I think I must look like I’m smiling when I’m actually in a lot of pain. Like
today, in the middle of a 15km (9.4mi) run, I’m barely
keeping it together, so my face is a rictus of agony, my
lips pulled back from my teeth in a skull-like grimace,
and people running in the other direction are all, “Hi!”
and big smiles and eyebrow jiggles. This has been going on for a while.
At first I just assumed runners were naturally friendly. But there’s
some surprise in their reactions, so I think I must be grinning at them.
They are definitely not picking up my real feeling, i.e. that I am
moments away from death. If they were, they’d look a lot
My Dad would have turned 70 today. He was some kind of runner.
I only began running after he died, so I never appreciated this.
Now I realize his 2:45 marathons are practically superhuman.
I can maintain that pace for approximately 10 minutes, and that’s
I’m working on too many books again. Sorry about that. It’s
a fast way to finish none of them. In the meantime, though, I
am drowning in foreign editions. I love getting foreign editions.
I could never throw one away. So I have shelves of
Portuguese Jennifer Governments and French
Syrups. And now a Chinese Machine Man!
This novel gets the most interesting covers:
The new Lexicon paperback is still selling well, which is great but
doesn’t quite free me from the constant terror of thinking my
career could end at any minute. I’ve thought about the reasons
behind this feeling, because it’s been there essentially the entire
time, and have concluded it’s because when you’re an
author, your career really could end at any minute. Each year it
doesn’t is like a little miracle. I visit my Dad’s cemetery on his birthday,
just to say hello and talk about the last year, so that’s what I’m
going to tell him today: when I run, it looks like I’m smiling, and
holy hell he was fast, and this last year, it has been another miracle.
Her mother drops her at five and tells me what she likes to eat now. There are times I look at this woman and feel an echo of affection. But not today. She won’t eat peas any more, apparently. I am to encourage her to eat peas.
And she’s had nightmares, says her mother. Two.
Bad dreams. It’s common at this age.
Dreams about what?
Fish, she says. Don’t make a big deal out of it.
I say, How would I make a big deal out of it?
We talk it out, old wrongs flipping and snapping below the surface, and she turns and walks to the car. Then, at last, I have the girl to myself.
There is a puzzle in her overnight bag that she wants to show me. We solve and scramble it four times. Then she says she wants to go to the beach.
Maybe next visit, I say. We can’t go to the beach now.
Because it’s late.
Can we go to the beach tomorrow?
Tomorrow I have to drive you back to your mother’s.
Oh, she says.
Next time, maybe you can stay longer. Then we’ll go to the beach. Today, we can do puzzles. And read books. Maybe do some drawing.
She’s disappointed. I don’t blame her. This apartment, it is no beach.
I tuck her into bed and kiss her forehead and she sits up and says, Do you look after me when I’m asleep?
Yes. I look after you all the time.
She frowns. I’m not getting it. I mean, do you look after me in my dreams?
I even look after you in your dreams.
This satisfies her. She snuggles down, throws an arm over Elephant, her faithful companion.
Good night, Daddy.
Good night, bunny.
I wash the dishes, looking out the window at the alley below. The apartment is eight floors up. If you fell, you’d die. Tonight, three men are down there, exchanging a brown-bagged bottle. One shoves the other. The bottle smashes. Profanities are exchanged. I hope she’s asleep, can’t hear this.
I go to bed reluctantly. It’s different with her here. Sleeping feels like a waste. But I need to be rested for the morning.
I rarely dream any more, but this night I do: I dream we’re on a train. She’s sitting opposite, legs tucked beneath her, wearing her favorite top, one with a cat. I look outside and realize we’re going to the beach.
When the train stops, we walk to the shore and build sandcastles. I suggest we stomp them, but she doesn’t want them ruined. We walk along the water and inspect washed-up jellyfish. Her arms and legs are thin as sticks, and I remember how fragile she is, how she needs protection.
A shark comes. Not a real shark, a toy, inflatable, big and floppy, full of plastic teeth. But still a fish, I think, the stuff of nightmares, and I try to pull her away. The shark snaps and wobbles across the sand and begins to gulp her down, until all I can see of her is her feet.
I knock my elbow on my bedside table. I’m cold and wet. She’s standing beside the bed and I sit up, disoriented. Hey, bunny. Hey.
You were shouting.
I’m sorry. I had a bad dream.
I have bad dreams sometimes.
I didn’t have one tonight, though.
Maybe I took it.
She smiles, a big one that lights up her face. Thank you, Daddy.
Can you sleep in here tonight? I ask her. Do you think?
She climbs in without answering. I feel the bed shift with her tiny weight. She snuggles up beside me, this girl who’s keeping me safe.
I’m trying this thing where I wake up very early, like 5am, or,
not quite on purpose, 3:43am this morning, make a coffee,
and head straight to work. It’s a good feeling, being up and
productive that early, once I’ve stopped feeling like I need
to throw up. It’s a quiet, distraction-free time; just me,
my words, and my pounding Scott & Brendo tunes.
The only downside is that after lunch my
brain doesn’t work at all. But I use that time for non-creative
work like email and writing blogs, so that doesn’t
matter so much.
This year is all downhill for me. It has to be, because
in 2013 I had a new book come out that was almost universally unhated,
plus a real film based on my first novel.
I practically feel like retiring after that.
Like maybe I could go make snowboards. I don’t know anything
about snowboards. I don’t know much about snow, either. I’m
in Australia. But I’m sure there’s a craft there, hiking out
to find just the right tree, cutting it down, then, like, sandpapering
it into the right shape or something. Actually, now that’s sounding
like a lot of work. Forget that. I don’t even like snowboards.
My point is that 2013 was a big year.
Lexicon gets a paperback release in… holy hell.
Four days!? How did that happen? Last I checked it was coming out at the end of May.
Okay. So I just discovered the UK publisher moved up their Lexicon
paperback release date, so it was ahead of the US, then the US publisher
was like, THE HELL, and moved up theirs
by two months. They did actually tell me they were doing that.
I just skimmed over the “by two months” part.
So I should have been a lot more active on social media lately.
Anyway: Lexicon comes out in beautiful paperback on April 1 in the
US & Canada, and April 10 in the UK, Australia, New Zealand,
and South Africa.
And it has my favorite cover ever!
See, the eye is made from little words. I like it because it
looks like a sci-fi movie poster, plus
people are saying I’m awesome on it. Those are two big ticks.
Also it’s reminiscent of Jennifer Government,
which was super-stylish.
Lexicon made some “Best” lists over the last few months,
which I’m required to mention. I don’t like doing this. But you’re a busy
person; you might not have noticed. And I need to make a living.
So here are some of them:
- Time Magazine Top 10 Fiction Books 2013
- Kirkus Best Fiction of 2013
- Chicago Tribune Page-Turner of the Year
- NPR Best Books of 2013
- Goodreads Best Books of 2013
- 2014 Alex Award Winner
- iBookstore Best of 2013
- Amazon.co.uk Best Books of the Year
- Aurealis Award Finalist
The Aurealis one makes me especially happy because that’s the first
magazine to which I ever seriously submitted fiction. I only sent them
that one piece and was outraged by their rejection, despite it being
totally deserved, because I was 24 and the story wasn’t that good. But I vowed revenge,
i.e. becoming skilled enough at writing to get a story
accepted by Aurealis. Then I got more into novels and kind of forgot
about it. But look! I still have my
Aurealis rejection letter from 1997:
And I still have the story! As Aurealis noted, it is very short,
so you can read it in about one minute. It was never published anywhere,
for reasons that may become obvious.
Read: “When the Aliens Came” by Max Barry (PDF)
The brevity might be a selling-point in these days of Twitter novels
and flash fiction. But 1997 was a different time, a slower time, when people
expected their stories to last longer than a cup of coffee.
Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about publishing more short fiction on
this blog. I’m not saying it will happen. Because it’s easier to think about than do.
But it’s an idea.
I’m not sure if it’s like this for other writers, but I have
trouble writing something new while I still like my last book. It
hangs over me. It makes me feel like I should write that kind of thing again.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. But imitating something you
think is awesome doesn’t work. It’s much better to imitate something
something you think is flawed. Flawed, you’re all, “I loved THIS PART
but it would have been SO much better if THIS.” Then you make
something new and interesting. Aping something you admire, though,
you only get a photocopy.
Some people who discover me via Lexicon ask which of my books
they should read next, and I’m never sure how to answer, because
I think they all suck. I had to reach that belief in order to write the next
one. A lot of what I do relies on delusion; I also have to convince
myself that the new book is THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD, because how
else would it make sense to spend a year or two on it. Despise the old,
adore the new: I’m sure it’s the same in any relationship.
Lexicon has been doing well, which created a problem I hadn’t
really faced before. Usually, when a book comes out, I’m deep into the
early exploratory phase of the next one, and I take some time out to return
to that little lost world and talk about it on radio or bookstores or
whatever. And it’s always slightly fraudulent, because I’m also thinking,
this book kind of sucked, you should see what I’m working on now. Again,
this is more about delusion than truth. I have to believe that in order
Now, promotion is good fun; people generally say nice things and make you feel
like all the work was totally worth it. They even start to convince you,
you know what, this book didn’t suck that much. It was kind of great.
You used to love it, remember? Then before you know it, you’re flipping
the pages, thinking, This was good. Why did I ever leave?
So the thing with Lexicon is this phase has lasted much longer
than usual. It’s maybe not all about the book; it’s maybe social media,
too, bringing everyone so close you even can hear their thoughts. And it’s wonderful, of course, everything
you dream of when you’re lost in a third draft, trying to stitch plots
But after a while I started to feel like I was cheating on the new book. It’s one thing
to stay friends with your ex. It’s another to still think about them,
talk about them, and open their covers and run your fingers down their
Anyway, this is why I haven’t been on Twitter et al lately. I’ll be back;
it’s all good. This book I’m seeing now, wow. We just needed some time.
That row of numbers on a book’s copyright page is
and tells you whether you’re holding a first edition or fourth or what.
First editions look like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
… and each time the publisher goes back to the presses for
a reprinting, they delete a number. So this:
5 6 7 8 9 10
… is a fifth printing of that edition.
This isn’t really a secret. I just thought that was a funny blog title. But reprintings are great, because they mean the book sold more than
the publisher’s worst fears. It’s a constant source of joy
to me that while the Syrup hardcover was
such a commercial disaster that you can more easily find
copies than real ones, the paperback keeps getting
reprinted, fourteen years on. Last month, I flipped to a Syrup
copyright page and saw this:
I don’t care if they are running off eight books at a time; that’s
awesome. It’s so sad when a book goes out of print. It’s like a little
death. I hope e-books will save authors from those.
Also, Syrup just got itself a movie tie-in edition!
As a reader, I’ve always disdained movie tie-in editions. I’m all,
“If I wanted to see the movie, I would, like, see it.”
But as an
author, it makes me stupidly happy. I mean, movie tie-in edition.
Who wouldn’t want one of those. And I’ve never really loved the existing
Syrup covers. I don’t hate them. But I don’t love them.
The US paperback
in particular looks to me like an ironic comment on
marketing, only without the ironic part.
Plus, these will make excellent gifts for people who have no intention of
reading the book but will be impressed by the fact that it’s a movie.
You know what I discovered on book tour: AMERICA HAS GONE TO THE
FUTURE. I was there two years ago but in the meantime America advanced
about a decade. Now you use your phone to carry boarding passes and movie
tickets. When you need a ride somewhere, you summon cars with an app. I tried to buy a
sandwich in New York and the store didn’t take cash. DIDN’T TAKE CASH.
I met two people who don’t carry wallets any more, just credit cards. In two more
years, I guess, they will just carry phones.
Now I’m home in Melbourne, Australia, I’m all, “Ugghhh, stores that only take
cash, how 2011.” I just bought some sushi and it seemed really stupid, handing
over a twenty and trusting the cashier to remember and figure out the right change.
That process is fraught with potential errors. If we didn’t already do it like that,
and somebody invented it, it would seem like a terrible idea.
Besides marveling at technological process, I was in the States to read and sign
books. During my New York event, a person asked, “What’s the worst thing
about being an author?” At first, I was overwhelmed by things to bitch about, like,
just that morning, I had really felt like some wheat-based cereal, but my fancy hotel
restaurant only did Granola. This is the kind of rough justice I’m expected to
put up with on book tour.
But beyond that, there was the whole thing about having a career that occasionally seems
like it’s about to dissolve into nothingness, which is sporadically terrifying,
and sometimes I write things nobody likes, which is disappointing, and working on
the same idea for years at a time can be challenging, too.
I didn’t catalog these pains, though, because they were hard to justify in the face of
a room full of people who had all come out to see me and buy my books so I
could keep writing stories for a living. That is just plain awesome. I think I’m getting more appreciative
in my old age, by which I mean less deluded about how rare and special this is,
getting to write books and have them published and people liking them. Thank you
so much to everyone who reads my stuff, and comes to see me, and tells other people
my books exist.
Speaking of which! I don’t know how you politely slip into conversation that you’ve
received a crapload of positive reviews, but CHECK THIS OUT:
a crapload of positive Lexicon reviews!
You have to admit, that’s a lot. Even I feel like buying a copy after reading that.
If you have bought a copy, and now you have questions, you might want to
@Penguinusa Twitter Book Club
and tweet questions at
me. The first session is Tuesday 7pm EST (US).
Another thing I’m doing is fielding outrage from librarians.
At the end of Lexicon are
Acknowledgments, which contain this:
And, hey. You. Thanks for being the kind of person who likes to pick up a book. That’s a genuinely
great thing. I met a librarian recently who said she doesn’t read because books are her job, and when
she goes home, she just wants to switch off. I think we can agree that that’s as creepy as hell. Thank you
for seeking out stories, the kind that take place in your brain.
This sparked some amount of LIBRARIAN RAGE, expressed via email
and Twitter. In retrospect, I should have seen coming, because I am
married to a librarian and know how they work. See, librarians come
in two flavors: Kick-Ass Librarians and Mundane Librarians. Kick-Ass Librarians love books with
a deep and fiery passion, and have firm opinions about censorship, and
will cross burning coals and defeat ravenous lions in order to deliver
an age-appropriate book into the hands of a willing reader. Mundane Librarians—of
which there are very few, compared to Kick-Ass Librarians—just do the job.
To them, books are rectangular things that need to be scanned and filed.
When I say it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad. But to Kick-Ass Librarians, a Mundane
is a new mother in a Birthing Ward who says, “Yeah, I just had a baby. He’s
around here somewhere.” It tears at the insides of Kick-Ass Librarians that
these people are entrusted with the care of books (and readers!). And it
burns them up to think that people believe all librarians are like that: Mundane.
So I am sorry for not being clearer about that, Kick-Ass Librarians.
Finally! Are you Australian? Do you want to win a copy of Lexicon?
Do you sometimes lie awake, regretting things you did in high school? If
you answered YES to at least two of these questions, and they were the
first two, post a comment
here on maxbarry.com
and/or arguing the merits of your case! The Australian publisher is kindly
letting me give away five copies. Entries close Friday 5pm!
Also! I just saw a minute ago that Syrup is opening in Canada this weekend in
Toronto and Calgary! That is literally all I know. I know this seems like
an incredibly stealthy way to release a movie, not telling anyone where
it’s playing, but that’s because you don’t understand marketing, and apparently neither do I.
OH WAIT I just sleuthed out some
info: Friday in Toronto at Carlton Cinemas. You can even
And that reminds me! Sorry, I have to mention this, too.
While I was in the US, I managed to collect two movie souvenirs.
One is a can of Fukk, which by rights belongs to Mat Coad, because he
won a competition to design a Fukk can
on this site six years ago. The other is the book “Lipstick Lesbians…
And Why Men LOVE Them! (A Girl’s Guide to Giving Straight Guys a Hard Time),”
which Scat discovers in 6’s apartment:
As it turns out, the designer of this prop, whose name I’m going to put
here as soon as I discover it, not only did an amazing job creating this
work of art, but also embedded jokes on the rear side:
Front Cover •
Which I just think is awesome.
Also, apparently he used The Scarlett Pimpernel as a template.