John Oehler - The Author Who Knows His Fragrances

John Oehler - The Author Who Knows His Fragrances
author of the day

John Oehler knows a thing or two about the perfume industry and used this extensive knowledge to write his debut novel, Aphrodesia. Living in six countries outside the US, and working in countless others, have also provided him with plenty of insights for his characters and settings. Today we talk to John about how a chance meeting provided him with the inspiration for Aphrodesia, how he chose the protagonist and what he is currently busy writing.

Can you give us a short introduction to what Aphrodesia is about?

Aphrodesia is set in the world of perfumes and centers on a fragrance that is a powerful aphrodisiac — the Holy Grail of the perfumer’s art. Eric Foster, a perfume student who created the fragrance, sees fame and fortune on his horizon, until he is kicked out of the world’s top perfume school for a theft he did not commit.

Eric now slogs through a mind-numbing job in New York City. The only bright light in his life is a non-paying consultancy with the NYPD as a forensic smell expert. When he is called to a crime scene, his whole life changes. It’s the latest of four passion-driven homicides, and the only link is a perfume called SF. He immediately recognizes the aphrodisiac fragrance he created.

It must be a counterfeit. His perfume never drove users to kill their partners. But the cops aren’t buying his story. On the verge of being charged with serial murder, Eric sets out to prove his innocence.

Aphrodesia was your first published novel. How was the experience?

More difficult than I first imagined. Like my other novels, Aphrodesia is essentially self-published through two of Amazon’s subsidiaries, CreateSpace (for paperbacks) and KDP (for e-books). In both cases, formatting was the hardest part. I gained a lot of respect for how traditional publishers convert a manuscript into a book. In the end, I created a 24-step guideline for paperbacks and a 12-step guideline for Kindles. Using these made publishing my later novels much easier. I’ve also made them available to other authors.

Your book goes quite in-depth about the perfume industry. How much research did that require and what did you find to be the most interesting aspect of your research?

Years of research, but not initially with a novel in mind. I became interested in fragrances and the psychology of scent in the 1980s while working in London. It was a casual interest at first. Then I started buying books, amassing articles, and collecting samples at department stores. It was still just a hobby until I realized I knew a lot more than the average person about the creation, manufacturing, marketing, history, chemistry, and psychology of fragrances. I thought it would be fun to capture some of this in a novel, but shelved the idea for lack of an exciting plot that could be centered on fragrances.

Twenty years later, that changed. In Versailles, outside Paris, I lucked into a meeting with Jean Kerléo, the man who for thirty years had been the master perfumer for Jean Patou. At one point, I asked Kerléo if creation of an aphrodisiac was still a goal of perfumers. I expected him to say, “No,” but he said, “Yes.” That was my inspiration.

I had three subsequent meetings with Kerléo, all at ISIPCA, the world-famous perfume institute in Versailles. Those, without doubt, were the most interesting aspect of my research.

One other very interesting experience: On a summer night in California I had an opportunity to watch a bloodhound work. Its job was to track down a thief at a county fair. Not only did it identify the culprit, but I learned a lot about bloodhounds and how they work from the dog’s owner. This is why the hero of Aphrodesia has a bloodhound.

Many perfume advertisements focus on sex-appeal. How close would you say are today's perfumes actually to being aphrodisiacs?

I’ve been asked this question many times in interviews with magazines and perfume blogs. I think the answer is, “Don’t hold your breath” (no pun intended). In the past, certain fragrances (like vanilla), and foods (like oysters), were considered to be aphrodisiacs. If they worked, it’s almost certainly because people thought they SHOULD work. I believe the strongest aphrodisiac is, and always has been, mood. It’s in the mind.

That said, one company reported remarkable results with a pharmaceutical called PT-141, administered in a nasal spray. They got through Stage 2 trials for FDA approval, but (I believe) never got through Stage 3.

I’m also asked frequently about human pheromones, sex attractants/stimulants. Pheromones are common in a variety of animals and signal readiness to mate. But to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever identified pheromones in humans. The closest stimulants are female urine (for males) and male sweat (for women).

You are very descriptive about your locations, making readers literally feel like you have transported them there. How do you pull this off?

Thank you for the compliment. My readers often say they felt like they were there, and I can’t tell you how much this pleases me. In fact, I think the highest goal a writer can hope to achieve is for the reader to become so engrossed in the story that he/she does not even notice the writing. The irony is that, in order to achieve this goal, the author has to work really hard on the writing — we write in hopes that you will not notice our words.

The “trick” to achieving this is to invoke all the senses. Don’t just say what someone sees. What does that person hear, smell? How do things feel to the touch, or taste (if appropriate). And how does that person react to those things, physically and emotionally? These aren’t really “tricks.” They are ways to help the reader identify with the character(s) in the story.

Smell, by the way, is the most primal of all senses. Aphrodesia, by its nature, is a novel about smell. So I’ve emphasized that particular sense.

In addition, my novels benefit from the fact that I either have been there myself or have been someplace similar. For Aphrodesia, it so happens I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris, Versailles, and other parts of France, including the Mediterranean coast where the story culminates. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in New York City. I have never been to Yemen, but I lived for two years in Somalia and translated that experience to Yemen in the story. Beyond that, I do a lot of research to get my settings right. For instance, I’ve never been to the NYPD crime lab or to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The Internet showed me the settings, and I added my own experience in chemistry labs and classrooms.

Eric Foster is a science geek and a very reluctant hero. What made you take this approach?

I was forced into it by the nature of the story. For a novel based on fragrances, I needed a “hero” who was not only expert but also driven to succeed. Eric has extraordinary talent and his one goal in life was to become a master perfumer. These are not traits you would associate with a gung-ho Navy SEAL. So while Eric is not a wimp, he also is no match for someone skilled in physical violence. He’s forced to confront adversity with the only weapon in his arsenal, his sense of smell. I think this makes for an interesting character. Sort of like Batman versus Superman. Superman has super powers none of us can aspire to. But Batman is just a guy, a regular fellow with whom we can more easily identify.

The plot of this book had some unexpected twists. Did you plan them all out ahead of time?

I did not plan them out. I had a general concept of the plot, but as the story progressed, I kept asking myself, “How could this go wrong?” There’s an old writer’s adage — If it’s bad for the hero, it’s good for the story. So when an opportunity arose, I threw Eric a curveball.

Many have compared your work to that of Dan Brown, Michael Crichton and Wilbur Smith. Who are your favorite authors?

Oh, boy. Big question. In fiction, I’m prone to thrillers, especially the earlier stories by Daniel Silva, Nelson DeMille, Steig Larsson, and Michael Crichton. Also the Kenzie-Gennaro stories by Dennis Lehane and the “Nile” stories by Wilbur Smith.

One thing I especially liked about Crichton was his talent for making science interesting to the public (as did Carl Sagan, whom I met). As a scientist by training, I strive to do the same thing by painlessly incorporating some aspect of science in each of my novels. In Aphrodesia, it’s a bit of chemistry. In Papyrus, it’s geology and remote sensing. In Tepui, it’s botany. These days it is almost the kiss of death to say you’re trying to “educate” readers. But in my own small way, I do try to make some aspect of science interesting to readers.

You have lived in many countries. How, would you say, has your experience influenced your outlook on life and inspired your books?

I feel very fortunate to have lived in six countries outside the US and to have worked in at least thirty others. Besides helping to make me a tolerant individual, these experiences ignited my passion for foreign lands and helped to fuel my writing with colorful characters, exotic settings, and cultural contrasts.

Your bio says that your dog, Elfie, should have been named Nitro - why? Did Elfie inspire you to include Daisy, the bloodhound, in the book?

Daisy was inspired by the bloodhound I watched working at the county fair in California. Elfie is our third Old English Sheepdog, first female. She’s nearly seven years old now and has finally settled down (sort of). Compared to the males who preceded her, she’s much more hard-headed. I do believe she is also the most intelligent. But Nitro — or Rhino — still applies.

While Elfie did not inspire Daisy, her immediate predecessor, Lucky, did inspire Bentley in my novel Tepui. Old English Sheepdogs are mercilessly cute — “babe magnets,” if you’re a guy looking for girls. And that’s one of the roles Bentley plays for the burn-scarred hero of Tepui.

Incidentally, Elfie has her own Facebook page and more than 350 “friends.”

Aphrodesia is a very thought provoking book. What would you want readers to take away from this book?

Beyond a riveting story (I hope) the power of scent and an appreciation of all the smells that influence us daily, from laundry softener to fine perfumes.

A recent reviewer wrote, “Never thinking I'd enjoy a book about PERFUME making, I was stunned. Interesting, provocative, fast-paced, romantic.” This captures what I hope readers will take away.

What was the most challenging part of creating Aphrodesia?

For me, plot is always the most challenging. Many authors think that’s the easiest part. And I admit I always remember characters more than plot. But I still want a plot with twists and turns, and creating that always occupies a huge amount of my time.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a story about an ancient book that could alter our perception of fundamental religious “truths.” Yeah, I know, it sounds like Dan Brown. But I’m striving to make it different.

Where can readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

The best place is my website:

There you’ll find downloadable excerpts of all my novels, plus Behind-the-Scenes accounts of how I came up with the stories and some information about me, including a contact address.

In addition, Aphrodesia has a Facebook page:

If you scroll down, you’ll find lots of photos of the places that figure in the story.

And there’s my author page on Amazon:

This deal has ended but you can read more about the book here.