Saturday, October 1, 2011

Clancy Martin on His Brutal Novel "How to Sell"

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in July 2009)

In Clancy Martin’s brutal autobiographical novel “How to Sell”(FSG, $24), Bobby Clark is expelled from high school in Canada and goes to live with his salesman brother Jim in Fort Worth, Texas, during the 1980s oil boom. Jim introduces Bobby to the high-end jewelry business, a world of money, sex, drugs and violence.

From the time Bobby sells his first Rolex, he is hooked on the traps and snares of selling. The jewelry business is a sea of corruption, greed and betrayals, where people are conned into buying $300,000 necklaces and hookers steal uncut diamonds. The novel is based on the seven years Martin spent in the jewelry business in Texas. In the adrenaline rush of making deals, lives are destroyed and one’s mortal soul becomes an item priced to sell. Martin’s clear, literary prose propels the reader through Bobby’s mesmerizing, drug-fueled rise and fall in a business culture where moral codes are stood on their heads and a person is only as good as their last sale.

Martin, 42, is a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley from Mazatlan, Mexico, by telephone.

Q. Could you describe your experience being immersed in the high-end jewelry business in Texas?

A. It definitely was intense. I was this young guy of 16 from Canada, with this calm upbringing, and I was thrust into a world crazy with money, crazy with drugs. We practically lived at the store. We worked there six days a week, from six or seven a.m. to midnight. It was dizzying, as was my introduction into the adult sex world.

Q. Your character Bobby describes selling as a golden lie on a bed of truths. Could you elaborate on this?

A. I think I nailed that idea. The principal way of selling to a customer is you want to get them to say “yes” as often as possible. If you offer them a truth, then another truth and another truth, and they are agreeing with you, the Big Lie, which is the actual sell, is something they will swallow effortlessly. It becomes very easy, that final closing falsehood, that the customer needs this particular diamond more than any other diamond. If you go into any fine jewelry store, you get the feeling of cold, clear water with barracudas swimming through it. The poor customer doesn’t have a chance.

Q. Bobby and Jim Clark have an intense relationship, despite their betrayals over money and sex. What interested you in them?

A. The book is much more about the brothers and their relationship than anyone else. It is a peculiar kind of relationship, that can probably stand worse blows than a relationship between lovers. There is also a secrecy to the relationship: “Okay, we know what happened, but we are not going to talk about it.”

Q. The brothers’ father is a spiritual con man. Where did he come from?

A. I hate to make the novel sound like a roman a clef because there is a lot of fiction in it, but the father character is wholly factual. All I had to do was remember my Dad, remember what he said and events with him, and write them down.

Q. Bobby’s girlfriend Lisa is a methamphetamine addict who goes from being a successful jewelry salesperson to being a prostitute, seeing more honor in her new profession. Where did she come from?

A. There was a woman who was my brother’s lover and a meth addict, who was the seed for Lisa, and there was prostitute who I was involved with who saw her work as an honest living. Also, I had a sister named Lisa who was murdered with a baseball bat in Calgary, and put in a Dumpster, like the Lisa in the novel. My sister’s murder was drug related.

Q. Last month, you published a searing and unflinching essay in the London Review of Books detailing your demons--a recent suicide attempt, alcoholism and battles with depression. Why did you publish this essay?

A. Friends of mine asked me, “Are you intent on destroying your reputation?” The essay was part of an attempt at personal growth. I think it helps me accept who I am. There is a therapeutic power to confession. Some of us may have a confessional streak. My wife has dealt with the real Clancy for years. She said, “I think this essay was the best piece you’ve ever written.”

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