Here I was all about to start a blog post called “That’s 2006, then,” when I realized I’d already done that in 2004. Except it was called “That’s 2004, then.” Because it was 2004 at the time. Not 2006.
One of the problems with writing all the time is I tend to unwittingly repeat myself. For example, the other day I received an e-mail that chilled my spine:
Please stop using the line “he’d never seen so many expensive pairs of shoes in one place.” You have used it in all three novels, and it has about outlived its utility.
Could I really be unintentionally inserting the same line into all my books? That would be pretty embarrassing. And probably sign of some kind of encroaching mental defect. Some kind of new encroaching mental defect, I mean. So I went searching through my manuscripts. Sure enough I found this in Jennifer Government:
John had never been surrounded by so many good pairs of shoes.
… and this in Company:
It turns out to be a bar so stylish that it has dispensed with anything as obvious as trying to look like a bar, and at at seven o’clock on a Friday evening it is full of deep orange sunshine and more pairs of expensive shoes than Jones has ever seen in one place.
But I couldn’t find anything similar in Syrup, thank God. That’s only two out of three! I reckon that lets me off the hook. And what about all the lines that aren’t the same? Nobody writes in about those!
Anyway, that’s it from me for the year. Thanks so much to all you guys who visit my site, and read my books, and validate my life. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be broke, bitter, and spending most nights fighting homeless guys for loose change. Well, I do that anyway, but it’s a lifestyle choice.
I’m the other type: one of those people who breaks into a cold sweat at one a.m. because I just remembered the time in 1989 when I asked this girl out and she thought I was joking, so I tried to play along. In fact, now I think about it, that happened a couple of times. I probably needed to rework my approach.
But the thing that really haunts me is that one particular person has been present at nearly all of my greatest humiliations. This is Elke, who I lived next door to when we were both babies. There are lots of photos of us playing naked in the splash pool; our parents joked that one day we’d get married; you know the deal. Well, Elke grew up to be beautiful, smart, generous, and kind to animals. And I’m quite sure she thinks I’m the biggest asshole on the planet, because every time she’s seen me in the last twenty years, I’ve been rude, drunk, committing a crime, insulting her brother, or some combination of the above.
It’s eerie. I don’t think she’s inspiring me to these depths. She just always happens to be there, staring at me in shock. I swear, if I took off my pants, walked down the street, beat up a nun, and mugged a homeless person, I would turn around and there would be Elke. It’s like my life is a sitcom and she’s my running gag. Only since I’m in it, it’s not that funny.
I understand that we all do dumb things now and again. What I don’t get is why all of mine happen in front of this one person, whom I otherwise never see. It’s a little disturbing to know there’s someone out there with a perfectly rational basis for thinking I’m a scumbag.
I haven’t seen Elke for many years, which at least means that I haven’t done anything seriously embarrassing since then. But one day I hope to run into her again, so I can say, “Look, I know what you must think about me. And I won’t try to change your mind. I just want to say I’m really sorry.” Then I would probably barf on her dog.
The other day two people threatened to sue me. Admittedly, they were employees of the same company. But still: two in 24 hours is a new record for me. It’s also the first time I’ve been threatened by a company, not an individual. But, like all the others, it was related to NationStates, the nation simulation web game I wrote.
To whom it may concern:
There is a “counrty” on your webite called “Allevia”. Allevia is a TRADEMARKED name and may not be used on your website. You will be receiving registered mail shortly from our legal councel here in Switzerland. We advise that you remove the trademarked name from your site without delay.
At first I thought this was a stunt by a NationStates player, trying to get the Allevia nation into trouble—because players can be devious like that. But there is a real Swiss company called Allevia, so I wrote to them to ask if this was for real.
Before long I had a reply from Pierre Mainil-Varlet, MD, PhD, MBA, Allevia’s Chief Operating Officer. Pierre confirmed it was genuine, and if I didn’t scrub Allevia from NationStates, “a legal action will be started.”
Now I was confused. It’s not like Allevia is such a bad nation. It’s a democracy, has excellent civil rights, low unemployment, and its national animal was the Tufted Penguin. Those are some cool birds. Sure, it’s a corporate bordello, but whose country isn’t, these days? So I had trouble seeing what this company’s problem was—other than the fact that Google’s “allevia” results listed someone who wasn’t them at number five.
I wrote to Pierre expressing my doubts:
Could you please explain why you believe the use of the Allevia name by one of our players is illegal? To my eye it just looks like coincidence—nothing about the account suggests the player is referring to (or even aware of) your company. Should nationstates.net be in breach of the law, then by all means we will comply, but I’m a little puzzled about what law you think is being broken here.
Pierre fired back a very interesting reply. Before I reveal that, though, here is a quiz. Imagine you discover an unrelated use of your company’s name in an obscure online computer game. There’s nothing offensive or damaging about it, but still, it bugs you that the internet isn’t reserved solely for your marketing messages. What do you do?
- Ignore it, because it has nothing to do with you, and your time is better spent doing whatever the hell it is that your company is supposed to do.
- Write a polite letter explaining the situation, keeping in mind that in many parts of the world, including all the relevant ones, threatening legal action over a trademark without a genuine basis is illegal and exposes your company to counter-action.
- Write to an author with a history of irritability toward corporations that try to control language, claiming to have ultimate control over use of the word “in all fields of operation,” explicitly including computer games (a claim easily contradicted by your own country’s trademark registry), and repeatedly threaten him with lawsuits.
If you selected #3, you could be Allevia’s Chief Operating Officer.
Pierre agreed with me that it was “a total coincidence and not bad will from the player.” And he further acknowledged that not only is “allevia” a common Italian word, but it’s used by Estee Lauder to refer to a fragrance. However, he claimed:
[We] own all other field of application including computer games and softawre software. The situation would be the same if you would use the name coca cola.. You would be place into difficulties
He also assured me again that this was a serious matter and Allevia “will be consequent in our action,” which I took to mean something bad.
Around now I began to wonder if our player should sue Pierre. After all, the player was running a respectable nation; he wouldn’t want to be confused with a Swiss-based manufacturer of empty legal threats. I was also tickled by Pierre’s use of the Coca-Cola example. I mean, of all the companies to choose from, and all the people to try it on: he chooses Coke, and the guy who wrote a novel set in that company and had it published in ten countries.
I was a little tempted to fake up a letter from Coke, saying it had come to their attention that Pierre had used their trademarked name in an email without permission, and now they were going to sue. Because Pierre didn’t seem to understand that trademark law prohibits people from passing themselves off as you—not from talking about you, or using the same coincidental series of letters in unrelated contexts.
But I didn’t do that. Pierre CCed his last email to a bunch of people inside Allevia, presumably to impress upon them how decisively he was taking care of business. Following that, I couldn’t get him to write back to me, no matter how sneakily I encouraged him to say something else outlandish. So I’m guessing someone on that CC list knocked on his office door and had a gentle conversation with him about what the hell he was doing.
Which makes it a happy ending, in my book. The great nation of Allevia survives, its intelligent, well-educated citizens free to lead their lives unmolested in their beautiful, progressive, somewhat economically fragile nation. And, somewhere in Switzerland, a Chief Operating Officer grows a little sadder, but perhaps also a little wiser.
I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about this, because from experience I know the moment I say, “This book I’m working on is going quite well,” that’s the first moment of a week of black, empty wordlessness. You just can’t tempt the gods like that. So I have been very good. I haven’t said anything to anybody, even though I have desperately wanted to grab someone and yell, “It’s the best book ever! It’s the best book ever!”
Now I should confess that I often become overly enamored with my own books while I’m writing them. It’s a good thing, because if I saw them objectively, these staggering, newborn first drafts, I’d probably be so appalled that I wouldn’t be able to keep working on them. Blind love at this point is a prerequisite.
And next, I’m sure I’m going to read this draft and discover the myriad ways in which it’s not as wonderful as I thought. But that’s also a good thing: just as I can’t write if I’m in a critical frame of mind, I can’t edit unless I am. So I need to change modes. I need to give it some tough love.
But before I do, I’m just going to say it: this has been the best writing experience of my life.
I did two things differently this time. First, I had a daily maximum word limit. I probably broke this more times than I honored it, but still, I think it was helpful. It was good to feel a little naughty when I wrote 800 words in a day. And it was good to be able to leave it at 200 words when the scene needed more thought, rather than feeling like I should push on with whatever I had at the time.
The second thing I did differently was refuse to plot. Well, I’ve always done that; this time I actively tried to destroy my own plotting. Whenever I realized I’d figured out what was going to happen next, I changed my mind. My goal was to avoid any kind of cruise mode, where I feel that the story is ticking along nicely and I don’t want to screw anything up, so I just let things play out. This time I deliberately kept messing things up. Sometimes that meant I spent most of my writing time looking out the window trying to figure out what would happen instead. And by the time I got to the ending, all I knew was that it couldn’t possibly be what I’d originally imagined.
I’m sure this helped my characters, because I constantly looked to them for the next step instead of trying to nudge them down my pre-determined path. And although I have a bunch of stuff I need to go back and insert to make the stuff I only thought up later work, I think the plot that grew out of this chaos is actually pretty good.
But most of all: oh man, it was such cool fun. I’ve had the best time.
(Note: I know somebody’s going to ask about timelines, so: at a guess, I’ll be ready to show this to my editor in maybe 6-12 months. If he decides he wants to publish it, then add about 12 months before it would appear on the shelves. I know, I know. Sorry.)
By now four thousand people have told me about the shooting at the Playstation 3 launch. Well, all right, it wasn’t four thousand. It was sixteen. Fifteen, if you don’t count the guy who thought it was over an XBox. (I love it when people remember everything about a marketing promotion except the product. Just knowing that some marketing executive signed off on a million-dollar campaign only to boost his competition gives me a warm feeling inside.)
Not that I’m saying Sony deliberately engineered a stock shortage and then hired an assassin to shoot someone in the stampede in order to build up the hype. That would be unspeakably immoral. To rip off the opening of Jennifer Government so blatantly, I mean.
I’m thinking about creating a special section on this site: “Stuff that happened in real life that’s kind of like one of Max’s books.” That way I won’t feel the need to salute each individual event: I can just add it to the list. Then on cold, quiet nights when I’m feeling insecure, I can browse that list and feel good about myself again. The best part is there need never be a list of “Things that were predicted in one of Max’s books and, boy, was he off-base.” Those things just haven’t come true yet.
Of course, it’s not that hard to predict advances in marketing. You just imagine what you’d do if you wanted to sell something and had absolutely no morals, self-respect, or dignity. Wait six months, and bing! There it is.
A reader named Richard e-mailed me about the new energy drink “Cocaine.” He did this when it was still quite topical, but I’ve been falling behind on my e-mail again, so I only just found out. In a few weeks time I’m planning to find out how those mid-term elections are shaping up.
Anyway, my thought today isn’t about Cocaine specifically, because everything about that product turns out to be exactly as you’d expect:
- The inventor came up with the name at 1 a.m.
- The name offended a bunch of people, who complained, which generated a lot of publicity, which helped sales
- It’s anyone’s guess what it tastes like, because the articles about it and even the product’s own website consider that an irrelevant side detail
The complaints, of course, were that the product glamorizes and legitimizes the illegal drug cocaine. Just as obviously, the manufacturers were shocked that anyone could imply there was some kind of connection between the drug cocaine and their product, Cocaine. They wrote:
Well, we think that kids today are neither ignorant, nor uninformed. As a matter of fact, we think that you are the brightest and most informed generation in the history of the world. How else would you be able to navigate your way to our MySpace?
I was intrigued by how impressed these guys are with their customers. I mean, they really think they’re clever. That seemed like an odd conclusion to reach about people who buy sodas just because they have a funny name. And it occurred to me that whenever I hear a company telling their customers how smart they are, it seems they’re selling a stupid product.
Take cigarettes. I’m not saying you have to be stupid to smoke. But it certainly helps if you have a poorly developed ability to anticipate logical consequences. Yet it’s hard to find an industry more deeply moved by their customers’ intellectual powers than tobacco. If you ask Altria,* smokers aren’t just customers, they’re proud warriors for freedom of choice, fighting against nanny-government interference in our personal lives. In fact, you probably don’t realize it, but many people smoke even though they hate it, just to express their refusal to bow to the military-industrial complex.
Similar, sometimes companies implore you to “make up your own mind.” Their argument seems to be that if you’re smart, you’ll ignore the overwhelming body of evidence that says their product is dangerous, and instead reach an independent conclusion based on their promotional web site.
To test the apparent correlation between how smart companies tell you they think you are and how stupid their product is, I plugged the phrase “our customers are intelligent” into Google and noted the top product categories to come up. If companies tended to say that because they really did have smart customers, you might expect to see telescopes and pocket protectors. If, on the other hand, companies tended to tell their customers they were smart as a piece of transparent marketing, you might see:
- Diamond engagement rings
- Domain name hosting
- Web site design
…which is what came up. That seems about right to me: two products that are sold for an order of magnitude more than they cost to manufacture, a service that offers the exact same thing as two thousand other companies, and a web site design company that claims, “When Microsoft begged us to help them with their website we were far too busy with other projects and had to turn them down.” Although, to be fair, companies offering domain name hosting and web site design come up no matter what you put into Google. They’re just part of the landscape, like insects, or Paris Hilton.
(* “Altria” used to be called Phillip Morris. According to its web site, the company changed its name “to better clarify its identity as the owner of food and tobacco companies that manage some of the world’s most successful brands.” That’s good to know. I’d thought they did it just so people wouldn’t realize they were the same pack of lying, murderous bastards.)
If you were wondering what that strange feeling you had recently was—a sensation like some great evil in the world had suddenly been put to rights—then I’m happy to explain: Company has got itself an Australian publication date.
About time, I know. It’s very weird to be published overseas but not at home. I wouldn’t mind if my book was completely ignored or flayed by critics, so long as people could at least find it in a bookshop. Well, I’d mind a little. No, you’re right, that would suck. But having Company unavailable in my home country really niggled at me this year. I’m very happy to be getting that fixed.
The details: it’ll be a A$29.95 paperback out March 2007 from Scribe Publications, available in Australia and New Zealand.
In film news, I spoke to Steve Pink recently—he’s the guy writing the Company screenplay. I gotta say, when the film rights sold to this book, I had no idea how it could be a movie. I mean, it was barely a novel. For me, it was more like colonic irrigation: by the end, I felt like I’d flushed out everything I had left to say about corporate life. But Steve described some scenes to me, and they sounded very funny. So now I’m intrigued.
Apparently if this film gets made, Jen and I get to fly first class to the premiere. Jen thinks this is the most exciting thing ever. Not the movie. The chance to fly first class.
Last night I sat down with Fin to read her a bedtime story, and she did the most amazing thing. She reached for the book, but two of her fingers were caught in her sleeve, so first she stretched her arm straight out, popping her hand free, then took the book.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so amazing. But I was flabergasted. It was so grown up. When I first saw Fin, she was seven cells. I saw her on a TV monitor, while Fin herself floated around inside an IVF doctor’s syringe. For the month prior to that, she was in frozen storage (and for this reason was called “Popsicle” during most of the pregnancy). She was seven cells. And now she can free her hand from her sleeve and climb stairs and wave at trains and moo at pictures of cows.
She’s 14 months old today. I know they grow up fast. But: wow.
Now you know I hate blowing my own trumpet every time something happens in the real world that’s straight out of one of my books. Well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word. I mean, “enjoy on a deep, almost sexual level.” Yeah. That’s more like it.
Anyway, I think this one is worth mentioning because it’s at the more extreme end: it’s that thing in Jennifer Government where everyone takes their surname from their employer. John Nike. Billy NRA. Violet ExxonMobil. And so on.
There’s a historical precedent for this: in centuries past, John Smith was the town blacksmith, Tim Baker really was a baker, and Geoff Wang was… well, let’s not think. In the Jennifer Government world, where a person’s job is the most important thing about them, returning to that concept made sense to me. Also, when I worked in sales, I’d get a call from “Michael Jamieson” or whoever, and frantically think, “Jamieson, Jamieson… who the hell is that?” It would have been so much simpler if he was “Michael McDonald’s.”
Now, we’ve already seen people selling their surnames to corporations, and even a particularly disturbing case of parents auctioning naming rights to their baby. But does it really count as a fulfilled prophesy when the people doing the fulfilling are missing some essential part of their brain? I dunno. I think that’s a little like saying, “I foresee a day when people will smack themselves in the face with hammers for fun,” and then claiming it came true because of my cousin Donny. Poor Donny. Well, you pity his parents, mostly. But back to the issue. For me to feel like I really nailed this one, it has to be done in all seriousness. Nobody should even see anything wrong with it.
So here we are. Lately companies have been stampeding into Second Life, a virtual reality of the kind that everyone thought the internet would be, before discovering it was just typing and clicking on links. In Second Life, you create an avatar—a little person to be—and run around… um, doing stuff. You know, like walking around… or going shopping… or building a house. But without having to stand up.
So. The news agency Reuters just opened an office there and assigned reporter Adam Pasick to the beat. So now there’s an avatar that looks like Adam in Second Life, reporting on news. Only what’s his name? Adam Reuters.
Oh yes. Innocuous. That’s how it starts.
I’m reading a succession of crappy books. Not deliberately. That would be weird. It just turned out this way: dud after dud. Every time I crack open a new one, I hope that I’m about to get that feeling: that moment when I realize, “Ooh, this is good.” But: nope. Nothing. I’ve even started abandoning books before the end, which I never used to do no matter how bad they were. (Instead, I would complain to Jen every night until I finished, stopping to point out particularly egregious passages. She prefers the new method.)
So it’s a good time to remember that I have read some good books recently. Of course, when I say “recently,” I mean “since I last updated my list of favorite reads,” i.e. in the last three years. But if I can assume that you care about my opinion, and aren’t here just because you googled for lonelygirl15, then maybe you’re interested in my recommendations.
Here are some books that, if you stopped by my house and said, “Got anything good to read?”, I would loan to you. I mean, once we had gotten past the screaming and “how did you get in here” stage.
Corpsing (Toby Litt): This was the first book of Toby’s I ever read, and I loved it so much that I keep buying more of his, even though all of those have turned out to be terrible. For me, Toby is that guy you know is trouble but can’t keep away from, because maybe this time it will be different; maybe he’ll treat you right. He never does. He’s a bad, bad man.
The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World (Neal Stephenson): I adored these. Almost everybody I’ve recommended them to has given up about 150 pages into the first book, saying, “Why the hell did you think I’d like that?” It’s inexplicable. I think all three books are amazing. If I had tried to write something like this, it would have taken me about 40 years. In fact, it would have taken me that long just to type them out, because they’re about 900 pages each.
A Certain Chemistry (Mil Millington): The British do excruciating better than anybody. Reading this was like having my fingernails pulled out, only with more laughing. When I’d finished I felt like I had been beaten around the head, but with love. Because of this I’m putting it ahead of Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, which is also very good and possibly funnier.
The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger): This one is a rough ride, too. Some of it is astonishingly beautiful, some is unbearably tragic. I thought it dragged a little in the middle, but still loved it.
Astonishing X-Men (Joss Whedon): I’ve been reading some comics lately, and this one is gorgeous. Book 3 (“Torn”) is especially juicy. Joss Whedon is, of course, one of the greatest human beings to ever walk the Earth, and he’s in great form here. I obsessively read X-Men comics in high school and college, and it’s very cool to return to these characters and see them handled so well.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon): I have never heard anyone say anything bad about this book, ever. So there’s no need for me to praise it. I’ll just say: they’re right.
The Men Who Stare At Goats (Jon Ronson) [non-fiction]: This book started out as a light, ridiculous, funny read, then turned dark and disturbing. I love that.
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse (Robert Rankin): It’s funny and it’s clever, but more than that it has a surprising and truly wonderful dynamic between the two main characters. Warm, snuggly, and gooey (in a good way).
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell (Susanna Clarke): I don’t usually read the backs of books until I’ve finished them, but I snuck a look at this one early and discovered that it was Time Magazine’s Book of the Year (2004). I wish I hadn’t done that, because from that point onward all I could think was, “Well, it’s good, but is it Book of the Year good?” So try not to do that. It is an absorbing read: simultaneously rich and dry.
Watching Racehorses: A Guide to Betting on Behaviour (Geoffrey Hutson) [non-fiction]: I don’t care about racehorses. I have no interest in betting on them. I only read this book because Geoff is a neighbor. But it was genuinely fascinating, very funny, and worth it for the section on clitoral winking alone. (I know. Intriguing.)
Haunted (Chuck Palahniuk): This is a bunch of short stories with a novel wrapped around it. As with any short story collection, the quality varies, but some of the ones in here scared the absolute crap out of me. So even though I wouldn’t rate this as Chuck’s best, it was a good read. Incidentally, I read a review of this in The Washington Post that was more like a drive-by shooting, with several bullets aimed below the belt, and noticed that Amazon.com chose that one, that one, to put on their site. It was nice to see that that doesn’t just happen to me.
The Beach (Alex Garland): Yeah, it’s already on my old list. But I re-read it, and ohhh, it’s so good.
Well, that was good timing. No sooner had I posted a blog about my irrepressible zest for life than the rumblings began. At first I just thought I was hungry. It was dinner time, so I popped down the street and bought myself a hamburger and chips. It was good. It was tasty. And a couple of hours later, it began an emergency evacuation.
I don’t remember having had gastro before. And I’m pretty sure that I would remember this. This was the single most disgusting experience of my life. That’s why I feel compelled to share it with you. Not because I think you want to know. God, no. If you’ve got any sense at all, you’ll walk away right now, sit in the corner, plug your ears with your fingers, and shout, “La la la la!” until I’ve stopped talking. No, this isn’t for your benefit; this is because I went through such a colossal life-changing experience that I need to talk about it to believe it really happened.
Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend about colonic irrigation—long story—and she mentioned that the average person carries around four pounds of compacted fecal matter. Yeah, sorry, now you’ll never be able to not know that again, either. Well, on the positive side, I am fairly confident that I am no longer one of those people.
One thing I found particularly remarkable was how big my stomach must be. I mean, just judging from the available evidence, I must be usually carrying around a shopping bag’s worth of food and associated juices in there. Well, mostly juices. But still. Unless it was expanding on exit, I just don’t see how everything could fit.
Jen and Fin both got gastro as well, but less spectacularly. In fact, Fin’s hardly seemed to bother her: she had a couple of yucks, then got on with business. I suppose when you’re a baby, fluids periodically rushing out of your body without your permission is just part of your daily routine. No need to write a blog about it.
But me, I have a whole new appreciation for the human body. No, wait, “appreciation” isn’t the right word. Fear. That’s what I meant. I’ve been reminded that I’m not completely in charge of this thing; that, under certain circumstances, something else is going to take over the controls for a while. And that’s an alarming idea. Although, boy: what a show!
This means I’m immature. At least, according to the world’s great thinkers. If we’re to call ourselves mature, intelligent adults, apparently we must each come to terms with the things we cannot change in life, and one of these is that it must inevitably end. If you refuse to accept this, it’s a sign that you are still in a child-like state.
But come on. Isn’t the only reason that we die because we haven’t got the technology right yet? I once heard an Australian scientist, Dr. Kruszelnicki, say that the current generation was probably going to be the last to die or the first to live forever. I tell you what, if I miss the immortal generation by a few years, I’ll be pissed.
I don’t get why more people aren’t upset about this. I mean, I’ve read angry letters to the editor about cabbages. Where’s the outrage about the inevitability of death? Seriously, which offends you more: petrol prices, or the idea that one day people will either burn your body or bury it?
Okay, there’s the afterlife argument. I’m not convinced. First, even if you buy the idea that after you die, you go to a better place, that strikes me as a little too much like, “Hey guys, let’s ditch this party; I heard that other one’s way better!” I’m sorry, but I’m enjoying this party. I don’t want to travel halfway across the city only to discover that all the cool people already left or we got the address wrong or the driver decides it’s kind of late so maybe we should just go home. “Let’s go to the other party” never works, and I don’t see why it should start working just because I’m dead.
Nope, I want to stay here. It’s not because I have a phobia about death. Actually, I don’t see how you can have a phobia about death, because a phobia is an “irrational fear,” and I can’t think of anything more rational to be frightened of than imminent nonexistence. But no, it’s not that I’m scared, exactly. It’s that I think it stinks.
Can someone do something about that, please?
So lonelygirl15 turns out to be a fake. What looked like the intimate video diary of a 16-year-old girl named Bree is actually “a new art form,” courtesy of three L.A. filmmakers. And Bree is really a 19-year-old actress from New Zealand named Jessica Rose.
Some of the thousands of fans who followed her videos on YouTube are upset. Some are angry—very angry. Some don’t see the problem. Some think the videos are more interesting now that they know they’re made up, and some feel like they lost a friend.
Me, I’m voting this a neat piece of marketing.
True, they’re not selling anything. That’s the good news: this didn’t turn out to be an ad for acne cream or a movie. The creators say:
We want you to know that we aren’t a big corporation. We are just like you. A few people who love good stories. We hope that you will join us in the continuing story of Lonelygirl15, and help us usher in an era of interactive storytelling where the line between “fan” and “star” has been removed, and dedicated fans like yourselves are paid for their efforts. This is an incredible time for the creator inside all of us.
It’s funny that people who created something so interesting could write something this dumb.
lonelygirl15 didn’t succeed because it told a compelling story. It succeeded because people thought it was real. Without the deception, there’s nothing special. The filmmakers knew this; they went to a lot of trouble to keep up the pretense, to the extent of posting personal replies, as Bree, to people who wrote in. They built fake relationships with fans. And now some of those fans feel like pauldonald:
the reason why im annoyed is because people are going to use this website to try to boost there acting career so now you cant trust anyone on youtube and i do wish bree was real because i fell in love with the character. im not sure if i like jessica rose coz from the pics i have seen she seems like the total opposite of lonelygirl coz she seems like a easy party girl but even though this is fake im not mad at the person who made this even though it was a bit of a spit in the face.
This is what makes it marketing, not storytelling. Storytelling doesn’t abuse its audience. Without the bit at the start that says, “This is made up,” it’s not storytelling; it’s just lying.
Every fiction writer in history has probably been annoyed by how much more power a “true story” seems to have. But that’s the deal we make: we admit up front that our tale isn’t true, then we desperately try to make it as authentic as possible. Doing it the other way around—claiming to have a true story and filling it with fiction—that just pisses me off. Storytelling? A new art form? Give me a break. When you agree to the deal, then you can be storytellers. Until then, you’re marketers.
My daughter has a thing for buttons. She’s fascinated by them. Especially buttons that light up or make a beep when you press them—those can keep her occupied for ages—but keyboards are fun, too. She seems to have a particular talent for finding obscure functions or keypress combinations; she’s sent text messages, made phone calls, and locked up my computer.
Now Fin has made a movie. She was playing with the mobile phone, and it has a camera function, and somehow she recorded a short video clip. I have no idea how.
I don’t want to hype it up too much, because she is only 12 months old. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that it’s probably the most insightful, spiritual, brilliant, and meaningful piece of cinema ever made. The ending… well, I won’t spoil it. Judge for yourself.
My publisher just made a big mistake. They e-mailed me a list of the places they’re thinking of sending me on my 2007 US book tour, and I said, “How about I put this on my web site and ask what people think?” And my publicist, Martin—I think he must be new; it’s the only explanation—said, “Good idea.”
What Martin fails to realize is that I have just cleverly arranged for everyone who will be upset that I’m not coming to their town to be angry at him instead of me.
What Martin should have done is what all my previous publicists did: present the schedule only when it’s nailed down. That way I’m left helplessly trying to explain to irate, neglected fans why I’m visiting four cities on the west coast but none between L.A. and New York.
Instead, what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a tentative schedule. And the publisher wants to know what you think. So go ahead! And remember: there’s no reason they couldn’t send me to every town in America, if they cared enough!
Okay, that’s not true. I was exaggerating for comic effect. The number of cities is probably fixed, due to financial reasons and the fact that I’m not that famous. But if you’ve got a good reason why they should send me to one place and not another, post in the comments here and Martin will read it.
Here’s the list:
- Ann Arbor
- San Francisco
- Either Madison or Los Angeles
It is actually very cool for a publisher to do this. In fact, I’ve never heard of one asking fans where they’d like an author to visit before.
Update: Whoa! That’s a lot of comments. I found out that Martin is on vacation this week, so I guess he’ll come back to a nice surprise. Wait, I mean, “violent argument.” That’s it.
In the comments of my last blog, member Ralf observed that there’s a German edition of Company coming out, and they’ve posted the cover online. I’m glad I have people like Ralf to tell me these things. He’s more up-to-date with what’s happening in my career than I am. From now on I’ll get him to write my blogs.
The German cover is very interesting, because I have absolutely no idea what it means. Now, I’m used to foreign publishers making inexplicable changes that I can only hope make more sense in their native language and culture. Especially if it’s the Germans, who are yet to publish a book of mine with anything even vaguely resembling the original title. (Syrup became “Fukk” and Jennifer Government is “Logoland”.) Because “chefsache” does not, as you might assume, mean “company.” It means “top priority case.”
My guess is that it must be common German management-speak, like “action items” or “Let’s take this offline” or “We’ve outsourced your job to India.” But the cover is more perplexing. I honestly can’t figure it out. And I’m usually good at this kind of thing. Once in high school I sat for an IQ test where they gave me sets of cards with pictures on them, and I was asked to arrange them to make logical stories. I scored lower on that test than anyone. My problem was that I kept seeing logical stories that weren’t there: I would arrange my cards in a sequence that made perfect sense to me—that spun tales of pathos and drama, of tragedy and triumph—and look proudly at the teacher only to see her eyes flick down to the answer sheet, and return, sympathetically, to meet mine. After that, they wouldn’t let me near sharp objects.
But this one is a mystery to me. Is that guy exploding? Why? And why is he wearing sunglasses? Help me out here: what do you think this cover means?
At first I thought that people tattooing themselves with logos might represent a cultural bottoming-out; a sign that we had reached the flattest part of our ongoing subjugation to corporations. But now I realize you can sink lower: you can tattoo yourself with a stupid logo.
I guess it makes sense; if you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s a good idea to imprint your body with a company’s logo, you’re probably not that discerning about which logo you choose. Or about anything, really. I offer into evidence the choice of Peter McBride, who is the proud new owner of a Polo pony logo just above his left nipple.
Now, I don’t want to come right out and say that Pete is the low point of human civilization—I mean, there was Hitler. But looking at that photo… gee, it’s a tough call.
Apparently Pete made his choice while waiting in line at the tattoo parlor. This reinforces my belief that it’s always a mistake to try to execute a plan before you’ve thought of one. I mean, if Pete had woken one morning and thought, “Yes, I want to create permament, physical evidence that I’m so desperate to find an identity that I’m willing to suck at the watery brand image run-off of P.R. companies and marketing consultants,” that would be one thing. A disturbing thing, sure. But at least you could admire the fact that he had a vision and carried it out. But that is not what Pete did. Pete decided, “I want to permanently mark my skin with… oh, whatever. I’ll think of something when I get there.”
According to the article, logo tattoos are getting more popular. And “requests range from Chanel and Gucci to Windows and PlayStation.”
Chanel and Gucci I understand, even if it’s a little like calling your daughter Porsche. But PlayStation? If you’re getting a logo tattoo, don’t you perhaps want to avoid products that will be obsolete this time next year? And Windows! Windows, the McDonald’s of technology! Why not just tattoo “I don’t know that much about computers” on yourself? Any self-respecting computer geek who saw someone with a Windows tattoo would fall about laughing. And then punch them in the face. Which is really saying something, because we are not a violent people.
At least the end of the article offers a glimmer of hope:
A tattoo artist who goes only by the name Ennis says a man recently came in with a Lacoste crocodile on his neck. “He wanted it off,” says Ennis. “He didn’t say why. He just said get rid of it.”
It’s probably time for a big update on what the hell is going on with some of projects I’ve mentioned in the past. On the one hand, the reason I haven’t posted any news is because I have nothing to report. But on the other, it’s probably annoying of me to post some big announcement then go quiet for months about it. So here’s the latest.
The Syrup Movie
There has been some good stuff happening, but I’m on strict instructions not to talk about it. Essentially, the producers at Fortress are trying to match the script I wrote with some appropriately cool film-makers. At this stage I’m reasonably hopeful that this is going to happen. Which means there is a non-zero chance of seeing a good Syrup movie some time this decade. I know! I’m excited too.
The Jennifer Government Movie
Section 8, the production company owned by George Clooney and Stephen Soderbergh, recently broke up, and I got the film rights back. Clooney and Grant Heslov have formed a new production company called Smoke House, and it’s possible the project might re-form there. Or it might not. If it doesn’t, there are some other good potential homes for it. So while this film is about as far away from production as ever, it has lots of potential.
The Company Movie
Nothing to report here yet; it’s very early in development.
My next novel
I’m working on a book. I would love to tell you how it’s going, but I know if I do it will be the last coherent sentence I ever write. I’m superstitious like that. But I am making plenty of progress. I feel like this time I might end up doing much less re-writing than usual. Of course, I always think that.
This is my top priority by far, and what I’m spending most of my time on.
The Maximum Words strategy has proved difficult to stick to. I keep cheating, like deliberately not checking the word count when I know I’m over. Still, I think it’s helping.
The sci-fi TV series
I wrote up a proposal, which I’m actually quite fond of. It probably needs another polish or two and then my agent will see if anyone but me likes it. This is a very long shot, since it’s insanely hard to get a TV series up. I am not packing my bags for LA just yet.
The Australian TV show with Wil Anderson
Hasn’t progress due to the enormous trouble Wil and I have locating ourselves in the same city simultaneously. We have a good concept, though, so I hope we can get something on paper this year.
Foreign editions of Company
I wish I had something to tell you. This bugs me like nothing else.
There’s something else I’m brewing up, but I’m not allowed to talk about it. It would be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, though, so I’m seriously hoping it comes off. Yes, you heard it here first!
And I think that’s it. Huh. That was kind of underwhelming. But now you’re up to date! That’s got to be worth something, doesn’t it?
(Language warning: Today’s blog contains profanity. And how! There’s tons of it. Not from me; I’m quoting someone else. But if you prefer your computer screens unsullied, you probably don’t want to scroll any further down. Or, as another tactic, you could squint a little and tilt your head to the left. Quotes are italicized, you see; so you might not be able to quite make out the words. Of course, you won’t make any sense of the blog, either. And you’ll look kind of stupid. But it’s up to you. I’m just providing you with sufficient information to make an informed choice.)
Today I stumbled upon some guy’s list of his favorite blogs. All right, when I say “stumbled upon,” I mean I heard about Google Blog Search, and immediately typed in the subject I care about most, i.e. me. Anyway, my site is on this list—which is not a ringing endorsement so much as the anthropic principle in action. But here’s what he said:
Max Barry. Author of several really good books. Seems to be one of the few authors who really maintains a blog just for the joy of occasional communication instead of promoting an agenda.
This pleased me very much. I do love that communication, and while I can’t claim to be agenda-free—not with this many arch-enemies—I’m very happy that, to one guy at least, that’s not what I’m here for.
A lot of my e-mail is indeed a joy. A lot is spam for Viagra and hot stock picks, too, but I get more warm, funny, and fawning e-mail than anyone really has a right to. As an example, here’s one I received a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t going to post it, because whenever I do that quite a few people e-mail me in a similar vein, presumably hoping I’ll post theirs, too. And in this case, that would be scary. But in many ways it represents everything that’s great fun about what I get to do here.
(FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK… say something witty…. FUUUUCK…. DID I SPELL THAT WRITE? HE THINK IMSTOPID IF I DONT SPELL WRITE!!!!!!!)
Hey Maxeroooooney, ever read Everyone in Silico? Or Torture the Artist?
P.S. I want to marry Six…Is there anyway I can OFFICIALLY marry a fictious character? Because if so…Im marrying that woman.
I don’t usually reply to my email (which is terrible, I know), but I banged out a quick response to this one:
Yes, no, and if you try that, I’m calling the cops.
Then Kale responded:
OMG YOU REPLIIIEDDDD!!! Ahaha…ahahah…
Your books, Mr.Barry, are incredible. I weep everytime I think on them. When bystanders at the arcade I work at ask me whats wrong, I just cry harder…FUCKING BEAUTIFUL…BRILLAINT…NO MORE WORDS. …FUCK, I would love to meet and help ANY of your characters in WHATEVER way they needed. Do me a favor…and im completely serious… PLEASE… PLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE… name a character Kale. NAME A CHARACTER KALE. KALE…It’s a rare name! It’s the name of a vegetable. It’s hawain…it mean’s strong man. WADDAYASAY??? Just…ANY character at all!!!!! I know the use of “!!!” and “…” can be annoying, but that;s just where im at in this point of my life. Lots’a passion. Im a 21 year old man. I love your books. I love the show Home Movies. I get depressed thinking about life. I have so many questions. I enjoy Jerri Blank and The UCB. I love Lobo. They should make him read Syrup when they UNCANCELL the series. Front cover. I like OINK. Ever read that? JTHM was, at one point, the only thing i ever cared about.
I’ve spilled my gut’s and I still have’nt said anything I wanted to you…the man who’se stories make me happy. THANK YOU. THANK YOU, THANK YOU THANK YOU, THANK YOU…
How awesome is that? I read something like that, I feel like a superhero. Thanks, Kale. And to all of you who write to me or post on this site. I mean, I don’t want to get too mushy here, but—aw, hell. Come here. Yeah, that’s it. Thanks, guys.
You know what really bugs me? DVD players who think they know better than me. You know what I’m talking about. You put in a movie, you sit down, you press PLAY. Do you get your movie? No: you get long seconds, maybe minutes, of swirling menu graphics and copyright warnings. When you try to skip through this, up flashes up a little red circle with a cross through it, or the words “Operation Not Permitted,” or something similar.
“Not permitted”? Who is my DVD player to tell me what’s permitted? It’s my player, isn’t it? When I say “Skip,” it should say, “How far?” I mean, I’m not trying to break the law here. If I was, I could understand my DVD player having some moral qualms. But I just want to watch my movie.
(It’s the copyright notices that really annoy me. First, there’s something nuts about a legally purchased movie forcing you to sit through stern copyright lectures every single time you watch it, while a pirated version helpfully jumps straight to the action. Some DVDs even display copyright warnings in about two dozen different languages, giving you ample time to digest the, say, Swahili version, before leisurely moving on to Romanian. But even the full-motion copyright notices are bad. Australia has one with a pumping soundtrack and some crazy MTV-inspired camerawork—you know, so the kids will pay attention—while on-screen some naughty teenagers download movies. It takes them about four and a half seconds. I tell you what, if it took four seconds, I’d be doing it all the time. Especially if someone played a cool song while I did it.)
Apparently we are rushing toward a future in which control of technology is not handed over to us when we buy it, but retained by the companies that originally made it. Your DVD player, your computer, and your high-definition television seem to be on your side, but they’re really sleeper agents, with secret loyalties to their corporate masters.
There’s something called High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) sneaking in everywhere, and the plan is this: at first, it does nothing. But once it’s in enough homes, along come movies and television broadcasts that only play on HDCP-enabled equipment. Because that old non-HDCP television set can’t be trusted, you see—it might be doing what you want, instead of what the industry wants.
There seems to be no point at which an anti-piracy measure is deemed to cause more trouble to legitimate customers than it’s worth. For example, Australian commercial TV almost always run late, often by as much as ten or fifteen minutes, and the reason, according to one of the networks, is:
So millions of people are inconvenienced every day in order to make it slightly harder for eight guys with beards to burn copies of Battlestar Galactica.
I don’t have a DVD player any more. At least, not a typical one. I built a computer with MythTV and a DVD drive and hooked it up to my television. When I tell this puppy to skip, it skips. Loyalty. That’s the thing.
Of course, since I have the kind of job that permits me to loll around the house unshaven and wearing nothing but boxer shorts (although not now, it’s winter; I’m not crazy), I already get to spend more time with my daughter than most Dads. (Heh. “Dad.” Still cool.) But I have discovered that when it’s just me and Fin, it’s different; special in a way that’s almost magical.
This is how it works: I get up at 6:30am, make myself a coffee, and start work. I have about 90 minutes to pound out some words before Fin wakes. (Which isn’t that long. So I am writing Sunday mornings, too, to make up for it.) Then that’s it: the rest of the day is just the two of us. So far we have caught the train into the city to look at comic books, walked along the river, visited a mall, and stopped off at an aquarium to inspect some fish. But where we go isn’t the point; the amazing part is just having this incredible little girl all to myself. I know I am probably about the ten billionth person in history to feel like this, but it really is beautiful. It feels like an honor.
Well, you must have heard the big news. The story, essentially, is this: three people, one a Coca-Cola employee, tried to sell Pepsi some of Coke’s secret recipes. Pepsi called the Feds, and, because spreading a person’s secrets is bad manners but spreading a corporation’s secrets is illegal, those three people are now probably going to prison.
I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, if I was Pepsi, I’d be a little insulted. I mean, what’s the implication: that the only reason my cola tastes like that is because I don’t know how to make it more like Coke? The hell with that! If you ask me, Coke should be trying to buy my secret recipes! I’ll tell you something for free, mister: we here at Pepsi already know how to make Coke. Coke, that’s what we scrape off the bottom of our vats and give away to pig farmers and the homeless.
Second, if I was Coke, I’d be insulted, too. These guys were offering up Coke’s newest product, which hasn’t even been released yet, and for that they wanted $75,000. I bet that’s less than you can win if you look under the right bottle cap of that product, when it comes out. And not only that, but Pepsi wasn’t interested. That’s got to be deflating. Those Coke developers probably spent months, maybe years, creeping around and looking over their shoulders for Pepsi spies. Then the recipe gets out, Pepsi takes a look, and says, “Nah, we’re good, thanks.” How is Coke meant to market that now? It could come up with the most brilliant campaign in advertising history, and all Pepsi needs to do is say, “Yeah, we got offered that. Didn’t want it.”
The only good for either company is that it encourages people to believe that colas are the result of secret, mystical recipes, and not cough syrup plus sugar. (I mean, come on. What’s all that advertising for? Because you’ve never heard of Coke or Pepsi? I get very suspicious about products that need to teach people why they like them. And food is the worst; we already know that what we think of as “taste” only bears a tenuous relationship to the chemical composition of what we put in our mouths. Taste is mostly marketing. All you need to do to prove that is try to feed a three-year-old.)
I recently discovered Pandora, a web site that acts like a radio station, only you’re calling in all the time and saying whether you like or hate what they’re playing, and the sweaty, desperate-to-please DJs rush to change their playlist to keep you satisfied. I think you’ll agree that the world would be a better place if more of it operated on this kind of basis.
I’ve started using this while I’m writing: I fire up my web browser, point it at Pandora, and let the tunes roll. Not only is it very good at serving up my kind of music, but it also tells me what kind of music that is: apparently I am big on synth bass riffs, a highly synthetic sonority, repetitive song structure, a tight kick sound, and prevalent use of groove. I don’t even know that that means. But I like it.
Once you’ve trained up those sweaty virtual DJs, you can share their work with other people. And that’s why I mention it here: if you want to hear what I’m listening to while writing, tune in here:
(If you’re reading this via e-mail and see nothing to click, you probably need to go via my site: start with this link.)
It’s still a long way off, but preparations are being made for the release of Company in paperback in the US. Here’s what I know: it’ll probably be March 2007, published by Vintage, and sport this nifty cover.
Publishers almost always change book covers from hardcover to paperback; I don’t know why. Maybe they hope that people with bad memories for titles will buy it twice. Jennifer Government was an exception, but only because I managed to convince them not to change it to this.
I think the donut cover was great, but I like this new one, too. It’s got a nice, dehumanizing note to it, and avoids showing anybody’s face (which I really hate). Also—although of course this doesn’t influence my feelings in any way—my name is kick-ass big.
There’s also talk of sending me on book tour in early April, although exactly where won’t be decided for a while yet. (If you are particularly keen to bring me to your city, it is apparently quite effective to visit a local bookstore that hosts author events, and tell them you want me. That is, that you want them to host me. Then the bookstore tells my publisher they’re interested in having me, and my publisher considers flying me in. This works for authors besides me, of course, so if you wanted you could probably arrange for all your favorite writers to be practically shipped to your doorstep. Although it helps a lot if they are not too famous.)
I wish I had news about publication outside the US—in Britain and Australia in particular—but… I don’t. I really hope we can fix that.
As you know, I’ve spent most of the last two months in Bedford, England. No, you do. I mentioned it, like, just a few weeks ago. See, right here. Well I don’t care if you do get a lot of e-mail; I thought you’d care enough to remember. Well I guess not. Well maybe you should. Fine. No, I said, fine! Don’t take that; that was a present!
Anyway, I am now back home, but before I left, I decided to take a few snaps of Bedford for you. Now, these aren’t of Bedford’s tourist attractions. That’s because Bedford doesn’t have any. Instead I just walked around the block. That was all I needed to capture the real essence of Bedford, I think you’ll agree.
First, this car was parked outside the house. I took this photo because it’s what every car in Bedford looks like. Actually, that’s not true; some have more flags.
(Click for larger versions.)
The flags are because of the World Cup, by the way. Just in case you were thinking there must be some really rabid nationalism going on in Bedford. I mean, there could be, but the flags don’t prove it.
A few doors down was a youth social center with high walls and barred windows. I’m not totally sure, but I think this is the kind of center where the youths aren’t actually permitted to leave. This was on the walls:
I spent some time trying to work out what “Coo-Var Anti-Climb Paint” actually is. My first guess was that it’s really sticky, so when people try to climb the fence they get stuck halfway up, and dangle there until the police come and hose them off. But I touched the wall and it didn’t seem sticky. It didn’t seem smooth, either, or smelly, or anything else that might discourage climbing. But if I jumped really high I could see a kind of black smear on the top of the wall, so I guessed that was it. And when I touched it, it was sticky. But not that sticky. So I’m still confused about what this product is meant to do.
Around the back of the block, I passed these helpfully labeled bins:
This raised a lot of questions for me. I was tempted to knock on the door and ask the owner a few questions about exactly how he thought this anti-theft protection scheme might work. He seemed to have some insights into the criminal mind that were escaping me. But that probably would have gotten me stabbed, so I didn’t.
Note: After my previous Bedford blog, a friend wrote to tell me that Christopher Reeve used to live in Bedford. This left me confused and bewildered. I kept asking myself: Why? God, why? Then I discovered he lived in Bedford, New York, and the world made sense again.
I just happened to browse the site as I am with MY Space .Com. Some how I came across your website. One eye catcher is a segment titled: “Women in High Heels Smashing Things” What is that all about? It turns me on. Tell me more of this story and more information on it.
Right! I’m going to assume you’re being funny, Norman, because the alternative is too disturbing. So this is the thing where I look up what people are searching for when they visit this site. It’s been a while since I last checked that, but once again the list is a mix of the bizarre, the terrifying, the unintentionally hilarious, and the unexpectedly profound. Here’s a sample from the last two months:
- ashley olsen worried and afraid of mary kate
- hippos go berserk
- how to make my cable modem lights stop blinking
- what can i do to make myself more attractive to women?
- defense against water balloons
- how to write in elven symbol code
- benefits of drinking pepsi max
- sexiest pants in world of warcraft
- what did teenager like back in the days
- how tall are victoria s supermodels
- what makes plaster casts start to smell?
- fish talks crap splish splash
- what happens to the hearing of whales when they get older
- who does jennifer government look like
- my sneakers are too small
- i just want to talk not about anything someone
- when was 479 days ago?
- unshaven giant poodle pictures
- is um a word
- location of hookers in rochester ny
- goosebumps anything to do with your heart
- giant rabbit news england
- the smurfs karl max
- is it true that when you sneeze people are thinking about you
Some of these are hard to stop thinking about. I’m a little tempted to search for footage of berserk hippos myself now. Is “um” a word? And seriously, I’m in England at the moment: should I be worried about a giant rabbit?
Okay, this is too funny not to mention. I offered to send some signed books to Kurt Busiek—the writer who put Jennifer Government in Clark Kent’s hands in Action Comics #838—and he kindly sent me some of his stuff in return.
Included in the stack of goodies that arrived on my doorstop was a signed copy of that issue—with this modified cover.
As I mentioned, I’m not doing any publicity while I’m in England. But I do intend to have a beer at the Warrington Hotel [Map] at 2pm this Sunday the 28th. So if you’re in range, and you care, you could come along.
I don’t really know how this will work, but I am imagining something like this: you see a 6’2” guy with no hair speaking in an Australian accent, wander over, and say, “Are you Max?” And I say, “Yes, yes I am. Who are you?” And we take it from there. My only rule—and it’s a very strict one—is that there shall be no mention of the Ashes.
I won’t have any books to sell, but I’m happy to sign anything you bring along. And I mean anything. Underwear, other people’s books, you name it. I’m desperate for recognition.
By the way, I was originally thinking of inviting people to a pub in Bedford, but realized I couldn’t live with the stain of that crime on my soul.
Update: Well that was great fun! Thanks to those who turned up. I gotta say, it’s pretty damn cool to be able to gather an instant mini-party of interesting people just by posting on my blog.
Okay. Okay. I’m just going to say it: in the latest issue of Action Comics, Clark Kent is reading Jennifer Government.
Action Comics is the series that introduced Superman in 1938. And now he’s reading my book.
This is possibly the greatest moment of my life.
Just before I left Australia, I noticed I had a couple of emails with odd subject lines, like “Superman reads Jennifer Government.” But I had a plane to catch and didn’t get around to reading these for a couple of weeks. Then I was sure that it couldn’t be true, that maybe Clark was reading a book that just looked a bit like one of mine if you turned the page upside down and squinted, because… well, it just couldn’t be. But if that was happening, a lot of people seemed to be doing it.
So I emailed DC Comics, pausing only briefly to wipe the drool from my keyboard, and soon had not only confirmation that this extraordinary event had actually come to pass, but a fascinating (and flattering) explanation as to how:
I’m glad you enjoyed the bit — I’m Kurt Busiek, co-writer of that issue, and the guy who violated copyright on your book cover for my own nefarious purposes. The idea, mostly, was that in the past, whenever Clark mentions reading anything, he almost invariably mentions Dickens or Austen or some other long-dead writer that the audience knows from being forced to read them in high school lit class. Since Clark’s supposed to be in his early thirties, I want him to come across like a reasonably young guy, not like your college professor’s dad (and I say that as a big Jane Austen fan; it ain’t the quality, it’s the image). So I wanted Clark to be reading something current, interesting and smart. Something that made him look like he’s part of this century and knows what’s good.
I’m not ashamed to admit that this made me giggle like a schoolgirl who just found the penis pictures in her biology textbook.
My new goal is to land a poster-sized copy, so I can frame it and hang it somewhere conspicuous, like on the front of my house. I mean, Superman! Superman!
I now believe that all girls want to marry horses. Not just little girls. Grown women. In fact, it has become clear to me that every personality flaw in a man, as perceived by a woman, is his failure to be more like a horse.
This occurred to me last night, while I was reading a parenting manual called Raising Girls. So far this book has been full of advice so obvious that it’s simultaneously insulting that someone thinks I need it, and alarming that some people might—advice such as, “try to build her self-esteem,” and “understand that not all girls like traditionally female toys,” and, “don’t have sex with her.” Then I came to a section on how pre-pubescent girls tend to love horses. As I read, I realized that it also perfectly described the personality type that many women seem to want in a man:
Qualities that at first look like opposites—greatness, strength, and speed versus submission and obedience—can be combined in this powerful companion, which encourages the young rider to try it out herself.
A girl thus learns that modes of behavior like empathy and gentleness, in combination with their opposites—such as assertiveness and exercising power—can work for the horse, for herself on horseback, and for herself in everyday life.
—Quoted from “Developmental Crises in Girls,” by Dörte Stoll, 2002.
So that’s been the problem all along: horses making us blokes look bad. All we need to do to make ourselves more attractive to women in any given situation is think: “What would Black Beauty do?”
I would like to balance this theory out with a complementary one about what men find attractive, but all I’ve got so far is that men want women to be soccer balls, and I didn’t want to sully my site with a gratuitous picture of Pamela Anderson.
I’m in England. Huh, when I say it like that, it’s as if I just breezed halfway around the world during my lunch hour, instead of undergoing 30 hours of torture inside a metal tube with an 8-month old baby and a planeload of people conspiring to prevent her from sleeping.
Jen’s family live in England, and occasionally we fly over to visit them. We usually stay for at least a month, and—since the purpose of the trip is to spend time with them—visit absolutely no tourist attractions or places of interest. We just hang out in Bedford. For that reason, I have the general impression that all of England is a barely habitable crap-hole full of people who look like they’re about to stab you for your mobile phone, then use it to call their dealer.
Well, that’s not quite true; I have visited a few other places in England, and with one exception (Milton Keynes, I’m looking at you) they have been quite beautiful, or at least interestingly history-soaked. But Bedford is neither. I am told that Bedford’s heyday was in the 1950s, when the local brickworks was the town’s main employer, and you can tell this is true because every single house is constructed in the exact same style from the exact same red brick. Other Bedford attractions include the River Ouse (pronounced “ooze”), which is exactly as charming as it sounds and patrolled by highly aggressive ducks, and… no, actually, that’s it.
Most English people I speak to are hazy on where, exactly, Bedford is. The answer is you don’t care. I think you’re better off not knowing how close you may be to Bedford. If, in your ignorance, you do happen to stumble onto it, well, just hurry on before any of it gets on your clothes.
I have no publicity plans while I’m in England; for some reason my British publisher has always been reluctant to expose me to the public, like a girlfriend embarrassed to introduce me to her parents. I know what you’re thinking: at first I thought it was the hair, too. But no: apparently you just don’t do bookstore events in this country unless you are sufficiently famous. More sufficiently than me, I mean. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe it’s considered bad manners.
The police just chased some guy down the street right outside my window. I’m not kidding. Ah, Bedford.
For the first time on this site, I’m about to plug a book that isn’t mine. I know! I feel like I’m growing as a person. Here’s what happened: I got sent this book pre-publication to see if I’d be interested in providing a quote for the back of the book. Apparently the theory is that if people see a quote by some author they’ve never heard of, they think, “Hmm… someone that obscure must know what he’s talking about.”
I get sent quite a few books this way, which is good, because I don’t have to pay for them, and bad, because I don’t get to choose them, and they tend to suck. So I end up on the backs of very few books. (If anyone has seen a book with “Meh, it kind of sucked. —Max Barry, author of Company” on it, though, please let me know.)
Then I got sent a book that was so good I thought they must have confused me with someone much more popular. Like maybe Jesus. This book rocked. It was the funniest novel I’d ever read. It was so good that when I finished reading it, I immediately read it again. And then a third time. It’s currently my favorite novel.
The book is Apathy and Other Small Victories, by Paul Neilan. It’s out in the US today. If you like my stuff, I seriously recommend that you get this. And if you don’t mind Chuck Palahniuk, either, a gaping hole in your life that you never knew existed is about to be filled. Go buy it. Now.
(Disclosure: I met Paul earlier this year, after I’d read his book. But he didn’t promise any sexual favors in exchange for me pumping up his book. Really, he wouldn’t be moved on that.)
Update: Paul has a blog!
(Gahh! I wrote most of this blog, then got sick. It was the usual. But I’m better now, thanks for asking.)
Some people recommend that you write a certain number of words every day. Well, not you, necessarily. Novelists. See, those of us who decided it was a good idea to write a novel sometimes find that our key challenge has become not drawing heart-breakingly realistic characters or identifying our underlying unifying theme, but rather getting to the end of the frickin’ thing before we die.
Novels are long. You probably don’t realize how long until you write one. Occasionally I hear that someone read one of my books in some ridiculous amount of time, like a single night, or half a day while sipping coffee in Barnes & Noble, or while waiting in line at a movie, and this is wonderful but also appalling, because people really shouldn’t be allowed to digest a couple of years’ worth of my work that fast. They should have to work at it, like I did. It’s only fair.
But the point is: if a writer isn’t careful (or if he is; if he is too careful), he can find himself with a reasonable amount of pages but no enthusiasm to write any more.
But for me, it’s a disaster. I tried it in 1998, after I’d finished Syrup but before I’d found a publisher. I was starting a book called Paper Warfare, a fairly straight corporate thriller about tobacco marketing, and I was very disciplined; every day for weeks I pounded out my minimum 2,000 words. But it felt wrong, because I knew that some days I was just banging out words so I could close the goddamn word processor and go do something else. The next day, I’d try to avoid looking at the words, because if I did I would be so appalled that I would have to delete them. This didn’t seem very efficient. And, more importantly, I wasn’t enjoying it: writing had become a chore.
I made it all the way to the book’s climax—I even had the ending plotted out—then realized it sucked. Not just a little. Not in ways that could be fixed. The whole book really, really blew.
Since then, I’ve written exactly as many words per day as I feel like. And that’s worked well, because when I’m having fun, I’m usually producing good words. But for the book I’m working on now, I’m trying something new: a maximum number of words per day.
I had something like this when I wrote Syrup, because I wrote during my lunch breaks at Hewlett-Packard: I had one hour to eat, write, and get back to pretending that I knew what SCSI interfaces were. Often I would be forced to leave half-way through a great scene, even though I was chafing to finish it. During the rest of those days I would keep thinking about the book, and come up with little embellishments and new ideas. Next lunch time, I would cram down my chicken sandwiches so I could get to writing as soon as possible.
I think this is pretty close to the perfect state: unable to write quite as much as I want to. So I’m seeing if I can create it artificially.
So far it’s been hard, because when I’m on a roll, I really don’t want to stop. I find myself deliberately avoiding doing a word count, because I know I’m probably already over. (I have set my maximum low: just 500 words per day.) Stopping before I want to is frustrating. But then, that’s the idea. I should finish each day a little frustrated.
You will know if this technique is working, because my blogs will become much longer, as I seek outlets for my pent-up words. Yes. You will be my hookers.
I mentioned this once or twice on my book tour, but for those who weren’t there—you know, because you live in one of those areas that my publisher hates—earlier this year I had what I am pretty sure is my nerdiest moment ever.
I am quite proud of my nerdy accomplishments—I have created a web game, written a science-fiction novel, and formed a religious opinion about operating systems. I consider my nerdiness to be not abnormal, but rather the way that everyone would be if only they stopped and thought about it properly. But then I had this moment, when even I thought, “Ooh, that’s pretty nerdy.”
Here’s what happened. Some time ago, I registered a domain name for my baby girl: finlaybarry.com. (That’s not the nerdy thing.) I thought this would be a good way to share photos and news with relatives in various parts of the world, and, when Fin was old enough, she could use it for whatever she wanted. Maybe a blog, if by then those weren’t so 2005.
I have already gotten Fin banging away on a keyboard, because I want her to get used to the command line before I introduce her to a GUI. Here is the first thing she ever wrote:
6fcv5jnnnnnnnnnnmmmmmmmmmmmmmjnj /bvyj,[k[ v
That’s not the nerdy thing.
The nerdy thing is that I thought—I actually stopped and thought—“Hmm… before I name my next kid, I should check to make sure the domain name is available.”
I’m hoping there will be a Syrup movie in the not-too-distant future, but Coke is making me nervous by releasing products that are increasingly like Fukk. The latest is “Blak.” It’s a black bottle, not a can, but still: I’m becoming convinced that their plan is to creep toward a Fukk-like product, then sue me for stealing their idea.
Incidentally, I visited the Blak web site and noticed it has a “Spread the Word” section. Coke is clearly excited about this, because if you visit any of the other sections, you see a big link back to “Spread the Word.” It turns out that Spreading the Word is sending e-mails to your friends to tell them about Coca-Cola Blak. I would be very interested to know if the number of people who use this facility is greater than zero.
Update: They do sell it in a black can! Aaargh!
Some people were confused and disturbed by my blog about “Rub-a-Dub-Dub.” They wanted to know if I was seriously upset about a children’s book featuring a duck. To which the answer is: yes. Yes, I was. In fact, every time I go into that bathroom and see that little vinyl horror sitting in the corner, it bothers me all over again. I can’t see inside its chewable pages, but I know that “Quack-a-doodle-do” is lurking there. These sorts of things play on your mind.
Going crazy? No, I’ve always been like this. I’m just opening up.
In less confusing and disturbing news, Company is apparently going great guns. My editor, Bill, e-mailed me:
COMPANY rolls on…another reprint.
This was very exciting, because I’ve never been reprinted in hardcover before. (I have in paperback. Syrup is now up to its ninth printing or something ridiculous. But according to my royalty statement, it has still sold hardly any copies. The only explanation I can think of is that the publisher is doing tiny print runs—like maybe ten books at a time. This would make sense, since this is my ex-publisher, Penguin Putnam, who dropped me like an envelope full of Anthrax after Syrup failed to scale the bestseller lists. If I were a little more bitter and vindictive, I would cackle with glee every time they’re forced to reprint, and fire off e-mails to everyone I ever worked with there saying, “How do you like me now, huh? Huh? HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW??”)
Any reprint is terrific, because it means the book has done at least a little better than the publisher expected. But that “another” in Bill’s e-mail puzzled me. I queried him about it, thinking maybe—maybe—this wasn’t the second printing at all; maybe, if I was really lucky, it was the third. Bill replied:
4th, as a matter of fact.
Hot damn! Even if these are tiny print runs, that’s fantastic. Everyone who bought a copy, I’m thinking of you right now. Not individually, obviously. That would take too long. I’m imagining an amorphous, book-buying blob. No, really. It’s the least I could do.
Company has also picked up a couple of great new reviews, most notably in The Economist. What I especially liked about this one is that it called me “a master of short sentences and the passive tense,” and this outraged a group of linguists so much that they wrote an essay about it:
[T]he passive involves a voice contrast; it has absolutely nothing in common with tense. I am astonished, all over again, at how educated people can commit blunders as extreme as this one in print, and editors don’t even notice.
Clearly you don’t want to mess with people whose idea of a funny joke begins: “I was walking across campus with a friend and we came upon half a dozen theoretical linguists committing unprovoked physical assault on a defenseless prescriptivist…”
Update: In the comments, Mark Liberman—one of those outraged linguists—points out that this isn’t the first time my scribblings have caught their attention. There is this article from 2004, in which Mark discusses Jennifer Government’s use of “And yet.” It took me a while to work out whether I was being praised or dissed—I think it’s praised—and the more I read of their web site, the more stupid and uneducated I felt. To rectify this, I plan not to visit their site again.
[Previously in this series: Sealed With a Kiss (Mary-Kate and Ashley #20).]
Join the Tubby Buddies for oodles of bath time fun! promised the blurb, and that sounded like a good idea to me. So we gave it a road test: Jen (in bath) narrating, Fin (also in bath) staring at it, grabbing at it, and trying to chew its pages, and me sitting beside the bath and listening with increasing horror.
“Rub-a-Dub-Dub,” it’s titled, by Nancy Parent (yes, really). And the thing is, I wanted to like it. Really. The cover is a little Disney-cute, sure, but it’s got bright colors and clear lines, and that’s probably what the seven-month-old baby demographic demands. Also, the book is made of soft vinyl. Not just the cover: the whole thing. It’s not until you get a vinyl book in your hands that you realize what a brilliant idea this is; indeed, that you begin to wonder why all the world’s great tomes aren’t published like this. You can spill things on it, roll it up, and if you were reading it in bed, bunch it up and use it as a pillow.
Fin certainly made an effort to digest the story early, which Jen was required to arrest so she could begin reading. It’s quite short, so let me take you through it line by line:
This is where I started to get uneasy. It’s a two page spread, one line per page, and the first illustration is exactly the same as the cover with two exceptions: first, the duck’s eyes are looking in a different direction, and second, instead of being in a soapy bath, it appears to have drifted out into the open seas. I mean, there are foaming waves and everything. Which would be an interesting plot twist, only it’s contradicted by the text, which makes it clear this is still meant to be a tub. And that text! Apparently this wasn’t a clever post-modern homage to the classic “Rub-a-dub dub, three men in a tub” at all; it was just a rip-off. Once again, I thought I caught the stench of Disney.
The facing illustration depicts a smiling tug boat, who is looking at the duck. Or rather, he’s looking a little below the duck: their sight lines don’t quite match up. But I was prepared to let this go, since technically they’re in two separate illustrations. I presumed that Mr. Boat was the story’s protagonist, since there didn’t seem to be anyone else around to be remarking on the presence of ducks in his tub, but on this I was to be disappointed.
Now I started to get confused. The illustration shows the duck meeting a very happy fish. There’s no sign of Mr. Boat, but I guess he must be off-page somewhere, still narrating. Because otherwise this giant bath must contain some shadowy third party we haven’t yet met, and that’s a bit scary.
I wasn’t thrilled with “Splish-splash-splish”—that struck me as something Nancy made up in a hurry to rhyme with “fish.” And the characters still seem to be navigating the oceans, rather than a bath. On top of that, even though this is a single illustration, the duck’s and fish’s eyes don’t line up, which gave me a headache the more I looked at it.
I’m sorry—what? What? Is this some kind of duck-rooster hybrid? Quack-a-WHAT? I was stunned. I’ve heard some strained rhymes in my time, but this is clearly the worst. The only possible excuse for something that excruciating is that Nancy is stuck in a cubicle somewhere, forced to churn out about forty of these books a week. (Later, I did an Amazon.com author search for “Nancy Parent” and got 342 results. So I guess she is. But still. Hang your head, Nancy.)
That terrible line concluded the book. I was annoyed by the unresolved mystery of whose tub this was in the first place, given that the duck itself appeared to be delivering the final stanza—he’s even looking directly at us—so this is either a brutal point-of-view change, or earlier the duck was describing himself in the third person. Either way, my head hurts.
But as sickened as I was, the target audience seemed impressed. Fin’s reaction seemed to be: “A terrific book. I couldn’t get enough of it (into my mouth).”
You know when you mean to call a friend, but you don’t get around to it for a while, and suddenly it’s been so long that you can’t just call up and say, “Hi! Anything happening?” You need to have something worth saying; something that justifies you finally ending the absence. You can’t just call up and blog about any old thing; you should blog about something significant, so the friend thinks, “Huh, well, I may have had to wait for a while, but at least that blog was worth it.”
Sorry about that. What I’ve been doing instead of blogging: mainly, beavering away on my science-fiction TV series proposal. (Which is so cool; I mean, it’s got mentally deranged artificial intelligences and chicks with weird names and everything.) Now that’s done with—for the moment; nothing I write is ever really done with, I have discovered—I sit back and wait for my agent to call up and tell me that the Sci-Fi channel wants 26 episodes and they’re already building the sets and did I want the characters to have really big guns, or ridiculously big guns? That’s basically it.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that I’ve broken the ice; we’re talking again, and now it won’t seem so weird if I blog about, say, a children’s book about a duck that made me very angry. Or at least, no weirder than you’re used to. Right? Okay. We have a deal. So… how have you been? Anything happening?
I have bought a lot of baby stuff. And I’ve noticed that many of the babies on the packaging don’t look exactly picture-perfect. Which is understandable, since babies probably aren’t very co-operative on photo shoots. But still, you’d expect the photographer to keep trying until they got one where the kid looked as if he was enjoying himself, wouldn’t you?
The makers of the Dohome inflatable play house clearly thought not. On the side of the box is this picture in which one child is, at best, listless, and the other is obviously thinking, “What a load of crap this thing is.” But even better is the huge picture on the box’s front. Check out this baby and tell me if that’s a child in the throes of joy and excitement. That kid wants out.
I just wish I could see the pictures they rejected.
- I received a copy of the Jennifer Government screenplay.
- I sold the film rights to Company.
- I talked to John Cusack.
- The guy who is probably going to write the Company screenplay e-mailed me to talk about his ideas.
- I got a bunch of great new Company reviews, including a fantastic piece by Douglas Coupland in The New York Times Book Review.
- I did a bunch of interviews.
- The L.A. Times invited me to review a book for them.
- I wrote a proposal for a TV series for the Sci-Fi channel.
- Wil Anderson asked me to write a TV series for Australian TV with him.
- I worked up a final polish of the Syrup screenplay.
- The Chinese language version of Jennifer Government was released.
- I made some progress on getting NationStates 2 underway.
- I got invited to two festivals, one conference, two workplaces to give talks, and asked to contribute writing to four different places.
Ordinarily any one of these would be so cool that I would scamper to the keyboard and blog all about it. But there is just so much cool. To anybody but me, I suspect it is a sickening amount of cool. Plus I’m getting way more e-mails from readers than usual, including many hilarious or scary ones that are also clearly worth blogging about. Basically, there is so much cool stuff happening right now that I could blog about it non-stop, if only there wasn’t so much cool stuff happening right now.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, poor Max, I cry fat salty tears of compassion for you; how terrible to have all your time taken up by the realization of all your life’s dreams.” And you’re right; it is poor of me, because when someone, say, takes the trouble to compose a photograph involving my book, one of Stephen King’s, and a monkey, I shouldn’t allow that to pass without comment.
(The best time to write to an author, I have decided, is about two months before his book is published. That’s when most other people have forgotten his existence and he’s feeling frightened and desperate for love.)
Here is my weak compromise: an update in point form. This way I get to summarize what’s been happening without writing 10,000 words, and hopefully also without making too many people sick to their stomachs that so much good stuff can happen to one guy.
- It feels weird to read someone else’s adaptation of your book. Really weird. Louis Mellis and David Scinto have written a highly stylized version of Jennifer Government—the things they do with dialogue are just amazing—but it’s like seeing your kid dressed by a total stranger: she’s the same, but so different. It’s surreal on the same level as when I read reviews that call me “Barry,” as if I am an Important Person.
- Company will be developed for the screen by Tom Shadyac and Michael Bostick in conjunction with Universal. And boy are they fast movers! They’re already talking to Steve Pink about writing the screenplay. Steve was a writer on one of my favorite movies, Grosse Pointe Blank, as well the excellent adaptation High Fidelity. Not only that, but he was good enough to drop me an e-mail. What a guy.
- “Hi, it’s Johnny Cusack.” Only one of the coolest guys on the planet. On the phone. Talking to me. While my wife hyperventilates beside me. (I think Cusack even trumps Wil Wheaton, as far as Jen is concerned. Because he was in Stand By Me and Say Anything. I am a little concerned, though, that I only seem to be meeting celebrities that my wife has had huge crushes on.) John—I mean Johnny—I mean Mr. Cusack—was interested in the Company film rights, and although they ended up going elsewhere, maybe we’ll get lucky and still get his involvement somehow.
- If there is anything more professionally satisfying than having a absolute titan of the writing scene—a guy who is clearly my literary superior in every conceivable way—write a bunch of flattering things about my work in The New York Times Book Review… then it’s probably illegal.
And some standout e-mails from readers:
- Kyle, a student in Canada, decided to create a web site for Zephyr Holdings (the company in Company). You know, just because he could.
- Hobbie wrote to tell me that Russian Coke tastes a lot like Fukk is described in Syrup. My lawyers are just waiting for them to put it in a black can.
- Christian delayed responding to a fire alarm in his building so he could finish a good bit of Syrup. Nice.
- Jerry shot me a slightly scary list of websites devoted to barcodes, and the people who love them.
- Phill says I convinced him to convert to from Windows to Linux, which makes me feel all warm and subversive.
- Rachel e-mailed me an exhaustive explanation of why American shower faucets work that way and how to master them.
- Brandon explained that although he loves my web site he is never going to buy one of my books because he doesn’t want to “spoil the mystery.” I was going to ask him to elaborate on this theory, but then I decided this was one mystery I probably didn’t want solved either.
In many religions, it’s forbidden to speak the name of God. Or at least, the manner in which you can speak it is restricted: for example, Judaism forbids defacing the written name of God, and most prohibit the use of God’s name in a derogatory or insulting manner.
I thought about this when I heard about H.R. 683: the Trademark Dilution Revision Act, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last year and is now headed for the Senate. The most interesting part of this bill—to me, at least—is that it may make it illegal to use trademarked names in fiction. So I might henceforth be unable to publish a novel like Syrup (which is set partly within Coca-Cola) or Jennifer Government (which features Nike, McDonald’s, and others).
Many people seem to think that’s illegal already. When I was writing Syrup, I was often told it would never be published until I took out all the real company and product names. I remember one guy in particular telling me the “Golden Rule” of fiction writing: “Never use a Coke can as a murder weapon.” Because, apparently, Coke would descend on you with an army of lawyers. You could only get away with it, he said, if you used the product in a positive way—for example, your hero loves drinking Coke. But he doesn’t use it to kill anyone.
This sounded ridiculous even at the time. I wasn’t pretending that my novels exposed actual events that had taken place in Coke or Nike; I was just using them as a setting, in the same way I used Los Angeles and Melbourne. I could have invented fictional companies, just as I could have invented fictional cities, but then I’d also have had to work in descriptions and history to build up in your head the kind of company or city I wanted you to see. Coke, Nike, L.A., and Melbourne were all convenient shorthand.
And sure enough, I didn’t have any legal issues in the U.S. with either Syrup or Jennifer Government. In both cases the publisher wanted a legal disclaimer pointing out that they were works of fiction and not based on real events, but that was it. We were never contacted by any company and never sued.
(Things were different in the UK, where free speech laws are weaker. Syrup has never been published there, and the publisher got more and more worried about Jennifer Government the closer we got to publication. Eventually they got a whole bunch of lawyers together to come up with a legal strategy, and this was: wait six months and see if anyone sues the American publisher first. If you had gone to law school for six years, you too might be able to come up with brilliant tactics like this.)
Part of the reason Syrup and Jennifer Government were able to be published was trademark law. This allows one company to sue another if they think they’re using a confusingly similar name or logo; in essence, the goal is to prevent customers from being deceived by imitators. But that’s all: the law contains a specific clause—a clause that H.R. 683 will rewrite—denying companies the ability to block non-commercial uses of their name, such as when it’s incorporated into a novel.
The current situation is exactly as it should be. I don’t believe I should be allowed to deliberately make up lies about companies and pass them off as the truth, nor start selling my own brand of sneakers called “Nike.” But if I’m writing a novel about cola marketing, why should I have to pretend that Coke and Pepsi don’t exist? Companies have made themselves loud, intrusive parts of society; why should artistic depictions of the world have to scrub out any unsanctioned mention of them?
But this is exactly what companies want. They spend billions of dollars to get their names on our lips and their logos in our eyes, but letting us talk about them is dangerous: we might say something they don’t like. They want what Naomi Klein calls the “one-way conversation:” to be able to speak to us—endlessly so, through billboards and television and radio and product placement in your movies and the back of your bus ticket—without allowing us to speak back. Unless, that is, we’re saying positive things about them; unless we’re “on message.” And so they seek complete control over their names, to ban us from uttering them unless it is to speak praise.
Companies used to be pieces of parchment. Then they gained more rights and more protections until they had the legal status of a person; you can now be sued for defaming them. But that’s not enough—of course not; nothing will be enough so long as their inbuilt goal is to endlessly expand. So now they want to be more than a mere person. They want the kinds of rights that have previously been reserved for the superhuman. They want to be gods.
In the grand tradition of posting news about myself that chuckpalahniuk.net reported first: I’ve written an essay. Webmaster Dennis Widmyer is putting together a great resource for writers called… uh… The Writer’s Resource, and asked if I’d contribute something. So I wrote this piece about rewriting. If you’re a writer, you might find it interesting.
If you’re not, well… isn’t this picture of Fin cute?
I have played NationStates for quite some time and, after listening to your interview on NPR this morning, my assumptions about you were proven startingly correct. I assumed that you were a pretentious snob who is an ego-aggrandizer because your book reviews are consistently negative yet you continue to produce such infantile drivel with such a delusionary sense of accomplishment and self-importance. What you fail to realize is that your “insights” are nothing more than a few whiney complaints of a mal-adjusted mal content who has failed to cut it in the real world. Your comments on NPR, which in my opinion coddles this approach to life, were nothing short of predictable.
I like how Mike’s assumptions were so accurate that even he is startled by just how on target he was. He must have even nailed my accent. His next sentence is a little less clear; I’m not sure how “consistently negative” reviews would lead to me being an egomaniac. That would work work the other way around, wouldn’t it? And I can’t back him on “failed to cut it in the real world;” I mean, I’m not living on government subsidies, here, Mike. But I am impressed that he listens to NPR even though he doesn’t like it. Put this together with his willingness to write to authors to tell them how bad they are, and you have a man who isn’t afraid to confront what he disagrees with and set it straight. I appreciate that kind of directness, and I’m sure Mike does, too.
Let me make a connection between this attitude in your book and this attitude in nationstates. You have created a game in which, much to the difficulty of many Americans (such as myself) to comprehend, the game operators such as yourself rule as their judges of themselves and of their own actions…
This goes on for a bit and after a while even I lost track of what he was talking about. But I gather it’s his main point, because he starts writing IN ALL CAPS and swearing. Most of my hate mail is from NationStates players, which is something I’ve never been able to work out: if anyone is entitled to yell at me, surely it’s the person who shelled out twenty bucks for a book she didn’t like, not the guy who has spent the last year playing my web game for free. But for some reason it doesn’t work like this.
Mike closes with:
I strongly suggest that you get it together, Max. Time for a change, perhaps?
Mike US of A
Mike! Thank you for your e-mail. It’s been so long since someone roundly abused me for nothing in particular that I was starting to get nostalgic. I appreciate your advice, although I am not sure what you are recommending. But in any case, it brightened my day, because now I feel as if a little balance has re-entered my life, and I didn’t have to be hit by a bus to get it. Take care, Max.
I am sick. But I have a conference call to L.A. about my Syrup screenplay so I’m up and at my keyboard, with a glass of orange juice to my left and a bowl to hawk up phlegm into on my right. (Sorry. That line between what other people find interesting and what they really don’t want to know? Sometimes I have trouble tracking that.)
I open up my e-mail client and see, oddly, a lot of new mail. And most have “New York Times” in the subject line. Some also have “congratulations” or “rave.”
And I don’t open any of them. I just sit there, stunned, unable to believe what a ridiculously lucky streak I am on.
I finally give in and check Amazon.com. Company’s sales rank has jumped to 22. If I’m reading this right, at this moment it’s the fifth best-selling novel, behind Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, that damned Kite Runner, and—yes, of course—Stephen King’s Cell.
This is so amazing I have to run into the bedroom and wake up Jen.
We make too much noise and Fin wakes up, too. I hold her while we read the New York Times review. It’s by Janet Maslin and is jaw-droppingly good. And it actually says:
“Company” is Mr. Barry’s breakout book
If there is such a thing as balance in the Universe, tomorrow I am going to be hit by a bus, bankrupted, and disemboweled.
I sleep in later than I mean to and have to shower, dress, and pack so fast that I barely have enough time to steal a hotel pen. I’m meeting my friend Charles for breakfast, and we decide to use the hotel restaurant. This turns out to be a mistake, as Charles manages to order the world’s most expensive bagel, a whopping $18 because along with the juice and coffee it qualifies as a “continental breakfast.”
Our plan is to walk to the Museum of Natural History, but it’s such an extraordinarily sunny day that instead we end up just chatting on a bench in Central Park. During this time I watch a lot of parents with prams go by, and enjoy peering at their babies until I see one with beady little eyes and a hairy face. It’s a miniature poodle. Yes. In a pram.
That afternoon I have lunch with my impossibly cool agent, Luke, in the kind of restaurant where ladies come to complain to each other about their nannies. (Seriously. I hear them.) I also meet Luke’s dad, legendary agent Mort Janklow. This is a little nerve-wracking, because if the stories I’ve heard are true, when Mort enters the room editors fall to the ground and cry. But he seems quite normal; friendly, even. I guess that’s how it works: the killer is never the one you expect.
I catch a ride out to JFK where I stand in the check-in line behind a Hasidic Jew and a blonde woman dressed as a cowgirl. I feel as if the Universe is trying to tell me something, but I’m too stupid to understand the message.
It’s a little over six hours in the air to L.A., then I have a couple hours on the ground before the 16-hour flight to Melbourne. The most interesting thing about this is that we cross the International Date Line at around midnight, so I miss Friday entirely. When it’s my time to die, I want that day back.
This makes it Saturday when we touch down in Melbourne. I’ve taken no more than ten steps off the plane when I hear someone saying, “Yeah, they’d make Riewoldt captain in a second anywhere else.” They’re talking about Aussie Rules Football. Ahhh. It’s good to be home.
I find myself walking quickly toward the baggage carousel—not just places-to-be quick, but drug-mule-freaking-out quick, and force myself to slow down. Of course, I know the odds are pretty high that (a) despite our plan, Jen and Fin might not have made it to their airport in time, and if they have, Fin may be (b) asleep, (c) in a bad mood, or (d) cry when she sees this smelly, unshaven man shuffling toward her. But I can’t help being so excited about seeing them again that I have to use the bathroom. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised I wasn’t stopped by customs agents and internally searched.
Then I stand by the baggage carousel for an hour. It’s not just me: the whole planeload of passengers waits and waits. Crappy Australian baggage handlers! I just know they’re outside having a smoke break or reading their union pamphlet on workers’ rights or something equally insignificant. Actually, bags are coming down the conveyor belt, it’s just that there are about a thousand people waiting for them. It seems that a lot of planes have arrived at the same time.
I am seriously considering just leaving the terminal and worrying about how to get my bag later when finally—finally!—it appears. I collect it and, one security check later, am permitted to pass through the sliding doors into the main terminal. There is a huge horde of people waiting outside and I have no idea how I’m going to find Jen and Fin among them. Then I hear, “Max!” I turn and there they are, three-deep in the crowd: my beautiful wife Jen and Finlay in a sling on her chest. And then the most incredible thing happens, something I could never, ever put in a story because it is too far-fetched to be true: despite all these people and all this noise, Fin looks directly at me and gives me a big, gummy smile.
It’s a choice between sleep and breakfast, and I go with sleep. I’m sorry for writing about sleep so much; it’s just that it has become very important to me. I have realized that if I don’t sleep, I don’t do the things I need to on this tour well—things like talking to people. So a lot of my time is spent considering when I will sleep, and where, and for how long.
I’m met at my hotel by Rachel, who is my publicist at Doubleday. Rachel has been working for months at getting me reviewed, interviewed, and hosted all over the country: basically she organizes everything, then I just turn up and take all the glory. She is terrific, and great company as we are driven around Manhattan in one of those tinted-window town cars. (It’s all tinted-window town cars here; that and cabs and stretch limos.) I ask her why there was no Chicago stop on this tour (which people keep asking me about), and she tells me it’s because everyone at Doubleday hates Chicago. Okay, no, not really. It’s actually something to do with the difficulty of booking enough media to justify the stopover. Which I think is fair enough, given the publisher is paying for all this. But I do let her know that if I don’t get any Midwest stopovers on my next tour, people may hurt me.
First stop is WNYC radio. I’ve done enough radio interviews on this tour to be quite comfortable about it, but here the corridor I have to walk down to reach the sound booth is lined with posters of various celebrities with the tag line, “I’m a listener.” I suddenly find myself confronted with the unnerving image of Sarah Jessica Parker reclining at home with the radio on, thinking, “Who is this Australian jerk?”
Despite that distraction, the interview goes well and then it’s off for a round of bookstore drop-ins. These are becoming defined for me by the big titles currently out, especially Stephen King’s Cell, which is front and center in practically every store I’ve visited. I hope that one day some struggling midlist writer on book tour looks at enormous piles of my books and thinks enviously, “That damn Max Barry! His new book is everywhere.”
One of the bookstores I visit is St. Mark’s, which I realize is the first store in which I ever saw a copy of my own book. Let me tell you, this is one of the most magical moments of becoming a published author. I’ll never forget seeing Syrup sitting on the shelves, as if it was a real book. Of course, if St. Mark’s held true to the general trend, they probably never sold that copy. It was probably returned to the publisher and pulped. But still. Magical, I tell you.
Next is a Barnes & Noble, and it’s memory lane again because it’s across from a park where I once played with some squirrels. I know, I know: to Americans—or, indeed, to residents of any country where there are squirrels—they are nasty little disease bags. But I think they’re wonderful. I love the way they spring from place to place. I could watch that for hours. In fact, I have, and taken photos.
When I swipe my hotel card to get back into my room, it flashes red at me. I go back to the lobby and get a new card, and, when this produces no change, get security up to fix it. The security guy tries the card, and it flashes red… and he turns the handle, and it opens. Oh. I just assumed that red meant no go. Because this is a nice hotel, the security guy says carefully, “I guess it must have started working again.”
I catch a cab to my reading and realize why there is so much honking of car horns in New York: it’s all because of this one cabbie. He drives with one hand resting on the horn, tooting everyone, even if they’re not doing anything special. He pre-emptively toots people he thinks might be considering something. And if someone dares to toot back, he goes nuts, firing off loud volleys of counter-toots.
My reading is at Rocky Sullivan’s, a pub, and it’s a full room even when I arrive. Before we start, I decide to go around and hand out the publisher-provided donuts, and I can see some people trying to figure out if I am really me. Some clearly assume I’m not, but rather just some wacko handing out donuts, then get embarrassed when they find out.
It’s a very fun reading, and knowing it’s my last one makes it a little poignant, too. I manage to read the sentence “Elizabeth’s throat thickens” without messing up for the first time on tour. At last! It’s a little victory.
Then, all of a sudden, it’s over. I catch the subway back to my hotel, get a little lost, and now here I am. As much as I’m looking forward to getting home, I’m also kind of sad this is over. When I had the idea to do this travel diary, I honestly thought I’d be writing about the completely unglamorous job of trekking from city to city, visiting uninterested bookstores, and hoping desperately for more than five people to turn up to a reading. Instead it has been wildly more successful than I imagined. I can still hardly believe how rock star the whole thing has become.
Thanks so much to everyone who turned out in L.A., Mountain View, Seattle, Portland, and New York. You made this tour unforgettable for me.
Tomorrow I go home.
Portland is a little kinky. I know this because people who live there keep telling me so. When I check into my hotel, the glossy booklets feature not only local attractions and places to eat but also the results of a nation-wide sex survey, which boasts about just how much more sexually active than average are Oregonians.
This crosses my mind when my breakfast arrives via room service just as I exit the shower. I’m naked except for a towel, and the usual procedure for this kind of situation is for the hotel employee to keep her eyes demurely averted, set down the tray, then scuttle out of the room. But this morning, the woman makes bright conversation, her eyes flicking all over me. I start to worry that she is going to yank off my towel and snap my buttocks with it. I am, after all, in Portland.
My media escort is Elizabeth, who has looked after me in Portland before. She drives me to a local radio station where I have a good, chatty interview, then it’s off to Powell’s and Borders for drop-in book signings. Elizabeth has copies of the local papers, the Sunday Oregonian and the Portland Mercury, and both have great Company reviews. This makes me happy.
Then, amazingly, I have six hours off. Elizabeth suggests that I go to the movies, which is a very exciting idea: that’s another thing I haven’t done since Fin was born. I end up seeing Good Night, and Good Luck, which is apparently what George Clooney and Grant Heslov have been doing instead of producing the film version of Jennifer Government. It’s very good… although, you know, not a film version of Jennifer Government.
I spend a couple of hours wandering around downtown Portland, taking photos. It’s a gorgeous city, and I keep putting away my camera only to take it out again ten seconds later when I see yet another beautiful street. I would really like to bring Jen here one day.
That night, 70 people turn up at Powell’s for my reading—my biggest crowd yet! It’s a good event, although for some reason I’m a little tongue-tied and stumble over the text more times than usual. When it’s time for book signings, the first woman in line gives me a quarter and tries to convince me that it’s customary for people to tip authors at US book signings. Seriously. Not helping.
A guy in line thanks me for a blurb I wrote for his book, and for long seconds I have no idea what he’s talking about. Then I realize he’s Paul Neilan and go totally fanboy, because Paul wrote what has become my favorite novel, Apathy and Other Small Victories. (It’s not published yet; when we’re closer to the release date I’m going to tell you alllll about it. Oh yes I am.) I’ve never met an author I really admire before, so this is a big moment for me. Everybody still waiting in line looks at me as if I have gone insane while I gush on to Paul about how much I love his book.
Afterward, Paul, his girlfriend, and I go out for drinks, where I tell him all the horrible things that usually happen when you have your first novel published, while reassuring him that they probably won’t happen to him. I get back to my hotel at 2 a.m. and call Jen. Unfortunately, after a string of good nights, Fin is resisting bedtime, and I have to call back later. It’s almost 3 a.m. by the time Jen and I finish talking, which gives me a grand total of two hours and 50 minutes sleep before I have to get up and catch a plane to New York. Surprisingly, I don’t feel as if I have been beaten with hammers. Or at least, not very large ones.
I’m waiting at the airport gate when a trio of young businesspeople sit in the row ahead of me: two men and a woman. For some reason I can’t stop looking at them, and become obsessed with the way the men are using body language to assert themselves over the woman. It is nothing obvious or deliberately cruel; they simply interrupt her more often, and engage each other more supportively. Then one of the men, who is sitting across from her, rests his arms out along the backs of the seats to either side of him and splays his knees, and I feel terribly sad for this young businesswoman, who is wearing impossible heels and a dainty scarf around her neck and now finds herself confronted with a well-pressed crotch if she wants to stay in the conversation.
Continental Airlines is apparently unaware that human beings have legs. Maybe I am expected to stash mine in the overhead compartment, because there sure isn’t much chance of squeezing them into the tiny gap between the rows of seats. I finally work out a position that involves bending one leg at ninety degrees and jamming the knee of the other into the seat in front of me. It’s pretty uncomfortable, but then my legs lose circulation and it feels fine.
I sleep fitfully, and at one point a flight attendant wakes me up to ask if my seatbelt is on, as we’ve hit a little turbulence. I tell him irritably, “Yes,” then realize it’s not.
I get some more sleep, then realize the plane has landed. But not in any airport: we seem to be on a road in the mountains somewhere. The Captain explains that we are conserving fuel by using gravity to help us along, and sure enough the plane then rolls off the edge of the road, which turns out to be a cliff, and free-falls several hundred feet before roaring up again under its own power. About then I wake up.
Every time I visit the stretch of New Jersey between Manhattan and Newark, I’m surprised that it still looks this way. I keep thinking that by now surely some mayor has thought, “Man, this is just embarrassing. We really need to clean this up.” But no: it’s still chemical plants and sludge farms as far as the eye can see.
I dump my bags at my hotel and race off to catch a drink with Bill, my editor, and dinner with Todd, my first literary agent. It feels good to walk along the streets of Manhattan. I like how everybody walks so fast, clearly expecting you to do the same or get the hell out of the way.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) is my last reading! That feels a little strange. I’m somehow surprised that the tour is almost over
How late do I sleep? 10am, baby! Damn, that’s nice. I haven’t slept in like this since Fin was born.
I don’t have anything scheduled today besides my Seattle reading, but my voice is a little scratchy so I decide not to test it against the icy winds and torrential rain. Instead I spend the day catching up on email and browsing the web. I also get some laundry done via the hotel’s service, but then I forget about tipping the guy who delivers it. Dammit! Now I feel guilty.
My reading tonight is at Elliot Bay Books, and I’m excited because when I was here in 2004, my media escort told me that Elliot Bay was the #1 bookstore in Seattle, the place where all the important authors read. Then she drove me to a different store, to do my reading. Now, however, I have clearly entered the big league.
The bookstore has a great room set up with plenty of seating. Then dozens of people arrive and fill these, so they need to unpack more chairs. This is terrific: I was told to expect lower numbers since it’s a weekend reading, but we have 60 people! I chat to a few of them before the event kicks off, and every single person points out that I was wrong to say in my blog that Seattle broke the record for consecutive rainy days: in fact it only got close. Clearly you don’t want to mess with Seattle residents when it comes to what’s what with rain.
The reading itself is awesome; in fact, the Q&A session is probably the best of the tour so far, with great questions and a really fun feel. At one point a guy starts a question with, “If anyone here hasn’t read the book, you should probably block your ears, but…” and I threaten to brain him with a water pitcher if he continues.
I sign books until the store closes at 10pm, during which I get to meet a guy who’s taken the trouble to stick a barcode under his eye, Jennifer Government-style, and a couple who have driven all the way from Vancouver, Canada. One of them, Milla, took a few snaps during the reading, so you can check me out in action.
On the way back to the hotel, Tina, my media escort, is ecstatic over how well the event went. She fusses over me like a proud mother. If I had any hair, I am sure she would be ruffling it.
I call home and speak to Jen, who is particularly pleased with the nice things I wrote about her in a previous blog. Whenever Jen watches an award ceremony on TV where the winner tearfully thanks his wife, Jen gets all mushy. Then she snuggles close to me and says, “When you win something, you should thank me like that.”
I order a late dinner via room service, and, still feeling bad for forgetting to tip the laundry guy earlier that day, massively overtip. There’s already a 20% gratuity added to the price plus a $2 delivery charge, but I give the guy who brings it to my room three bucks as well. I think this means I end up tipping more than the actual cost of the food. I definitely need more practice at this.
On Sunday morning I don’t get up until 11. Wow, it feels good even to type that. Let me do that again. I don’t get up until 11. Ohhhhh yeah.
Today is very relaxed: I have nothing to do but travel. Outside it’s bucketing down rain (*gasp*), but I brave this to wander up to the new Seattle Central Library. (Warning: picture appears to have had blue sky Photoshopped in.) This miracle of architecture looks like they built a tall office tower, then someone sat on it. I like it a lot, especially the sloping floors. I keep hoping that somebody will drop a pen and I’ll get to watch them chase it from one side of the building to the other.
Before I leave for the airport I carefully go through my bag, because at the last airport I got stung $25 for excess baggage. My problem is books: I am now carrying eight of them, mostly gifts from (a) the generous or (b) other writers who want me to comment on their manuscripts. I am tempted to ditch a couple, but know I will be haunted by their eager, innocent faces. So I start cramming stuff into my carry-on.
I’m flying Alaska Airlines to Portland and am alarmed to see that the airplane has propellers. Propellers! Not only that, but when I squeeze on board, I find myself positioned in the exact spot that they would intersect should they both decide to detach from the wing and go spinning into the fuselage. Although I guess if that happened, my precise location probably wouldn’t matter much. I guess I’d be screwed no matter where I was sitting. This is seat 1D, right at the front of the plane, and from here I can also see our captain, a woman who for some reason I decide looks like a Tammy. I watch Tammy carefully, looking for signs of tiredness or suicidal depression, until my staring causes the hairs on the back of her neck to rise and she closes the cabin door.
The seats are tiny and, judging from the smell, the man beside me has a dead cat concealed on his person. Fortunately it only takes about eight seconds to fly from Seattle to Portland. I’m first off the plane, but I have no idea where I’m going. I take a wrong turn after entering the terminal, and when I turn around to backtrack I see a line of passengers blindly following me. Ha! I want to laugh in their confused faces. Okay, not really. I feel a little embarrassed.
I tip so much between the airport and my hotel room that I run out of dollar bills. This may be developing into a psychological condition.
According to Jen, I sometimes run in my sleep. I must have been doing that, because somehow I have managed to strain a hamstring in my sleep. I hobble into the bathroom and start wrestling with the shower, which, in the manner of all US hotel showers, will only provide water if you turn the tap while simultaneously yanking a plunger on the bath tap. (Why? Why!?) Sometimes I find it’s possible to do this without getting a burp of cold water on the back of my head, but today is not one of those days.
I haven’t had much sleep, but it was continuous and I feel much better than yesterday. And I have a cool ride to the airport: a big black car with tinted windows, the kind that usually have screaming girls beating on them and yelling, “I love you 50 Cent!” Inside there are drinks and snacks available but, I am disappointed to see, no neatly laid out lines of cocaine.
At San Francisco Airport there are 50 people in a check-in line and nobody’s moving. I work out why: all the electronic check-in machines are showing: “Easy Check-In is available from 4:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.” Yep, they don’t start work this early. They must have a good union.
When the machines finally come up, there is some kind of system-wide error and everyone needs to get checked in manually. This creates an interesting dynamic, because the airport staff want to stick to the process of requiring us to all try checking in at the machines first, but the passengers quickly realize it’s faster to skip straight to the line to see a human. For a while there is lots of sneaking from the first line to the second, and then a woman—a New Yorker, from her accent—tires of the charade and starts haranguing the staff. “You think we like standing in line? You think we should stand here for fun?” After that everyone is allowed to proceed directly to manual check-in.
Naturally the flight is delayed, so I sit by the gate for 90 minutes, thinking about how much extra sleep I could have had. When we finally get on board, I don’t even try to wait for lift-off: I close my eyes and let the warm, smooth arms of unconsciousness embrace me. I wake up a few times to the alarmed looks of fellow passengers and the lingering echo of my own snoring, but boy, I just don’t care at all.
Seattle is freezing. My new media escort, Tina, tells me that the city recently broke the all-time record for consecutive days of rain (27), but then some sunshine came along and messed it all up. I get the impression that everybody is a little disappointed about this.
The reason I’m here so early is I have a reading at Amazon.com. These corporate events are different from my usual readings, because most of the audience have never heard of me. But it’s a full room—about 50 people—and they can relate to Company’s story, so I get lots of laughs. I also sign a lot of books, because Amazon.com is giving them away free to attendees.
After that it’s bookstore drop-ins. The most remarkable thing about this is an advertisement I see on the back of a bus, which says, “Avoid Accidental 911 Calls: Lock Your Keypad!” It has a picture of a man with a cellphone in the back pocket of his pants, accidentally dialing 911 with his buttocks. Let me say that again. He is dialing 911 with his butt. I wish my ass was that agile. Right now, while I’m writing this blog, it could be making me a cup of coffee.
The other thing that surprises me is a group of young people in the middle of downtown waving signs that sport words like “REPENT” and “HELL.” I occasionally see people like this back home, but they tend to be old and clearly insane. These sign-wavers are clean-cut teenagers, and I find this much spookier.
Back at the hotel I receive a package of new reviews from my publisher. Most are great, but there is also my first bad one. I should have known this was coming, but things have been so dream-like lately that instead it’s an ugly surprise. Even though it’s not completely horrible, I pay way more attention to it than to the good ones, and have to force myself to stop obsessing about it.
For dinner I’ve arranged to meet Greg, who’s an admin on NationStates. Greg and I have been in almost constant electronic communication for the last two and a half years, but we’ve never met before today. Unfortunately, when making this arrangement I forgot that I was in Seattle, because the plan is for me to wait outside my hotel. It’s raining (of course) and, according to my body’s internal thermometer, about minus one thousand degrees. By the time Greg arrives I can no longer feel my toes.
Over dinner Greg helpfully offers to educate me about how tipping works: I simply take 15 - 20% of the meal cost and add $1 - $2 per drink that contains more than 2.9% alcoholic content plus 50% of any discount provided by the barman and 1% for every Tuesday between now and the next eclipse. I think that was it. After doing the sums, I have to explain to the barman that he owes me a $4.50 tip… but in retrospect, maybe I miscalculated.
There is no reading tonight: that’s on Saturday. But I’m excited, because it’s my first opportunity for a really long, continuous sleep. Oh yeah. I’m in the fast lane, baby.
Well, I walked into that one. In theory, I should get seven hours sleep after my L.A. reading and be refreshed and ready for the big day ahead. But instead, I write my blog entry until two in the morning, then lie in bed thinking about how cool my day was. When my alarm goes off at 7 a.m., I’ve slept for about three hours, and that in roughly half-hour blocks.
I feel so seedy that I think I’m going to lose my lunch, and a radio station is due to call me in a few minutes for an interview. I think seriously about what I should do if I’m halfway through an answer and suddenly need to barf. My idea is to say, “And another thing, Carl—” then hang up. Hopefully everyone will think there’s been a technical difficulty.
Luckily, this doesn’t prove necessary. But it’s not my best interview; sometimes even I can’t work out what I’m trying to say.
LAX Airport has clearly put a lot of thought into how to best design seats that are impossible to sleep in. But I’m so exhausted I manage to grab 20 minutes sleep by jamming my head against a pillar. I sleep some more on the plane, but I’m on the aisle and get woken by a woman who can’t last the 80-minute flight without using the bathroom. Damn her tiny bladder!
In San Francisco I meet Frank, my media guide. Frank, I learn over the course of the day, has done everything. I’m serious. He’s written a series of bestselling novels, he’s lived all over the world, he’s in a rap band, he’s writing screenplays, he’s developing video game ideas—there is no topic of conversation that doesn’t prompt some amazing revelation from Frank. He makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.
Frank also puts very little store in the opinions of other drivers, even for a media escort. We spend most of the day visiting a series of bookstores and radio stations to a steady background of tooting horns and people yelling, “Asshole!”
I get a couple hours’ downtime at the hotel, where I lie in bed and try not to think about the fact that soon a few dozen people will be staring at me. I still feel a little queasy, and all I’ve eaten all day is a muffin and a few pretzels. But I do get a little sleep, and on the drive to Mountain View for my reading, the adrenalin kicks in. The closer we get, the more awake and ready for action I feel.
It looks like being another big crowd, and Books Inc have to break out extra seats. Then even these run out! It’s standing room only again.
I decide to go to the bathroom before we start, only to discover that it is directly behind the podium. This means that the assembled crowd gets to watch me fumble with the men’s room door key. When I come out again it’s too weird to not say anything, so I announce, “Yes! Here at Books Inc you get to watch authors go pee-pee!”
Then we get started, and it’s a blast. There are fewer people here than in L.A., but they’re very vocal. And they end up buying every copy of Company in the store, which is something like 100 books. They also take all the Syrups and all but two of the Jennifer Governments. It’s incredible.
I love chatting to people while I sign their books, but I feel bad that there’s such a long line, because some people are waiting for up to 90 minutes. I just want to talk to everybody. It’s such a thrill to hear how people found and enjoyed something I wrote; I could do that all night.
I also get to meet Ellis! He is exactly as cool as I always suspected.
I get back to the hotel at midnight. Then there’s the moment I’ve been dreading: I request a wakeup call for 3:50 a.m. Yes, that’s when I have to wake up in order to make my flight to Seattle tomorrow morning. Even I cannot really believe it.
Now I’m hungry, so I tuck into a banana cake that one of my readers baked for me and gave me at the reading. (Oh yes she did.) The bookstore people seemed a little unsure about this, perhaps wondering about the legal ramifications of having an author killed by poison attack on their watch, but it smells pretty good to me. I call Jen and tell her about my latest amazing event in between wolfing down big chunks of banana cake. She’s almost as thrilled as I am. Jen was with me when I visited San Francisco on book tour in 1999 and no-one showed up, so she knows what this means to me.
Fin is awake so I get to listen to her blowing bubbles. So sweet. In Australia, it’s her 5-month birthday.
I’m very tempted to fire up the laptop and write the day’s diary entry, even though I’m already looking at my second straight night of three hours’ sleep. But that would be insane. I come to my senses and instead hit the sack. I continue a newly-established tradition: I turn out all the lights and use my camera’s tiny LCD screen to play a 30-second video of Jen & Fin that I recorded before I left. Jen is holding Fin and Fin is looking sleepy at first and then snuggly and then she does a little smile and they are both utterly, unspeakably beautiful.
I may be the only author in history to get more sleep on a book tour than usual. I get eight hours overnight, although when I wake at 7:30 a.m. my brain doesn’t seem to be working. For example, I look at a pair of tweezers in my bag and think, “Oh my God, I have tweezers, those are banned here!” I am confusing the United States with United Airlines.
I check my email and web site and am pleased to see no comments of the nature I feared, i.e. “Who gives a crap what you do all day? Spare us this rambling bullshit.” Excellent! So here’s some more.
After reading a funny and eerily appropriate Dilbert, I am driven by Jeff, my media escort, to a radio interview with “Marketplace Morning” on NPR. The host, Lisa, is kind and gentle and helps me get through it pretty well. This is the kind of interview where I talk for 10 minutes and they edit it down to three, which I love because it makes it sound as if I’m just constantly coming out with smart things to say. I wish my whole life was like that.
Jeff takes me past some classic L.A. monuments: the Disney Concert Center (giant metal flower, very cool), some cathedral with a carved door (not really sure what the fuss is about), and a playground with police tape all around it. Although that last one is not intentional. Jeff is a cool guy and we chat about all kinds of things, from the aggressiveness of Tasmanian Devils to David Hasselhoff. That is, the conversation ranges between those two topics. I don’t mean that Tasmanian Devils are aggressive to David Hasselhoff. Although could you blame them? I’m telling Jeff that David Hasselhoff is experiencing a bizarre resurgence in popularity in Australia, and Jeff mentions—just happens to mention—that he, Jeff, was in “Knight Rider.” Knight Rider! The coolest TV show of the 1980s! This is why I love L.A.; everyone has a filmography. Suddenly the car we’re driving doesn’t seem so great any more. I want Jeff to drive me in Kitt.
The next five hours are a series of drop-ins, where I turn up at a bookstore and say, “Hi, I’m an author, can I sign my own book?” They put AUTOGRAPHED COPY stickers on them. This can go either way: either the bookstore people are quite pleased to meet me and ask questions about how my tour is going, or, as in one store, the girl behind the counter is so utterly unimpressed that when Jeff says I’m an author, she doesn’t even bother to look up from her computer. But word from the stores is that early sales are quite strong—one has sold out all eight copies already—and that’s great news.
As we inch along freeways, it occurs to me that L.A.’s main industry isn’t film: it’s parking. Seriously, the amount of thought, money, and effort everybody puts into parking here, I can’t believe it’s not a billion-dollar industry. I also think L.A. needs some kind of mechanized freeway system, where as you approach an on-ramp, metal claws grab your car’s undercarriage and slot you into a perfectly-measured space on a conveyor-belt-like freeway. Then everyone gets hauled along at 90 miles per hour until you want to get off, at which point the machine spits you out an off-ramp and you regain control over your car. It’s good to know that if this novels thing doesn’t work out, I can fall back on urban planning.
For lunch I have a beef burrito at Farmer’s Market. I’m not very familiar with burritos, but from my observations they seem to bear a fairly loose relationship to beef. It seems more like a “beef” burrito than a beef burrito, if you get my drift.
The burrito goes down okay, but fights back when I drop in to see Brian, my film agent. I have to try to contain alarming burrito burps as I’m escorted through the hallowed halls of CAA, the world’s most feared talent agency. The thing that really amazes me about CAA is that it’s full of hot 20-year olds. Every assistant or secretary in the building is 20 and incredibly good-looking. I swear, the last time I visited, Brian’s assistant was so beautiful that I went temporarily blind. Now he has a guy, Alex, and look, I don’t want to get all Brokeback Mountain on you, but slap a cowboy hat on us both and who knows what could happen. But anyway, yes, barely pubescent assistants everywhere. There must be a giant incinerator out back where they throw them on their 25th birthday.
Brian has good news about both Jennifer Government and Company! Things seem to be developing on both counts. There has been a holdup with the Jennifer Government script development, but Section 8 is still very keen on the material and there could be an opportunity for me to get more involved.
On the way back to the hotel, Jeff says, “There goes James Woods,” but by the time I turn around all I’m looking at is his car’s tail lights. Still, a brush with celebrity! I make a mental note to bring this up later, to impress friends.
At the hotel I am stunned at how clean my room is. I left the place looking like downtown Baghdad and now it’s immaculate. All the crap I had strewn from one end of the bathroom bench top to the other is now arranged in a neat 3x4 grid. I’m so impressed I take a photo. They’ve also somehow lugged the giant table that I practically had a hernia moving over to the LAN port back to its original position. Those maids may look small, but boy, I’m sure not going to mess with them.
I practice the section I’ve chosen to read tonight, then Jeff picks me up to take me to BookSoup. I’m amazed: the place is already almost full. And people just keep coming in. By the time we start, it’s standing room only. Soon people are having trouble even getting into the store.
The event is simply awesome. BookSoup has donuts for everybody, it’s packed out, I’m excited, and everyone laughs in the right places. At the end, a huge line forms and I’m signing books for the next hour. I’m flabbergasted; the last time I was here about 15 people showed up. People have driven in from as far away as Las Vegas, and many of them want photos with me, as if I’m a rock star. What I’m feeling is part amazement and part pathetic gratitude.
As if this wasn’t already one of the best days of my life, the Fortress guys come over and say they adore my Syrup script. I mean, they rave about it. They were only lukewarm on the first draft, so this is a huge, unexpected thrill. We go out for drinks and they talk about all the people they want to take the script to and I have a sudden moment when I realize where I am and what I’m doing and it’s so absurd I could laugh. I am having a ridiculously good day.
I get home at midnight and immediately call Jen. She’s thrilled, and hearing her voice makes the day complete.
I should sleep—tomorrow’s a very busy day that starts early—but I want to get this written down tonight. Thanks so much to everyone today. Wow. Thank you. Wow.
“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.
I should be packing. Tomorrow I catch a plane to the US to start my American book tour: it’s L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and New York. I’m thinking of doing a travel diary, so you can check in to see just how glamorous a book tour really is. Stay tuned.
Oh, it’s a red-letter day in the Barry household. My third novel, Company, goes on sale today. It’s also my 13th wedding anniversary. (Yep, teen bridegroom. What? It’s not so weird. It is not.) And—and—my baby girl just rolled from her back onto her front! Yes! Big achievements all round!
Somewhat scarily, the first week or two will largely determine whether Company is a sales success or not. If it starts strong, bookstores will leave it placed up the front of the store, or include it in special deals. But otherwise, it’s a quick one-way trip to the jungles of General Fiction. You don’t have long to establish yourself as a winner on those New Fiction shelves, no sir, and there’s a long line of up-and-comers ready to steal your shoes. So good luck, little Company.
I found three new reviews today: a nice capsule from People Magazine (“biting, hilarious”) and two rippers from Entertainment Weekly and Forbes. What I especially love is that both decline to give away the book’s big twist, something I thought no reviewer would be able to resist. But EW says:
To disclose what occurs after page 80 would rob any enjoyment from the book. It’s that twist that saves Barry’s third novel from becoming as drab as the office he describes and establishes him as one of the keenest and shrewdest minds in corporate satire. Utterly original… A-.
while Forbes pumps me right up:
Barry’s accomplished an impossible feat—he’s written three books without succumbing to a sophomore slump. Insightful and devlish… if you’re reading a management book right now, any management book, put it down and get this instead.
I’m building a collection of links to reviews that don’t contain big spoilers in the Company Reviews section.
And for those who want a little taste before plumping their hard-earned, I’ve just posted an extract from Chapter One. Enjoy! (I hope.)
The Chinese translation of my books is complete, which wouldn’t be especially noteworthy except for the fact that trusty translator Wayne Fan e-mailed me their Syrup cover, and—hot damn!—it looks awesome. I wish I could recall all the other editions and get them recovered like this. Well, except for the Chinese characters. Because that would be weird. But otherwise: oh yeah! I was never thrilled with the US cover, so now I can print this design out and paste it over the front of all my copies.
I finished the second draft of my Syrup screenplay just before Christmas, e-mailed it off, and am currently waiting to hear what the producers think. It’s been a fascinating process, which I hope to blog about once I know whether to depict Fortress as a group of brilliant, insightful rising stars (if they like my script), or a bunch of bumbling idiots (if they don’t).
A few days ago I drew five winners for Company coffee mugs and Mission Statement posters. Thus far four have written back to claim their goodies, so I’m afraid that unless you’ve heard from me already, you might want to start hoping that member #340 doesn’t check his email for a while, and I end up drawing you to get his prize.
My “I was a Teenage Lawn Mower” blog caused quite a stir, but only amongst my immediate family. My stepfather Col Counsell was sufficiently moved to join the site and post a response. It is a collection of gross distortions and outright lies, and I only leave it on my site in order to provide readers with some entertaining and highly imaginative fiction.
I still haven’t seen a proper edition of Company, but I’m assured by others that they look swanky. Publication date is just five days away! It’s very exciting. Pub date kind of feels like your birthday: the day itself is not that different, but there’s a special feeling to it, and people congratulate you a lot, and you finish it hopelessly drunk and trying to hitch-hike home. Unless that’s just me.