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Clancy Martin Tells the Truth Even When He Lies

An online exclusive interview

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Monday, July 13, 2009

By Nathan Martin


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.

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