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Martin Kihn on ‘House of Lies’: ‘Once Hollywood buys your story they own it’

Newly transplanted Minneapolitan Martin Kihn’s book is now a Showtime series starring Don Cheadle. Keep reading, but you might need a shower afterwards.

Martin Kihn

Call Martin Kihn the anti-Harvey Mackay. His book, “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time” begins with two quotes:

When Thales was asked what was difficult, he said, ‘To know one’s self.’ And what was easy, ‘To advise another.’

— Diogenes Laertius, ‘Thales’

Management Consultants: They waste time, cost money, demoralize and distract your best people, and don’t solve problems. They are people who borrow your watch to tell you what time it is and then walk off with it.

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Robert Townshend, ‘Up the Organization’

From there, Kihn, who moved to Minneapolis last year with his wife, singer/songwriter Julia Douglass, explores one of the seediest underbellies of them all: the business world as seen through the eyes of that nefarious white-collar bug, the management consultant. Kihn studied to become one, and his career hiccup turned out to be the sort of fly-on-wall experience that only a writer with a sharp eye, snarky wit, and keen detachment can bring to bear for the reader.

The 47-year-old Michigan native took time out from his day job at the Fallon advertising agency to e-chat about his book, his new home, and his newfound — if oily — cable television success.   

MinnPost: House of Lies” is now a Showtime series based on your book, starring Don Cheadle  (Sundays, 9 p.m. CST). The book itself is so hilarious, scathing, and, well, so very writerly, that it seems impossible to make the translation from page to screen. What has it been like to see your words turned into television?

Martin Kihn: The experience reminds me of the last scene in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” where Pee-Wee is watching the movie version of his life and he’s played by James Brolin and his little bike is a motorcycle — it’s kind of like the real thing but so much more pimped out. Once Hollywood buys your story, they own it. It’s gone. The parts in the office are definitely grounded in the book and the consulting lingo is real — partly because I’m a, um, consultant to the show and get some input on that element. Marty’s sordid sexual adventures aren’t out of my life. Luckily, my personal life is a lot duller than his. I watch the show like everyone else just amazed at what a skank this “Marty” is. But to be honest, it’s a lot of fun to see something I created totally on my own — I called the book my “secret project” — become part of the mainstream culture. You never know what will happen in life.

MP: Tell me about Jan. 8, the night the show premiered. You’re living in Northeast Minneapolis now, far from the entertainment industry and media tsunami that spawned “Lies.” Who did you watch it with and was it everything you dreamed it might be?

MK: I didn’t want to do anything at first because I have a small TV and also I’m kind of a prude and embarrassed by the language. That’s really true. I’m not proud of this part of me. But my wife conspired with this friend of hers in our building and the friend actually went out and got Showtime and bought a really big TV — enormous — so we sort of had to have a party. My in-laws came and a bunch of people I’ve met since we moved here last year and some neighbors from the building. We did a drinking game where every time somebody said “Marty” they all drank. It’s an unusual experience, watching a premiere with the guy it’s based on sitting right there next to the TV. A guy who’s white and nerdy portrayed by a black ladies’ man. It was everything I thought it would be, but better. Most authors don’t get a moment like that.

MP: How does it feel when you hear your name as worn by Don Cheadle?

MK: That’s my favorite part of the show — when he says, “I’m Marty Kaan!” Someone at work made it their ringtone and I’m honored. It’s my new catch-phrase.

MP: You have that classic outsider’s eye as a writer, which could be applied to any topic or situation. Might your current job pop up in a future book?

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MK: I work at the Fallon ad agency doing digital marketing measurement and optimization. Yes — it’s sexy. People I work with are paranoid — they know I’ve written a book about every job I’ve had since business school. They should be: The advertising industry is a sitting duck for satire.

MP: The show and book follows something of a trend in the arts that focuses on the corporate worker’s life, from “The Office” to “Up in the Air.” Have you noticed other work out there that dovetails with “House of Lies”? 

MK: It used to annoy me there was so little fiction or TV about office life because the sad truth is most of us are doomed to work in offices. I mean, how many people do you know who are hostage negotiators? Why is there poetry about trees but not about copiers? You’re right — in the last 10 years there’s been a slow rediscovery of the corporate drama. Jim Finder wrote some great thrillers about corporate backstabbing. Joshua Ferris and Walter Kirn had a couple literary bestsellers. There’s even a subgenre of movies like “Horrible Bosses” and “Company Man” about white collars. Except for “Office Space” and one episode of “Seinfeld,” not much on management consultants, though. I figured “House of Lies” would start a consulting craze, but maybe not.

MP: I needed a hot shower after reading your book; I kept hearing the Bush Tetras’ “Too Many Creeps” as you introduced one snake after another. Talk about the cathartic-slash-redeeming qualities of making and imbibing in entertainment that’s such a vile representation of the human condition; I mean, “House of Lies” isn’t exactly “Downton Abbey.”

MK: People often shower after reading my work — that’s my goal. I just read Michael Tolkin’s “The Player” again — it’s basically the story of a Hollywood prick who gets away with murder. He has not one redeeming quality except he’s the biggest shark in the tank. It’s like “The Stranger” or “Jekyll & Hyde” — it can be very liberating to immerse ourselves for a while in the point of view of a person who just doesn’t care. I’m not saying consultants have no good qualities, but balance sheets are amoral. Not immoral — just amoral. Doing the “right” thing doesn’t enter into it. I think we all have part of ourselves that can relate to total selfishness.

MP: The book is so much about people’s desperate relationship with moneymaking it and being defined by it. Is there any satisfaction in the fact that you’re finally getting paid for your time in management-consultant hell?

MK: People assume I’m making a lot of money from this TV show, and I wish they were right. I’m just a book author — we’re about as low as it goes on the Hollywood pole. If I’d stayed in consulting, I would be making more in a couple of months than I am from each season of the show. So the consultants get the last laugh, as usual.