Corporate America Will Never Be The SameInterview by Dennis Widmyer
Max Barry is the author of Syrup and Jennifer Government, in development to become a motion picture with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's Section Eight films. Aged thirty, he hails from Melbourne, Australia where he lives comfortably with his wife, Jennifer.
A couple months ago I emailed Max a greedy proposition: Send me a free copy of your book and I'll read and review it for our site. What can I say, I was broke at the time and I had heard good things about this Jennifer Government book from a couple Cult Members. Well, Max, being a huge fan of Fight Club was totally down to play my petty games. This led to a nice back and forth email relationship which blossomed into the following interview.
The date was set and Max instant messenged me during a hour which worked for both of our extreme time zone differences. After some fun banter back and forth about MSN Messenger emoticons, the relief of the both of us being fast typers, and the protocol of a bad interview, Max and I found our grove, leaned back in our seats and began what was to become one of the weirdest interviews he’s probably ever conducted in his short but blossoming career.
Dennis: So, let me start by saying that this is an interview I've looked forward to now for weeks. You seem like a very approachable person to me. You don't seem to take yourself too seriously, and your books and your website demonstrate a very self-deprecating, very open-to-his-readers type attitude that I like and respect.
Max Barry: (laughs) Thanks... actually I'm just desperate for attention. It's not that long ago since I was trying to get a book published, so I know how helpful it is to get some helpful advice from someone who's been there... I wanted to give out some of that, for what it's worth. I think in the early days especially, I got plenty of messages from writers trying to get published... they were probably my core readership.
Syrup - read by young professionals, cynical marketing executives, and struggling writers.
Dennis: Yeah, I was delighted to see the inclusion of such helpful tips on your website.
Max: It's great to have a web site, because writers don't get to talk to actual human beings very often... when people write in it reassures me that my books are getting read; that it's not just some conspiracy on the part of my publisher. "Yes Max, we are selling copies, honestly; they're doing REALLY WELL."
Dennis: Funny, Syrup made me want to get into marketing.
Max: I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the idea that Syrup inspires people to take up marketing. The world has enough marketing already without adding smart people to it. But then, at least I didn't write a novel about making it big in Latin Translating, or something... you can actually get a decent job in marketing.
Dennis: Have you had a go at marketing in your past?
Max: Yes, I studied marketing, I've taught it at a couple of universities in Australia, and I worked in sales & marketing for a few years while I was writing the first draft of Syrup. Then I tried to apply some of that marketing knowledge to help promote Jennifer Government, because I realized just how badly novels by unknown authors need it, and how badly publishers tend to do it.
I'm reading "A Brief History Of Chuckpalahniuk.net"... this is cool
Dennis: (laughs) I read that story in front of a bunch of Palahniuk fans. And they were all like, "Ohhhhh." I think a lot of people think I was hired to run this site by Doubleday.
Dennis: So, let's talk more about Syrup. I'm actually drawn now between which one of your books I like better. Syrup cracked me up. I laughed out loud on so many occasions. But for me, the coolest aspect of it was that it was obvious you were finding your voice as a writer. And that voice led you nicely through Jennifer Government.
Max: It's funny, I just read Syrup last week for the first time since 1999. The worst thing as a novelist is losing perspective on your work: it's so easy to forget exactly who is meant to be doing what, or thinking what, whether a relationship dynamic is working... but after 4 years, I was really able to approach Syrup like a first-time reader. Or at least as closely as I'm ever going to be able to.
It would be really handy if I could put aside all my manuscripts for about four years and give them a final edit before I had to submit them to a publisher.
Losing perspective means I don't really know how people see Jennifer Government -- for example, I don't know how similar that book is to Syrup, or why so many people see a connection between it and Chuck's work. I love Chuck's novels, but I never thought that would be obvious to other people.
Dennis: Well, I saw the connection to Palahniuk in JG (Jennifer Government) only in that it dealt with corporations. Besides that, I think people see what they want to see. People see Palahniuk as the anti-corporate torch bearer of the new generation.
Max: yeah, okay, that makes sense.
Dennis: So any new and "hip" book that comes out these days falls into that category of societal study.
Max: ahhhh, spare me from hip. I can happily live the rest of my life without encountering the words "hip" and "edgy" again.
Dennis: (laughs) Deal with it buddy. You have a very "hip" topic (flips on sunglasses, wets eye brows, does a kick spin and screams)
Max: Woo woo!
Dennis: Sorry..... umm, that was out of character. (settles back into chair)
Max: No journo has ever done a flying spin kick during an interview with me before.
Dennis: See what you do to me? So, I’m not done with Syrup. I bet you thought I'd harp on JG, eh?
Max: You're foxing all my expectations.
Dennis: Let's talk more about it. Why the title, Syrup? I saw your explanation on the website about this, but I want more. Was it a publisher decision? Gimme the dirt.
Max: Hahaha! A publisher decision! No, sadly, I must take the blame for this one. As per the website, the novel was originally called "mktg" But that was just too damn hip (there's that word) for its own good.
Dennis: Would they have had the balls to name it “Fukk?”
Max: I liked Syrup because it's what Coca-Cola really is -- not marketing, not a soda; just this evil black syrup. It was meant to allude to the idea that underneath all this superficial glamour is dumb, ordinary organics. But it sure didn't help me sell any copies.
None of my publishers suggested changing the title, although, as you suggest, the German publisher renamed it to "Fukk" (how that works in German I have no idea -- the entire translation process is a total mystery to me) and the French did it as "Soda & Co." AFTERWARDS, when the book hadn't sold so well, they said, "Maybe we should have gone with a different title."
Dennis: Soda & Co???
Max: Yes, like I said, translations are a mystery. I just tell myself, "In French, that probably sounds really cool." I have to say it over and over. Like the current paperback cover in the US, with the guy and the girl, I repeat: "It is secretly ironic. It is secretly ironic."
Dennis: No, it's two good looking people on the cover of a book.
Max: It's the Sweet Valley High cover.
Dennis: That cover tells me that they didn’t know how the hell to market the book. So they threw two hot models up on it.
Max: I'm very proud of Syrup as a novel, but [yes] I think we fucked up the marketing of it in several different ways.
I think it was a reaction to the poor reception the hardcover received. If a book does poorly in HB, the publisher will usually change the cover for PB. If it sells, they keep it. I argued quite heatedly with my publisher that their HB cover for Syrup was wrong, because they stuck a picture of their Marketing Director's head on it -- and, nice guy as he was, he didn't look anything like Scat and he wasn't 23 years old.
So they went in the complete opposite direction with the PB cover.
Dennis: Is that the dude hanging his nose over the large glass?
Max: Yep. The publisher thought it would be hilarious to put their Marketing Director on a novel about marketing. And I said, "But... who outside your company will even realize that's a joke?"
Dennis: (laughs) That’s hilarious! What a selfish gesture.
Max: Authors get lots of input into this publishing process, but very little actual influence, I have realized. I think they honestly thought it was a good hook... I just have no idea why.
Dennis: So, speaking of Scat.... do you know what scatology is?
Max: (long pause) Yes.
Dennis: Did you know what it was when you wrote the book? Or was that part of the joke?
Max: (longer pause) Yes.
Dennis: Ok, I got a little worried for you there for a moment.
Max: The French translation has this bit... lemme just pull down the novel...
Okay, it says: "Je m'appelle Scat.*" (My name is Scat.*) Then down the bottom of the page they've added a footnote, to explain for the French audience what Scat means. It says, "A type of jazz popularized by Louis Armstrong." And I thought, "Hmm, that's not what I meant at all."
Dennis: I think that they must be referring to like the whole "skit skat" jazz thing.
Max: Yes -- now THAT I wasn't aware of at the time.
Dennis: Misinterpretations are hysterical.
Max: I still find it very weird that the German edition of Syrup has these American characters in LA going, "Jah, jah."
Dennis: I'm helping the Russian publishers translate Survivor..... and she emails me every now and then with questions about "what does Chuck mean here?"
Max: Oh, that would be cool. Of course, the good thing about translations is that if they do well, it's thanks to me, but if they bomb, it's a bad translation. The other good thing is being able to look up the dirty bits of your own novels in other languages.
Dennis: So, let's talk more about the names thing. You seem to have a penchant for nicknames. @, Skat, Sneaky Pete, 6, Hack, Buy…
Max: Mmm, I love a good stupid name.
Dennis: Explain this love of stupid names.
Max: In Syrup the characters have unusual names because that's what the more desperate marketing/advertising types do, so I was taking the piss out of that. In Jennifer Government they have unusual names because of the corporate influence of the world they live in. They're very different reasons... yet fundamentally I think I may be incapable of writing a novel with characters who have normal names.
It's a personal problem. I should probably see someone about it.
Dennis: Yes... the name Maxx comes to mind.
Max: Yes... Maxx was another horrific marketing decision in Syrup. I was halfway through writing it and thought, "Hey, it would be really funny if I called myself Maxx for this book, like all those advertising wankers." What I failed to realize was that the only people who would get this joke were the people who read the book -- and people didn't read the book because it appeared to have been written by an advertising wanker.
Dennis: Funny story.... I almost bought Syrup back when it first came out. But I tool one look at those two "x"s and I passed.
Max: You and millions of others.
Dennis: (laughs) So let's back up a bit. Tell me about college, what you majored in, what you did after, and at what age you began to seriously consider writing as a career.
Max: I've been writing my whole life... in high school I wrote short stories (horror and sci-fi, mostly) and forced my friends to read them. I wrote a horror story about a girl in my class called "Jenny" who has sex with an exchange student and gets hit by a train -- that was really popular with everyone, except Jenny.
But then I ended up marrying her so she must have come around in the end.
Dennis: That's a great story.
Max: I didn't think it was possible to make a career out of writing novels, so I decided to go into advertising.
The tertiary education system in Australia is a bit different to the US; I went straight to a university and did an honors degree in marketing -- which scared the crap out of me. I couldn't believe the sorts of things they were teaching us.
All this stuff like the JND Theory -- Just Noticeable Difference -- which is this carefully researched theory on exactly how much you can shrink a candy bar or a packet of washing detergent before the customer realizes you've done it.
Dennis: I KNEW they were pulling that shit!
Max: I wrote my first novel while I was studying at university. It was pretty much like everyone's first novel: long, self-indulgent, and completely devoid of plot.
Then I got a job working for Hewlett-Packard. This was great for two reasons: first it showed me what it was like to work within a big corporation, something I've been writing about ever since; second I was able to swipe a laptop computer and sneak away every lunchtime to write Syrup.
I tried to get Syrup published in Australia and the US at the same time, and because US agents react faster than Aussie publishers, I ended up with a New York literary agent. He found me a publisher and suddenly, miraculously, I was an author.
Getting published in the US means I'm able to do this full-time; the Australian market is so small by comparison that there are only a handful of writers able to do that here.
Dennis: So it was Penguin that initially picked you up?
Max: Penguin Putnam bought world rights to Syrup for their Viking imprint, yep.
Dennis: Were you still working at HP at the time?
Max: At the time they bought it I'd just quit HP to move across the country to Perth: I was teaching marketing at Curtin University. Perth is 12 hours time difference to New York, so there were a lot of very late phone calls.
Dennis: Now's the time for a seamless segue into Jennifer Government.
Max: I don't think it's seamless if you say, "Here's a seamless segue."
Dennis: (bastard) Talk about the inception of that idea.
Max: Well, I almost feel embarrassed to call it an idea -- corporations taking over the world, it didn't exactly require an enormous stretch of the imagination.
I thought it would be a lot of fun to write a novel about an ultra-privatized world, but at first I couldn't see how it would work without being too futuristic. And I didn't want to write a novel with laser guns and hovercars and all that stuff.
Dennis: Good move. Laser guns were just....never cool.
Max: I kept researching the idea and found all these hardcore libertarian web sites with their manifestos saying how simple and wonderful the world would be if the government would just go away completely, and thought, "Man, I HAVE to do this." Then it occurred to me that I could just set the thing in the present; write a social-fiction rather than a science-fiction, effectively.
The book never makes the time period completely obvious, but there are hints that it's actually taking place in the present. An alternate present, I guess. One that's pretty much the same as our world except for the social structure.
Dennis: Well, it's funny..... I think I might have told you this, but I was reading 1984 and This Perfect Day (Ira Levin) at the time I picked up Jennifer Government. So part of me actually wanted a strict, sci-fi, futuristic book about evil corporations. But I was glad to see you treated it with a more comedic and realistic satire.
Max: I didn't want to write a preachy novel with Jennifer Government -- obviously the book is critical of completely unregulated capitalism, but who isn't? Except for the most radical libertarians, pretty much everyone believes that capitalism without any government at all wouldn't be a great move. I was more interested in using that world as a backdrop for a story than writing an essay about it.
But then I get the occasional mail from someone who thinks I must be a communist or socialist and demands I explain the actions of Stalin.
Dennis: (laughs) those people will always be out there. Lots of angry people with a lot of time on their hands.
Max: Writing a political satire is dangerous because most people have quite ingrained political ideas and are totally convinced they're right. Everyone brings their personality to a book they read -- that's half the reason books work at all -- but in a political setting I think people are even more inclined to read things into it.
Angry people with a lot of time on their hands -- yeah, I get some of that through NationStates.net.
Dennis: One of the biggest compliments I've seen fans of your work shed upon Jennifer Government was your ability to tell so many different character stories and then blend them all into the mix by the end of the book. Coming off Syrup, which dealt primarily with two main characters, was that a big challenge?
Max: Fuck yes, it almost killed me.
I basically got to the end of the first draft of Jennifer Government and realized I needed to do about a year's worth of editing. I had a stack of characters -- even more than there is in the final version -- and they all had interesting stories, but they didn't quite all meet up in the end in the satisfying way that they had to for me to call myself an author.
So I rewrote and rewrote to get these story threads to actually intertwine and resolve properly. Reading it now, it looks a bit like this very carefully plotted book where I planned out everything that was going to happen, but in fact it was endless months of reworking and rewriting.
I swore I would never write another novel with that many major characters again. And I'm doing it right now.
Dennis: Ooooh, don't tempt me to get ahead of myself. I'm dying to ask about the new book. But we'll get there soon...
I want to talk about gender issues. You seem fascinated with them. And I love how you worked it into both novels.
Dennis: I take it your wife, Jennifer, has had a strong impact on your respect of women.
Max: Jen was the girl I chased all through high school and married at 19 -- just over 10 years ago now. She's had a strong impact on EVERYTHING.
Dennis: Is your wife like Tabitha King? Is she your best editor?
Max: She is very good like that. She liked Syrup much more than Jennifer Government, though. She's more into the romance.
Dennis: Let's switch it up for a bit. Part of the reason why I'm going to conduct these interviews with authors such as yourself is to give fans of our website who are amateur writers some tools and inspiration from people who have succeeded in this field.
So I'd like to ask you about your regiment. How you prepare yourself to write each night?
Max: I've had a few different routines, but they all come down to making sure that you are in front of the computer when you feel like writing. This isn't the sort of job where you can discipline yourself to write every day and get a great novel at the end of it. I've tried that and you get a crap novel at the end of it. Discipline is useless to writers, I've decided, because if you don't feel like writing, you can't write well.
At the moment I get up at about 7:30am, head straight into the study, and start writing. Depending on how well it works out, I stop somewhere between 9:30 and 12:30. If I get a great idea at another time I'll write then, too, but it's pretty rare that I write in the afternoons or evening.
I don't have breakfast or shower or anything until I'm done writing in the mornings, so by the end of it I'm kind of giggly and light-headed from hunger. People should probably be wary of trying this method at home. One day Jen will find me passed out on the carpet.
Dennis: (laughs) Do you outline your novels first? Like, do you usually have a good idea where the story will go and how it will end beforehand?
Max: I've written seven novels so far and only in 1 of them (the one I've just finished) did I have any idea about how it would end. Usually I get an idea to kick things off -- a character-centric idea, so it's about what people might be in the story and what they each want -- and follow it. I really dislike plotting more than a chapter or two ahead, because I find that I end up pushing the characters around and trying to squeeze them into plot holes. It works much better for me if I have a loose idea of where the story should be going, but let the characters dictate how it gets there. And if they end up going in another direction altogether, that's great too. Of course, sometimes I end up with a first draft like Jennifer Government, where I need to cut out or rewrite 100,000 words to get it into shape, but that's the price you pay.
Dennis: Seven novels?
Max: Yep. Some are just too crappy for me to want to publish them (hello, first novel). Others I like but this isn't the right time for them. I'm a two-book author right now, and each new novel I put out has to sell well for me to keep my job. So this isn't, I've realized, the time for a radical shift in a subject matter.
Dennis: So do you get pressure from your publisher to release any of these? Or are you on a one book at a time contract?
Max: Contract - actually my publisher doesn't know about these other novels. They think I just write slowly. (pauses) Jen has just woken up and wandered in.
Dennis: Tell I said "hi." And that I will forever picture her as the girl on the cover of the novel. It's just a great piece of cover art. You got lucky, my friend.
Max: Oh yeah... after the Syrup debacle, I was pretty wary about what I might end up with for Jennifer Government. I knew there was this great image in the book of Jen with the barcode tattoo, but still... What happened was the publisher sent me a package and the top letter said, "Here's our cover art. Hope you like it -- we all love it to pieces!" Which is what publishers say any time they don't want you to bitch and moan about what they've decided to do. So I flip the page and the first page is this god-awful, super trashy sci-fi mess. It's the same basic idea as the current cover, but the face looks terrible, there are massive nostrils in the middle of the cover, there's some kind of circuit-board backdrop... it was my worst nightmare.
Then I flip THAT page and there's the second version underneath. Which is the same as the first one but with a few minor modifications. Then there's a third version. I keep flipping through it as the covers get better and better and then, WHAM! The final version. I just about fainted with relief.
It's a brilliant cover -- Michael Windsor is the guy who did it, and I have made him promise to do all my covers for the rest of my life. Sci-fi novels often get the worst covers... it's like the graphic people don't really know what's cool and what's not in that world. But then I think covers in general suck. It's not easy to do well. I think Sci-Fi is too intangible for them
Dennis: They over-shoot it, miss the idea that subtle is usually better. Did you have any influence in the cover design?
Max: I discovered during the Syrup experience that I have a lot of say but no actual influence. The publisher says, "We really hope you like this cover. What do you think?" I say, "It's terrible." They say, "Well, we're using it anyway." So getting a kick-ass cover for JG is like a gift from God
Dennis: Let's talk about the movie development for JG. When did that happen? And what was it like hearing about it?
Max: It was amazing, because I found out about it the same morning as Penguin Putnam passed on Jennifer Government. JG was their option book after Syrup, and they decided to pass on it, which totally took me by surprise. So I had this moment of: "Oh my God, my career is over." Then I got an e-mail from my agent saying, "Steve Soderbergh and George Clooney want to buy the film rights."
Dennis: And Doubleday came next?
Max: Yes, Doubleday picked it up within a week or two. They've been an amazing publisher; I'm so happy to be with them.
Dennis: Tell me everything you can (and are allowed to) about the movie development of JG.
Max: Well, it's still in the script stage, which as far as I can work out means that Section Eight is hiring and firing a succession of writers until one can produce a script they like. That's pretty much it: it's a slow process. We've talked about casting but it's really early days... they suggested Nicole Kidman for Jennifer Government, who I think would be excellent.
Dennis: Hmmm, maybe too old?
Max: Nah, Nic rocks!
Dennis: You just like her because she's Australian.
Max: There's a forum on Nationstates.net for discussion about the movie, and people there have suggested a few "dream casts" -- they've come up with some great ideas, especially for the minor characters. Brittany Murphy for Violet, oh yeah!
Dennis: That's an interesting idea. What if they asked you to write the script? What would you say?
Max: No, they didn't ask me to write the script, which I'm kind of relieved about. I am interested in writing for film sometime, but I don't know if I want my first bash at it to be my own book. I would rather that someone who knows more about scriptwriting than I do does it... I can always provide ideas.
Dennis: Have you met George yet?
Max: No. I have seen his parking space though! You walk into the Section Eight building on the Warner Brothers lot and there it is, "RESERVED: G. CLOONEY." Actually, he gets two of them. It was a special moment for me.
Dennis: You visited Section 8? Do tell.
Max: When I was in LA for the book tour in January I dropped in to have a chat about how things were going. It's always strange to see the offices of these places because they end up being these tiny little bungalows with a few posters on the walls and about seven people. It's not what you expect, which would be some kind of shining, golden palace with armed guards and thousands of minions toiling away.
Dennis: How was the book tour for JG? Was it yoru first experience doing such promotion for a book? How many cities did you visit? Are you comfortable reading your novels in front of a crowd? Any crazy fan moments?
Max: I did a book tour for Syrup, so this was my second. It was a short one: just New York and LA. I love doing it, and not just because I get to order room service at my publisher's expense.
I love reading in public, even though it's a cruel thing to do to a writer (who, by definition, has no social skills). I especially like doing the question and answer thing. With Syrup, I was basically reading to crowds of three or four people who happened to be in the store at that moment, because the novel had come out a week earlier and I'd done no publicity, so nobody knew who I was. This time around people actually came to see me, which was excellent. As for crazy moments, it was pretty weird when people wanted their photos taken with me. Jen thought that was hilarious.
Dennis: That's wild. Any groupies?
Max: I do get the occasional e-mail groupie, which is nice. Everyone should have groupies. My groupies tell me I'm pretty. I never used to be pretty. It seems to be a recent development.
Dennis: Well, hopefully this interview will get you a lot more groupies. Just don't let Jennifer hurt me if it does.
Max: I think groupies keep our relationship interesting. When girls write in, Jen gets this kind of desperate gleam in her eye. It really freshens things up. I'm going to ask her to dress up as a nurse soon.
Dennis: Go for it!
Dennis: Okay... now is the time I have awaited: the new novel! Tell me what you can about it.
Max: The new novel: I'm going to have to let you down on this one. I am superstitious: I believe that if I tell anyone what my next novel is about, it will never get published.
Dennis: Okay, but get me an ARC of it so I don’t have to wait 12 months to find out. (pauses, evilly) Or else, I'll find you...
Max: As soon as somebody agrees to publish it, the floodgates open.
Dennis: Has JG been a success?
Max: Yes, it sold very well (thank God). I dunno; I like being on a 1-book deal because it means if I write something that I don't think is worth being published, I'm not up against a deadline. It allows me to write 7 novels and publish 3 of them.
Dennis: What genres would you like to explore more of?
Max: Hey... is that a sneaky question about my next novel??
Max: I suspect my next novel will have something to do with corporations... put it that way.
Dennis: How bold of you.
Max: I know. You've got the scoop!
Dennis: If you had to pass on any knowledge that you've accrued as a writer over the past years to a younger audience, what would it be?
Max: The most important piece of advice is also the most hackneyed: write as much as you can. It really doesn't matter what you write or how good it is: if you keep doing it, you get better at it. And you get better at working out what you want to write about.
Random Facts about Max Barry
Favorite Computer Games: Currently, Battlefield 1942
All-time, Doom, Half-Life, Warcraft II, Age of Empires, Elite, Paradroid
Favorite Movies: Being John Malkovich, Aliens, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Matrix 1 & 2, Et tu Mama Tambien, Fight Club, Go
Hottest Actresses in Hollywood: You know, Dennis, it's really shallow to consider actresses for their superficial beauty. They're talented professionals, godammit! (stalls for time) Sarah Polley. She's a smarty. I've read some of her essays.
Favorite Pick to Play Jen in JG Movie: Rena Sofer. http://renasofer.net