did you cut this? "I'd gotten Sarah Jessica's address several weeks ago from the guy who lived across the street from her. It seemed like everyone knew it except me. Gwenyth Paltrow's house was just down the street, they said, pointing it out, and there's Liv Tyler's, a block away." I put it in to convey my sense of the strangeness of suddenly perceiving an entire world that's there in front of you, imbedded in yours, of celebrities that you never picked up on, and suddenly: they're right in front of you. And you're in them. It's a weird feeling, I can tell you.

- You mentioned trying "not to continually repeat the word smell," and I agree, but in this case I actually am doing it intentionally. "Jennifer [the Times photographer] and I went all over the Village. We walked up to Magnolia Bakery because it was this phenomenon Sarah Jessica had helped create with "Sex and the City," but after inhaling hopefully we agreed it actually didn't smell that much inside. Christ, a bakery without a smell." I think it works.

- To this "She [SJP] raises her right hand far over her head and cups the fingers down. It's a cute exaggeration, only very slightly pretentious, since no one's pile is that high, but I appreciate the idea. I also doubt she's reading my book, but again: same thought." you said "You don't have to tell us," but I'm telling you because this turns out to be specifically totally wrong. To my amazement, her pile of books was *exactly that high, and she was in fact reading my book, and it was not pretentiousness at all; it was totally real. Yes, yes, she could have planted the book there, whatever, but I'm not inclined to be that paranoid. I think she's totally real here.

- There are, as usual, things I changed and things I left. I want you to know, however, that I thought about each one. To give you just one example, it's Sat morning at 8:52 and I just spent a minute pondering this one:

"She said, "Well, we're thinking about it now. But whatever it turns out to be? We'd like you to come along. Like The New Yorker, we'll include you in the whole creation process."
Her and the perfumers?
"Yep. But this time not from the perfumer's point of view. This time it's from her point of view.""

You put "She?? and the perfumers" It's grammatically correct, and I changed it, but for better or worse it's not what anyone in the United States actually says, so I think we should leave it as "her." This is merely to let you know that I'm looking at every swipe of your sharp pen, I promise you. You're not wasting your editing abilities!

- Here "Ellena said things like: "Ce n'est pas l'argent qui m'interesse. Je suis un homme d'idees." Money doesn't interest me. He shrugged." you wrote "Don't add gestures to quotes when you aren't in the scene, Monsieur." FYI I was in the office sitting 6 feet from Ellena when he said it. And he shrugged.

- As I warned you several times before, I warn you again: I like long quotes. Actually I love them. The section that freaks you out-titled "the photographer," which is one long quote from Quentin Bertoux, the photographer who tells the Aswan story-I love. But yes, yes, I'll cut it down (grrr).

- ""The problem," he [Ellena] started and then immediately checked himself, "well, you can't say there's a problem with Après l'Ondee, but…" You crossed out "and then immediately checked himself," and noted "too much with these if you aren't in an official profile interview." But to my mind that is the point. I want this to read like the interview it was. I really like this style. We can revisit this together, but I very much intended the "active interview" style.

- Re "On June 14, Ellena went back to Paris for meetings." You wrote "You've got to be real specific as we have to pick up very smoothly and the reader will not remember." Listen, I understand (obviously) your point, but people reading this book *know *who *Ellena *is at this point. Do you really think we need to spell it out so much? Here I've given a specific date, a specific person, a specific action, a specific place, and a specific reason. Here's the "real specific" version, and you tell me which of these you really want to keep. <> I just think it's overkill. Your view?

- George, I'm always willing to listen to counter arguments, but at the moment you and I have a very different view on the "thought process" aspects of this book, i.e., they make you nervous and me, not at all. This book is, simply, about the process of making perfumes, and that means intellectual problems. I understand why you keep writing "Needs to be dramatized, not explained," but the things that Ellena thought about, for ex "Ellena was well aware that beneath these four vials lay a vast, difficult question they would have to answer, relatively soon: What was an Hermès perfume?" are simply not "dramatizable." They were him and me (and a lot of people and me) talking about the problems that faced him as a perfumer, that faced Hermes, that face the industry. You write "Narrative, please," but your beloved narrative consists entirely of his reaction to these complex problems. If the reader doesn't understand these things, they simply don't understand the narrative, but I think they will. The section I've called In The Waiting Room is my recounting to the reader the conversation I had with Ellena while we waited in the hallway together at Hermes for a meeting and he talked to me about all the variables he was dealing with re Nil, all his concerns, what he was struggling with. It's a piece set in that waiting room, and it's not people "doing things" but it is absolutely this person doing a thing: Struggling with the substantive creation of this perfume. Which is the subject of this book. That's your narrative. I promise you.

- Hm…You marked one graph for termination. I don't mind terminating it, but I'm leaving it in for the moment till we get to the 2nd read. If you still want it to go, I'll cut it then.

- OK! So you make some very good comments (i.e. they make good sense to me) in the "June 14 Hermes" section. You note (correctly) that I start with examples of signatures that work, then ones that don't (Hugo Boss), but then I go back to ones that do. I've been mucking around with this for hours, shifting graphs, and believe it or not the do, don't, do structure works best, but I have now reworked the way I present it. You're upset about this section because you think it's not narrative. Well, no-it's not "here are people in a room doing things." But again, it's me presenting Ellena thinking about the problem.

- I never met [Jean-Paul] Gaultier, and I think, honestly, that while fashion pervades the book as a certain atmosphere (because, sadly in my view, perfume is now linked to fashion houses, which is a modern and I hope transitory phase; I'm really hoping scent goes back to being the product of scent houses that do only that, not belts and bags and shoes), I totally want to avoid making fashion a topic. It's what made me so damn uncomfortable with Remnick's proposal that I do this piece in the first place; the fashion world does have a few nice people in it, and a (very) small percentage of the stuff they make is nice enough, but overall it's vapid and nasty and ridiculously vain and materialistic and thus, in my view, grotesque. These are people who think a shade of beige is important. Actually the state of the public schools in the U.S. is important.

- On page 168 you write, "Hard to alternate between these stories if weather makes it clear they are happening at such different times." I can't see why this is an issue. In the new intro I say, "This is the behind-the-scenes story of the making of two very different perfumes over a two-year period from 2004 to 2006." To give you the exactly dates:

-JC Ellena: The creative process started May 2004 and ended December 2004, and the perfume launched March 2005.
- SJP: I started pursuing her as a story around May 2005, did my West Village day with her August 2005, started sitting in on meetings with her during the creative process for SJP Lovely Liquid Satin (that ended in February 2006), and I think the last lunch we had together was April 2006?

So it's 1 year each, with the years basically contiguous. I really don't think it's a problem. Let's get to the content of the next draft and then argue about structure at that point.

- "[The total retail value of Parker's perfume brand] has now gone up to $46 million." (Four months later, Timiraos will tell me that it had grown again to well over a $60 million gross.) "Wonderful," says Ross, congratulating Parker.
Walsh: "And we haven't gotten through Christmas." Everyone is smiling. Walsh and Timiraos are happy, but Parker seems mostly relieved, palpably so."

You wrote in the margin, "Why is SJP so, so concerned?" Honestly-and I'm not sure yet how we should present this in the book, but we'll get this across-I think that it's two things. First, she was to a degree playing to the camera, i.e. me. I believe she was managing her stardom. I don't blame her for this at all. It strikes me that her public role, she feels, is the sexy and urban but vulnerable and earnest woman, and she plays that role as she feels necessary. I was at a dinner party sitting next to another famous actress who knows SJ and who said effectively the same thing about her. This actress said it with a major cynical eye roll. I understand the eye roll. At the end of the day she's a journalistic subject like any other that I watch, and I'm quite conscious that she "handles" me. Yeah, it's fun when a movie star calls you on your cell phone, but you know why she's doing it. So I understand the eye roll, but I don't agree with it. SJ has let me in, and it's a serious fucking risk on her part, and she's managing her risk here-she doesn't know what I'm going to write, and she doesn't control it- and her brand, and what's wrong with that? Second, I know for a fact that she lies awake nights sweating this. It's millions of dollars of other people's money, not just her own, on her shoulders. Of course she's concerned. Carlos and Belinda and Catherine have shown me the emails they get from her at 3am when she leaps out of bed and shoots them some idea, "Hey! How about we do this?!" The woman is on it 24/7.

- Page 284: "A nifty scene, but why here?" Where the hell else? Because it's about Ellena's thinking about the creation of a perfume, damnit.

- Here "At this point, Walsh, Parker, and Timiraos all have the idea of inflecting the original Lovely scent with some new olfactory angle." you wrote "Hasn't that always been the idea?" Not really. They actually didn't know what they were going to do to the scent, started with the vague idea of inflecting it, and in the end elected not to change the perfume at all.

- "Never mention a celebrity kid. They freak if any info is disclosed." I hear you, but she did introduce me, he seems like a nice, normal kid, and I'm not "disclosing" anything. (I don't have anything to "disclose.") Let's let her take it out herself. I'm going to let her read her section.

- Re your comments about the section that begins on page 339, Peter Hess, SJP's agent at CAA, the terms of SJP's contract with Coty, etc. My brief answer is: No, I cannot get her financials, and no, aside from stealing it, which I'm not going to do, I can't get a copy of her confidential contract. "Well, you are a reporter." Oh, please, George. It's not gonna happen. I cut some more of the Paris Hilton contract stuff as you asked and clarified what I left. Note: I am willing to cut more. But I need your specific suggestions. Again, this section is not about Hilton. It's talking about SJP's contract by proxy, which is the best way I can talk about it. It is also about Peter Hess. The section begins and ends with him.

- I understand why you want to move the Dubrule part of the July 9 bottle meeting up to the top of that section, but I tried it several ways, and I am telling you that because of the way the meeting happened, it doesn't work. To make it work, I would have to fictionalize the dates, and we're not going to do that obviously, but I think it works well by starting with Baschmakoff. I've rewritten that whole section. Take a look.

- I don't understand what your note mid-page 343 means.

- Page 418 you circle Dubrule's name and write "Who is she? We really don't know." Sigh. If you want me to put in more biography, I'm happy to. Let's get the basic book finished, and I'll add as necessary.

- Darling, your note on page 423 (not the one up top, the one on the side) makes me want to kill you.




Blogger Kelley said...

Mr. Burr, while working with an editor must be a nightmare at times, I just about peed in my pants reading this! What a hoot. I especially loved your last comment. Thanks for sharing!

10:36 PM EST  
Blogger elle said...

Brilliant and hilarious! Thanks for posting this. Am very much looking forward to reading this book.
Note to self: resist all random impulses to take up writing - lives of well meaning, decent editors would be at stake.

6:29 AM EST  
Blogger priscilla said...

Wonderful and fascinating glimpse into the editorial process. I am going to print this out and look for these sections in the book...because I really am that nerdy. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

9:50 AM EST  
Blogger Ducks said...

That was utterly delightful and got me giggling this morning. How wonderful that you shared your experience with us. Thank you!

10:50 AM EST  
Blogger NowSmellThis said...

Couldn't the statement about "(very) small percentage of the stuff they make is nice enough, but overall it's vapid and nasty and ridiculously vain and materialistic and thus, in my view, grotesque" be as easily applied to perfume as to fashion?

11:24 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Burr Thank you for sharing this communication and thank you also for your book which I am enjoying so much I have slowed down my pace of reading to make it last. Gossipy and informative, it is an eye opener. I wondered how you defined "modern"? In relation to the section where you say you believe perfume is now linked to fashion houses? I was thinking of no 5 and Joy for example which have been around for over 70 years. I suppose the point is that fashion houses now use perfume sales to finance the clothes or whatever which I agree is a great shame. Anyway, thought proving as ever! Cheers!

11:31 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved being able to peek into your editorial process. When I read the book, I thought about some of the same things you wrassled with in today's post. I thought a lot, for instance, about how you described SJP, the fine line between natural charm and managed image, and the power of celebrity, and about the different feels of the Hermes and Coty sections.

It also struck me how much you're present in this book compared to in The Emperor of Scent when you are so much in the background. But this time, you interact with the PR machine and so are part of the story.

And I really liked getting a feel for how you dealt with your editor. I write magazine articles and always feel like I have to "yes sir" editors even when I feel like the article is heading south on their recommendations. You've inspired me to get some backbone.


12:23 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Burr, I thank you for sharing this glimpse into the world of editing and drafting a book. I'm almost finished reading The Perfect Scent and am enjoying it very much. I hope that one day you'll do a follow-up book and include all the juicy, interesting tidbits you had to omit from TPS.

Best wishes to you! BTW, as a member of MUA, I assure you that you have many friends there. And I'll leave it at that. Thanks again. And many thanks to Colombina as well for posting your article.

1:32 PM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...

absolutely fascinating; such a great way to start the morning!

1:43 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a dizzying bore...

brings to mind that blog-o "grunt"... um... that blubbery word ???

oh yeah... "meh"

2:40 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the peek 'behind the scenes' of your book - which BTW is gracefully accenting my coffee table as we speak. It does generate quite the conversation for house guests, I must say.

Welcome to the blog. Missed meeting you at Scent Bar (Miami is too far away from LA to make a quick weekend trip!)

So Chandler...when can I come play at your house? :D


3:18 PM EST  
Blogger Tania said...

Really brave of Chandler to make this public! Every would-be editor should keep a copy of this as a tidy catalog of every writerly sin. I had a good laugh remembering conversations I had with cantankerous writers who didn't want to do a rewrite, thought presenting a string of undigested quotes was acceptable form for an article, thought they were being clever by mixing tenses willy nilly, thought it was my fault when I got lost in a stream of unexplained proper names and unordered dates, and in general seemed intent on driving me to violence. I was guilty of one of these myself. It was a determined editor who sat me down when I first started writing for magazines, and got me to stop spewing out long quotes without interruption. She convinced me at last that not everyone took such delight in the exact grammar of spontaneous human speech. From what I could make out from Chandler's answers here, it seems Hodgman is a truly excellent editor and Chandler's right to nominate him for sainthood.

Small second point: I agree with NowSmellThis above. The notion that a shade of beige could not possibly be important because the state of public schools is important is ludicrous; how does this not apply, for example, to thinking that a grade of rose oil is important? Should we piss on Bonnard for thinking that getting an exact shade of violet was important? Or Pininfarina for fretting about the exact curve of a Maserati? Etc. If Chandler sincerely believes that politics is the only important subject in the world, shouldn't he be writing about politics?

8:23 AM EST  

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