Thu 22

Light My Fire

Max Finlay menaced by giant rabbitIt’s happened! I knew it was coming—the data made that clear—but still, it’s thrilling. Yes, for the first time, more people are visiting my site with Firefox than Internet Explorer.

Two years ago almost nine out of ten visitors were riding Internet Explorer. One year ago it was down to 64%, with Firefox roaring up the charts. Now Firefox sits on top with 46%, smacking Internet Explorer down to second with 42%.

Okay, it’s a little sad, but I really do find this exciting. I’ve grown into a total geek fanboy since I converted to Linux: once I saw a couple of GNOME developers blogging about Jennifer Government and got all giggly. Tell you what, if open source software coders did tours, I’d be in the front row trying to persuade them to sign a bunch of CDs.

In other news, it’s almost Christmas and I live in Australia, so you know what that means: it’s time for me to go somewhere sunny and do nothing for a couple of weeks. I’m going to Perth to show off my baby girl to Jen’s relatives, so until January, I wish you all the best. (After that, I may be more vindictive.)

And in closing, I have included the photo of Finlay being menaced by a giant rabbit because it amuses me.

Mon 12

Tales of Corporate Oppression

Company While researching Company—I mean, while doing unrelated things in the hope that something would happen that I could use in the book—I heard lots of corporate horror stories. Some funny, some terrifying, most in the same theme: it’s amazing just how clear a company can make it that you’re completely unimportant.

Some of these stories went into my novel, but there are so many others that I’ve created a new web site to capture them: Tales of Corporate Oppression. I want it to become a repository for the best, funniest, and most appalling stories of everyday workplace inhumanity out there.

This is where you come in. If you’ve got a tale, help me get started: jump on in and submit your story. If you don’t, you can still read other people’s tales and vote for them.

In other news, I’ve updated the Company section of this site to include a description of what (more or less) the novel is about. It’s relatively spoiler-free, so should be safe reading… but if you’re one of those people who doesn’t want to know anything at all about it, I applaud you. Assuming you’re motivated by a desire to preserve the mystery, that is, and not because you have no intention of ever reading it. If it’s the latter, I’m not so impressed.

Thu 08

Win! Company! Merchandise!

Company Zephyr HoldingsDoubleday has made up some Company coffee cups and Mission Statement posters and I’m allowed to give five away. This is fantastic, because usually this stuff goes to uninterested magazine editors already drowning in book-related collateral, and not to fans, who would stab their own mothers for it.

It’s like this: Company is set within a fictional corporation named Zephyr Holdings, and Doubleday’s cups and Mission Statements have Zephyr logos on them. There’s no mention of me or the novel, which seems a little odd for promotional merchandise, but then it does make them even more cool and obscure.

If you’d like to win a coffee cup and Mission Statement poster, all you need to do is get yourself on my mailing list. You can uncheck the relevant boxes so you don’t get my blogs by e-mail, if you want: the important thing is that you be on that list, and have followed the instructions to validate your email address. Don’t join multiple times, or I’ll disqualify you.

On Monday January 9th, 2006, I’ll randomly select five people from the mailing list and e-mail them. If I don’t get a reply or at least a vacation autoreply within a few days, I’ll draw somebody else.

Thanks to Doubleday for making this possible! It’s very cool of them.

(Note: I know from experience that a bunch of you are going to write in saying how much you’d love a Company coffee cup and you once had a Snoopy coffee cup but it got broken and through some process I can’t quite follow only a Company cup will make your life whole again so can I please just slip you one on the side. But I’m sorry, I can’t: I only have five to give away.)

Update: To clarify, yes, naturally everyone already on the list is automatically eligible.

Mon 05

I Was a Teenage Lawn Mower

Max I grew up in Stratford, a tiny town in Gippsland, Victoria, where there are ten cows for every human being. Stratford is known primarily for being just ten miles away from Sale, and Sale is known primarily for its maximum-security prison, so that was my youth: trudging ten miles to school every morning while watching carefully in case murderers were lurking behind cows, waiting to leap out and grab me.

I mention this because I was recently reminded of my lawnmower experience. In fact, every time I see my mother or stepfather, I get reminded of my lawnmower experience, because somehow a couple of tiny incidents in my teenage years have bloomed into legend. I am most unfairly portrayed in this legend, so I’m setting the record straight here, where members of my family are unable to respond.

Despite owning more acres of grass than Bob Marley, we didn’t have a ride-on mower. We had a push mower, one so ancient and temperamental that it wouldn’t start with less than ten minutes of gentle caresses and ego-stroking. Or, when that failed, judicious application of a hammer. I frequently complained about this, but my parents just thought I was whining. Which, clearly, I was. But with excellent reason.

One time when I was about 16, I just could not start the thing. I’d tried whispering sweet nothings, touching its most intimate places, the hammer—all the seduction techniques popular in Gippsland—but couldn’t get a response. Finally, exhausted, I went inside to declare the impossibility of completing my assigned lawn-mowing duties. But rather than being sympathetically consoled as you might expect, my mother responded: “I don’t care! I don’t want to hear about it, Max, just mow the lawn!”

Already, I’m sure you’ll agree, there was enough unfairness here to keep a regular teenager moping for days. But being a dutiful son, I pondered upon my dilemma until I came up with an ingenious solution: I got out a pair of hedge clippers and began to slowly move across the vast expanse of our lawn, cutting approximately three blades of grass per snip. My mother saw this out the window, but—inexplicably—rather than marveling at what a plucky, dedicated lad she was raising, she interpreted the scene as some kind of surly teenage rebellion and yelled at me to go borrow the neighbor’s mower, if I couldn’t get ours started.

I was a little hurt at having my clever hedge-clipper idea rejected, but, being always happy to help, was willing to give this mower-borrowing idea a run. And run I did, because by now it was almost dark. I had to race over the neighbors—if I remember right, this was several miles away, around several cows and an escaped serial murderer—then race back and sprint around our lawn with the mower while the darkness closed in.

By now you, like me, no doubt have tears in your eyes at my incredible courage and determination. But somehow my family don’t see it that way: oh no, to them, me running around in the dark with the neighbor’s mower is a classic example of how I would do anything to get out of mowing lawns.

I guess what they say is true: you never understand your family. But I know this: as soon as I moved away to college, they bought a ride-on mower.

Thu 24

Story ARCs

Company A few months before a book is published, Advanced Reader Copies, otherwise known as ARCs, start floating around. These are slightly shabby-looking versions of the final book, mailed out to people in the media so they can get a review into print by the time the book goes on sale.

ARCs have “NOT FOR SALE” printed on them, but of course there is a bustling mini-market, fed by critics who don’t particularly want to hang on to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of books. So the ARCs find there way onto ebay* or into second-hand bookstores. If you’re dying to get your hands on a particular novel, these ARCs can look very tempting. But should you buy one, or hold out? Let Uncle Max be your guide.

Neither the author nor the publisher sees any money from sales of ARCs. This may not bother you, and I sure don’t consider it a hanging crime—if publishers didn’t think ARCs were a net generator of sales, they wouldn’t produce them, right?—but you should be aware of it. I know a few readers who shelled out big bucks for ARCs thinking some of that money was going to end up with me. In fact, it doesn’t even count as a sale. Your cash goes only to the retailer and the critic who originally bounced it along.

(I have to admit, there is something annoying about the idea that a critic might get a free copy of my book, write a crap review of it, and then—because they don’t like it, you see—sell it on ebay to someone who otherwise would have bought a real copy. That’s like gouging my eyes and then kicking me in the nuts.)

The other issue with ARCs is that they’re advanced—that is, they’re printed before the final round of edits. In the case of Company, you get 99.5% of the story, but you also get a sprinkling of typos and clumsy sentences I only fixed at the last minute. I made around 50 minor changes in final edits, and while you’d struggle to spot most of them, I made those changes for a reason. A few are reasonably significant; I also inserted a new joke that, while perhaps not a world-beater, amuses me.

Then there’s looks: the ARC has low-grade artwork that I did on my word processor, while the real thing features slick stuff from Doubleday’s art department. The ARC is also missing that jacket copy I sweated over, and is a somewhat fragile paperback, having not been designed for long-term use.

This shouldn’t prevent you from buying an ARC, if that’s what you want. They make good collectors’ items, since, relatively speaking, there are so few of them. (Even I don’t have a Syrup ARC any more.) But if you’re after the story, I think you should wait for the real thing. Don’t pay ten or twenty or (dear God) thirty bucks for an ARC. For that kind of money, you shouldn’t settle for a draft.

* (Some sellers on ebay don’t make it clear that they’re selling ARCs. There are two right now that make no mention of this at all. But they are, because the real things haven’t been printed yet.)

Fri 18

More International Jens

Jennifer Government Horrific Swedish cover for Jennifer GovernmentMy local delivery guy is very impressed with my parcels. When he comes to deliver a box, he says, “It’s from New York,” his eyes filled with awe, as if New York is a magical, mythical place, floating above the rest of the world on the back of a giant turtle and inhabited by knights and princesses, none of whom send packages. And this guy is an international courier. He must be exhausted when he gets home at nights, after reading all those thrilling exotic addresses.

But my latest box was exciting, because it had some foreign editions of Jennifer Government fresh off the presses from Spain and Brazil. The Spanish one was especially cool, because I didn’t know it was being published there. But, unless this is some kind of elaborate hoax, I guess it is.

Foreign editions usually come as a surprise to me, because the chain of people required to pass along the news is longer than two, which I’ve worked out tends to be the practical limit. For example, I discovered that there’s a truly amazing Swedish edition courtesy of site member Kalle, who posted the details in the comments here. Kalle was even better than my publisher would have been, supplying a translation of the blurb:

Jennifer Staten is a hard and breathtakingly funny thriller. The government agent Jennifer is struggling against baby-sitter problems in the same time as she has too save the world from aggressive marketing methods like torture, mass murder and strategic nukes… A satire from the wonderful world of the big companies, not too unlike from our own…

The 32-year old bestseller author Max Barry is probably the worst that has happened to the big companies since Michael Moore.

He is definitely the best that has happened too SF-satire since George Orwell.

They say “definitely,” so you know it’s true. Unlike the references to torture and strategic nukes, which I’m pretty sure aren’t in any book I ever wrote. That’s a pretty interesting way to entice readers: advertise parts of it that don’t exist. I don’t know if that’s a sound way to build repeat readers. I’m also curious about their apparent targeting of people who are smart enough to know George Orwell, but gullible enough to believe I’m the best writer in 50 years. And as for that cover… well, at least that would seem to guarantee that very few people will be getting to the end of Jennifer Staten only to wonder, “Hey, where were the tactical nukes?”

I also found out about a forthcoming Chinese version from the translator, a guy called Wayne Fan. I (eventually) wrote back to thank him for letting me know, and then, because I couldn’t resist, said:

I’ve always wanted my books to be translated by a Fan. (Boom boom.)

Wayne wrote back:

Thought you are too busy to return my Fan mails.

Nice. Should be a good edition, then.

Thu 10

US Tour 2006

Company Doubleday has nailed down my Company US book tour, so if you’re interested in listening to me orally mangle my novel and write amusing things on your copy, you’re in luck! Providing, of course, you live in one of a very small number of cities:

[ Tour Details Here ]

If you can’t make it, here’s the one-line summary: I’m taller and more Australian than you expect.

Sat 29

The Block


I’d love to be a published author, but I never seem to finish any of my stories. I write about 20-60 pages and then just kinda let the story die, and it is not for lack of trying…I really would love to finish a story, but I feel my life gets in the way. Where do you get the energy, drive, and determination to write a full length novel?

I avoid handing out writing advice on this site, because it’s hard to do without sounding like the world’s biggest blowhard. But I get this question so often that I’m going to blow anyway. (Forgive me.)

Disclaimer: I don’t think there’s any advice that’s going to work for all writers. Everyone does this thing differently; you need to find what works for you. Don’t devoutly follow any rule about writing… except this one. And the one about always relocating a few copies of my book to the front displays any time you’re in a bookstore. Yeah. Just those two.

I guess the first thing to realize if you’re stuck a few chapters into a novel is that this happens a lot. It doesn’t mean you’re untalented or undisciplined or not cut out to be a writer. I started a novel in high school that I thought was brilliant in Chapter 1, okay by Chapter 4, and after that didn’t want to think about. It died a slow, lingering death on my hard drive, but because I knew it was there, waiting for me, I didn’t want to write at all. It was a couple more years before I resolved to leave it behind and start something new: that one clicked for me in a way the other never had, and I finished it.

So the important thing is not to let this one problem derail you from writing. Maybe you can fix this story and maybe you can’t; either way, you have to keep writing.

I think there are three reasons you can lose enthusiasm for a novel. Let’s start with the ugly one: it was a weak idea to begin with. Maybe your premise isn’t well-suited to a novel; maybe it’s better as a short story or screenplay. Maybe it needs another key idea or two to fill out the concept. Or maybe you just thought this was going to be better than it turned out. In any of these cases, it often won’t help to blindly forge ahead and hope everything gets better. So let the novel sit for a while. Start writing something else. It doesn’t matter what. You might end up coming back to this novel with new ideas and a ton of motivation, but if you don’t, let it be because you’ve moved on to something better.

The second possibility is that your story has good fundamentals but you took a wrong turn. This can happen any time, but is more unsettling at the start because you have less confidence. A trick I use when suddenly I go from powering along to a dead halt is to delete the last sentence. Even if I think there’s nothing wrong with it: backspace backspace backspace. For some reason, this almost always immediately presents me with an idea for a new way forward. Sometimes I have to delete a paragraph or two, or (very rarely) even a whole chapter. I don’t know why the physical act of cutting part of the story away helps—I should be smart enough to work this out by just thinking about it, shouldn’t I? But apparently I’m not, and it does.

(I don’t plan my novels out in advance. If you do, this technique is less likely to help you. I hate planning novels; I think they’re much more fun to write when they evolve on their own. I tried planning a novel once and it was dull, dull, dull. (No, it wasn’t one of my published ones. Shut up, you.))

The third possibility is you’re being too hard on yourself. For a lot of writers, getting critical too early—and “too early” here probably means “before you’ve finished the first draft”, or at least 30,000 words—is a quick and effective way to kill your motivation. I’m lucky on this score, because I am blessed with a kind of split author personality: I have the writer guy and the editor. The writer guy is totally deluded about his own ability: he thinks everything he writes is breathtakingly brilliant. Which is very handy, because when I think I’m working on God’s gift to the 21st Century, it’s easy to stay motivated. But unless I snap out of that at some point, all I have is a first draft, and that’s not nearly good enough. This is when my editor personality comes in. He thinks everything I write is the purest horse crap. He can’t believe that I would consider inflicting such a grotesque parody of literature on live human beings. So he makes me rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite.

Getting those roles mixed up is a disaster. You don’t want a dose of cold, hard reality while you’re writing. No, no: delusion is your friend. Embrace the delusion. Save the critical analysis for later.

Okay. Enough blowing. Hope this helps someone.

Sun 16

They Want You

What Max Reckons Random Ad WomanHere’s something to try: spend the next day actually noticing every ad that features a photo of someone looking at you. Magazine ads, bus station posters, billboards: all these. Now think about what kind of situation you’d have to be in for this person to be looking at you like that in real life.

If where you live is anything like where I live, you’ll find that for a very high number of these, the situation would have to be one of:

  1. They want to have sex with you
  2. You just told them the funniest joke in the world ever
  3. You just told them the funniest joke in the world ever and now they want to have sex with you

This is an entertaining exercise not just because it’s amusing to think about Kate Moss wanting your body, but also because it reminds you how far the arms race between advertising agencies and your brain’s perceptual filters has advanced. The more ads there are, and the more they try to get our attention, the better we get at not noticing them, so marketers have to continually up the ante. Apparently we’re now in a state where most ads are full of people looking at us in a way that would heat us up down to our toes if it happened in real life, and we don’t think anything of it.

Sat 08

Now for an elephant stamp

Company (Wow, she’s an effective little time sucker. Sometime soon I am going to have to get my life back.)

First reviews! Two are in for Company ahead of the January ‘06 release, and they’re pretty great. Kirkus Reviews gives me a starred review, which means they think the novel is “of unusual merit,” which I’m assuming is a good thing. They didn’t star up Syrup or Jennifer Government, so this is my first one, and, clearly, a sign that certain dunderheads in the editorial department have been fired. Kirkus says:

A raucous black comedy… enters some sublimely Kafkaesque territory

while Publisher’s Weekly says:

As bitter as break-room coffee, the novel eviscerates modern management techniques

I always wanted to eviscerate something. But, perhaps oddly, even more important to me than these is an e-mail I got from a long-time reader who somehow managed to get his hands on an advanced copy. Jason says:

Just wanted to drop you a line and say that I just finished reading Company. I gotta say that at first, I was afraid you’d lost it. The spark that was there in Syrup and Jennifer Government wasn’t there for me, but then, out of nowhere, you did it again. I read the book over three days (only because I had to sleep at some point). You were right, the plot isn’t there from the beginning, and I think that’s what got me at the beginning. In the other two, there was a hook, in this one, if you wanted to know it you have to wait. Anyway, bravo. I loved it.

It means a lot to me that I delivered for this guy. Reviews are important, and will do a lot to determine what sort of career I have, but they’re written by people who read me as part of their job. The people I want to impress are the ones who found me on their own, and saw a connection. When someone thinks, “I liked his last book, I’ll hope this new one is good” and shells out their hard-earned, I fervently want that person to be thrilled.

Fri 09

Who’s Your Daddy?

Max Ooh baby!Oh, I have got it bad.

I think she’s cute when she’s screaming in my ear. I think her poos are cute. I love her to death even when I’m getting out of bed for the fourth time that night.

Yes, I think I’m about done as a contributing member of society. It’s all about obsessing over my kids now.

Here’s what has surprised me so far about being a parent:

  • The amount of time I spend staring at her butt. I mean, not just from a distance. Up close and personal. Usually wiping things off it. And I realize that my parents must have spent plenty of time staring at my butt. That’s a little disconcerting.
  • When I’m carrying her down the street, I expect everyone I pass to drop to their knees and cry, “Dear God, that’s the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen! Please, tell me how I can join the religion that you must be founding to worship her!” If they don’t, I get a little miffed.
  • I’m suddenly saying things like, “No, I got a good sleep last night, six hours all up.” Previously, six hours sleep would have left me with barely enough energy to drool. Now I’m functional on four.
  • How fast I got used to being called “Daddy.” I knew it was coming, of course, but it felt completely weird. And then suddenly it didn’t.
  • Her smell. Why are companies not duplicating this and selling it as perfume or air freshener or something? It’s the most incredible thing.
  • The amazing frequency with which she waits until the split-second when there’s no bib/nappy/diaper and then spits up/poos/wees/all of the above. I mean, come on. This is way past coincidence. It has to be some kind of baby in-joke.
  • How scared I am that something might happen to her. Before she was born, I saw ads for products like the electronic monitoring sheet you put under baby’s mattress to sound an alarm if she seems to stop breathing, and thought they were just nasty attempts to turn parental fears into cash. I still think that, but now I also think I might buy their products.
  • How few photos I have of her when she’s awake. Because when she’s awake, I’m doing something with her. So I have about a hundred photos and they’re all of her sleeping.

Thanks so much for all your congratulations. I love being able to share this. More photos to come! I’ll even try to get some with her eyes open.

Update: Added one of my favorite pics. And I thought of two more things:

  • She didn’t look familiar. For some reason, I expected her to look like someone I already knew… I guess because by the time she was born I’d spent so much time talking to Jen’s belly and imagining what she’d be like, I felt I did know her. Instead she just looked like a totally real but completely unfamiliar baby.
  • How strong she is! If I had that kind of strength-to-body-weight ratio, I’d be out solving crimes in a leotard.

Tue 30

A Brand New Girl

Max Finlay BarryBack from the hospital for a few minutes to do some vital jobs, like announce that I am (at last) Daddy to a heartbreakingly beautiful baby girl, Finlay Jo Barry.

Here are her vital statistics: she is 3.36kg (7lb 7oz), was born at 9:19AM on August 27th, has the sweetest, most intoxicating smell ever, and likes it when you stroke her hair.

I am, genuinely, the luckiest guy in the world. I get to go back to her now.

Wed 24

Retrospective #6: Reviewing the Future

Max BabyWatch 2005: Still nothing! It’s incredible. It’s like waiting for a toaster to pop. Of course, the second I stop staring at Jen’s belly, she’ll have the kid.

Of blurbs and blogs: You’re right. You’re right! I shouldn’t give away Company’s first plot twist on the back of the book. I’ve written a new blurb that doesn’t, and I think it’s a big improvement. If it gets through the publisher, I’ll post it here. Thanks for the feedback. I think this is the first time I’ve altered a book based on what you guys told me. So it’s an occasion! Soon I’ll be putting up polls to choose between plots, and then it’s a short stop to accepting anonymous contributions and stapling them together while I sip margaritas on the deck of a Pacific cruise ship.

Syrup: I finished my Syrup screenplay draft! I think it rocks. Not that I’m biased or anything. I don’t know what the producers think yet.

A Chat with Max: There’s an interview with me up on Possibly of interest if you’re a writer, or I take my eyes off Jen’s belly and end up spending all my time feeding, bathing, and entertaining a newborn instead of posting new blogs.

Tue 16

The Book of Revelations

Company I have this novel, Company, due out in January, and the author in me wants you to read it without knowing a thing about it. Not who the characters are, not the theme, and definitely, definitely not the big plot revelation that comes about a quarter of the way through. The author wants you totally blind, so everything’s a surprise, just as it should be.

The marketer in me, though, wants to tell you everything. Because if you don’t know anything about it, you might not buy it, and then where am I? Selling computer systems for Hewlett-Packard, that’s where. The marketer will spoil the whole plot if that’s what’s necessary to arouse your interest.

This wasn’t such an issue with Jennifer Government, because the biggest plot development happened in the first few pages. But Company starts with a mystery, and you don’t find out what the book is really about until you’re a way in.

I’m resigned to the fact that practically every review of the book will give this away. It would be too hard to describe it otherwise. But here is my dilemma: do I put it on the back of the book?

(Yeah, and you always thought blurbs were written by someone else. In truth the author usually writes it, or at least tweaks it. For example, the current draft of the US hardcover flap copy currently says Company is “bitingly funny.” I didn’t add that bit, but I bet I could delete it. And I’m not going to.)

It’s an odd transition when you go from trying to write the best story you can to trying to sell it. But around this time is when it happens. I think I need to give away my plot twist, although I’ll be as vague as possible. And hope that people who have already decided they’re going to buy it will avert their eyes.

(P.S. No baby yet. But it’s a day-to-day proposition. Maybe next blog!)

Mon 08

Hand Me My Y-Chromosome

Writing Apparently I write like a girl. Someone from the Internet Writing Workshop sent me a link to the Gender Genie, where you paste in a section of text and it uses an algorithm to detect whether the author is male or female. Or, if you’re an author, you can tell whether you’re really nailing your opposite-sex characters. I mean, nailing their dialog. Portraying it accurately. Okay. Better.

I was up for the challenge, so I pasted in a bunch of lines that belonged to 6, my main female character from Syrup. Bing! Female it was! So at this point I was feeling pretty clever. Then I tried a collection of Scat’s lines. Female. I tried that A Shade Less Perfect short story. Female. More short pieces: female, female, female.

But maybe that was just my fiction voice. Surely, I thought, my blogs would positively drip with manly essence. By which I mean machismo. But no: female, female—wait! Talking about basketball, the business of film options, and Mary-Kate Olsen’s stomach scored me my first “male”. My drive-by Todd Bunker blogging: also male. So too were finding interesting things to do while standing in the shower and comparing Linux to Microsoft Windows.

That was a relief. I’m at least partly in touch with my masculine side. I can live with that.

Ah, crap. I just tested this blog. Female.

Thu 04

Syrup & the Rise of the Belly

Syrup So I’m almost finished writing the first draft of the Syrup screenplay. I did mention I was working on that, right? No? Oh. That’s weird. I thought I did. Maybe you just forgot I told you. Yeah, I bet that’s it.

Actually what happened is I was waiting until there was a signed deal before I announced it—since until there’s a bit of paper, there’s always the chance that an agreement will fall apart. But that took so long to get finalized that I just started writing. Now I have 90% of a first draft, and the bit of paper is on its way from Fortress to me.

Working on the script has been an amazing experience. I wrote Syrup (the novel) in 1997, and eight years later I get to go back and fix the parts I wish I’d done differently. I still feel very close to the two main characters, Scat and 6, and I love being able to play with them again. Then there’s the challenge of deciding which parts of the story should make it to the screen and which should be left on paper. I’ve never had to confront that before, and it’s been fascinating.

I also have a hard deadline, in the shape of Jen’s ballooning belly. Once those contractions hit I don’t expect to touch a keyboard for a couple of weeks, so my draft had better be finished by then. I’ve been working pretty intensely for a while now, which is probably why these blogs have been a little less frequent than usual. (You noticed, right? Come on.)

I wish I could post some of my script here, because, well, I’m damn excited about it. But I’m not allowed to. So I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it: it’s going really well, and I’m loving it.

Tue 26

Six months until Company

Company New Company coverThere’s a new Company cover! And it’s… remarkably similar to the old one. In fact, all Doubleday did is go down to the staff cafeteria, buy a donut, photograph it, and whack it on the cover in place of the stock photo. Unless you look closely, it’s the same cover. If you do look closely, you might notice that Doubleday’s donut is a little soggier, but that’s about it.

I am not quite clear on why changing one donut for another, near-identical donut, helps anybody, but apparently it’s something to do with image rights. Although that begs the question why in the first place… no, no, that way lies madness.

I also have an on-sale date, at least for the US and Canada: January 17, 2006! It’ll be a hardcover with a RRP of US$22.95, although I see will already let you pre-order for US$15.61. What nice people.

Sun 17

Talk to me, baby

Writing My last blog gave some people the idea that my life is all L.A. movie premieres, shooting hoops with Adam Brody, and doing coke lines off Mary-Kate Olsen’s bare stomach, but sadly it’s not. From an author’s point of view, selling film rights tends to be like this:

Agent: We’ve got a great offer from Legendary Director X!
Author: Oh, cool!

One Week Later.
Agent: Yeah, that didn’t come off.
Author: Oh, damn.

One Week Later.
Agent: We’ve got a great offer from Excellent Production Company Y! Want to take it?
Author: Sure, okay!

Toni writes:

so did you sell all of the rights to Company over to Doubleday or do you get all of the rights? I’m curious about how this whole process works… you get a cut of the film profits?

While Nathan, more succinctly, says:

Paramount. Nice. You must be loaded now.

First I should point out that there is no Company movie deal yet; there’s just people talking. That may or may not lead to a deal, but even if it does, it’s unlikely I will be rolling around naked in hundred-dollar bills. Well, I might be, but there wouldn’t be that many of them. Movie rights deals are structured so that they have a front end and a back end. The front end is the money the film studio pays now, which buys them an exclusive period (usually a year or two) in which to develop the film. This is called an option, and the amount paid is relatively small. Exactly how relatively small depends on whether you are, say, Dan Brown, or, say, me.

The back end is the juicy part. This can include a percentage of profits, but mainly it’s just a great big wad of cash, about an order of magnitude larger than the front end, and payable when the film goes into production—that is, when the cameras start rolling. Many, many novels are optioned but never go into production, in which case the option lapses and the author is never paid the back end. (I haven’t seen one yet.) Some authors are more than happy with this, because they get to sell the film rights all over again. (Which has happened to me once.) But this is pretty anti-climactic. I want to snuggle into a soft red movie seat and chew popcorn while a story I once dreamed up is projected in 35mm. Then I’ll shoot some hoops with Adam Brody and go see Mary-Kate about that coke.

Tue 12

It ain’t a book until it’s a movie

Company Yesterday I got a mention in Publishers Weekly, because of the possibility of a Company film deal. Here’s the snippet—although, because this is a trade mag, they give away far too much of the plot. So I’m blanking bits.

Satire may have a pretty dismal record at the box office, but at least one studio won’t be dissuaded. Paramount has made an offer for Company (Doubleday, Jan. 2006) the latest corporate satire from former ad man Max Barry (ne Maxx Barry). In the novel, a new employee at a faceless conglomerate can’t figure out what the company actually produces. Since he has very little to do all day, he makes it his mission to find out. He discovers that he and his co-workers are ___ ___ ____ in an __________ _____ run by _______ company ______ human behavior __ _ corporate environment—___ ______ ____ set in __ ______ park. Perhaps Paramount is mindful of another send-up of cubicle culture, 1999’s Office Space. That cult favorite by Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge flopped in its initial theatrical release, but went on to become a huge earner in its DVD afterlife. It still ranks as one of Fox’s bestselling DVD titles of all time. Luke Janklow of Janklow & Nesbit and CAA’s Brian Siberell represent Barry.

Jason Anthony, Publishers Weekly, July 11, 2005

Mon 11

And now a gratuitous plug

Max Now I don’t do this very often, do I? That should count for something. The thing is, the excellent Aussie comedian Wil Anderson is performing in New York (July 12 & 14) and Montreal (July 21-23, 25), and if at all possible you should go see him. Then you should hang around afterward and say, “Hey, Wil, I’m here because Max sent me, and boy am I glad he did,” because you will be.

Wil’s a big name in Australia. He’s also one of the people I trust with my early drafts, which is why you’ll see his name in the Jennifer Government acknowledgments. If you like my stuff, you’ll like Wil.

Wil’s tour dates: Here.

Thu 07

London bombed; citizens mildly annoyed

Max There is something very special about the Brits. I’ve always admired them, even though I can’t understand their decision to live somewhere with such bad weather and warm beer. Today I’m reminded why. After watching pictures of this horrendous terrorist attack on TV, I jumped on the net to get in touch with English people I know. And as I heard back from them, I realized they seemed… a little miffed. Maybe peeved. But even that might be too strong.

To all Brits: I’m thinking of you guys today. My heart goes out to those personally affected. But it’s also filled with admiration for this incredible British spirit that even a bomb attack can’t dent.

Sun 03

Baby, I love your name

Max Yes! It is only a month and a half until Baby Barry is due. Which means it’s really time for Jen and me to come up with a name.

You’d think this would be right up my alley—I mean, I name characters all the time. But is it really ethical to give a kid a name just because I find it amusing? This is the dilemma I face as I consider such favorites as “Binky,” “Fizz,” and “Alan.”

(Okay, that’s just a joke. The “Alan” doesn’t mean we’re having a boy. I need to be clear about this because we’re keeping the sex a secret, and we have a lot of relatives watching keenly for any slip-up. That would spoil the betting pool—which, incidentally, is currently running 2-to-1 in favor of a girl.)

I know some people say you should wait and see what they look like before naming them (“We were going to call him Sam, but when we saw him we just knew he was a Horatio!”), but I don’t know about this. I’ve seen pictures of newborns, and they all look like aliens. If I named our kid based on what he looked like after birth, I’d probably call him, “Krxz’ll Ak Ak Hrgggggg.”

My other problem is that “Barry” really sucks as a surname. I never realized this before; until now it’s been fine. But just try to put a first name in front of that thing! For boys, anything unusual sounds like we got the name backwards (my Dad went his whole life being called “Barry Hamilton”). Girl names sound ridiculous if they’re two syllables and end in an “ee” sound, and that’s practically all of them. Also, anything that starts with “B” is definitely out.

I tell you, “Barry” makes it tough. And the clock is ticking.

Incidentally, Jen has started referring to herself as “we.” As in, “We’re hungry,” or “We want to lie down now.” It’s little unsettling. She’s become a hive mind.

Thu 23

Ah, sweet stet

Company STET at workOn Monday I received the copyedited manuscript of Company. This means someone at Doubleday has gone through it with a red pencil and pointed out everything I did wrong: spelling, grammar, continuity, the fact that someone takes their sunglasses off twice without putting them back on in between, and so forth. This is intimidating enough, but on top of that they do it using arcane symbols that would look more at home if Gandalf was reading them off a scroll.

Fortunately I know a little Elvish, so I can usually work out what they’re saying. And they’re mostly right, so I tend to leave their changes alone. But if I want, I can overrule them, with the awesome power of STET. “Stet,” I discovered while editing my first novel, means, “Put everything back just the way I had it.” (Accompanied, one suspects, by the subtext: “Idiot!”) How good is that? When I discovered this word, it was like a gnawing, hollow place in my heart had finally been filled. Looking back, I can’t work out how I ever made it through a day without it. “Max, I tidied up your desk for you.” “No! Stet! STET, dammit!”

Copyediting also reminds you just how archaic the publishing process is. When I write a novel, I use a word processor, nice, proportional fonts, curly/smart quotes, etc, so it looks more or less like the final book. But for submission to my editor, I have to strip all this out, double-space it, change the font to that butt-ugly Courier, and, get this, convert the italics to underlines. This manuscript then gets scribbled on by various people (that’s me in the green pencil), and finally some poor schmuck types it all back in, thus creating a document that looks near-identical to the one I had to start with.

You wondered why it takes 12 months for a book to get published, right? I used to, too.

Thu 16

Caring about Copyright

What Max Reckons I was pretty sure that nobody gave a stuff about copyright, but my last blog got quite a big response, so either lots of people care about it, or only a few do, but they all have internet access. There was much challenging of my argument that copyright should last just ten years, so, in the time-honored tradition of half-assed essayists everywhere, I have decided to Q&A myself.

(And this is totally irrelevant, but I notice it’s always more fun to write the questions than the answers. It must be the same way evil characters are more enjoyable to write.)

“Since you think a 10-year copyright is such a good idea, obviously in four years’ time you won’t mind if I sell my own print run of Syrup.”

If you publish a reprint of Syrup in 2009, you won’t be infringing my rights: you’ll be infringing Penguin Putnam’s. That’s what happens when you sign with a publisher: you grant it the exclusive right to sell copies. I no longer have the ability to put my novels into the public domain.

“Very convenient. When you sell your next book, then, will you insist that your contract lasts only ten years, after which your books enter the public domain?”

What am I, crazy? If I did that, my publisher would become confused and frightened, I would get a lot of e-mails about “the way we always do things”, and when it was all over I would probably be looking at either a much smaller advance or none at all.

“Aha! Sir, you have been exposed! You say it would be a good thing for copyright to be ten years, yet when given the option, you won’t do it yourself!”

Exactly. My argument is not that shorter copyright would be good for artists. I’m pretty sure it would be bad: not terrible, but definitely worse, at least for people like me who create (arguably) wholly original content. My argument is that it would be good for society, and that’s more important than what’s good for authors.

“Why, you greedy, self-centered hypocrite. You admit that you refuse to do what’s best for society, then?”

Yes. I mean, sure, I’m nice: I recycle my glass and paper, I give to charity, and I smile at my neighbors. But I’m not going to work for free, or take a pay cut, just because I think society deserves to have more of my work for less. It would be good for society for garbage-collectors to take a pay cut, too, but I don’t think they toss and turn at nights about the ethics of it.

When it comes to my career, I plan on doing what I think will help it best. There is a reasonable argument that releasing your work for free helps your career, and I partly agree with this, which is why my short stuff is available for anyone to copy, print, and even sell. But I’m not quite at the Cory Doctorow level, which involves putting your entire novel up for free download. If I thought it would be good for me, I’d do it. But I don’t, and there’s no ethical reason why I should. That’s why we need a change in the law: without it, artists and companies will act in their own best interest, and generally that means grabbing as many rights as possible and hanging onto them forever.

Incidentally, on a systemic level I think there’s something seriously wrong with any plan that requires a lot of people to act against their self-interest. It never works, and the people who benefit most are usually those who don’t join in. The monster that copyright has become can’t be killed by a handful of authors valiantly giving up some of their income, and nor should it be. The law has to be changed. Then everyone can be left to pursue life, liberty, happiness, and profit in the usual, capitalist way.

“Max, you fool. If there was a ten-year copyright, film studios would never buy another book. They’d just wait until the copyright expired and make their film while the author slept in gutters and juggled kittens while begging for food.”

Studios can already make film versions of old books without paying the author a cent, and they’re still buying copyrighted books. There are two reasons, I think. First, if a book-based movie gets made for $25 million, the author pocketed maybe $500,000. A 2% saving is not enough to get a studio worked up.

Second, public domain properties are less valuable, because there are no exclusive rights: the studio can’t do merchandising tie-ins, or make a spin-off TV series, or sequels… or, at least, they can’t do so exclusively. The monopoly is what makes rights valuable, and that’s true whether it lasts for ten years, or twenty, or a hundred. There will still be a massive financial advantage in being the only publisher allowed to produce the new Harry Potter book, and the only studio allowed to make the film, even if that right expires in a decade.

“But the idea of a some sleazy publisher cranking out copies while the author gets nothing… it disturbs me.”

Well, the author gets exposure, which is valuable if he’s unknown, because it builds an audience that might buy his newer books. (In fact, if the author is unknown ten years after his first book, he may be the sleazy publisher: he may re-publish his own work.) If, on the other hand, he’s already well-known… well, he probably isn’t starving.

But to me this is largely irrelevant. I know a lot of people believe in the moral right of an artist to control his or her work, but I don’t. If you invent the telephone, you get a twenty-year monopoly; I don’t see what’s so extra-special about Mickey Mouse that deserves an additional century. Besides, if we’re designing a system to encourage the production of creative works, how happy or rich particular individuals within that system get is of no consequence: what’s important is how well the system works.

“I’ve spent ten years trying to flog my novel to publishers. Under your half-baked scheme, it would have no copyright left!”

I’m pretty sure that the copyright clock starts ticking on the first publication of a work, not on the date of its creation. Also, if you substantially revise a work, you get all-new copyright.

Okay, that’s enough on copyright, I promise. We return to the real world next blog.

Thu 09

Writers for Less Money

What Max Reckons Last night I was re-reading that Bible of Hollywood screenwriting, William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, when I came across this:

(This) was, ultimately, responsible for the existence of Hollywood. All the major studios paid a fee to Thomas Edison for the right to make movies: The motion picture was his invention and he had to be reimbursed for each and every film.

But there was such a need for material that pirate companies, which did not pay the fee, sprang up. The major studios hired detectives to stop this practice, driving many of the pirates as far from the New York area as possible. Sure, Hollywood had all that great shooting weather. But more than that, being three thousand miles west made it easier to steal.

This morning, I saw this article on how the British government is planning to extend copyright protection from 50 to 100 years. This would bring it more or less in line with the US, which grants copyright until 70 - 95 years after the author’s death—a period extended in 1998 after lobbying from media companies, primarily Disney.

I’m a writer and earn my entire living from copyright, but this is nuts. Copyright has become a corrupt, bastardized version of itself. Rather than serving as a way to encourage creative works, today it’s a method of fencing off ideas and blocking creativity. And some of the companies pushing hardest for new intellectual property laws are the same ones that owe their existence to breaking them.

We invented copyright to encourage innovation: to make it worthwhile for people to create their own artistic works, rather than copy and sell someone else’s. The aim is not to bequeath eternal rights to an idea, or to make artists fabulously wealthy; it’s to provide society with new books, films, songs, and other art. Copyright provides incentive, but the incentive itself is not the point of the law: the point is to encourage creative behavior.

Having a few years of copyright protection is a good incentive. But a hundred years? Or seventy years after my death? (If I live to 80, it will become legal to print your own copy of Jennifer Government in 2123.) There’s no additional incentive in that. There is nobody, and no company, thinking, “Well, this is a good song, but if I only get to keep all the money it makes for the next 50 years… nah, not worth developing it.”

Copyright extensions, of the kind popping up everywhere lately, have nothing to do with encouraging more creative work, and everything to do with protecting the revenue streams of media companies that, a few generations ago, had an executive smart enough to sniff out a popular hit. It’s a grab for cash at the public’s expense. The fact that there is any posthumous copyright protection at all proves that the law is intended to benefit people who are not the original creator: that is, heirs and corporations. The fact that copyright extensions retroactively apply to already-created works proves they’re not meant to encourage innovation. The only reason copyright extension laws keep getting passed is because the people and companies that became fabulously rich through someone else’s idea are using that wealth to lobby government for more of it.

I’d make copyright a flat ten years. You come up with a novel, a song, a movie, whatever: you have ten years to make a buck out of it. After that, anyone can make copies, or create spin-offs, or produce the movie version, or whatever. Now that would be an incentive. You’d see all kinds of new art, both during the copyright period, as artists rush to make the most of their creation, and after, when everybody else can build on what they’ve done and make something new. You’d see much cheaper versions of books and movies that were a decade old. You wouldn’t have the descendants of some writer refusing to allow new media featuring the Daleks, or Tintin, or whatever. And artists with massive hits would be merely rich, not super-rich.

A century-long copyright (in the UK), or a lifetime plus seventy years (in the US) means books, songs, and films created before you were born will still be locked up when you die. During your life, you will see no new versions, no reworkings, reinterpretations, remixes, or indeed any copies at all, unless they are approved by whoever happened to inherit the original artist’s estate, or whichever company bought it.

Media companies are quick to throw around the word “thief” whenever a teenager burns a CD or shares a file over the internet. But this is theft, too, when an artist’s work is kept away from the public for a century. Ten years is incentive. A hundred years is gluttony.

Tue 07

Jen in Brazil

Jennifer Government Brazillian cover Speaking of covers (no word on what the new Company looks like yet), apparently the Brazillian version of Jennifer Government is soon to hit the shelves, and they’ve tweaked the design.

The title translates as something like, “Me, Inc.”, which I am hoping sounds much less lame in the original Portuguese. They also made the disclaimer look like a Windows XP error dialog box, although I don’t know why. And if you squint, you can see business suit-clad legs behind it. It’s louco!

Update: Apparently a better translation is “U.S., Inc.” That makes more sense.

Tue 31

So Many Books, So Few Donuts

Company And after I made all those little icons, too. I’ve just learned that my gorgeous Company cover has to change.

It all began with Google News. A while ago I discovered that Google lets you customize a News page, so you get headlines on whatever topics interest you. Naturally, I immediately created a “Max Barry” topic and stuck it right at the top. This is how I discovered the evil Todd Bunker article, and about a week ago there was a new one: the shocking revelation that Company has the exact same cover art as another book.

The other book is non-fiction, and British, but still. And what’s worse, his is coming out first. I e-mailed Bill, my editor—who, sadly lacking a “Max Barry” Google News topic, had no idea. He was less than thrilled. A few days went by while Doubleday decided what to do (and, presumably, tightened up their licensing agreement with the stock photography people). Then this morning, Bill e-mailed me:

While we haven’t been able to ascertain whether the American edition of that other book will use the same donut, we’ve decided to play it safe and shoot our own donut. Any preferences? Chocolate frosted? Apple cinnamon?

This is the silliest e-mail I’ve ever sent, but in keeping with the spirit of the book, eh?

It is. It’s spooky. The book opens with a donut-related crisis, and now I have my own.

Wed 25

A Shade Less Perfect

Max I’ve been contacting all my friends with babies, pumping them for information on whether those three-wheeler strollers are really all they’re cracked up to be, and do you want a bassinet that also converts into a car seat or is it fine to have those things separate, and surely, surely, when the baby book says they go to the toilet 10 times a day, that has to be some kind of misprint, right?

In the midst of all this, I had an idea for a short story. So I wrote it. If you’re interested, here it is. It’s 3,000 words long.

Thanks so much for all the congratulations and well wishes! You guys rock.

Fri 20

She’s having a baby

Max Jen at 26 weeks Now, I know other people have had babies. I see them all the time. In fact, I have it on good authority that, at one time, I was a baby myself. So on the one hand, surely there should be nothing newsworthy about the impending arrival of yet another one. But on the other, OH MY GOD MY WIFE IS PREGNANT.

I know, I know. Deep breaths. Work through it. Okay. Here are the facts: The due date is August 22. We know the baby’s sex (my theory is the birth will be interesting enough without needing to build up any additional suspense), but are not telling anybody (because we’re cruel). It’s our first.

Phoooo. Phoooo.

Fri 13

Retrospective #5: Fear my vigilantes

Max Whoa! That blog about my newest arch-nemesis (why stop at one?), Todd Bunker, got quite a reaction. First a lot of people left comments supporting me, which was really nice and quite touching. I did notice a few said some pretty mean things about Todd… but no, you’re right, he deserved it. Then I saw a bunch of people had stampeded onto the site that hosted Todd’s article to rake him over the coals. And some copied me in on e-mails to Todd, pointing out (in some detail) glaring deficiencies in his character.

Now, I had been thinking about writing a blog about The Worst Review I Ever Got—one that makes Todd Bunker’s seem like drooling praise—but now I’m worried that if I do, people will hunt the guy down, smash his car windows, and kidnap his pets.

So, moving on. For a while there I had a metablog: in late March, a guy called Adam left the comment:

Max Barry has inspired me to start my own blog, and since I don’t have a website, I will start writing on the comments of max barry’s blogs. It will pobably be really boring and have a lot of grammatical errors because I am not a professional writer.

But it wasn’t! I was enthralled with whether Adam would ask Jennifer to the prom, and what would happen to his simmering rivalry with Eric, even if this was all clearly fictional. And damn, he made some good points: why isn’t 2% milk called 98% milk? Unfortunately, Adam seemed to lose enthusiasm in April, and then he stopped posting. So my metablog is no more: I’m back to just a regular blog.

Speaking of comments: a couple of people asked about the apparently redundant “A Novel” that appears on the cover of Company. Well, here’s the answer, straight from my editor:

That’s so bookstore clerks don’t throw the book in with WHO MOVED MY CHEESE?

So there you go. Apparently Doubleday is also debating how exactly to “glaze” the donut on the cover! Although:

the scratch n sniff idea was deemed too expensive

Oh well. You can probably get the same effect by purchasing a real donut and smearing it all over the book. If you really want to, I mean.

Tue 10

Blog this

Writing I’m happily browsing the web, minding my own business, when I stumble across it: an article called “Writers Who Blog,” that totally trashes me out. I know! I was shocked too. Still, I was prepared to file it away with all the other things that make no sense, like fat-free chewing gum and Florida, until I discovered something: the article was by the same guy who once wrote one of the worst reviews of Jennifer Government I’ve ever seen.

I believe there’s an old saying: diss me once, shame on you. Diss me twice, I totally go you on my web site. So I’m pulling off my writing gloves (a simple design to the eye, but they have hidden layers) and knuckling up.

First, the review. Now, I understand that people need to review books. It’s a valid profession, even noble in its own way, and performs an economically valuable function, like prostitution, and selling heroin to teenagers. Maybe book criticism is even more valuable than those. But there are certain Things Critics Do That Piss Me Off, and Todd Bunker does three out of five. Plus one I keep meaning to add to that list: he gives away some of the ending. In fact, he blabs about something that happens on page 325—which, given it’s a 335-page book, should surely be punishable by public flogging. I’m sure most authors would agree with me.

That review was written under a cowardly pseudonym—the only reason I know “Johnny Yuma” is “Todd Bunker” is this new article, in which he fesses up even while dumping more buckets of cold, smelly editorial down my back. It goes like this: Todd, who is a novelist, is thinking about adding a blog to his own site. Curious as to whether this would be a good or bad thing for his career, he checks out Neal Pollack, Wil Wheaton, and me. Neal and Wil come out of it with minor wounds, but me: whoo. First he blasts me for being on the receiving end of some kind of publishing promotion. Then he says the only reason I sell books is because I created NationStates. He disses my “Ride the Walrus” blog, saying it proves I have nothing to write about, then he suggests I lie about how many people visit my site. He calls my readers sycophants (!!) and finishes up by rating my blogs as 2/10, because they’re: “Beside the point. [Max] blogs for hits.”

Being interested in site traffic is a pretty brave accusation to make in an article that contains three hyperlinks to Todd’s own site, an Amazon link to his novel, and an image that when you hover over it pops up: “Todd Bunker Todd Bunker Todd Bunker Todd Bunker Todd Bunker Todd Bunker”. And that crack about “Ride the Walrus” is totally undeserved. I tell you, it’s the sensation that’s sweeping the nation. It’s clear to me Todd hasn’t tried it at all.

After finding so many faults with other people’s blogs, Todd decides against creating one of his own. The “constant interaction” would be “too much of a good thing,” he says. Instead, he prefers to retain “a bit of mystique”.

Well, I don’t know, Todd. If “mystique” means concealing that you’re a tosser, it might already be too late. I say, have the courage to put up a blog. Look, it is tough to get noticed as a new novelist; there are way too many of us. I tried the quietly-wait-for-the-world-to-notice-your-great-novel thing, too, and it didn’t work out: I had a good book, good publishing support, and great reviews, and it just sunk. If you want to write books and tuck them into your desk drawer, then great. But if you want to make a living out of writing stories, you have to do something more than sit back and wait for success to land in your lap. You have to do everything you can.

So don’t be scared, Todd. Show us what you’ve got.

Tue 03

Love your work

Max Today I got some orthotic inserts for my sneakers, because I’d like to be able to keep running without having my feet collapse, or my knees implode, or whatever else is meant to happen to long-time runners. My podiatrist was an energetic young woman named Allison, and pretty soon she had my feet wrapped up in warm, wet bandages—which was really pleasant, although it was hard to relax due to the threat of tickling. Apparently Allison was making a mold, from which a plaster cast of my feet could be formed, and used to shape the orthotics.

“What happens to the casts afterward?” I asked.

“Oh, we keep them,” Allison said. “We have to. They’re considered medical records.”

I found the idea of a big warehouse somewhere full of white plaster feet a bit disconcerting. But Allison was enthusiastic. She was, in fact, remarkably perky for someone who had to smell other people’s feet all day. I quizzed her about this: “Don’t you get sick of dealing with feet all the time?”

“Oh no,” Allison said, as if I had said something deeply shocking. “Two people walk in, and they’ll be totally different. With feet, you never know what you’re going to get.”

Wed 27

Get your brave new world right here

What Max Reckons Occasionally I wonder how social values will change over the next several decades. I’m pretty sure they will change, and our descendants will look back on the early years of the 21st century and find some of our ideals bizarre—as repugnant as we find slavery, sexism, and repression. But which ones? Here are some guesses.

  1. Speciesism. As a race, we’ve shown a pretty clear trend toward abolishing arbitrary divisions between people. We no longer consider some races to be sub-human, for example, or one gender to be undeserving of the vote. Ethical vegetarianism, practically unheard of a century ago, is increasingly common, and animal cruelty is now widely considered to be a terrible thing. To me this suggests we’re on the way to overthrowing the belief that animals have no feelings worth considering, and that we have the right to eat them. I don’t think we’ll ever consider animals to be our equals, but we won’t think their feelings are worthless, either.

    Prediction: First we’ll outlaw agricultural practices that cause animals pain, and eventually we’ll stop eating them.

  2. Patriotism. When you’re under threat, patriotism makes a lot of sense: your chances of survival go up if you band together with similar people. But as globalization brings people of all nations closer together, making international travel and communication astonishingly easy, national boundaries mean less. The more we learn about foreigners, the more we find we have in common with them; and not only that, as the world undergoes a slow, inevitable cultural homogenization, we do have more in common with them.

    At the same time, a consistent pattern shows up every time citizens of a large Western nation go to the ballot box: city-dwellers vote liberal and country people vote conservative. How long before residents from Manhattan, London, Sydney, Paris, and Berlin have more in common with each other than they do with rural residents of their own country? Do they already?

    Patriotism is a pretty crappy ideal in the first place. It’s clearly untrue that people who happen to have been born in your country are more special or worthy of your support than people who happen to have been born somewhere else. In fact, patriotism is even less defensible than racism, because at least there you have a biological basis on which to discriminate. When you’re patriotic, you’re using an imaginary line.

    Prediction: Eventually people won’t identify themselves primarily by their nationality, but rather by their belief system.

  3. Faith. Recent events in certain Western countries notwithstanding, the influence of religion on people’s lives has been falling for as long as recorded human history. So I don’t see why it should stop now.

    Prediction: Few people will believe in a literal God or identify themselves as followers of a religion.

  4. Privacy. There’s more concern about privacy in democratic countries today, but there is less actual privacy. It’s increasingly difficult to interact with government departments and corporations without supplying personal details, and, thanks to improving technology, it’s increasingly easy for those bodies to amass, analyze, and use that information. Governments have strong incentives to invade people’s privacy, since it increases their ability to control the populace, and they have very little incentive to protect privacy.

    As technology creates more powerful and more easily accessible weapons, a single rogue person will be capable of inflicting greater harm on other people. The best defense against this is probably surveillance. Since human beings are more interested in safety than privacy, I don’t think we’ll fight hard enough against loss of privacy to stop it happening.

    Prediction: People will no longer believe in a basic entitlement to privacy from government.

  5. Selflessness. Regulated capitalism harnesses the power of self-interest to make societies more productive. It generates enormous amounts of wealth that, more or less, benefits society as a whole. Thus, capitalism is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

    However, capitalism rewards selfishness. People who act only in their own best interests tend to accumulate more money than those who don’t. For evidence of this, you don’t need to look any further than the types of personalities who end up running major corporations—or corporations themselves, which are by definition the purest embodiment of selfishness, and society’s biggest wealth-generators.

    In capitalist societies, money means success: power, influence, and status. And since the wealthy are society’s winners, they are its role models. To succeed, others will emulate their behavior.

    Prediction: People will believe less strongly in the moral duty to help others, and more strongly in the morality of self-interest.

That’s my best guess (for now): a society that looks back on mass-farming with horror, shakes it head at our obsession with flags, pledges, and anthems, sees little difference between religion and superstition, finds bemusement in our worries about privacy, and sees altruism as naive, even childish. Utopia? Well, not exactly. But then, I’m not predicting what I’d like to happen.

Tue 19

Ride the Walrus

Max I’m always looking for new things to do in the shower, because I’m male and have no hair. There’s very little you can do in a shower when you have no hair; it’s basically “wash face, soap underarms, sing a little song.” I can’t get out after that; standing naked under running warm water is too nice. I want to stay there, but need entertainment—and yet, at this very moment, I have no pockets.

Sometimes I fill my mouth with water and spray it everywhere. The key is not to just blurt it out: you want to generate a fine mist, accompanied by a satisfyingly whale-like PFFFFFFF. That’s good fun. When I’m lacking in inspiration, I just stand there, swing my arms, and watch the water spray off my fingertips.

But now I’ve discovered a thrilling new activity. (No, not that.) It’s terrific fun, and I’m sharing it so you can try it at home yourself.

Now this may require some adjustment of your bathroom facilities—last week I was traveling around and it didn’t work in all the hotel room showers I tried. What you want is a medium-sized shower rose (not a horrible little needly one) with strong pressure (which, unfortunately, counts out all of you living in England). Position it as close to the top of your head as possible.

Then close your eyes and throw your head right back. If you’ve got it right, the shower jets water directly on your closed eyelids. This sensation may be accompanied by a flaring white kaleidoscope or visions of God. And not only that: water streams directly into your ears, making an adrenalin-pumping roar, like you’re standing under a waterfall, or, now that I think about it, hearing the voice of God. Maybe they should choose the Pope this way. But anyway, it’s pure excitement! I’m telling you, you have to try this yourself, before it becomes a Disney ride.

Thu 14

Annnd we’re back

Max I just got home from a week’s vacation to find that my web host decided that was a good time to kill my site. Mmm, helpful. This is a periodic thing: once every few months, they go, “Hmm, this site seems to be generating load on our server, let’s disable it.” They don’t notify me; they just go ahead and do it. When I notice my site is down, I fix it and send them an abusive e-mail. They apologize profusely, say the tech didn’t follow proper processes, and promise it’ll never happen again. A few months later, it happens again.

This is the fourth time. I’m an idiot for staying with them, right? It’s just that they’re a great host in all other respects. They give me everything I need. They’re practically perfect. It’s just, from time to time, they get violent. But it’s not their fault. They don’t know what they’re doing. They just lose control sometimes. I shouldn’t provoke them with all that traffic. It’s really my fault. I know they really love me.

I’m an idiot, right?

Thu 07

Max: the long version

Writing I did an interview with Australian Speculative Fiction recently; they’re putting together a book on Australian sci-fi writers and apparently I qualified. They e-mailed me a list of questions and, as per my usual policy, I decided, “Must respond to that soon,” then let it sit in my inbox for about a month. (I blame my mail program. Thunderbird lets you press “1” to mark a mail message in red as “Important” to make sure you don’t lose those e-mails you really need to follow up. But this gives me a totally false sense of accomplishment and closure, as if I have dealt with them and can move on. I now have a solid red inbox.)

Fortunately they kept hassling me about it, so I eventually got around to pounding out my answers. I mailed them off, they thanked me, then a week later sent me a copy of their article for the book. Of my response, they’d used four sentences.

Four sentences!

I can’t let all those other sentences go neglected. So here’s the full text, for anyone who’s interested.

1. Why do you write (insert genre)?

That’s like asking why you pick your nose: you just do. I mean, not YOU, necessarily. I’m sure you’re very hygienic. But writing is a compulsive thing: I do it because I do it. First I get an idea and it bounces around my head for a while. If it sticks around… well, I can’t just leave it there. That would be cruel. If I’m intrigued enough to want to know what happens next in this story myself, I sit down at a keyboard and find out.

I’ve never chosen a particular genre and thought, “Okay, let’s come up with a story in that.” In fact, I don’t think about genre at all. That’s the kind of thing I don’t worry about until I’m trying to sell it. When I was searching for a literary agent for Jennifer Government, one wrote back, “Sorry, we don’t represent science-fiction.” And I thought, “Science-fiction? Is that what this is?”

2. What are your motivations in writing (insert genre)?

Not very sophisticated, unfortunately. I just enjoy it. Sometimes people say I must be very disciplined to write full-time, as if I have to force myself to work on a story. But that’s not it at all; I write because it’s great fun.

I have had times when I haven’t enjoyed my writing, and I’ve forced myself to knuckle down and wade through it. This made me feel very noble and hard-working, but the fiction I ended up with was the most unmitigated crap. It turns out that, for me at least, when writing is fun and easy I’m producing good writing, and when it’s a struggle I’m wasting my time.

3. What is unique about your work?

I notice all these questions inflame the ego. I’m not sure that’s a good idea, when you’re dealing with writers. We don’t need much encouragement in that regard.

Actually, I think it’s hugely helpful to be able to convince yourself that what you’re working on is the greatest piece of literature to ever grace a page—because a novel takes a really long time to write, and if you lose faith in it, well, you might as well go watch The O.C.

“Unique” is a big word; you can argue that very little in literature is unique. But I hope my books are distinguishable by their amusing take on life, particularly all things corporate, and their focus on telling a good story with a minimum of messing around. Oh, and their complete lack of physical description. But I’m working on that.

4. Do you write in other genres or mainstream?

All of my novels are corporate satire, but the first is mixed with romantic comedy and the second with science-fiction. Of course, what kind of a genre is corporate satire? I may have gone needlessly specific there. But if that’s not my genre, I’m not sure what is, so I’ll stick with it.

I can see myself writing about things other than corporations, but I don’t think I’ll ever lose my love of humor and satire.

5. When did you first begin to write?

Apparently I dictated a book about frogs when I was two. Does that count? It was non-fiction, and somewhat terse in style, but it was published, in the sense that my Mum stapled all the pages together. Some time after that I veered off the path of journalism into fiction. I remember writing horror short stories in high school that featured my classmates — they were very popular, except among people who were in them — but I don’t remember ever actually starting writing. I’ve just always done it.

6. Do you do much research for your novels?

I do as little as possible. I will research before I’ve started work on a novel — because this is basically just reading about subjects I’m interested in. But once I’ve come up with the book’s basic premise, I don’t run out and bone up on all the relevant topics. Doing research at this point feels to restrictive: I end up trying to fit the story into the confines of reality, when I should be bending reality to fit my story. So once I’ve started writing, I avoid doing any research, even if it means leaving big, obvious gaps in the book that need to be filled in later.

7. If you could write and be published in another genre what would that be?

I’m not especially established as a science-fiction writer, but I’m interested in doing more of it. I want to write a sci-fi movie, because there is a shameful dearth of good ones.

8. What did it feel like when you had your first book published?

The first time I saw my book on the shelf of a bookstore, it looked as if someone had sneaked a copy in there. The other books all looked legitimate, but mine felt like an impostor.

It was a truly magical time, because I also thought that my run up the New York Times bestseller list was surely only a matter of time. Then reality had to go and spoil it.

9. What are your goals for writing in future? Eg break into the US market.

More than anything else, I want to tell good stories. Hmm, wait, that sounds as if so far I’ve been telling bad stories. I mean that my main motivation is to create stories I’m proud of. I hate working on a novel that doesn’t feel right, and I would hate the idea of having a novel published I didn’t love.

Sales-wise, I don’t want any novel to sell fewer copies than the one before it—but this is not something I can do much about, other than write good stories. So I’ll stick to that.

10. In your opinion, are there any uniquely Australian elements in your writing either in your characters or setting?

Only one of my books is set in Australia, even partially, and it’s a very Americanized Australia. So I don’t write what you would typically consider to be Australian literature: no Aussie slang, Outback settings, or lovable rascals. But I do think my sense of humour is very Australian. I’ve heard from a few readers that they recognized that style in my books, even before they knew I was an Aussie. Also, I think my appreciation for satire is an Australian characteristic.

11. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes, but none of it is startlingly original. Aspiring writers should write: that’s by far the most important thing. A person with no contacts and no knowledge of the publishing industry but who writes a little every day and loves what he’s doing is eventually going to get published: I really think it’s that simple. Some people will hit it big with their first novel, but most of us need time to learn what we’re doing. I have two published novels and a third coming out soon: these are, together, the second, fifth, and seventh novels I’ve written. This is success in publishing: getting three out of seven books onto the shelf.

12. Why do you think there are so many Australians writing in this genre now?

I ended up going outside Australia to find a publisher, so I’ve never really connected with the local scene. As a result, I don’t know much about it. Hmm. Maybe I should read this book.

Sun 03

Dirt is Good. Dirt is Good. Dirt is Good.

What Max Reckons Today is an important day of celebration in Australia; it’s National Dirt is Good Day. No, really, it is. Now, I know, if you live in New Zealand, you’re wrinkling your forehead and going, “Wait a minute, Max, Dirt is Good Day was a few weeks ago,” and if you’re Turkish or Pakistani it was last year, but that’s not important; those are just funny little international differences, like how it’s currently Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and New Zealanders celebrate Christmas on the last Tuesday of February.

National Dirt is Good Day is sponsored by OMO, a washing detergent made by Unilever, and by “sponsored” I mean “invented.” Apparently you don’t have to be a government to go around inventing national days of celebration; anybody can do it. So Unilever has decided we need one in celebration of dirt. Here’s why:

Years of scientific study by child health experts shows that playing outdoors is an essential part of a child’s learning and development.

Getting dirty through constructive play is how children learn and express their creativity. It also helps them to stay healthy by encouraging them to exercise and bolstering their immune systems.

I dunno, it seems like this makes just as much sense without the phrase “Getting dirty through”. It seems like they inserted that fairly arbitrarily. But no, no, I’m not one to argue with unsourced “years of scientific study.” I should just be grateful that private enterprise has stepped in to deliver this crucial health message.

I clicked through the web site to find out how I could celebrate Dirt is Good Day at home—I don’t have any kids, but since it’s such a significant occasion, maybe I could pinch somebody else’s. The first couple of recommended activities seem interesting enough, but the further you go down the list, the more they seem to be basically, “Take one child, roll him around in the mud, and wash his clothes with OMO.”

The second-last one is “Mud Splatters”: its ingredients are (a) water balloons (b) mud and (c) paper. You’re meant to insert (b) into (a) and throw it at (c), marveling at “the amazing effects on the paper as the mud splatters.” There is no mention of the possibility of kids turning their attention to the amazing effects of mud splattering on other objects, including each other. Which seems like the logical progression to me, but apparently to Unilever it would be a surprising and unexpected development.

The final recommended activity is “Mud Pie.” The description is quite detailed, but I’ll summarize it for you: get a big pile of mud and try to make your parents eat it.

At the very bottom of that web page, in black text on a blue background, I noticed this:

Safety Note: Ensure children do not play with dirt that may have been contaminated by animals. Ensure that children do not put dirt or dirty hands in their mouths. Potting mix is dangerous as it contains a potentially harmful bacteria, do not use. Ensure any cuts are covered. Wash hands afterwards.

Wow! I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when corporations take an interest in my personal wellbeing, but tucking away a safety warning where nobody will see it as part of a campaign to make children play in dirt is extra special. Maybe they should call it National Dirt is Good So Long as It Isn’t Contaminated by Animals and You Don’t Put it in Your Mouth and Wash Afterwards and Cover any Cuts and For God’s Sake Don’t Go Near the Potting Mix Day.

But it’s been a big success for Unilever, with consumers apparently embracing the message of: “No Stains. No Learning.” (An earlier draft, I’m guessing, is, “No Stains? Bad parent! Bad!”) So surely it’s just a matter of time before other companies jump on the bandwagon. There could be ExxonMobil National Go For a Long, Aimless Drive Day, or AT&T National Just Check Your Relatives Are Still Okay Day. Because they care about us, you know?

Thu 31

Mmm… cover

Company Company coverThis 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.

Wed 23

Why I Blog (Part 2)

Max Max's supercool web traffic graph 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 “,” 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 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”.

Fri 18

Happy Birthday to me!

Max Have I been hanging around computers too much? I’m all excited because today I’m 25.

Wed 16

Company 2006

Company Oh, man. I’ve done it. I’ve finished my new draft of Company.

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.

Tue 08

Why I Blog (Part 1)


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.

Thu 03

Max on the Air

Jennifer Government 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.

Mon 28

The Jennifer Government Code

Jennifer Government Barcode

Dear Max Barry,

after visiting i decided to read your book, Jennifer Government. While reading, I read something which made me think: “What would you get if you scanned the barcode?” Is it simply a random arrangement of numbers, or does it have meaning?

~A Jennifer Government Fan

Well, A Jennifer Government Fan, that’s a good question. The answer is long, convoluted, and filled with heartbreak. Well, no, not really. It’s just long and convoluted.

First, the barcode on the book’s cover doesn’t match the one in the story. That is, while Jennifer Government in the novel has a barcode tattoo for a particular product—which nobody is going to give away in the comments here, lest I smite their account—the barcode under Jen’s eye on the cover is for the book itself. More specifically, it’s for the US hardcover edition.

Or so I was told at the time. The truth, I was to discover, ran deeper.

During cover design, I didn’t care much whether the barcode matched up to what was in the book, partly because I had very little say in it, partly because I was so grateful to get a cover that didn’t suck balls I was weeping with joy, and partly because who the hell would ever know? But upon hearing what Doubleday wanted to do, I thought, “That’s cool. You could take the book up to the counter and buy it by scanning the front.”

I went around telling people this, until about a year later a guy with more knowledge of barcodes than is really healthy, Todd Larason, wrote an exposé on the Jennifer Government cover. It’s a very interesting piece, if you’re me or unhealthily fascinated by barcodes. Here’s a taste:

“But wait!”, I hear you cry, “You said it’s an EAN-13, not an ISBN, and as everyone knows they have incompatible checksum digits!”

Todd uncovered the non-match between the story and the cover, and that was just his warm-up. He also discovered that while the barcode digits on the covers of many editions of Jennifer Government are for the US hardback, one of the few that doesn’t match is… the US hardback. For some reason, in a last-minute change, the barcode number on its front cover was altered: instead of ending in a 2 (like here), it ends in a 3 (like here). This means it matches the book’s ISBN, but not its barcode.

Why? It’s a mystery. I can only presume that somebody thought they were catching a typo just before the print run.

Todd Larason wasn’t done there. His final observation was that according to the official EAN-13 standard, the barcode’s bars don’t match its numbers—nor the ISBN, nor anything else. It’s not actually a valid barcode. It’s just funky-looking black lines.

(P.S. If you’re interested in seeing how the cover evolved, take a look at the Jennifer Government Extras.)

Wed 23

I’m just sayin’

Jennifer Government A riot outside a shoe store as customers fight each other for limited-edition Nike sneakers worth $1,000 a pair? Who’d a thunk it?

Tue 22

We’re not in Redmond any more, Toto

Max About nine months ago I switched from Microsoft Windows to Gentoo Linux. I wasn’t unhappy with Windows, but Linux is very handy when you’re designing a web site, and I got sick of rebooting all the time to switch from one to the other. So I decided to suck it up and go all the way.

This turned out to be a lot like moving to another country, both in the sense that I didn’t know where anything was or understand the local language, and because I realized things about the place I’d left. So here’s what I learned.

(Note: There are several different types of Linux, and they each do some things better than the others. Not all my comments apply to all Linux distributions. But I’m still going to just say “Linux.”)

  1. Linux is a religion. When you first hear about Linux, it’s from slightly creepy people whose eyes shine with a born-again fervor while they rattle on about all kinds of things you don’t understand. I have become one of those people. There really needs to be some kind of warning sticker on the CD: “May cause you to blog about the philosophies of operating systems.” I mention this up front because it helps to explain everything else.

  2. Windows thinks you’re an idiot; Linux thinks you’re a genius. What I love about Windows is that no matter what it asks you to do, you can choose the default and it works. You can actually install software by inserting the CD, closing your eyes, and hitting ENTER over and over again. You have no idea what you’re doing, but you don’t care.

    Linux, on the other hand, wouldn’t dare to assume it knows what you want. There’s hardly a default setting on anything, anywhere. Naturally you will want to do some in-depth reading about horizontal frequency rates before leaping into anything as advanced as displaying a picture on the screen, right? The first time you do anything in Linux, you come away with an education.

    Each approach is handy at different times. It’s very handy being treated as an idiot, until you want to do something smart. Then it’s annoying.

  3. Windows plays soccer; Linux plays rugby. In soccer (sorry, to me this is football), whenever one player makes the slightest contact with another, he collapses to ground, writhing in agony and clutching at his ankle. Everyone gathers around and looks very worried until the referee holds up a yellow card and then—amazing!—the player springs up again, completely cured. So too Windows: as soon as anything goes wrong with any program, the whole thing collapses in a screaming heap, and requires a reboot. Linux, on the other hand, shrugs off application failures like a rugby player ignores broken fingers. Programs crash, but Linux keeps going.

  4. Linux marketing sucks. Microsoft is a corporation with an overriding financial interest in persuading people to buy Windows. The people who make Linux, on the other hand, are mostly volunteers who simply love building good code. So while there are plenty of Microsoft advertisements and salespeople and lobbyists to tell the government that you can’t trust Linux, there is practically nobody on the other side. It’s always a bit creepy when you have a big corporation up against a non-profit or non-entity; you end up being told that sugared drinks are better for you than water, you wouldn’t dare breast-feed your baby when good old manufactured formula is available, and there’s no such thing as global warming. Linux people don’t merely lack the funding to match Microsoft’s marketing; they also don’t really want to. The Linux attitude is that they have built a magnificent operating system and if you can’t see that, well, that’s your problem. So Microsoft’s aim is to sell operating systems while Linux people focus on building them.

  1. Windows lets you, Linux unleashes you. Occasionally I see the phrase “lets you” in discussions of Windows software—as in, “This software lets you press C to get a preview.” The idea that you are not allowed to do anything to your computer unless it “lets you” is, I realized, very Microsoftian. Because in Linux, you can do whatever the hell you want to pretty much any piece of code: improve it, change it, or break it. Not that you need to, because everything is incredibly customizable already, but you can. If you complain about any piece of software in Linux, you stand a good chance of being told, “Well go make it better, then.” By comparison, Microsoft asks, “Where do you want to go today?” but then strongly recommends you select: “Default.”

  2. Windows gets in your face. Like an annoying four-year-old, Windows can’t go two minutes without attention. You boot, start to do something, and suddenly there windows are flying at your face. Everything is checking for updates or activating or deactivating or switching channels and IT HAS TO TELL YOU THIS RIGHT NOW. Linux puts its messages in the log, and you read them when and if you feel like it.

  3. Windows fails silently. Oh my God. Before, I never even noticed this. But now every time I have to use Windows I end up bug-eyed and yelling at the screen, “Just tell me what’s wrong!” When something goes wrong in Linux, it spews messages into the system log, which you can read through to see what it was doing. Then you copy a phrase or two into Google, click Search, and choose from a list of pages competing to tell you exactly what the problem is and how to fix it.

    Windows doesn’t do this. Windows doesn’t even have a system log, as far as I know. When things go wrong, they do so mysteriously and without complaint: you click buttons and nothing happens, or you try to run a program and it just vanishes. There’s no way to discover what the actual problem is. If you Google for the symptoms, you find endless pages complaining about the same thing, but no solutions. Or you do find solutions, but they all come down to the same thing: (1) Reboot (2) Reinstall. They should issue a Microsoft Support Manual that contains nothing except these two words, because that’s the solution to every single Windows problem. Even if you manage to fix it, you never find out what exactly the problem is; you just grope around blindly reinstalling things until suddenly and just as mysteriously things start working again. The other day I e-mailed a company’s tech support and their semi-automated advice was to reinstall their program and Windows XP. If that didn’t work, I was to e-mail again to get help from a human. That’s right, wiping my hard drive was the first step in their diagnoses process. This is like having to get a heart transplant before the doctor will see you about your hiccups.

    The end result is that even though Windows is simpler to get to grips with, I never felt really confident with it, because I couldn’t tell what it’s doing. Linux requires more understanding, but when you’ve got that, you’re more assured.

  4. Linux people rock. One day my Windows PC choked on an automatic security update, and thereafter every time it tried to update itself, it failed. Having an unpatched Windows computer connected to the internet is like walking through a bad neighborhood tossing your BMW car keys from hand to hand, so I wanted to do something about this. There was no error message, of course, aside from the gloriously unhelpful, “The update failed to install.” I ended up going through the maze of Microsoft’s technical support to send in a problem report. I received an automated e-mail back saying my report had been received, then nothing. Weeks went by. I tried again. Same thing. Then one day, it just started working again.

    Of course, this is not specific to Microsoft. Pretty much every company treats a support customer like something they just stepped in: their aim is to get rid of you with as little touching as possible. I can’t remember the last time I e-mailed a company for support and it didn’t go like this:
    1. Receive automated response suggesting I look in FAQs
    2. Receive response from alleged human being that consists of copy-and-pasted text from FAQ
    3. I write back thanking them for the information and expressing regret that none of it is remotely relevant to the problem I described
    4. Human being actually reads my e-mail starts being helpful.
    By which time I figure out the problem myself.

    The other day I had some trouble getting a piece of hardware working on my Linux machine, and found a web site by
    a guy who had written Linux drivers for it. Not because it was his job; he just felt like it. The hardware was Australian-specific and Google wasn’t helping much, so I e-mailed him a question, not really expecting a reply—because it’s a bit like e-mailing Bill Gates to ask what that DOS command is that displays all the directories. (Or would be if Gates actually wrote DOS. Bada boom! Sorry. I’m sorry. See point #1.) He wrote right back with the answer.

Wed 16

Retrospective #4: Comments, e-mails, Ellis, and Arjun

Max This is the bit when I look back at—ah, forget it, I can’t hand-hold you new people forever.

No sooner had I posted the blog about getting the Syrup screenwriting gig when I received an e-mail back. “Ah!” I thought. “Already the congratulations are rolling in!” This is what it said:

you only write about your scripts, and that too few and far between. youre ignoring your loyal website readers such as me. you stopped writing funny stuff long ago. im upset. :(

you need to get back to the old days when you wrote a post every other day, and incredibly funny ones too.


This evoked several competing thoughts. First was, “Kiss my butt, Arjun!” Second was, “Maybe he’s got a point. I haven’t done so many comedy blogs lately. And he is quite flattering about my older stuff.” The third was, “Kiss my butt, Arjun! What do you want, a refund?”

I know artists have to put up with people saying, “I like your old albums/books/films better than your new ones,” but geez, I didn’t think I’d get that about my web site. I searched through my e-mail and discovered that Arjun had written to me a couple of times before. If I were petty enough, I might observe that his earlier e-mails were much more entertaining than this one. And I am, so I have.

I finally changed my e-mail page to announce that I can no longer reply to all letters. I cringed as I did it, because I knew some people would take this as proof that I am an out-of-touch egomaniac with no time for his fans, and I’d prefer to keep that a secret. I also worried I would get fewer e-mails, since people might not bother writing if there wasn’t much chance of a reply. Instead, my e-mail inflow practically doubled. It’s like everyone was looking at that pathetic line, “I will try to reply in 19 weeks,” and thought, “Poor bastard, I’ll leave him be.”

Or maybe it was because of my interview with Ellis. This blog clearly encouraged a lot of people to e-mail me crazy comments in the hope that I would interview them for the site, too. Either that or a lot of genuinely crazy people suddenly all wrote to me at once. Hmm. That’s a more disturbing idea. But anyway, Ellis has his own web site now, which promises to reveal more of the enigma wrapped inside a riddle that is Ellis. Compulsory reading.

In December I added the ability for site members to post comments in response to my blogs, which, to my surprise, turned out great. If I post a funny blog, people post a bunch of funny follow-ups; if I post a serious blog, people post lots of thought-provoking comments. I have to admit, the reason it took me so long to add this was because I was sure it would get spammed into the ground by idiots. And I guess this will happen sooner or later, since this is the internet. But so far, so good!

I received many long, thoughtful e-mails in reply to my “On Capitalism and Corporatism” blog. I took the time to read them and mull them over and think how lucky it was I didn’t have to write equally thoughtful replies. Amongst them was a one-sentence letter that, possibly inadvertently, made the most persuasive argument for the ascendancy of capitalism of all. After digesting my opinions on political economics, globalization, and corporatism, Joseph had this to say:

you play world of warcraft? Cool lets play sometime

Sun 13

Entering the Fortress

Syrup It’s a good-news-bad-news kind of situation, except the good news is all for me and the bad news is all for you. That’s the best kind of good-news-bad-news, so long as you’re me. Which I am. So that’s great.

Here’s the good news. I got this e-mail from Fortress:

I am trying to talk to Siberell about hiring you. We want to give you a shot and want to make sure that Brian is open to making a creative deal.

Brian Siberell is my film agent. So I’m pretty sure this translates as: “Dear Max, Without wanting to invite you to pull down our pants and steal our wallets, we intend to hire you to write the Syrup screenplay.”

My reaction is: “Ohhhhhhh yeah!” I am so fired up to write this thing, I tell you. And now I don’t have to fly to L.A. and kneecap anybody.

The bad news is the sample script I posted on this site, then pulled down at Fortress’s request, is going to stay down. Sorry if you would have liked a look at that. But the idea now is not to expose my naked raw drafts to the world, but to keep things under wraps until I have a script that’s cool and polished and gleaming with edgy goodness. (Which it so will. Hot damn!)

Tue 01

Movie Update: We Have Writers!

Jennifer Government I often get asked what’s happening with the Jennifer Government film, because—well, you know, movies are cool. And it’s been about three years since Steven Soderbergh & George Clooney optioned my book, and so far not much has happened. On the one hand this isn’t so surprising, because making a movie is a major logistical challenge: you have to get the right people interested, and all available at the same time, and happy to work with each other, and then you need to pay them all stupid amounts of money. There are plenty of films that took ten or more years to make it to the screen. I really hope mine isn’t one of those, but I’ve held off getting measured for the tuxedo I’ll wear to the premiere.

What’s mainly happened so far, I think—and bear in mind that I am not involved in this process, because no film-maker or studio exec wants an author hanging around, wringing his hands over changes to his masterpiece—is that Section 8 has talked to writers. At first I thought they were actually hiring writers, then not liking what they produced, but I have since discovered they were just having meetings. Lunches, mostly, I believe.

Until now! Writers have been actually hired, and they are, I’m assured, typing words out and everything. They are Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who wrote the extremely cool British film Sexy Beast. (Seriously, it’s great. And Ben Kingsley will give you nightmares. You should see it.)

Obviously the idea of having a bound screenplay I’ll be able to rub my hands over and say, “Ahhh, it’s not as good as the book,” is very exciting. Also exciting is that Section 8 and Warner Bros. have asked to renew the option, to tie up the rights for another two years. This, coincidentally or not, would take us up to the point where Clooney & Soderbergh’s contract with Warner Bros. expires. What does this mean? I don’t know. But the next 24 months should be interesting.

Thu 20

On Capitalism and Corporatism

What Max Reckons I am occasionally accused of being anti-things: anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and anti-globalization, mainly. If you’ve read Jennifer Government, you may have an inkling why. But that’s a novel, not an essay. So I am going to settle the burning issue: What Max is Anti-.

Let’s start with anti-corporate. People say this just because I wrote a book in which Nike commits mass murder as a promotion for sneakers. The truth is, I consider myself fairly pro-corporation. After all, I believe they should be allowed to exist. I’m happy for them to manufacture things, and offer those things to me in exchange for money. So long as they don’t externalize the true costs of such manufacture—by, for example, dumping their waste in a river—that’s totally fine. My only beef with corporations is that they would clearly kill any one of us if there was a clean profit in it, and they seem to be getting themselves into a position to do just that.

Now apparently that makes me anti-corporate. Which I think is totally unfair; after all, I can be pro-lawnmower even though I don’t want them running over my feet. I don’t believe that corporations are evil. I don’t think they’re immoral. They’re simply amoral: they have no capacity for ethical judgment. Like a lawnmower, they do what they’ve been designed for.

My attitude toward corporations doesn’t depend on whether they’re large or small, chain or independent, foreign or local. It’s certainly true that companies that serve the general public (like McDonald’s and Apple) act nicer than companies that don’t (like Monsanto and Halliburton), but this is no anomaly: it’s just further proof that corporations are only interested in public opinion when it affects their bottom-line. Fundamentally, all public companies are cast from the same mold. They are all machines, running different programs on the same operating system.

This is not a particularly common view in these days when corporations appear to us as grinning clowns and energetic bunnies. We are generally encouraged to view them as real people, complete with emotions and personalities and quirky senses of humor. To me this is the purest horseshit, and why I am never surprised by scandals of companies caught behaving badly. They are not people, and it isn’t cynicism to say so: it’s the plain truth.

(By the way, I suspect that the increasing personification of corporations might turn out to be their Achilles’ heel. The more society buys into the myth that companies are real people, the more we expect them to adhere to human-like standards of ethical behavior. People like me would allow corporations to get away with murder, because we expect nothing better. It’s the people who get shocked when they discover that designer-label clothing is manufactured for ten cents an hour by children in China who cause trouble for a brand’s image and force companies to improve their behavior.)

As for capitalism, I’m definitely pro- that. At least, I’m in favor of the kind of regulated capitalism that clearly beats the pants off any other economic system the world has come up with so far. Capitalism has its pointy bits, but it’s hard to argue with life-saving medicines, mobile phones, and being able to buy a vintage Chewbacca figurine over the internet. Now, I don’t think it’s a smart idea to privatize water, or the government, or any other essential service that isn’t subject to natural competition, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-capitalist. That means I’m not a zealot.

Somehow, the words “corporation” and “capitalism” have gotten mixed up: the prevailing view is that corporations are champions of capitalism, while anybody prone to waving a placard outside a Gap store must be against it (and maybe even against *cough* *cough* freedom.) I don’t know how anyone who’s actually worked for a corporation can believe this. Companies are like the Soviet Union pre-1989: they’re centrally-managed, they’re always trying to establish a monopoly, and there’s nothing they love more than a little price-fixing. Sometimes they send people to lobby government, but not for more competition: no, they want subsidies, special favors, tax breaks, and government assistance. So who’s the pinko? It’s corporations that are anti-capitalist, not people like me.

Finally, globalization: I’m pro- that, too. Its great potential benefit is that as it erodes national boundaries, the privileges of rich nations leak out to the poor. Today, the single greatest determinant of your health, wealth, and general standard of living is which part of the Earth you happened to be born in—something you had no say in, and can take no credit for. There is currently some consternation in Western nations about jobs flowing offshore, to people who will work for less pay (although this has been the case ever since I can remember, just in different industries), but as far as I’m concerned, this is terrific. As much as it would suck to be made redundant from your call center because the work is moving to India, that job is going to someone poorer than you, who needs the work more than you, and who in unemployment faces more serious consequences than having to cancel his World of Warcraft subscription. We are gradually coming to grips with the concept that people shouldn’t be discriminated against for things they can’t control, and thanks to globalization, this will eventually apply to people outside our own national borders. It is an outrage that Western nations preach free trade while blocking poorer countries from selling us their goods; it perpetuates Third World poverty in order to protect First World jobs. I’ll suck up a lot of lost Aussie culture and Planet Hollywood stores to get rid of that.

Thu 13

Brad Pitt Rectifies Syrup Gag

Syrup But first, an update on the Syrup film situation. Here’s where we’re at: Fortress liked my draft script, but wanted to hear more about my vision for the last two thirds of the film. I said, “That sounds a bit like you want me to sketch out the whole screenplay for no money,” and they said, “Well…” and proceeded to flatter me until I agreed to do it. So right now I’m putting the finishing touches on a draft structure for the film, on the understanding that they’ll then decide (Donald Trump-style) whether I’m hired or not. If they turn me down, we have agreed that I get to fly over to LA and beat them to death.

But back to the headline story: finally, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston are splitting up! I was thrilled to hear this, because finally that bit in Syrup where Cindy’s goal is to marry Brad Pitt will make sense again. This has been bugging me for years, and I’m really glad Brad (or I guess it was Jen) had the decency to make things right.

Maybe everyone knew this already, but I just found out that those two originally met on a blind date. I tell you what, if a friend sets you up on a blind date with Brad Pitt or Jennifer Anniston, you’d be fairly happy, wouldn’t you? I keep hearing these dating horror stories; how come nobody ever tells the ones where their blind date turned out to be one of the most desirable human beings on the planet?

Which, I reckon, was Brad and Jennifer’s problem. I mean, imagine you’re Brad Pitt. Okay, I’ll give you a few moments. Now imagine waking up one morning, perhaps after a particularly big night, and wandering to the bathroom. You’re halfway there and you realize that Jen is looking at you from the bed. You’re standing there, your hair all flat and stupid-looking, your eyes bloodshot, caught in the middle of scratching yourself in that place where men scratch when nobody’s around, and you can totally read Jen’s expression. It’s: “So this is the world’s sexiest man.”

Tue 11

Idiot Does Stupid Thing

What Max Reckons Okay, look, yes: I realize some idiot has auctioned his forehead for advertising space, and January is a slow month for the media so they’re all writing articles about it. And yes, of course, some idiotic company is going to pay some idiotic amount of money for it, and that’ll make news all over again. (If you haven’t heard about this, here’s all you need to know: his mother is proud of him because he’s “thinking outside the box.”) Haven’t we already established that the world is engaged in a slow, hapless slide into corpocracy? Do we really need to celebrate every milestone?

Update (12-Jan-05): For a full listing of idiots, check out the hundred or so people currently offering various parts of their anatomy for sale as billboards (thanks to M. Burns for the link). Two items are worth a look, though: first, the “Forehead Ad Blocker” (screens out ads on idiots’ foreheads), and “Watch me bitch slap everyone selling their forehead”. Now that’s tempting.