This has been my last two weeks:
- I received a copy of the Jennifer Government screenplay.
- I sold the film rights to Company.
- I talked to John Cusack.
- The guy who is probably going to write the Company
screenplay e-mailed me to talk about his ideas.
- I got a bunch of great new Company reviews, including
a fantastic piece
by Douglas Coupland in The New York Times Book Review.
- I did a bunch of interviews.
- The L.A. Times invited me to review a book for them.
- I wrote a proposal for a TV series for the Sci-Fi channel.
- Wil Anderson asked me to write a TV series for Australian TV with him.
- I worked up a final polish of the Syrup screenplay.
- The Chinese language version of Jennifer Government was released.
- I made some progress on getting NationStates 2 underway.
- I got invited to two festivals, one conference, two workplaces to give
talks, and asked to contribute writing to four different places.
Ordinarily any one of these would be so cool that I would scamper to
the keyboard and blog all about it. But there is just so much
cool. To anybody but me, I suspect it is a sickening amount
of cool. Plus I’m getting way more e-mails from readers than usual, including
many hilarious or scary ones that are also clearly worth blogging about.
Basically, there is so much cool stuff happening right now that
I could blog about it non-stop, if only there wasn’t so much cool stuff
happening right now.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, poor Max, I cry fat salty tears
of compassion for you; how terrible to have all your time taken up by
the realization of all your life’s dreams.” And you’re right;
it is poor of me, because when someone, say, takes the trouble to
involving my book, one of Stephen King’s, and a monkey,
I shouldn’t allow that to pass without comment.
(The best time to write to an author, I have decided, is about two
months before his book is published. That’s when most other people
have forgotten his existence and he’s feeling frightened
and desperate for love.)
Here is my weak compromise: an update in point form. This way I get
to summarize what’s been happening without writing 10,000 words, and hopefully
also without making too many people sick to their stomachs that so much good
stuff can happen to one guy.
- It feels weird to read someone else’s adaptation of your book. Really
weird. Louis Mellis and David Scinto have written a highly stylized version of Jennifer
Government—the things they do with dialogue are just amazing—but
it’s like seeing your kid dressed by a total stranger: she’s the same,
but so different. It’s surreal on the same level as when I
read reviews that call me “Barry,” as if I am an Important Person.
- Company will be developed for the screen by
Tom Shadyac and
Michael Bostick in
conjunction with Universal. And boy are they fast movers! They’re already
talking to Steve Pink
about writing the screenplay. Steve was a writer on one of my favorite
movies, Grosse Pointe Blank, as well the excellent adaptation
High Fidelity. Not only that, but he was good enough to drop
me an e-mail. What a guy.
- “Hi, it’s Johnny Cusack.” Only one of the coolest guys on
the planet. On the phone. Talking to me. While my wife hyperventilates
beside me. (I think Cusack even trumps Wil Wheaton, as far as Jen is
concerned. Because he was in Stand By Me
and Say Anything. I
am a little concerned, though, that I only seem to be meeting celebrities that
my wife has had huge crushes on.) John—I mean Johnny—I mean Mr. Cusack—was
interested in the Company film rights, and although they ended
up going elsewhere, maybe we’ll get lucky and still get his involvement
- If there is anything more professionally satisfying than having a
absolute titan of the writing scene—a guy who is clearly my literary
superior in every conceivable way—write
a bunch of flattering things
about my work in The New York Times Book Review…
then it’s probably illegal.
And some standout e-mails from readers:
- Kyle, a student in Canada, decided to create a
web site for Zephyr Holdings
(the company in Company). You know, just because he could.
- Hobbie wrote to tell me that Russian Coke tastes a lot like Fukk
is described in Syrup. My lawyers are just waiting for them
to put it in a black can.
- Christian delayed responding to a fire alarm in his building
so he could finish a good bit of Syrup. Nice.
- Jerry shot me a slightly scary list of
websites devoted to
barcodes, and the
people who love them.
- Phill says
him to convert to from Windows to Linux,
which makes me feel all warm and subversive.
- Rachel e-mailed me an exhaustive explanation of why
American shower faucets
work that way and how to master
- Brandon explained that although he loves my web site he
is never going to buy one of my books because he doesn’t want to
“spoil the mystery.” I was going to ask him
to elaborate on this theory, but then I decided this
was one mystery I probably didn’t want solved either.
In many religions, it’s forbidden to speak the name of God. Or at least,
the manner in which you can speak it is restricted: for example, Judaism forbids defacing
the written name of God, and most prohibit the use of God’s name in a
derogatory or insulting manner.
I thought about this when I heard about H.R. 683:
the Trademark Dilution Revision Act, which was passed by the U.S. House
of Representatives last year and is now headed for the Senate. The most interesting
part of this bill—to me, at least—is that it
make it illegal to use trademarked names in fiction. So I might henceforth
be unable to publish a novel like Syrup
(which is set partly within Coca-Cola) or Jennifer Government
(which features Nike, McDonald’s, and others).
Many people seem to think that’s illegal already. When I was writing
Syrup, I was often told it would never be published until
I took out all the real company and product names. I remember one guy in
particular telling me the “Golden Rule” of fiction writing: “Never
use a Coke can as a murder weapon.” Because, apparently, Coke would
descend on you with an army of lawyers. You could only get away with it,
he said, if you used the product in a positive way—for example, your
hero loves drinking Coke. But he doesn’t use it to kill anyone.
This sounded ridiculous even at the time. I wasn’t pretending that my
novels exposed actual events that had taken place in Coke or Nike; I
was just using them as a setting, in the same way I used Los Angeles
I could have invented fictional companies, just as I could have invented
fictional cities, but then I’d also have had to work in descriptions
and history to build up in your head the kind of company or city
I wanted you to see. Coke, Nike, L.A., and Melbourne were all convenient
And sure enough, I didn’t have any legal issues in the U.S. with either
Syrup or Jennifer Government. In both cases the
publisher wanted a legal disclaimer pointing out that they were works
of fiction and not based on real events, but that was it. We
were never contacted by any company and never sued.
(Things were different in the UK, where free speech laws are weaker.
Syrup has never been published there, and the publisher
got more and more worried about Jennifer Government the
closer we got to publication. Eventually they got a whole bunch of
lawyers together to come up with a legal strategy, and this was: wait
six months and see if anyone sues the American publisher first.
If you had gone to law school for six years, you too might be able
to come up with brilliant tactics like this.)
Part of the reason Syrup and Jennifer Government
were able to be published was trademark law. This allows
one company to sue another if they think they’re using a confusingly
similar name or logo; in essence, the goal is to prevent customers
from being deceived by imitators. But that’s all: the law contains
a specific clause—a clause that H.R. 683 will rewrite—denying
companies the ability to block non-commercial uses of their name,
such as when it’s incorporated into a novel.
The current situation is exactly as it should be. I don’t believe I should be allowed to
deliberately make up lies about companies and pass them off as the
truth, nor start selling my own brand of sneakers called “Nike.” But
if I’m writing a novel about cola marketing, why should
I have to pretend that Coke and Pepsi don’t exist? Companies have
made themselves loud, intrusive parts of society; why should artistic
depictions of the world have to scrub out any unsanctioned mention of them?
But this is exactly what companies want. They spend billions of dollars
to get their names on our lips and their logos in our eyes, but letting
us talk about them is dangerous: we might say something they don’t like.
They want what Naomi Klein calls the “one-way conversation:” to be able
to speak to us—endlessly so, through billboards and television and
radio and product placement in your movies and the back of your bus
ticket—without allowing us to speak back. Unless, that is, we’re saying
positive things about them; unless we’re “on message.” And so they
seek complete control over their names, to ban us from uttering
them unless it is to speak praise.
Companies used to be pieces of parchment. Then
they gained more rights and more protections until they had the legal
status of a person; you can now be sued for defaming them.
But that’s not enough—of course not; nothing will be enough
so long as their inbuilt goal is to endlessly expand.
So now they want to be more than a mere person. They want the kinds of
rights that have previously been reserved for the superhuman. They want
to be gods.
There are some interesting articles on H.R. 683 at
Ars Technica, and
of posting news about myself that
reported first: I’ve written an essay. Webmaster Dennis Widmyer is putting
together a great resource for writers called… uh…
Resource, and asked if I’d contribute something. So I wrote
this piece about rewriting.
If you’re a writer, you might find it interesting.
If you’re not, well… isn’t this picture of Fin cute?
I was starting to get worried: it had been almost two weeks of near-constant
praise. That’s just not natural. Fortunately, this morning a breath
of fresh air blew into my Inbox: a letter from Mike.
I have played NationStates for quite some time and, after listening to your interview on NPR this morning, my assumptions about you were proven startingly correct. I assumed that you were a pretentious snob who is an ego-aggrandizer because your book reviews are consistently negative yet you continue to produce such infantile drivel with such a delusionary sense of accomplishment and self-importance. What you fail to realize is that your “insights” are nothing more than a few whiney complaints of a mal-adjusted mal content who has failed to cut it in the real world. Your comments on NPR, which in my opinion coddles this approach to life, were nothing short of predictable.
I like how Mike’s assumptions were so accurate that even he is
startled by just how on target he was. He must have even nailed my
accent. His next sentence is a little less clear; I’m not sure how “consistently
negative” reviews would lead to me being an egomaniac. That would work
work the other way around, wouldn’t it? And I can’t back him on
“failed to cut it in the real world;” I mean, I’m not living on government
subsidies, here, Mike.
But I am impressed
that he listens to NPR even though he doesn’t like it. Put this together
with his willingness to write to authors to tell them how bad they are,
and you have a man who isn’t afraid to confront what he disagrees with
and set it straight. I appreciate that kind of directness, and I’m
sure Mike does, too.
Let me make a connection between this attitude in your book and this attitude in nationstates. You have created a game in which, much to the difficulty of many Americans (such as myself) to comprehend, the game operators such as yourself rule as their judges of themselves and of their own actions…
This goes on for a bit and after a while
even I lost track of what he was talking about. But I gather it’s his
main point, because he starts writing IN ALL CAPS and swearing. Most of my hate
mail is from NationStates players, which is something I’ve never been
able to work out: if anyone is entitled to yell at me,
surely it’s the person who shelled out twenty bucks for a book she didn’t like,
not the guy who has spent the last year playing my web game for free. But
for some reason it doesn’t work like this.
Mike closes with:
I strongly suggest that you get it together, Max. Time for a change, perhaps?
US of A
Mike! Thank you for your e-mail. It’s been so long since someone
roundly abused me for nothing in particular that I was starting to get
nostalgic. I appreciate your advice, although I am not sure
what you are recommending. But in any case, it brightened my day,
because now I feel as if a little balance has re-entered my life,
and I didn’t have to be hit by a bus to get it. Take care, Max.
I am sick. But I have a conference call to L.A. about my Syrup
screenplay so I’m up and at my keyboard, with a glass of orange juice to
my left and a bowl to hawk up phlegm into on my right. (Sorry. That line
between what other people find interesting and what they really don’t want to
know? Sometimes I have trouble tracking that.)
I open up my e-mail client and see, oddly, a lot of new mail. And most
have “New York Times” in the subject line. Some also have “congratulations”
And I don’t open any of them. I just sit there, stunned, unable to believe what a
ridiculously lucky streak I am on.
I finally give in and check Amazon.com. Company’s sales
rank has jumped to 22. If I’m reading this right, at this moment it’s
best-selling novel, behind Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code,
that damned Kite Runner, and—yes,
of course—Stephen King’s Cell.
This is so amazing I have to run into the bedroom and wake up Jen.
We make too much noise and Fin wakes up, too. I hold her while we read
New York Times review. It’s by Janet Maslin
and is jaw-droppingly good. And it actually says:
“Company” is Mr. Barry’s breakout book
If there is such a thing as balance in the Universe,
tomorrow I am going to be hit by a bus, bankrupted,
I sleep in later than I mean to and have to shower, dress, and
pack so fast that I barely have enough time to steal a hotel pen.
I’m meeting my friend Charles for breakfast, and we decide to use
the hotel restaurant.
This turns out to be a mistake, as Charles manages to order the world’s most expensive
bagel, a whopping $18 because along with the juice and coffee it
qualifies as a “continental breakfast.”
Our plan is to walk to the Museum of Natural History, but it’s such
an extraordinarily sunny day that instead we end up just chatting on a bench
in Central Park. During this time I watch a lot of parents with
prams go by, and enjoy peering at their babies until I see one with beady
little eyes and a hairy face. It’s a miniature poodle. Yes. In a pram.
That afternoon I have lunch with my impossibly cool agent, Luke, in
the kind of restaurant where ladies come to complain to each other
about their nannies. (Seriously. I hear them.) I also meet Luke’s dad,
legendary agent Mort Janklow. This is a little nerve-wracking, because
if the stories I’ve heard are true, when Mort enters the room editors
fall to the ground and cry. But he seems quite normal; friendly, even.
I guess that’s how it works: the killer is never the one you expect.
I catch a ride out to JFK where I stand in the check-in line behind
a Hasidic Jew and a blonde woman dressed as a cowgirl. I
feel as if the Universe is trying to tell me something, but I’m
too stupid to understand the message.
It’s a little over six hours in the air to L.A., then I have a couple
hours on the ground before the 16-hour flight to Melbourne. The most
interesting thing about this is that we cross the International Date
Line at around midnight, so I miss Friday entirely. When it’s my time
to die, I want that day back.
This makes it Saturday when we touch down in Melbourne. I’ve taken
no more than ten steps off the plane when I hear someone saying,
“Yeah, they’d make Riewoldt captain in a second anywhere else.” They’re
talking about Aussie Rules Football. Ahhh. It’s good to be home.
I find myself walking quickly toward the baggage carousel—not just
places-to-be quick, but drug-mule-freaking-out quick, and force
myself to slow down. Of course, I know the odds are pretty high
that (a) despite our plan, Jen and Fin might not have made it to
their airport in time, and if they have, Fin may be
(b) asleep, (c) in a bad mood, or (d) cry when she sees this smelly,
unshaven man shuffling toward her. But I can’t help being so excited about
seeing them again that I have to use the bathroom. In retrospect,
I’m a little surprised I wasn’t stopped by customs agents and
Then I stand by the baggage carousel for an hour. It’s not just me:
the whole planeload of passengers waits and waits. Crappy Australian
baggage handlers! I just know they’re outside having a smoke break
or reading their union pamphlet on workers’ rights or something equally
insignificant. Actually, bags are coming down the conveyor belt, it’s
just that there are about a thousand people waiting for them. It seems
that a lot of planes have arrived at the same time.
I am seriously considering just leaving the terminal and worrying about
how to get my bag later when finally—finally!—it appears. I collect it
and, one security check later, am permitted to pass through the sliding
doors into the main terminal. There is a huge horde of people waiting outside
and I have no idea how I’m going to find Jen and Fin among them. Then I hear, “Max!”
I turn and there they are, three-deep in the crowd: my beautiful wife Jen and
Finlay in a sling on her chest. And then the most incredible thing happens, something
I could never, ever put in a story because it is too far-fetched to be
true: despite all these people and all this noise, Fin looks directly
at me and gives me a big, gummy smile.
It’s a choice between sleep and breakfast, and I go with sleep. I’m sorry
for writing about sleep so much; it’s just that
it has become very important to me.
I have realized that if I don’t sleep, I don’t do the things I need
to on this tour well—things like talking to people. So a lot
of my time is spent considering
when I will sleep, and where, and for how long.
I’m met at my hotel by Rachel, who is my publicist at Doubleday. Rachel
has been working for months at getting me reviewed, interviewed, and hosted all
over the country: basically she organizes everything, then I just turn up and take
all the glory. She is terrific, and great company as we are driven around
Manhattan in one of those tinted-window town cars. (It’s all tinted-window
town cars here; that and cabs and stretch limos.)
I ask her why there was no Chicago stop on this tour (which people keep asking
me about), and she tells me it’s because everyone at Doubleday hates Chicago. Okay,
no, not really. It’s actually something to do with the difficulty of booking enough media
to justify the stopover. Which I think is fair enough, given the publisher is
paying for all this. But I do let her know that if I don’t get any Midwest stopovers on my
next tour, people may hurt me.
First stop is WNYC radio. I’ve done enough radio interviews on this tour to be
quite comfortable about it, but here the corridor I have to walk down to reach
the sound booth is lined with posters of various celebrities with the tag line,
“I’m a listener.” I suddenly find myself confronted with the unnerving image of Sarah Jessica
Parker reclining at home with the radio on, thinking, “Who is this Australian jerk?”
Despite that distraction, the interview goes well and then it’s off for a
round of bookstore drop-ins. These are becoming defined for me by the
big titles currently out, especially Stephen King’s Cell, which is front
and center in practically every store I’ve visited. I hope that one day some struggling
midlist writer on book tour looks at enormous piles of my books and thinks enviously,
“That damn Max Barry! His new book is everywhere.”
One of the bookstores I visit is St. Mark’s, which I realize is the
first store in which I ever saw a copy of my own book. Let me tell you, this is one of
the most magical moments of becoming a published author. I’ll never
forget seeing Syrup sitting
on the shelves, as if it was a real book. Of course, if St. Mark’s held true
to the general trend, they probably never sold that copy. It was
probably returned to the publisher and pulped. But still. Magical, I tell you.
Next is a Barnes & Noble, and it’s memory lane again because it’s across from a park
where I once played with some squirrels. I know, I know: to Americans—or, indeed, to
residents of any country where there are squirrels—they are nasty little disease bags.
But I think they’re wonderful. I love the way they spring from place to place.
I could watch that for hours. In fact, I have, and taken photos.
When I swipe my hotel card to get back into my room, it flashes red at me. I go
back to the lobby and get a new card, and, when this produces no change, get
security up to fix it. The security guy tries the card, and it flashes red… and he turns the
handle, and it opens. Oh. I just assumed that red meant no go. Because this is a nice hotel,
the security guy says carefully, “I guess it must have started working again.”
I catch a cab to my reading and realize why there is so much honking of car horns
in New York: it’s all because of this one cabbie. He drives with one hand resting
on the horn, tooting everyone, even if they’re not doing anything special. He pre-emptively
toots people he thinks might be considering something. And if someone dares to
toot back, he goes nuts, firing off loud volleys of counter-toots.
My reading is at Rocky Sullivan’s, a pub, and it’s a full room even when
I arrive. Before we start, I decide to go around and hand out the
publisher-provided donuts, and I can see some people trying to figure out
if I am really me. Some clearly assume I’m not, but rather just some wacko
handing out donuts, then get embarrassed when they find out.
It’s a very fun reading, and knowing it’s my last one makes it a little
poignant, too. I manage to read the sentence “Elizabeth’s throat thickens”
without messing up for the first time on tour. At last! It’s a little
Then, all of a sudden, it’s over. I catch the subway back to my
hotel, get a little lost, and now here I am.
as I’m looking forward to getting home, I’m also kind of sad this is over.
When I had
the idea to do this travel diary, I honestly thought I’d be writing about the completely
unglamorous job of trekking from city to city, visiting uninterested bookstores,
and hoping desperately for more than five people to turn up to a reading.
Instead it has been wildly more successful than I imagined. I can still hardly believe
how rock star the whole thing has become.
Thanks so much to everyone who turned out in L.A., Mountain View, Seattle, Portland,
and New York. You made this tour unforgettable for me.
Tomorrow I go home.