Clancy Martin: How to Sell

An extended interview with jewellery salesman turned fraudster who has written a semi-autobriographical book about his life of selling.

Photography by Tim Barber
In the July issue of Dazed and Confused, you can find my interview with Clancy Martin, author of the brilliant semi-autobiographical debut novel How To Sell. Martin was once widely regarded as the best jewellery salesman in the whole of Texas – but he was also constantly defrauding his customers, and soon found himself sliding downward into alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, and attempted suicide. Several years later, he is a professor of existential philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Camus. Here are some extracts from our conversation that I didn’t have room for in print.

DD: What does How To Sell have to say about the moral qualities of salesmanship?
Clancy Martin: Making money, when it’s done properly, is a moral enterprise. You can’t just conjure it out of thin air, but that’s what salesmen want to do. In a way, that is why people who have artistic temperaments are rarely going to be good businessmen, even if they might be good salesmen. They cling to the illusory qualities of existence rather than the real qualities. You get this in the German Romantic tradition that gets filtered into the English Romantic tradition – the idea that what is important about life is its magical character, its illusory characters, and that only boring people care about practical matters. I’m reluctant to say that there’s a moral to my story, but I do think this: Nietzsche explains to us that self-deception is a necessary skill, that the pursuit of truth as it’s been conceived is not only misguided, it’s actually counterproductive, it’s opposed to the flourishing of human life. But he does also talk about truthfulness as being a virtue, and how difficult the truth is to find. It’s very difficult to get at, but I think, in the project of being human, there is something important about being able to look yourself in the mirror and feel a sense of truthfulness. Theft and authenticity don’t go together. Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters is such an interesting book because he addresses this question directly, and he comes to the same conclusion.

DD: Like your protagonist Bobbie Clark, you were a terrifically good salesmen. Were you ever tempted to use those skills on women?
Clancy Martin: Actually, no. For Bobbie, money is always merely something to be squandered – it has no value in itself. Like Aristotle, he has this healthy view of money that its only use is to be spent. You might have to exercise a little caution, but basically a noble man ought to place no value upon money. Love, on the other hand, he takes very seriously. So I don’t think it would ever occur to him, and it never occurred to me, to try to “sell” a girl into bed. I’ve had about as many girlfriends as you expect the average 41-year-old man to have, but I’ve only had a handful of very important relationships and they’ve always tended to be long.

DD: There’s a kind of unique, disjointed quality to your dialogue. Was that deliberate?
Clancy Martin: Yes, I wanted the dialogue to be striking in a way that was original. I feel there is an unfortunate trend in a lot of contemporary literature to try and make dialogue in particular sound just like ordinary speech. I think this trend emerged in part because of a bunch of great writers from the 20th century decided that the previous great writers had made dialogue sound so divorced from ordinary speech: what they were resisting was the pretentiousness of the dialogue of these previous writers, the highfaluting quality of it. Nobody actually speaks like that. It’s almost like a battle against Shakespeare. But, to me, nowhere else in good fiction do we make that kind of naïve realism the bar of what counts as interesting from a literary perspective, so why should in dialogue? Consequently, one of my goals was to make the dialogue striking, original, unnatural, but still compelling and unpretentious – still having the ring of ordinary speech and using the right kinds of words.

How To Sell is published by Harvill Secker.

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