To Finish Writing A Novel, You Need To Be Delusional: Lee Bob Black Interviews Max Barry
In this interview, conducted before Max Barry’s third novel Company was published in 2006, the Australian author discusses being stalked by sixty-five year old little ladies, rewriting books that have already been sold, being God’s gift to writing, his fierce love of technology (except for laptoppers in cafés), books that defy synopsis, Nike riots, losing perspective, and donuts.
Lee Bob Black: On your MaxBarry.com you acknowledge that you’ve been shamelessly self-promoting for years. How is it being a self-proclaimed web geek?
Max Barry: Geekdom used to be something shameful, and now it’s cool. There are bloggers out there, like Will Wheaton from Star Trek and Stand By Me, and he created this incredibly famous blog, which is just him and his trials to get published and get acting jobs. But even though I’m an avid reader of SlashDot[.org] and these tech sites, I’m not sure if I’m qualified for full geekdom.
LBB: But you were at the forefront of the blogger revolution, the blogosphere.
MB: I don’t know. I jumped on board when I saw everyone else doing it. I was reading these rules and culture of blogging. One rule was: You must blog every single day. I decided I was never going to do that because interesting things don’t happen to me every day. I’d just have a site that was a little more informal and chatty, and I could write whatever the hell I wanted to.
Originally, I did the site for people looking up information about the novel [Syrup]. It was 1998 or 1999 when I put it up, with two Xs. It was there because people had websites. I put up little news items, like, Syrup is now on sale.
[Note: Max published his first novel under Maxx Barry. His his initial website was MaxxBarry.com; now it’s MaxBarry.com]
LBB: You were the first author I knew who had their URL as their name.
MB: Authors were slow to get on. There’s that whole author thing where authors work with their Underwood typewriters, and resist the temptation to go electric. They even steered clear from electric typewriters.
LBB: Many authors still write with typewriters.
MB: That would drive me insane.
LBB: How are you with the label ‘business satirist’?
MB: I prefer ‘corporate’ to ‘business.’ There’s something cool about the word ‘corporate.’ My first three novels are corporate satire. But the term doesn’t do me any favors in terms of sales. Satire is a dirty word, and people tend to think it means pretentious crap, an essay dressed up as a story.
LBB: Does validation play any part in your being a writer?
MB: You mean going to the local café and having the owner say, ‘Oh, you’re a writer’?
LBB: Maybe what I’m asking is: Do you write for validation?
MB: It’s always tough to know exactly how egotistical you are. I write because I have cool ideas for stories and I want to tell them, basically. It’s kind of cliché to say that, but, no, I don’t write to be published, I don’t write to impress people or pull chicks. I have a chick already; very happy with her.
If I didn’t write, I don’t know how I’d think of myself. It’s core to how I see myself. So in that sense I guess I do validate myself through my writing. I feel crap when my writing’s not going well, even if everything else is good. And I feel terrific if I do a good scene.
MB: Could you say that it gives your life meaning?
MB: The most important thing in my life is my wife. But writing would probably come second.
LBB: Do you daydream about writing an autobiography or a memoir?
MB: No. There’s a big difference when there’s that dream of getting published and becoming famous. When Syrup got published [in 1999], my dream was that it would break sales records. Since then I’ve had Syrup, which was more or less a commercial failure, and Jennifer Government, which was more or less a commercial success.
I occasionally see references to myself in some person that I admire--I’ll be reading on their website how they like one of my books. I just did a blog about having a lot of admiration for people writing the Linux programs I use. And one of the contributors to the GNU project, which is part of Linux, was blogging about my book--that was fantastic. And emails from people. It’s not like the weight of sales or anything. It’s just some individual person will write and say how they found my book, or what it meant to them--that is awesome. I’m very comfortable with that level of fame, and never getting any bigger than that.
LBB: You were the subject of an example in a marketing textbook.
MB: In Syrup, [the protagonist] Scat worried that he’d become a marketing case study about what not to do. And so for me to then get an example in a marketing textbook was very cool, very circular, very serendipitous.
LBB: On fame, how many photos do you estimate that you’ve smiled through with fans?
MB: Not many. The first was with a couple of fifteen-year-old girls who treated me like a rock star--that was absolutely hilarious. That was probably the only one on the Syrup tour. I did two tours for Jennifer Government, the hardback in 2003, the paperback in 2004. I get between twenty and thirty people to a reading. And either zero or one will want a photo taken with me.
LBB: I wonder if Ellis, the eighth grader in San Francisco who responds to many of your blogs, will ever have a photo with you. [For more on Ellis: MaxBarry.com/2004/12/10/news.html]
MB: I get these people who I’ve exchanged emails with, and they’ll turn up to a reading and look absolutely nothing like I pictured, and that’s very cool.
LBB: I did that. I sent you a few emails, and then turned up at the Jennifer Government reading in New York, and you picked my Aussie accent out of the audience.
MB: That’s right; and we arranged to meet afterwards--that’s always a bit of a worry, because I have no idea if the person is sane. There was a woman I knew through a writing workshop who’d heard I’d got a publishing deal. Just before I headed over [i.e. from Australia, to the US], she said, ‘Can I be president of the Max Barry fan club?’ She turned out to be this little lady, maybe sixty-five. I was with my wife Jen, and we all went to lunch. She didn’t look directly at either of us; she gave one-word answers to questions. It was the longest hour of my life. Later my publisher said, ‘That woman contacted us, she wanted to know your flight details and where you were staying.’
LBB: Would you like someone else to write your biography?
MB: Maybe when I get to sixty, and I’ve climbed some mountains, and assassinated some presidents, someone can write a biography about me then.
LBB: What do you listen to while writing?
MB: A lot of dance music, like techno, something with a very strong beat, basically anything that goes doof-doof-doof; I turn it up very, very loud.
Photo: Max Barry.Photo credit: Flickr/dejahthoris. LBB: You’ve said that you haven’t changed much while writing Jennifer Government and Company. Do you have any hopes about how you’ll progress as a writer?
MB: Progression is a funny idea. There’s this old cliché about how you have your whole life to write your first novel, it can be about anything. The second one you have to do reasonably quickly. It has to be similar enough to the first so you don’t lose those who liked your first, but then not so similar so that it comes off as a carbon copy. There’s a lot of restrictions doing follow-ups. I’m not interested in doing a progression in writing corporate satires. I don’t like to think in terms of career.
There’s a real schism between creating writing, creating stories, and trying to make a career out of it, which is all the selling and the promoting, thinking about how your readership views you. There’s no similar skills that make being able to write a good novel that overlap with being able to market yourself and create a career. So, as far as possible, I try to keep those two separate. I’m writing Company at the moment [note: Company was published January 2006], and occasionally someone will ask if I’m going to promote it. My publisher is asking me to come up with a blurb--and I’m still editing it. So I really don’t like trying to think of that whole marketing side. It just has no bearing on the actual story. I’m just really interested in coming up with ideas for books, and telling them. And if that means I have a logical progression from corporate satire to straight satire to something else, then that’s what I’d like to do. I really hope that I’m not too constrained by trying not to suffer a career death as an author.
LBB: What do you mean by a ‘career death as an author’?
MB: Just that it’s really difficult to become published. And then it’s really difficult to get from book one to book two, and so forth. I had this idea that once you got published it was all easier from then on. And it’s not like that. There’s a ton of authors who have only one book published.
LBB: What has been your parents’ involvement with your writing?
MB: Both my parents were very supportive of my writing in high school. I wouldn't say they were really involved in it.
My Mum is very spiritual, she’s always looking for meaning in my stories, and trying to draw them back to reality, which was frustrating because I’d write about a school blowing up, and some car got crushed, and of course I just picked a model of car out of my head, and it was the family car, the green Toyota, and she wanted to probe what the meaning was with me wanting to crush the family car. I was like, ‘No, it’s just a short story.’
LBB: Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
MB: In high school, I used to write science fiction horror short stories and force them on my friends. No, there was no moment.
I never wanted to call myself a writer, even though I was writing fulltime. And I still shy away from calling myself an author, which sounds pretentious. I decided to start calling myself one when I had to write ‘writer’ on my tax return.
LBB: On customs forms, I put ‘writer’ as my occupation--and I’ve never earned any money yet from being one.
MB: They’re suspicious of writers going through customs. I nearly didn’t get into the US. The customs guy asked what I was doing, and I said ‘Book tour,’ and he said, ‘I hear money.’ And I was [thinking], ‘Does he want me to bribe him?’ He just kept saying, ‘I hear money.’ Eventually I realize that he thinks that I’m going to get paid. I said, ‘No, no, authors don’t get paid, we do it as a promotional thing.’ He didn’t believe that any author would voluntarily go traipsing around the country, reading in bookstores, without getting a salary. He asked the same thing over and over. It was unbelievable. It took thirty minutes to get through--he finally said he was doing me this incredible favor. LBB: For some writers, writing is re-writing. Do you find it difficult to write?
MB: Sometimes I find it really difficult. It’s this total paradox that if I’m enjoying what I’m writing, and it seems very easy, then I end up hardly editing, it’ll be one of the best scenes in the book, it’ll be no worries. But if I’m struggling through a scene, and I re-write it ten times, then it’s always one of the weaker scenes that I’m never quite happy with. It’s the total opposite of the way it should be, right. You should have to work hard for the good stuff, and the easy stuff should be kind of crappy, but absolutely not.
LBB: How about writer’s block?
MB: I’ve never been blocked for more than a day or so. The way I write works pretty well for me. I’ve written a lot of novels. I started off trying to write to a daily quota of words. At the end of a few months, I had pages and pages of crappy novel that I had to get rid of. So, I tried not to be so disciplined about it. When I’m writing, I’ve got to enjoy it. If I feel like writing, I’ll write. If I don’t, then I don’t push through it.
LBB: What was the word count you stuck to?
MB: It was 2,000 a day at the start. Then that was too much, so I took it down to 1,000. Now I sit down and start writing, pretty much everyday. But I’ll stop whenever I feel it’s not working. That could be after thirty minutes, or four hours; rarely it’d be longer than that. I probably average 500 or 600 words a day. But some days it’ll be almost nothing, or editing existing stuff. And other days it will be 1,500.
LBB: What are the names and topics of your unpublished novels?
MB: First one was Wild Child. Endless, rambling, dialogue-driven, young adult novel about a self-destructive romance between two teenagers in Melbourne. That was the classic first novel. It was 130,000 words, and it went on and on and on. Writing that, and then editing it through the Internet Writing Workshop, really helped me understand what a novel should be. And it exposed me to American storytelling values. I’d never even encountered this idea of ‘show, don’t tell.’
Number two was Syrup.
Number three was Paper Warfare, which I wrote mainly out of frustration at not being able to publish Syrup. I was emailing agents and publishers, saying, ‘I’ve got this novel, it’s a corporate satire, not a comedy,’ and I got a lot of responses that Syrup was almost too original, that it didn’t fall into a category. I got the feeling that a genre-driven, corporate thriller might work better. So I wrote Paper Warfare, which was set in a tobacco company--it was utterly humorless.
Girl Makes Headlines was a comedy about a young woman in public relations. It feels like a novel written under a deadline, which it was. I had Syrup published. But I wanted another book done within the year, you know, keep publishing. The book was competent and amusing, but it didn’t have any spark. The problem was I started it because I needed to write a book, rather than I had an idea I needed to get out, which is a principle I’ve tried to stick to, afterwards. In any creative field, if you try to produce something to fit an existing need, it rarely works. This is why sequels are so bad, because they don’t start with an idea, they start with a marketing need. Whereas if you create a book, or whatever, because you have inspiration, that’s the way it should happen. The marketing can take care of itself.
LBB: Jennifer Government  was fifth. Company  was seventh. What was sixth? MB: Sixth is a comedy called Eight Weeks in Aquitaine, which is set during the Hundred Years War in France. Why I decided to write this book is beyond me now, because it clearly can’t be published without totally derailing me as a corporate satirist. The main problem with publishing it is there’s no satire. So I have the option of re-writing it with a satirical edge, or I just leave it as this medieval comedy. Of all my unpublished books, it’s the only one I’d ever want to publish.
LBB: Regarding the need versus the idea for a book, how else does that approach work for you?
MB: The main thing is that the alternative doesn’t work. I tried the alternative, which is plotting it out, with my novel Paper Warfare, and the problem with it is that the characters go from plot point A to plot point B to plot point C. The worst is thinking, ‘Okay, for the plot to work, this needs to happen.’ So I try to think, ‘What’s a clever or interesting way for that to happen?’ Something has to happen, but you don’t really want to write it--that is death.
Once you lay down a structure, you’re really bound by it. If you’ve plotted out fifteen chapters, and then at chapter three, you think, ‘Oh, it would be good to do this differently,’ then you’ve wasted all that plotting time. You have an incentive to not stray from the path too far. For me, that’s bad. I write predictable, unexciting stories when I stay within the structure.
LBB: Do you think your characters will go on?
MB: I have a dislike of sequels. It’s too easy to say, ‘I have all these pre-made situations. I could write a sequel, people would read it.’ But until there’s that initial spark that sets the story off, I don’t want to write it.
I’ll be writing the Syrup screenplay soon, I hope. That gives me a really good way to go back to that story, and pick out the bits I like, and tell other bits differently. I’d enjoy that more than writing a sequel to it.
LBB: You submitted some of your draft Syrup screenplay to Fortress Entertainment.
MB: I wrote a treatment, which made me totally fall in love with writing it too. So I was very keen, once I could see the whole movie, to convince them to let me write it. They’re talking with my film agent about contract details, which I’m ecstatic about.
LBB: You’ve joked on blogs that you hate people writing on laptops at cafés. But you work here at this café [The Corner Café on Bellair, Melbourne, Australia].
MB: When I edit, I’ll print it all out, get a pen, and go through it by hand. I’ll sit on the couch, or I’ll go to the café and work here. I’ve taken a laptop to a café once, because I was having trouble writing at home. The laptop in a café doesn’t work because I feel that I’m pretending to be some glamorous writer with a laptop. LBB: You’ve said you’re primarily a morning writer, and that you write before showering and eating. It seems that caffeine and alcohol aren’t part of your routine--how is it not fitting into the romantic stereotype of a self-destructive writer?
MB: That stereotype was from the hedonist days when the old writers would smash themselves out on alcohol and drugs. I’m thinking of Stephen King--he used to drink a slab of beer every day. He couldn’t remember writing one novel. I don’t think younger writers really do that anymore. We’re part of this cleaner living generation, work hard and worry about their future, and don’t get drunk before we start writing. You look shocked as I’m saying this. Am I not describing your circle of writer friends? I thought you were giving away that whenever you write you do a couple lines of coke before you sit down at the keyboard.
LBB: I occasionally drink red wine, and I love Red Bull.
MB: I do have coffee in the morning. And I’ve started running, which means I shower before I write, these days.
LBB: What are your fears about writing?
MB: The number one fear is that the story in your head won’t come out on paper the way it should. You try to translate this great idea in your head, which is the most powerful, brilliant story of all time, and then you have to hit a keyboard until it resembles that.
There’s always that career fear over your head. Will this book be published? Will it be a failure?
LBB: You like writing for the sake of writing.
MB: I’d be happy if I never published another book. When I finish books, I almost don’t want them published. It’s easy for me to tuck away a book, even one I’ve spent years on, and never look at it again. I’m glad that I don’t feel a compulsion to publish books that are kind of crappy that I have written, although I loved them at the time.
I know I’m always going to write, and I guess I think that if for some reason I lose my contract with my current publisher, can’t find another one, even if ten years go by, I’ll have another book that will break out again. It’s strange not knowing whether I’m going to have a book published next year or the year after, whether it’s going to be successful or fail. There’s no security whatsoever in this business.
One of my strengths is that I find it very easy to fall in love with the story I’m telling, to fool myself that it’s the greatest story. And then when it’s time to edit, I get in this totally different mindset where I get very harsh on it, so I cut, cut, cut. And that’s helpful because, first of all, to finish a novel, you need to be delusional. You have to believe that it’s a tremendous contribution to humankind, which it won’t be in the first draft, so you have to be delusional. This is why great writers are often arrogant--it’s a real bonus when you’re writing.
LBB: That delusional state seems intense for you, also very intentional.
MB: I’m just lucky that it works for me. If you let doubts enter the writing process--‘Is this working properly? Should it be happening this way?’--then I find this really destructive. It’s hard to work like that in the writing stage. At the editing stage, you can be critical. I like to follow the story as it plays out before me, and be impressed with my own ideas. That’s the only way to get through a novel, as far as I’m concerned.
LBB: You’ve previously taught marketing at universities. Do you see yourself one day teaching writing?
MB: It’s not something I plan to start. I’m interested in helping writers accomplish the things they want to accomplish. On my website though, I’ve shied away from writing advice, as opposed to publishing advice. Giving writing advice, you have to assume you know a lot about writing. And I frequently change my opinions on what makes good books and good writers. It also opens yourself up to criticism--that you feel you are such a great writer, you can teach the craft to others. A common question is, ‘I’ve started writing a novel, I’m up to page thirty, and I don’t want to write it any more, what’s wrong?’ I get that so often, I think I should really give my opinion on how to get around that.
And there are better writers than I who say, ‘Absolutely, you must sit down and write X number of words every day.’ It’s difficult to think that I should be telling people do the opposite.
LBB: What are your thoughts on metafiction, fiction about fiction?
MB: When you do that, you break the illusion, saying, ‘Hey, you’re reading a novel.’ When I’m trying to create a plausible, self-contained world, I try to stay away from self-reference, from breaking the wall too much.
LBB: Maybe that links with how you wrote Jennifer Government as more social fiction than science fiction.
MB: That was more about not wanting to set it in the future, I didn’t want to have to deal with gadgets and new technology. I just wanted the story to be about what happened in this particular set of social rules. Social fiction--this term that I invented, which probably means nothing--just described the book better.
LBB: Do you read your work aloud?
MB: No. It’s not meant to be read aloud. It’s meant to be read silently.
LBB: Here’s a pompous question--
MB: Can I give a pompous answer?
LBB: What do you think is the function of novels and fiction in society?
MB: It’s not like writing for film, where your words and vision are filtered through maybe hundreds of people before it gets to the theatre. When you’re writing a novel, they’re your words, someone reads them, and you’re speaking directly to them, putting images directly in their brain. As a way of communicating stories, I think novels are the greatest art form.
Their function in society? I don’t know. I don’t have any great aims of changing the world through my books. My primary aim is to fundamentally tell a good story. It’s terrific if people read Jennifer Government and then hear about, as happened yesterday, the sneaker riot outside a shoe store in New York. This is amazing. Nike have these Nike Pigeon Dunks, limited edition. There’s 150 pairs only, people camped out for days to get them. Fights broke out when there weren’t enough for everyone. They sold for $300, now they’re on eBay for $1000. When people see that, they go, ‘It’s just like in Jennifer Government.’ Or they go, ‘That was just like in Syrup, where they create a movie just for product placement.’ That’s fantastic. I like being able to let people look at the world differently. But these are all things on top of telling a really good story.
LBB: How do you describe your writing style?
MB: I try not to.
LBB: How would you describe your literary voice?
MB: Man, these are the sorts of things I’m forced to come up with by my publisher. The whole point is you create a novel that stands alone. It doesn’t need a blurb. It doesn’t need someone explaining what’s going on, someone telling you it’s the fourth book in Max Barry’s progression from corporate satirist to medieval humorist. It’s a self-contained world. But you have to come up with a blurb, you have to describe your writing style and answer all this extraneous crap.
When I buy a novel, it’s because I’ve heard something vague about it, or I’ll like the cover, or I’ll read the first few pages, but I’ll never read the blurb. I don’t want my experience to be tainted.
LBB: How is the editing and re-writing process with input from friends such as Wil Anderson, your wife Jen, and others?
MB: The most difficult thing in rewriting is that I have no perspective on the book. I’ve created it. I’ve rewritten it a few times. And by the point where I’ll get others to read it, I have no idea which are the good or bad bits, whether it’s science fiction or a romance, whether it’s funny, whether it’s scary. So the best thing that I can get from other people is that distance. You can only read a book for the first time once, and that’s what I want from them. I get it out to six or eight friends. It takes me usually a week or two just reading their comments. I always get them to email their comments. Sitting down and discussing it with someone is terrible. I force my editor to send comments via email too.
LBB: After you sold Company to Doubleday, you substantially rewrote it. How was your editor Bill Thomas with that?
MB: If I were editing Syrup now, I’d probably throw out the last third, and do it all different. I don’t need much of a prompt to totally rewrite a book. I did it to Jennifer Government before it was sold. And I’ve done it to Company, twice. Bill was happy for me to do that. The first time I did a major rewrite [of Company], he pointed out that something else I’d left no longer made sense. And I thought, ‘If I’m going to get rid of that, what about if I get rid of this stuff as well, and keep this part, and wrap a new story around it?’ That’s how I’ve ended up with a book that twelve months later shares about 30-40% of the book I sold.
LBB: How is it working with Bill Thomas?
MB: Bill’s great. He’s more famous than I am in publishing. He’s a vice-president, or something, of Doubleday. He’s the editor of The Da Vinci Code and keeps cropping up in the acknowledgements of all these famous books.
The editor’s job is part to turn it into a better book, and part to get support from the marketing department, to get the rest of the company excited about pushing it. It’s funny though, because I’ve had two editors now; one with Syrup [Carolyn Carlson], and one since Jennifer Government [Bill Thomas]. And their edit letters were almost identical. Paragraph one talks about what a brilliant book it is, how lucky they feel to be the editor; it’s a big ego-pump-up. Then, paragraph two, they’re segueing into how the book can be strengthened by a couple of key changes. So I’m not sure if there’s an editor’s school where they have a standardized template: This is how to deal with authors without getting their backs up. Editors in my experience have been very nice, almost too nice. They understand that authors are generally arrogant pricks, so they want to maintain a healthy relationship with them.
LBB: How do you know when you're done?
MB: You just stop writing at some point, and try not to feel bad about leaving it less than perfect. I could edit books for the rest of my life. I could rewrite Syrup another dozen times over the next fifty years. I’m very happy with it, then I’ll edit it, then when I’m finished, I’ll feel like vomiting every time I look at it, and the book’s called ‘done.’ But give me a month, and I’d want to edit it again. A book is never done. I’ve said I’m done on Company about ten times. I just redid the ending. It was one of those moments you live for as a writer. I thought, ‘I could have it end like this.’ Then I thought, ‘No, I couldn’t.’ Then I thought [Max does a conspiratorial tone], ‘Yes, I could.’
One thing I’m concerned about with Company is that it has a major plot twist, and I just know that some reviews are going to give it away, and maybe the publisher will want it on the blurb. I
LBB: Just before I saw the movie Se7en, a friend told me about the head-in-the-box scene.
MB: That’s the last thing in the movie. It’s like giving away The Sixth Sense.
LBB: Right, I missed that in The Sixth Sense.
MB: Nobody gets that; that’s the genius of the movie.
LBB: M. Night Shyamalan is a gun.
MB: The Hitchcock of our generation.
LBB: I saw Unbreakable in German without subtitles, so I still need to see it in English.
MB: It was probably better seeing it in German. That was my least favorite of his movies. Unbreakable had a comic book theme. I mean, I love comics to death, but they’re fundamentally stupid at their heart. And it was tough to base such a very atmospheric, ominous movie on a comic book.
LBB: How is working with your agent, Luke Janklow of Janklow & Nesbit?
MB: The rockin’ Luke Janklow. He’s absolutely unbelievable, man. Used to be this minor rock star in New York. Comes from an incredibly famous family; his Dad, Mort Janklow, is a legendary agent, and has represented the Pope. And Luke is totally his own person. He’s 6 foot 6, has this deep voice, he’s the hippest person. GQ did this spread on ‘how to dress as your job,’ and of course Luke is ‘how to dress as the literary agent.’ He’s got the beautiful wife, the beautiful house, lives the perfect life hobnobbing with movie directors. I’m so lucky to have him as my agent.
LBB: The Beach by Alex Garland is one of your favorite novels; did you read his third and latest novel The Coma?
MB: No. I was so disappointed with The Tesseract that I stopped. I thought he’d given up novels, that he’d put out a brilliant first novel, put out a second that bombed, and fallen into the classic trap. I was such a big fan of The Beach because it had that indefinable thing that makes a novel great: the character that totally inhabited the world.
LBB: Do you read Noam Chomsky, or have you seen the documentary about him called Manufacturing Content?
MB: I haven’t scene the documentary. I read his Hegemony or Survival, and one other. Probably the most interesting thing about Chomsky, like a lot of writers who are labeled in the mainstream as slightly kooky, you know, radical left-wingers, and then you read him, and he’s not radical at all, he says sensible things, he reaches eminently defendable conclusions.
LBB: What is it about Neal Stephenson that you like so much?
MB: It was initially his style and technique. I loved the way he did action. You have this scene in a Stephenson book where there’ll be all this build-up to this action, like in Cryptonomicon there’s these army guys packing up a secret base, they’ve got some giant machine gun on the back of the truck, they’re escaping, and this German plan comes at them, and just as the plane dives, the next word is ‘Afterwards.’ It skips the action. I love stuff like that.
Since then, I’m reading The Baroque Cycle, which includes Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, which I adore because it’s so immersive. It’s like a life’s work, those books alone. He has this incredibly believable world where all these story threads entwine, separate, and come together again. I’m in awe of that. When I recommend Cycle to others, I say, ‘You may hate them.’ Because there’s not really much of a story, it’s just people living their lives. It’s the sort of novel I’d go crazy trying to write, because there’s no definite resolution. Stephenson’s a god. He’s my favorite author of all time, at the moment.
LBB: What book have you read more than any other?
MB: I’ve read The World According to Garp [by John Irving], probably four or five times. One book reviewer said that all great books defy synopsis. That’s so true. It’s this book that, again, should not work, because it doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end. It has this thing that makes the book work, that is incredibly hard to identify. It partly inspired me to actually write a whole novel. Of course, my first novel was rambling, and doing all the things that didn’t work.
There’s that question: Do you read other books while you’re writing? Because people tend to be influenced by what they’re writing. Apparently quite a few writers don’t read other books while writing. Which I find strange, because I’m writing all the time. Of course I realize that sometimes it influences my style, but I can fix that later.
LBB: Where did the impulses for your novel Company come from?
MB: I knew that I had to write this book set just within one company, and it took place in that kind of insane, big, corporate workplace, because a good book takes you into this immersive, self-contained environment where all the rules make total sense, although outside they may not. And that’s a corporate workplace in a nutshell. The corporation has its ideas about what’s acceptable, what’s not, what’s good, what’s bad. And those values may make no sense outside the company. But when you’re in it, you have to follow them to succeed. So this idea of having an environment with incentives and disincentives, and all these tensions between different roles--there was just so much potential. I tried for five years to find a way into that story. I wrote the start so many times. I tried everything; first person, second person, third person, past tense, present tense. In New York, I met a computer guy. His company would go into a business; officially they were there to analyze the company’s IT [information technology]. A guy would sit next to your systems administrator, just watch what he does, make notes. At the end of the week, they’d tell the systems admin, ‘You’re fired, and this person has been learning your job so he can take it over and you can be ushered out without the risk of you going back to your computer and doing something naughty.’ I’m thinking, ‘I have to use this.’ I finally had a sentence pop into my head: ‘Monday morning and there’s one donut less than there should be.’ That was the style I needed. That’s how the book starts. Instead of one donut per person, somebody’s taken an extra one. It’s one of these tiny incidents that happen in the workplace that are utterly insignificant unless you’re in them, which is when they’re the biggest thing in the world. There are all kinds of repercussions; it’s all about power dynamics.
LBB: That’s what you got in that flash.
MB: Finding the way to tell the story is much more important than what happens in the story, or who is in it. You have that idea, ‘Oh this is how it works.’ Or, ‘This is the attitude, the tone, or whatever.’
There was a guy who wrote a book about the soft-drink industry, a British book published around the time of Syrup. People said, ‘Who stole whose idea?’ Not that they shared many ideas in the first place. But two novels written about the same topic would be vastly different, because of their different slants.
LBB: Are you worried about the bland and forgettable title?
MB: Yes, it’s so generic. It used to be called, The Short Awful Life of Zephyr Holdings. I ummed and ahhed a bit, and decided that Company had this ominous edge I liked. Syrup was a title that apparently worked against me, because it was kind of meaningless at first hearing. But that’s, again, the marketing side. There are good marketing titles for books, and there are good titles for books.
LBB: Seeing as you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, do you have an ideal reader?
MB: No, in fact I do the opposite. I don’t try to imagine anyone reading it. I just try to imagine what works for the story. I remember writing Paper Warfare, thinking, ‘I don’t like this bit, but maybe other people will think it’s cool.’ That is the worst fucking way to write a novel.
LBB: Do you read poetry?
MB: Apart from yours, no. Yours is the only poetry I’ve read, probably in five years. [We both laugh.] I found myself touched and inspired by Lee Bob Black’s poetry. [More laughs.]
LBB: What’s your take on culture?
MB: Very interested in culture, in the idea that different cultures have completely different ideas about what good is, and what right is. In most of my books, there’s usually something about different definitions about what’s right, what’s good.
The whole NationStates thing is like that, as well. Everyone has different political ideas, some consider something to be self-evidently good, and others consider them to be self-evidently bad. LBB: What’s your take on technology?
MB: Is a ‘What’s my take on life?’ question coming up?
I couldn’t imagine my life without the internet. I’m so into computers that I really have no idea what I’d be doing--writing with a typewriter, I guess.
Technology is the driver behind a lot of what’s changing society. Technology’s meant that people in small country towns in Australia can find other people who share their interest in whatever. Whereas before the internet, they were outcasts because no one else liked The Cure. Where you lived used to be the most important determinant of what sort of person you are. Technology is also going to produce really powerful weapons that individuals can use to kill a lot of other people--that is unquestionably going to happen. I foresee the day, not too far down the path, where someone uses some sophisticated bomb that is not so hard to get in 2032, and kill a hundred thousand people, or half a million. But right now, the more technology the better, as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs.]
LBB: What are you reading at the moment?
MB: Hammerjack, a science fiction novel by Marc D. Giller, a guy I’ve exchanged emails with over the years. He got a publishing deal recently. And he’d always said, ‘If I get published, I’ll send you the book for a quote.’ I’ve read about the first five pages, and I’ll get to decide if I consider it worthy of saying good things about it. [Laughs.]
I’ve only quoted one book, We Can Make You. I don’t want to be a quote whore.
LBB: What recurring dreams do you have?
MB: I don’t have any.
LBB: What was your first childhood memory?
MB: Is there a psychoanalysis going on here?
MB: Well, one of my strongest memories was getting a Commodore 64 when I was ten.
MB: What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
LBB: What’s the most hateful thing you’ve ever done?
MB: Definitely pass. I’m one of those people who obsess over things they’ve done.
LBB: What are your thoughts on interviews?
MB: I think some of the best interviews I’ve had have been with people who are sort of cynical about what I was doing. Some of the worst write-ups are by people who were big fans when they interviewed me--they misquote the most. I think they write down the things they wish I’d said, rather than the things I actually said.
LBB: What movie have you seen more than any other?
MB: Star Wars [Episode IV]. When I was twelve, I saw it about fifteen times.
LBB: Will you see Episode III [Revenge of the Sith]?
MB: Episode I [The Phantom Menace] was an abomination. Episode II [Attack of the Clones] was okay. Episode III, you can’t watch only five out of six movies, so I’ll see it. And I don’t think that’s all George Lucas’s fault, because he created these movies for kids--Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Later you’re an adult, and you go, ‘This is silly, this for kids.’ And of course it is.
Interviewee: Max Barry, www.MaxBarry.com
Interviewer: Lee Bob Black, www.LeeBobBlack.com
Interview location: a café called The Corner on Bellair, in Kensington, Victoria, Australia.
Interview date: February 24, 2005.
Max Barry is an Australian author. His novels include:
Movies rights based on his novels have been optioned or purchased by Fortress Entertainment (Syrup), Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's Section 8 Films (Jennifer Government), Universal Pictures (Company), and Mandalay Pictures (Machine Man).
He was selected as one of 2008’s Best Young Australian Novelists.
Barry is also the creator of NationStates, an online political game, and the owner of Tales of Corporate Oppression. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and daughter and worked as a marketer for Hewlett-Packard before becoming a novelist.