Culture Watch: Q&A With 'Bad Sex' Author Clancy Martin

Love is built on fiction; of course a novelist would say that.

Clancy Martin’s tense, beautiful new novel Bad Sex (Tyrant, 2015) navigates the emotional nuance in loving two people but not yourself, a conscious spiral of little bad decisions that can define the course of a life. The book of moments uses micro-chapters, one to two pages, of tight, informed prose to chronicle a woman’s descent, earning comparisons to Joan Didion’s 1970 classic Play it as It Lays. Nothing is extraneous.

Martin’s semi-autobiographical protagonist Brett is a writer and recovering alcoholic living in Mexico City with her wealthy husband, Paul, and his two young sons. An affair with her husband’s banker, Eduard, sparks a year-long series of detrimental negotiations cut with herself, leading Brett to that sweet spot of drunken malaise where so many writers flourish. “Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop,” advises her agent.

Drunk on sex and secret alcohol, Brett snowballs into passive aggressive blackouts and attempts at manipulation that only become less subtle. Paul is gone, as are his children. Eduard moves away. Brett remains cold, seemingly aware that her decisions had built on top of one another in the constant, forward rush of time. After Paul discovers the affair, Brett goes in the bathroom and looks in the mirror. “I thought, Well, ready for round two.”

The Kind spoke to Martin about the implications behind his stunning novel and the roles of lies in love.

The Kind: In what way is the book autobiographical?

Clancy Martin: The book is based on one very bad year in my life, when I had an affair and relapsed into alcoholism after several years of sobriety. Some of the events in the novel—like the incident with the woman knitting on the plane—happened more or less exactly as they are told, except that they happened to me rather than a woman named Brett. When Brett first meets Eduard, that too is more or less exactly as it happened, except that it took place in Boston rather than in Mexico City. And also, so many of the worst times—and some of the best times—of my life have taken place in Mexico and other places in Central America. The deception and self-deception that pervade the book: that was very much the case in the particular love affair that consumed this year of my life. The end of the book—I won’t spoil it—almost exactly what happened in my own life during that year, although Brett gets off easier than I did, because she hasn’t destroyed quite as much as I did. And the way the affair ended, that too happened in real life. Brett and I are both alcoholics. Brett and I are both writers. Brett and I both love and hate cool hotels.

The truth of the matter is, the most successful lovers among us are also the most gifted liars.

The Kind: Discuss the role of lies in love.

Clancy Martin: I published a book on this subject earlier this year, called Love and Lies (FSG, 2015). Briefly: If you love someone—anyone, not just a romantic partner—you had better be prepared for quixotism: making things up about the world, about yourself, about the object of your love, and believing those fictions (or lies) and acting on them. Also, you should recognize that the people you love trust you to lie to them, just as you trust them to lie to you. But that flies in the face of our usual (self-deceptive) idea about trust=truth=intimacy. The truth of the matter is, the most successful lovers among us are also the most gifted liars. Do with that what you will.

The Kind: Was it challenging to write from an intimately female perspective?

Clancy Martin: I had to rely a lot on my wife, the writer Amie Barrodale, to tell me what I was getting right and what I was getting wrong. But I also found that as I was writing my own feelings about love that I discovered nuances in my experience, trying to think it through from a female perspective, that I suspect I would have missed if I had only been considering my own perspective.

The Kind: The transient nature of the book’s setting seems to mirror the uncertainty in Brett's life and choices. Can you talk a little about this?

Clancy Martin: It’s no accident that Brett lives in stormy unpredictable weather jumping from hotel to hotel. If you’ve ever lived that kind of itinerant life, you’ll know what it does to your emotional world: What was stable becomes much less stable, but also your perceptions become strangely heightened…just like when you’re falling on love. Falling in love makes the world both much brighter and less reliable, less predictable, less secure: It enriches experience. But making choices in that unstable terrain, as we all know from falling in love, is very difficult.

The Kind: The book kind of reminded me of that Richard Hell song “Love Comes in Spurts.” Brett seems almost passive in her spiral. How do little decisions turn into life choices?

Clancy Martin: Some people describe falling in love as a “coup de foudre”: you are simply struck by lightning. Others think it is a very active process, deploying our intelligence and imagination in a maximal way. I think it is both. I think the feeling of falling in love is just an exaggeration—or dramatization—of the way most of life proceeds: We make choices, but so much of it also seems to just happen. There’s no point trying to predict your own future, because you always get it wrong. Falling in love—and perhaps love more generally—reveals to us both how much our own choice matters and how little control we actually have.

Sometimes, also, you have to say: Fuck it, I’m just going to do what I want to do, even though I know it’s the wrong thing to do.

The Kind: I love how short and punctuated your novel’s chapters are. Why did you choose this format?

There’s no point trying to predict your own future, because you always get it wrong. 

Clancy Martin: I wanted it to be a case study of falling in love and how falling in love is similar to addiction. So I wanted to keep it to those elements. That year, which was the worst year so far of my adult life, went by so quickly, despite the fact that it was so dense with experience. So I wanted to capture that if I could—that rush. Rausch, the Germans sometimes call the feeling of falling in love, which can also be translated as “rush,” but is normally translated as “drunk.” Have you ever been on the point of blackout? Do you know that feeling of snapshots of experience?

The Kind: You have a firm handle on what too much liquor can do to a person who hates herself. However, Brett's problems began sober. What role does alcohol play in Brett's unraveling, and what is really to blame?

Clancy Martin: She’s drunk on Eduard, and Eduard is a drinker; so soon she’s drunk on her old favorites, too. By Part Two she can’t sort out Eduard from booze—that’s the transition point for her, when she knows that Eduard is bad for her and that this relationship is only going toward ruin. She’s going to proceed anyway; she’s going to play it out to the end.

What is really to blame? I’m trying to finish a novel now that is a study, among other things, of what are sometimes called “the five poisons:” Confusion, desire, fear, jealousy, and pride. Nothing is really to blame. It’s hard to be human.