This interview originally appeared on STOP SMILING Online
A Canadian boy drops out of high school to join his brother in Texas as a fine jewelry salesman. He becomes embroiled in the lies, cheats, vice and deceptions that permeate the industry, and certain parts of him become crushed and twisted, although he emerges a wiser man. This is the story of Bobby Clark, the fictional narrator of How to Sell (FSG), but it’s also the story of author Clancy Martin. The degree to which the narrator’s often-repugnant confessions correlate to the actual experiences of his creator is unclear, although Martin would probably tell you if you asked — he’s admitted on record to drug addiction, suicide attempts and defrauding customers (which, it seems, are the details most interviewers are interested in).
How to Sell, Martin’s first novel, is fast and coarse, like a stiff brush scrubbed quickly across a shiny surface. Stylish yet unadorned sentences guide the reader through a plot involving prostitutes and grand theft, but the real action is Bobby Clark’s descent from Canadian naiveté into the American abyss. Some of the novel’s best parts are the funny ones, like this description of an old, rich Vietnamese man trying on an expensive watch: “He had slender, muscular wrists and the elegant Patek looked right on him. The pale platinum belonged on his leathered skin. He could see himself feeding his enemies to the crocodiles in the moat behind his mansion.”
Clancy Martin is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where he works on 19th and 20th century European philosophy and the ethics of advertising and selling. He has translated books by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and is at work on a translation of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. He has philosophy books forthcoming from FSG and Oxford University Press — titled Love, Lies and Marriage and The Philosophy of Deception, respectively — and is completing his second novel. He is also writing a memoir that is being serialized in the literary annual Noon, and has written articles in the New York Times, the London Review of Books and Harper’s.
I spoke with Martin as he drove north with his wife toward Oklahoma City from Austin, where he had just completed the final stop on the US book tour for How to Sell. He had recently appeared in Dallas-Fort Worth, where he is still a silent part-owner, along with his brother, of five jewelry stores.
Stop Smiling: How was the Dallas event? Considering the book is set in Dallas-Fort Worth, was that stop different than the others on your tour?
Clancy Martin: I was slightly nervous about it, but the people who came were all these very loving older, wealthy female customers of mine, and several wore jewelry that I had designed for them. So, yeah, it was really nice.
SS: Were you nervous that someone would show up whom you had said something about in the book?
CM: I was nervous that, given the content of the book, there might be some customers who would show up and say, “I want you to look at this and make sure you didn’t cheat me” — that kind of thing. But there was absolutely none of that whatsoever.
SS: Do you feel like you maybe dodged a bullet?
CM: Yeah, I really do. I was pleasantly surprised.
SS: In regard to the memoir you’re working on: Since How to Sell is a fairly autobiographical book, I was wondering what the differences were between writing an autobiographical novel and writing an actual memoir?
CM: The big difference to me is that, when you’re writing a memoir, you have to be as true to your memory as memory will let you be. The nice thing about a novel is that, in a novel, you can still be writing everything you know that’s true about your interior life, but you can use whatever sort of fictional creation you want to try to depict that. I think it’s why Aristotle said that poetry was closer to truth than history, because history, at the end of the day, is concerned only with fact, but poetry is concerned with making things more profound. I think that fiction allows you to do more exploration of human psychology than memoir does. You make the greatest catalog of facts you want and you’re still never going to capture what it is like to be human.
SS: How much does your background in philosophy inform your fiction? Do you find yourself trying to work philosophical ideas into a narrative?
CM: For me, especially because I’m trained as a philosopher, and I’ve never had any training as a writer of fiction, the challenge was to try to keep the philosophy from taking over the narrative. In How to Sell, I was always trying to bury the philosophy inside the narrative, rather than have the philosophy take over. Especially because it was my first novel, I wanted it to be as fast as possible — I was concerned with pace more than anything else — so I kept having to put all the philosophy underneath. For example, Aristotle has four different types of liars, so I wanted to make sure all four different types of liars appeared in the novel. And then Aristotle makes a distinction between lying and breaking a contract, and I wanted to make sure that was in the novel. And then Kant has a very famous argument about why lying is always wrong, and I wanted to make sure that was in the novel. And Augustine gives this long catalog of all the different kinds of lies that people tell, and I wanted to make sure that an example of every single one of those kinds of lies was in the novel. And then I was also very concerned about Nietzsche’s analysis of the appearance-reality distinction, and why, at the end of the day, it doesn’t stand up to philosophical scrutiny because of reasons about self-deception, and so I wanted to make sure that was in the novel. But, again, I wanted to get all that stuff in the novel because these are the things I work on in my philosophical work, but I knew that if I wrote that book it would just be this deadly boring book that no one would want to read.
SS: You’re obviously concerned with the idea of deception, but at the same time How to Sell is very forthright — its narrator admits to all sorts of questionable behavior. And since it’s an autobiographical work, so do you, to a certain extent. How does this relationship between forthrightness and deception play out for you?
CM: The concern all along in How to Sell was to try and have basically two Bobbys. There’s Bobby the narrator, who is telling the story, and who is trying to tell the story with as much sincerity and frankness as possible. And then there’s the other Bobby — Bobby the character — who’s actually experiencing these things. It’s Bobby the character who’s telling all the lies, getting drawn into all the deception, who’s getting increasingly confused by this world of trickery that he’s buying into. And Bobby the narrator is confessing all of this with complete openness and frankness. Part of what I hoped the reader would see is that the Bobby at the end of the book, after having gone through all of this, was the only person who could be in a position to confess all this with frankness and sincerity. He had to go through all that before he could have the sincerity, the frankness, the self-knowledge to be able to see through all of the bullshit that he had created for other people and for himself. That’s an insightful question because that was my most important operating premise — precisely that distinction between frankness and deception.
SS: You’ve translated books by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but you’ve also said that Georges Bataille is one of your primary influences. Bataille wrote philosophy and fiction, as well as anthropology. I was wondering what about Bataille impresses you so much.
CM: Certainly Bataille was a hero of mine for the reasons you just mentioned. I can’t compare myself, obviously, with these guys, but the great European intellectuals I admire of the 20th century didn’t just write philosophy. They were philosophers, but they were also interested in psychology, and they wrote fiction, and many of them wrote plays, and they wrote criticism for newspapers, and they did all these things. I’ve always admired that, and I’ve always thought that the humanities in this country would be so much stronger if we demanded that of our humanities professors. Because what is “research,” really, in philosophy? It’s a joke. What you’re doing is writing, and if you’re writing, then don’t you have an obligation to write to many different audiences, and not to write to just five other guys who are interested in the question of individuation, or something?
What I think I learned specifically from Bataille more than from any other writer is that the secret of doing your best work is asking yourself your most painful questions. He thought that the deeper the level of your confession, the more ferocious you could be in terms of your self-interrogation, the more intimate you could be with the ugliest aspects of yourself, the better your writing would be. We can all only do this so much, but I really try to follow that discipline. When I talked to [Noon editor] Diane Williams about my work — like, “Why did you pick these weird jewelry stories?” — she always said the same thing: “It was because there was this anguish of self-laceration and this anguish of confession in them, and that was the voice that was driving. The jewelry was just a vehicle.” So, I think that’s what I learned from Bataille. He wasn’t afraid to ask himself any question.
SS: You’ve published in every issue of Noon since 2006. I find the stories in there comparable to anything that you’d find in Harper’s or The Paris Review or The New Yorker, but outside of serious literary circles it’s relatively unknown.
CM: I agree. I think that the stories in Noon can go toe to toe with stories in the very best places publishing short fiction in the world. And I know a lot of very smart people who hold the exact same opinion, including people high up in the world of publishing. I think in the fullness of time, Noon will be much more widely known than it is today, when people look back on this period of literary history. Diane Williams has an incredible ear, and she has an eye for all different kinds of stories. This is a cliché, but I think she has this kind of ear for authenticity. If there’s one thing that she taught me — writing for Diane was really my MFA — it’s how to carve all of the bullshit out of my writing, all of the literary pretension, any kind of fake word, any kind of cheap trick, anything that didn’t sound original.
SS: There’s a recurring theme in the reviews of your book, which is reviewers feeling like it’s fitting or clever to mention how much they think the book is going to sell. There’s a New York Times review that reads, “All in all, it’s a winning combination. How To Sell will sell.” Newsweek had something very similar: “Selling How To Sell probably won’t be too hard.” And there are others. Do you think this is an unfair angle to take when talking about the book — almost characterizing it as something that’s not only about slick salesmen, but that’s also sort of a slick, flashy product in and of itself?
CM: I totally agree with you, of course. When I wrote the book, I was just praying that it would find a publisher. I remember telling my wife, and she remembers this, too, at the time we owed twenty thousand dollars on our car, and our dream was that we could get somebody to pay twenty thousand dollars for the book so that we could pay off our car. And then when people come out and say, “Oh, what slick packaging, blah blah blah.” I mean, it’s total bullshit. And it’s also just this incredibly superficial observation because, as you say, it’s like, “Oh, won’t this be cute? Isn’t this cute, coy remark?” Reviewers see How To Sell: A Novel, and think it’s going to be so clever to say that this is about how to sell a novel, when, in fact, it’s about the most facile, superficial, idiotic remark you could possibly make.
SS: You could characterize How To Sell as sort of an exposé on the jewelry business. Did you intend it to be that?
CM: Well, I was writing what I knew. I didn’t intend it precisely to be an exposé on the jewelry business, but I started writing the stories when I was still in the jewelry business, and a lot of the stories in one way or another found themselves re-written into the novel. Then, the more I got into the novel, the more I realized that the jewelry business was kind of a metaphor for something I was trying to say about a particularly confused idea of the American Dream. It wasn’t just for autobiographical reasons that I made the narrator a Canadian. It’s also because a lot of Canadians have this crazy idea of what it is to be an American, like you’re just going to go to America and, like all Americans, you’re going to deal in all these shady practices and then, like all Americans, you’re going to get rich. Canadians are always sort of congratulating themselves, patting themselves on the back, saying, “Oh, well, we’re not Americans because we don’t care about money, so we’re really honest,” and blah blah blah.
SS: It seems funny to me that people are surprised about the kind of corruption that goes on in the jewelry business. I always figured that most retail is like that. Do you think the jewelry business is any more corrupt than any other type of high-end retail?
CM: No, I really don’t. I was recently having lunch with a guy who owns a very successful hedge fund in Texas, and he’s a real honest guy — they were never into derivatives or sub-prime mortgages and all these other things because they were just really smart, honest guys. I started telling him about some of the latest scams in the jewelry business that I had learned about when I was out in Vegas writing this article for Harper’s, and he stopped me and said, “Clancy, you’re not talking about the jewelry business, you’re talking about the world. It’s not the industry — it’s business itself.” And he said it as though he were talking to a child, like, “Haven’t you realized this yet?” Of course, it is in a way funny that people are like, “Oh my God! Look at the jewelry business!” when, in fact, it’s this way in every industry.