all things to no people

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Tue 24

Travel Diary: Day #1 (Melbourne, L.A.)

Writing [ Max’s U.S. Tour Dates ]

“Going anywhere exotic?” says the guy in the blue shirt. I’m startled because I have big weepy eyes and tear-stained cheeks and surely nobody talks to someone who looks like that. Yeah, so I’m a marshmallow. I’ve just said good-bye to my wife and baby girl and all I can think about is the way Fin’s little fingers curled around mine as she lay in her car seat. I haven’t spent single a day apart from her since she was born in August, and now I’ll be out of her life for eleven of them.

“L.A.,” I say. I’m leaving it up to him to judge whether L.A. is exotic. Under normal circumstances I’d grant that, but since we’re standing in line to check-in for a flight to… yes, Los Angeles, it’s kind of a weird question.

But talking to Blue Shirt makes me feel better. So does going through Australian Customs, because they’ve opened some barriers to allow you to short-circuit the enormous queue maze, only some passengers haven’t noticed, and they’re going back and forth, back and forth. This is amusing to watch.

In line I observe that the outgoing declaration form has a big notice saying “MAKE SURE TO COMPLETE BOTH SIDES OF THIS FORM,” but only on the back. I wonder how big a problem that can really be, people filling out just the backs of forms.

I have more than an hour to kill before departure, so I browse through the airport bookstore. A couple wander past me, talking in French. They sound very cool until the woman says, “<francais francais francais> Da Vinci Code.”

I buy an amusing-looking book called HOW TO RULE THE WORLD, even though I already have three books in my bag and know I will collect more on tour. In ten days I will probably be trying to figure out how to get my excess baggage home. At the bookstore counter I see the new John Grisham paperback; it’s called THE BROKER and the tag line is: “He broke the rules, now he must pay the price.” The Broker: he broke things? Worst. Tagline. Ever.

After an hour waiting by the gate, the Captain wanders out and declares that they can’t start one of the engines, so we won’t be going anywhere for a while. Seriously. We all take him at his word because he’s wearing a natty uniform. The Captain tells us how they’re going to steal a part from another plane to get us in the air, and the plane we steal from will get a part from a plane in Sydney, and… eventually, I guess, all the planes will be in the air except for one, and its Captain will be shaking his fist and swearing. Anyway, apparently this part can be fitted to our plane within the hour. One of the passengers says, “Take your time!” This gets a laugh, so he says it again, louder. Then he sits down, to, I hope, think long and hard about what he’s done.

An hour passes. I feel tired and bored. An announcement informs us that the part has been fitted, but now the plane is too hot from sitting out in the sun, so there will be a delay while they run the air conditioning. This strikes me as the kind of thing that could have been done simultaneously with fitting the engine part, but of course I’m not an aeronautical engineer.

A guy sitting in my eye line is wearing one of those inflatable pillows. Look, okay, if you’re on a plane, I guess the extra comfort is worth looking that stupid. But we’re still at the gate. He’s wearing an inflatable pillow at the gate.

It’s not a good sign that I’m this irritable this early.

We get underway two hours late. There are babies all around me, but for some reason I find them calming. I like that I can predict that the baby that’s making little crow-like caws in the back of his throat is about to go to sleep, and sure enough, he does. When the babies are happy I wish I’d brought Jen and Fin with me and when the babies scream I’m glad I didn’t.

We hit turbulence early, which puts most of the kids to sleep. It goes away, then comes back, and gets steadily worse for the rest of the flight. By the time we start our descent into LA I feel like I’ve just spent 14 hours on a carnival ride. The Captain says it’s the bumpiest ride he can remember in 30 years of flying. I feel a little pride at being there for the record, also nausea.

I’m nervous at US Customs. I always am, ever since a Customs Officer threatened to bar me from the country in 1999. When I told him I was coming over to do a book tour, he said, “I hear money.” I said, “What?” Again: “I hear money.” He just kept saying it. Eventually I worked out that he didn’t want a bribe but rather thought I was coming here to work—to earn a salary—and I was so relieved I laughed. This was probably a mistake. Because even though I explained quite clearly that nobody pays authors to do bookstore readings, he refused to believe me. Eventually—long after every other passenger had left and it was just me, Jen, and Customs Officers looking like they were just waiting for an excuse to probe something—he said, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear anything about any book tour.”

Every trip since then it’s been no problem. This time is no exception, although the new US-VISIT program is running, which means I get fingerprinted (left index finger on the pad, sir, now your right), and photographed by a bulbous and somehow evil-looking little webcam. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been fingerprinted. It feels strange. What are they going to do with my fingerprints? Wait until I commit a terrorist atrocity, then make sure I’m not allowed back in? I don’t like that I can think of plenty of things to do with a giant fingerprint database if you’re a government wanting to increase your power, but not many if you just want to prevent terrorism.

It’s 10:30 Tuesday morning. This time today, I was checking in at Melbourne Airport. That’s thanks to the time difference. Yikes. For me, today is 43 hours long.

I catch a cab to my hotel and mess up the tipping. That is, I do the cab driver okay (I think: a little over 15%) but the doorman rushes my bag inside and I don’t tip him straight away because I think he’s going to take it all the way to my room, but then he disappears after depositing it at the check-in counter. Tipping is a nightmare for Australians: we don’t do it at home and don’t know how to do it abroad. It’s a cultural thing: to us, it’s insulting to offer someone such a small amount of money. I know, I know: for many service workers it adds up. But still, when I give someone a tip of a dollar or two I expect them to say, “Well, gee!! Thanks a lot, Mr. Big Spender! Think I’ll buy me a stick of gum!”

First thing I do after check-in is walk down the street and buy a phone card, so I can call home for less than $9 per minute. The second thing I do is call home. It’s 7 a.m., which usually means that Fin is waking up, and luckily her timing today is immaculate. I talk to Jen and then she puts me on speaker. I am informed that Fin is chewing on the phone while I’m talking to her, which I believe because I can hear little slurping sounds. It’s wonderful; I can picture Jen and Fin exactly. For a second I can even smell Finlay. Heaven.

I grab a couple hours sleep, then am woken by a phone that I prove too stupid to answer. There are buttons everywhere, and they all seem to default to “Hang up on caller.” This must be what old people feel like. Eventually I manage to successfully answer a call: it’s Jeff, my media escort, confirming that he’s picking me up at 8:45am tomorrow. Media escorts are people hired by the publisher to drive authors around and make sure they don’t get too lost or frightened. They’re like professional mothers. Jeff says we have an interview to do, then we’ll “hit some bookstores, grab some lunch, mix it up a little, have some fun.” Whoa!

Today is a travel day: I have no other official duties. I go for a walk, buy a T-shirt, eat my first ever Butterfinger bar (not impressed, sad to say), and go over what I want to talk about at my reading tomorrow. For dinner I meet Todd, a guy I started corresponding with way back when Syrup was new. Todd used to tell me horrifying and engrossing stories about his love life and now tells me horrifying and engrossing stories about his attempts to establish himself as a director. It’s a tough call as to which are more frightening. I feel glad to be a writer.

Now it’s 10 p.m. and I’m ready for bed… after just one more phone call, to wish my girls good night.

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