By Aaron Godfred, Write In Color contributor
When a friend of mine suggested I meet with his good friend Jamie Reidy, the writer of Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet him. Not only was he a bona fide published author, Jamie’s book was recently adapted into the studio movie Love & Other Drugs, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway.
When I arrived at Jamie’s Manhattan Beach bachelor pad, I was expecting the former #1 Pfizer salesman in the country to be wearing an off-the-rack Armani suit with a dark spray tan and white Chiclet teeth. Instead, I found Jamie to be a very relaxed and unassuming guy–although he certainly can talk (which is a great ability to have when you’re operating in a sales pressure cooker like he did). After introductions, we walked to the North End Café, where they serve amazing Huevos Divorciados and proceeded to take it from the top. I don’t want to spoil Hard Sell, because it is a very entertaining read, so I’m going to mainly focus on Jamie’s evolution as a writer, rather than describing his experiences as the man who rode the Viagra wave to fame, fortune and infamy. You’ll have to pick up his book for that story.
Jamie was an English major at Notre Dame before becoming an officer in the U.S. army who soon found himself stationed at the remote Camp Zama in Japan. This being before Facebook and Gmail, Jamie did what any lonely American serviceman would do and started writing funny letters to his buddies back home. You can say this is where his writing began. During his service, the Army decided that there were too many officers in the military so Jamie was offered an early out, which he accepted. Back home, unemployed and floundering under the weight of his father’s disapproving gaze, Jamie was advised to look into pharmaceutical sales. And that’s where the story begins.
After the shortest interview in the history of the company, Jamie was offered a job and accepted. He then entered Pfizer Bootcamp, where the indoctrination began. There, Jamie learned rule #1: Pfizer products save lives and all the others are shit. Over beers with classmates, he memorized a host of drug facts and closing techniques. After graduation, Jamie was unleashed upon the receptionists, nurses, doctors and good people of Indiana, a newly minted pharmaceutical salesman with a company car and a trunk full of giveaways and samples. After a lengthy period of trying to convince doctors to prescribe Zithromax, Zoloft, and Diflucan he was promoted to the urology division right as Pfizer was about to release a drug that didn’t start with Z or D. It started with V.
Viagra changed the game. Jamie was relocated to Fresno, California, which he incorrectly assumed was near the beach. Rather than having to ply secretaries with free lunches and chocolate to get one uninterrupted minute with Dr. Smith (the pre-Viagra status quo), Jamie was besieged by doctors asking him for meetings and samples. His sales figures climbed steadily, but figuring one can only do so much in a small market, Jamie quit and departed on a cross-country road trip. Somewhere between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, Jamie got a call from his supervisor: Jamie had unknowingly cinched the honor of being the top Pfizer salesman in the country right before he quit.
After a brief retirement, Jamie joined Eli Lilly’s Oncology Division. Committing to write a book about his experience with the little blue pill, he used his frequent sales trips to steal time to write his book, Hard Sell. After countless rejections from publishers and literary agents, one of Jamie’s friends convinced him to send his manuscript to a friend and fellow fighting Irish who owned a publishing company. The publication of Hard Sell caused a massive ripple effect throughout the industry, forcing companies to pull their Non Disclosure Agreements out of the filing cabinet and dust them off. When word got back to Eli Lilly, Jamie was quietly offered a severance package to just go away as they didn’t want the publicity of being the company that fired they guy who exposed all of the innermost secrets of big pharma. He turned it down, betting that the publicity would be worth it, and was subsequently fired. And it was, as Hollywood soon came a knocking. Luckily for Jamie, his attorney had negotiated with his publisher to let him keep 100% of his film rights (something that is completely unprecedented), making Love And Other Drugs a very profitable film adaptation for Jamie.
I’ve always had a fascination with rebels and troublemakers and here I was sitting across the table from a guy who surfed and exploited the tidal wave of a drug that has had a greater impact and worldwide imprint than Tylenol. Now, Jamie writes screenplays and cookbook. No joke, he gave me a cookbook for bachelors called BACHELOR 101: Cooking + Cleaning = Closing.
Here are some excerpts from my interview with Jamie about his experiences thus far as a writer.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always been a storyteller. I can’t keep my mouth shut. I didn’t start writing until college and even then, I was less than prolific. I took two creative writing classes in college. I went into the Army because I was doing ROTC and was stationed in Japan and every 2 months I wrote a form letter that I sent out to all my friends, which was just a shameless, self-serving way of getting mail. In those letters I started to find my voice (although when I look back and read them now I cringe because it was very rim shot, every line was another rat-a-tat joke kind of thing). I wasn’t giving anyone any time to breathe. You can just deliver information. You don’t always have to go pow, bam. I didn’t learn that lesson for a long time.
Was Hard Sell your first book?
I tried to write the great American novel and it just sucked. It was really self-referential and barely disguised fiction and a little whiny too, kind of like my journals. Whenever I look back at my journals I sound like a whiner. So I shelved it. Once I started working for Pfizer, my roommates would notice all the weird and crazy shit that would happen. Stories of my interacting with nurses and doctors and getting them drunk and the things I would do to curry favor… the fact that I was sleeping till ten and quitting at two all the time and they and were like, “You have to write this.” When I accidentally got promoted into the urology division to sell Viagra, and then Viagra became Viagra, I realized that this is the book I have to write.
Aside from being fired from Eli Lilly, was there any backlash from the book?
Aside from getting fired, I know that Pfizer had a video conference last year for the entire company that was mandatory to discuss what to say when asked about Love And Other Drugs.
Do any of the skills you learned as a Pharmaceutical Salesman transfer into writing?
The rejection you face has helped considerably as a writer in the sense that when I tell people, “Listen give me feedback on the script,” and “Please be brutally honest, “and they’re like, “Eh,” I reply, “Look, I know what I do well, tell me what I’m doing wrong.” I’m not writing Schindler’s List, I write romantic comedies and guys’ comedies. I just want to keep it funny, keep the story moving, make it different and sell. In sales, we say that when someone tells you no, that’s a conversation starter because you can say, “Well, let me ask you why.” Now at least I know that whoever read my stuff and gives me negative feedback really read it.
Why did you leave Pharmaceutical sales?
There is a flaw in the pharmaceutical sales system, at least for guys like me, because I’m really competitive and in pharm sales you don’t know how you did for two months so I don’t know what calling on Dr. Smith results in. I don’t have the instant gratification. A car salesman sells a car and someone signs on the dotted line. For me, if I would have been very honest with myself instead of going to the dark lazy side and taking advantage of the system I would have found a sales industry where I knew when I left the office if I got a sale or not. At the very least there would be a daily update of me verses Doug vs Joe, vs Steve.
How do you feel about your writing career so far?
A couple of weeks ago I was with two female friends from college and I was lamenting that I didn’t learn to speak Japanese while I was in Japan, how lazy I was and I wondered what would be different. One of them is a writer and the other an aspiring writer and they were like “Hey, things have worked out pretty well for you.” I said, “No, no no, I’m not complaining,” and they said, “It sounded like you were complaining.” It all worked out but I’m annoyed when I look at the old me and how long it took me to get to where I’m writing well. I wasted a lot of time. The whole point of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is that you have to do something 10,000 hours to get really good at it. I basically skipped writing in my twenties.
One thing that I want to keep emphasizing on Write In Color is that there is no right or wrong way to write. There is no right or wrong way to begin writing. The only truth is that you have to do it. Like Jamie and Mr. Gladwell say, you’ve got to put in the time. The other thing is finding the right story. Jamie always said yes to opportunity and it put him in the epicenter of a major cultural happening and then he said yes to writing a book about it.
It was a pleasure talking with Jamie Reidy, one of the few people I know to have his or her literary material turned into a studio movie (and one that I actually enjoyed). I look forward to his next adventure on the silver screen.