This morning Doubleday shocked the hell out of me by sending me the book cover for Company. I didn’t even know they’d started work on it, which was crafty of them. If I had, I would have been all over them, raising concerns and highlighting issues. Because I’m helpful like that. Instead: bang! Here it is.
And I like it! The majority of novel covers, in my humble opinion, blow like crazy, so I’m hugely relieved to get one that’s clean and cool and kind of intriguing. The design is by Michael Windsor, the same guy who did the Jennifer Government cover, so if you noticed a certain similarity of style, well done you.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Well, Max, that looks all right, I guess, but… I dunno, what’s the donut for?” To which I am happy to tell you: oh, you’ll find out.
I first put up this web site in early 1999, and oh, what a beauty it was. It had a picture of the Syrup cover, and little blue bubbles, and funny hand icons next to the links, and you could only get to it via “maxxbarry.com,” with the two Xs. I wish I’d kept a copy somewhere, but, alas, all that’s left is this carcass courtesy of the Internet Archive project.
I was very proud of my site, because in 1999 not everyone had one. It often received as many as 8 visitors a day, spiraling up to a heady 13 visits per day in July when Syrup was released. Thirteen! Just imagine, if 13 people visited me in person each day, I’d be exhausted. Clearly this web site thing was a good idea.
I also started getting e-mails from people who liked my book—not many e-mails, but a few—which was very exciting and made me feel famous in a way that the watching my first novel sink without a trace hadn’t. I decided that I would get more serious about the web for my second novel, Jennifer Government. In March 2002 I redesigned the site. In September I added pages for Jennifer Government and my bio, and got to work on an online game called NationStates (which in late 2002 looked like this).
Thanks to NationStates and the US publication of Jennifer Government, my web traffic took off: in January 2003 maxbarry.com received almost 50,000 visitors. But over the next year, it steadily dropped. If a new edition of Jennifer Government came out somewhere I would see a little blip, but clearly people weren’t visiting my site so much. And why should they? I didn’t post to it. It was just the same old site, week after week.
I started to worry that by the time my next book came out, nobody would remember who I was. It could be Syrup all over again: a couple of weeks on the “New Releases” shelves, then gone before anybody realized it was there. Then I would start getting e-mails from my publisher saying things like “not as well as we hoped” and I would have to crawl back to Hewlett-Packard for a real job.
I’d discovered weblogs via Wil Wheaton and thought they were a pretty cool idea. I wasn’t sure how exciting my blog would be, since my day generally goes (1) Wake up (2) Type (3) Sleep, but on the other hand I did have a lot of obnoxious opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them. Surely that was enough.
Apparently the first rule of blogging is… wow, have you ever Googled for “the first rule of blogging”? Seriously, there’s like a hundred different first rules. So I guess the real first rule is: “Everybody’s got an opinion.” Or maybe: “People post all kinds of crap on blogs and nobody checks anything so you can’t trust a damn thing they say.” But the one I had in mind when I started this paragraph was: “You must blog every day.” This sounded like a lot of work, though, so I decided I would just post whenever I thought I had something worth saying. I would create a semi-blog.
In March 2004 I rewrote the site into the sleek, attractive, standards-compliant form you see before you, and started posting to it. At first I floundered around, not really sure what to write about, but then I found my groove and discovered Newlyweds and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and I was away.
I think I get three things out of blogging. First, I get to stay in touch with people who enjoy my writing, and tell them when I have a new novel out that they must immediately purchase because my cocaine habit doesn’t pay for itself, you know. (Since I started blogging, site traffic has steadily risen and is now back to where it was when Jennifer Government was first published. Look, I even made a graph.) This is a two-way thing; via e-mail and comments, I also get to hear back from people, which is just about the best thing ever. Writing is a solitary business, and it’s continually thrilling to hear that a novel I once printed out and mailed in a box to my publisher has become a small part of someone else’s life. Without that, publishing books would feel very odd—like having a child move out of home and never hearing from him again.
Second, it’s good writing practice. The more you write, the better you get at it, and when I’m working on a novel it’s a nice break to write something different. Third, it’s like a diary: I end up with a permanent record of what was important at this time in my life. I can look back on it in ten years time, or show it to my kids. Imagine their sweet little voices: “lol omg dad u r so 1337”.
I think what I’m feeling now is relief. I’ve been editing this thing for more than a year, on top of the year it took to write. I actually had the initial idea in 2001, and took at least three stabs at initial chapters in that year and the next. It has been a very long road to here.
I’m relieved that I can think about something else for the next two or three weeks, while I wait for my editor to give me feedback. And I’m relieved at finally being done. But mostly I’m relieved that I think I finally managed to do justice to the idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for the last four years. I’ve always had a lot of faith in the central concept, but I sometimes wondered if the characters were up to the job. I tried all kinds of variations. I threw people out and auditioned alternatives. In the last draft (hello, number eight), the biggest rewrite of them all, I gave the two main characters complete personality overhauls. Brain surgery couldn’t be this messy. I had bits of people everywhere.
But ohhhh, it’s so much better now.
About a month ago Doubleday told me they were pushing Company out to 2006, since I was taking so long on the edits. I cringed. I have been trying to build up the courage to announce this since then. I’m really sorry—I wish this book could come out this year. But I’m really glad it’s not. I hate the old version of Company now. I love my new book.
How are you? I know you get fan mails all the time so I’ll keep this short. I am currently doing an undergraduate thesis paper on blogs and I was wondering if I can ask you one question: Why have you decided to use the blog format for your website?
The short answer is because I thought it was good way to keep in touch with people in the long, empty years between novels. The long answer has graphs, and I’ll write that in the blog after this one. Because you need some backstory: the fact is, I wouldn’t have even known what a blog was if it hadn’t been for that little punk Wil Wheaton.
In March 2003 I started finding odd bits in people’s e-mails, like, “By the way, congrats on the Wil Wheaton rave!” I had no idea what this meant or who Wil Wheaton was. But after I got enough of them, I decided to find out—because I’m very curious, if you prod me repeatedly. I did an internet search and discovered that Wil Wheaton had a web site, and in passing he’d said:
I just finished a great book called “Jennifer Government.” I bought it on a Saturday, and finished it by the following Tuesday. I think it’s the fastest I’ve ever read a book. It’s that good.
This was pretty great, but who was this guy? I clicked around a little more and was struck numb with horror: Wil Wheaton was my high school arch-nemesis.
(Well, one of them. I had a few. Don’t think I’ve forgotten you, Berryman!)
See, one night in the late 1980s a bunch of us teenagers went out to the movies and saw Stand By Me. It was a great movie, and I enjoyed it even though it was hard to concentrate with Jen, the girl I was lusting after, sitting so close by. We came out of the theater and started to talk about the actors in it and Jen said something like, “Ohhh, that Wil Wheaton, he’s so dreamy!”
Well, naturally enough, I was immediately struck with the urge to hunt down Mr. Wheaton and beat him into a bloody mess.
I resisted, because that was illegal and I didn’t have the plane fare to go to L.A. Instead I settled for less extreme but, alas, no more successful methods of pursuing Jen for the next few years, until one day she cracked under the unrelenting strain and agreed to marry me. Ten years of wedded bliss later (I speak for myself here), and suddenly Wil Wheaton is on the scene trying to mess things up again. I could feel my temples throb with the old rage, and hear the voices whispering, “Now he’s not such a big-shot actor, his house probably doesn’t even have that good security.”
But no! I was a grown man, now (I told myself). That stuff was ancient history. And this site of Wil’s, called a “blog,” was clearly something of a phenomenon: he would write about whatever the hell he was up to that day, and an astounding number of people would drop by to read it. It was an intriguing idea, and Wil an excellent writer; I quickly became engrossed reading about his trials and tribulations as an actor, writer, stepfather, and human being.
I wrote to Wil to thank him:
Hey, you liked my novel! And then you told hundreds of thousands of people about it. Boy do you rock. Thanks a lot.
Wil wrote right back:
Right on. :)
You rock for writing it. It’s the first novel I’ve read in years that was so compelling I only put it down to sleep and drive. Yeah I read it while I ate. Best 4 days in recent memory.
He also put my e-mail to him on his web site, which was an unexpected introduction to the custom of bloggers to make just about anything public, along with a complete fabrication about how he e-mailed me first. But this was surely just a harmless mistake, and it was quite thrilling to get a reply. “Hey, Jen!” I called. “You’ll never guess who I just got an e-mail from. It’s that guy, Wil Wheaton, who you —”
“Wil Wheaton!” Jen exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. “He’s dreamy!”
Damn you, Wil Wheaton. I’ll get you one of these days.
This is what they should do with all my radio interviews: take the small number of clear, semi-intelligent things I say, dump everything else, and mix them up with some boppy background music. Australia’s SBS radio has condensed 40 minutes of me rambling on about Jennifer Government, corporations, and culture into a quick, breezy audio piece you can download from their website (or here).
My least favorite part is when I read from the book. I’m really bad at that. I should hire that guy who does the audio version to come around with me; I could stand there and nod approvingly while he reads. That would be cool.