Mixing business and fiction invariably involves a trade-off. Most business fables by business authors make up in insights what they lack in literary style. And most works of popular fiction sacrifice business verisimilitude for the sake of "art." But finally, business readers, you can read popular fiction propelled by a sense of what really makes business people tick.

In his new book Killer Instinct, author Joe Finder has created a masterful parable of ambition. When protagonist Jason Steadman finds his career in sales stalled, he unwittingly enlists the help of a former Secret Forces ally to push him up the corporate ladder.

Finder researches his topics extensively, which gives this page-turner the real value of sharing a few insights into what makes successful salespeople tick. Recently, Finder replied to my questions.

Q: In Killer Instinct, the protagonist Jason Steadman improves his sales touch by reading voraciously from a range of business books. Which ones do you enjoy and recommend? Conversely, which books, or elements of this genre, do you run screaming from?

A: There are lots of terrific books in the business field. Just to name a few: Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, Rakesh Khurana's Searching for a Corporate Savior, Michael E. Porter's Competitive Strategy, not to mention a whole shelf full of books by the great Peter Drucker. But there are also books that are essentially fact-free zones of inspirational hooey. Maybe they're helpful morale builders for some readers, but they're also hard to take seriously.

The ones I run screaming from all have titles like "The Navy Seals Guide to—" or "The Army Way of—" They may be interesting glimpses into military culture, but they're never going to help you close a deal or motivate a team of people who aren't enlisted military servicemen.

Q: And what about the best sales books?

A: The really great salesmen that I interviewed all recommended the same books (or tapes, or CDs): Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People, Tom Hopkins's How to Master the Art of Selling, Zig Ziglar's Secrets of Closing the Sale, Og Mandino's The Greatest Salesman in the World, and Brian Tracy's Advanced Selling Strategies. These are all worthwhile books, I found. Call me a sop, but Dale Carnegie is essential, I think. And even though in Killer Instinct I make fun of Tom Hopkins, though not by name, I think his books are brilliant in their way, and quite useful. Ziglar is a bit dated, though.

Q: Several scenes in Killer Instinct provide vivid detail on how Steadman makes the big sales. Did you base his character on one particular person? In your research, what did you observe about the habits and character of the best sales people?

A: I based Jason on a composite of friends and people I met while doing the research. As the book opens, he's too lackadaisical to make a really top salesman. He's a little burned out, and he's not the competitive type, so he may not be the best fit for this kind of work. I did find that a lot of salespeople tend to burn out after several years in the field—"carrying a bag," as they sometimes put it. It's brutally hard work, especially on one's psyche. So they reach a point in their careers that turns out to be a fork in the road with several tines. They may choose to go into sales management, or to bail out entirely, or, worst of all, they get sidelined, accept mediocrity, and hang on to their jobs just by the grace of the kindness of their bosses.

The best salespeople, I found, have what has been called an optimistic explanatory style, as do the best athletes. That is, when they suffer a defeat, as all salespeople do (sometimes several times a day), they don't universalize. They don't blame themselves. Those with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to spiral into defeatism and burn out quickly.

Q: You've never worked a day for a large corporation. And yet your books are built with a fine grasp of business details. Can you talk about how you have conducted research for your books?

A: Never having worked in a corporation turns out to be quite an advantage: I go into these places as an outsider, observing the bizarre native rituals. That means I see and hear things that everyone who lives and works in a corporation have stopped seeing and hearing. I really do immerse myself in the research, talking to everyone from the CEO on down, asking all sorts of questions—tough ones, silly ones, you name it.

But I'm not confrontational. That doesn't do me any good. I don't go in there like Mike Wallace doing a "60 Minutes" investigation. I'm there to find out how things really work, how people really feel. I want people to open up to me, and most of the time they do.

I'm constantly surprised by what I hear from people I interview—how distrustful corporate executives are of the press, how isolated top executives often feel from their employees (I mean, they're aware of it and worried about it), and how central personal personality is to success in business. It's not surprising to hear that people buy from people they like, but it is striking how much people listen to, and follow instructions from, people they like—far more than from people they don't. Intimidation, I've found, is overrated as a management tool.

Q: One common theme in the books has to do with how successful individuals can be when bad things happen to their adversaries. As a reader of far too many business books, my only critique of your novels is that most of the real action defies the daily challenges of getting things done. Strategy takes a back seat to sabotage. Does this reflect a cynicism on your part about what it takes to succeed in business? Should executives brush up on espionage?

A: Well, what's more fun to read about—strategy or sabotage? Seriously, these are thrillers, of course, which means I turn the dial up to "11" (to quote that essential movie Spinal Tap). But having admitted that, I will say that just about everything that happens in my books could happen in a corporation. There's also a sizeable element of wish fulfillment in all my stories. Just like in Killer Instinct, who wouldn't want to have a Kurt working behind the scenes, getting rid of adversaries and making things happen?

So in answer to your question: no, this doesn't reflect my cynicism about the business world. Most people aren't Kurt—most are Jason. If there's a moral to the story of Killer Instinct, it's that the evil, underhanded stuff doesn't work in the end. And that's an optimistic message.

Killer Instinct is, however, a comment on ambition, almost a parable. It's about the meaning of success and the varying definitions of ambition.

I don't think an executive needs an understanding of espionage in order to execute strategy. But a good understanding of how espionage works would be useful to someone trying to understand competitive intelligence and how reliable or accurate it is. And if you're the underhanded sort, a good knowledge of cloak-and-dagger techniques can come in handy.

Q: In a lovely article for The New York Times Book Review, you note that popular writers of literary fiction today avoid the topic of ambition or industry. What appealed to you about business as a setting for your recent books? And what books do you consider favorites in this field?

A: In Paranoia, the eccentric engineer Noah Mordden was continually taunting the protagonist, Adam, with allusions to the heroes of The Red and the Black, Pere Goriot, Phineas Finn, and other icons of hazardous ambition. Adam has no idea what he's talking about, but it's a sort of motif. There are terrific novels that are at least partly set in companies (like Joseph Heller's Something Happened or Richard Powers's Gain), but surprisingly few, given how big a role the office plays in most people's lives. Dombey & Son is a great novel named after a company; but Dickens tells you almost nothing about what the company actually does, and very little of the novel is set in those offices.

Writing a novel dealing with texture of corporate life appealed to me greatly—largely because this realm was all but neglected. (The exceptions are oddly narrow: the professional lives of high finance types, trial lawyers, and doctors. But these are professionals, not managers—a different class.)

Here's the thing: Work is central to people's lives, but you rarely find that experience rendered in fiction. It's amazing. Stephen King, in his great book On Writing, pointed this out: "People love to read about work." Ordinarily, I'd say it's too bad there are so few books about work out there. But it seems to be working out OK for me.

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Tom Ehrenfeld is a Cambridge-based business writer and editor (visit him at www.startupgarden.com) and the author of The Startup Garden: How Growing A Business Grows You (Cahners, 2001).