Bedford, England, is a place to make you believe in God, but only if He is very angry. Gazing across the panorama of desolate streets, dead, claw-like trees, and a sluggish black river that smells of sulphur, you can’t help but think, “Yep, somehow, sometime, someone here really pissed God off.”
Don’t get me wrong; most of rural England is quite picturesque. Even in mid-winter, there are charming little villages. You can even spot the odd animal frolicking in fields, but as you approach Bedford, they look increasingly frightened. Then you arrive. At first, you might think there’s nothing wrong; any town could look like this, if the garbage collectors went on strike for a while. You have an odd, clenched feeling your gut, but that could be a bad hamburger. Bad hamburgers feel like they’re slowly sucking the marrow out of your bones, right? Sure.
It’s only when you’ve been here a while that the true horror of Bedford reveals itself: it’s unrelenting. You think, “All right, so people here look like extras from Dawn of the Dead, but that’s just because they choose not to care about personal grooming for some reason.” (I developed this theory after spotting a guy who looked like Kevin Spacey, if Kevin was drunk and out of shape and didn’t own a hairbrush.) Then you pass a guy afflicted by a plague of boils, and realize: No. It’s not a choice. It’s biblical.
I wrote about Bedford last time we visited, and since then it has managed to get worse. I didn’t think that was possible. I mean, once the entire town is made up of people either begging for money or actively stealing it, what’s left? Once the wail of emergency vehicle sirens is constant, do you really notice any more of them? But then I ran alongside the river Ouse, past what at first I thought was a rubbish dump but turned out to just be someone’s back yard, and a goose tried to mug me. I think it had a switchblade.
So it’s almost 2008. I’m very much looking forward to ‘08, because, writing-wise, 2007 blew. It started off well. It’s just that it then took a sharp turn into soul-destroying, heart-breaking stultification. I think this must be what happens when you start the year with a blog that says, “Man, I’ve got this writing thing nailed.” So: okay. Lesson learned, ha ha!
Yep, I’m feeling much better about 2008. I won’t have a book published, or a movie released. But I will write.
And, with luck, I will get out of Bedford without being stabbed.
It’s good to have goals.
Thank you for following along my web site, and reading my stuff, and caring, even if only a little. It means an enormous amount to me. Sorry for the hold-up, but give me a little time and I’ll have some books that are worthy of you.
I wrote another short story! I know, it’s crazy. It’s like I’m just pumping these things out. Anyway, it’s in stores now in Australia as part of The Bulletin’s Summer Reading Edition, in a super-cool layout complete with creepy doll’s head pic. I tell you, there’s something about a creepy doll’s head pic that just works with my writing, you know? Maybe I can get them to print some in my next novel.
If you’re not in Australia, this would be the time when you start to get annoyed. I mean, Australia was already pretty ace, but now it’s also got new Max Barry short stories with creepy doll’s head pics? That’s just too much. But I say would, because The Bulletin said I can post their spread here for your online enjoyment. Which is damn cool of them. So here it is:
This story is quite different to my usual groove, and I’m interested in what you think—whether you prefer this or Springtide, for example.
I knew I was in Los Angeles when I saw the crazy guy on the sidewalk corner, screaming abuse at a security guard. I mean, the 14-hour flight was a tip-off. You don’t go through that and not notice. And US Customs was as cheery and welcoming as always. (“Your daughter… we want her fingerprints.”) But nothing says LA like a 50-year-old guy with thinning hair shrieking, “I hope you feel good about yourself! I hope you feel like you’ve really achieved something here!”
See, he wasn’t actually crazy. In most other parts of the world, somebody completely losing it in public means they have a serious mental illness. But I think this guy was just annoyed. He even looked a bit like Larry David. Yes, I was in LA.
People here are very friendly. Of course, I’m comparing it to the only other American city in which I’ve spent serious time, New York, so I would probably be impressed by anything other than open hostility. And I am in Santa Monica, which is one of the nicer parts of LA. But there is a good feeling. On the road, people give me plenty of room. Maybe this is because I’m not used to driving on the right side and tend to veer over to the left when not concentrating. But I like to think it’s politeness.
I’m here with Jen and Fin because we’re going to England, and it’s on the way. When you’re traveling from Melbourne to London, anywhere is on the way. It’s one of the properties of flying halfway around the world. We’re spending most of the next two months with Jen’s family in Bedford, the mucous membranes of England, and there are some movie things happening (in a possibly-kinda-let’s-see way), so here I am.
The first thing I did upon arrival was pick up a throat infection. Actually, I might have done that on the plane. Either way, it’s been a snotty few days. Now for the big question: Disneyland or Sea World?
P.S. US Customs doesn’t actually fingerprint children upon entry. I just said that because it feels like they might. I asked the Customs guy how old you had to be before they started fingerprinting you, and he said 13. So there you go: the United States is woefully unprepared for attacks from 12-year-olds. I hope you can sleep at night.
You know how I do that thing where I take some earnest but misguided piece of marketing and make it sound ridiculous? Well, words fail:
So let’s see. The world is a war-torn, post-apocalyptic battleground, ruled by oppressive “corporate lords.” But one guy can “restore the soul of mankind” by designing the packaging for a soda.
Because that makes too much sense, there’s also an inexplicable ride with a native American guy in an elevator who seems to successfully encourage the hero to commit suicide. The hero skateboards everywhere for no reason except, I guess, that marketing people think cool people do that. Oh, and the movie is from Pepsi, for Mountain Dew, which you might have thought was a corporation, and thus a bad guy in this scenario, but… uh…
Anyway, the point is to entice you into playing the DEWmocracy online game, where you can team up with other players to “design the flavor, color, name, and graphics” of a drink. Mountain Dew will then launch a “recognizably similar” version of the most popular result in 2008.
Other online games promise battles with dragons or storm troopers, but only DEWmocracy lets you enter the heart-pounding virtual world of Mountain Dew’s marketing department. I assume that missions include “Unjam The Copy Machine,” “Get That Last Parking Space,” or “Battle of the PowerPoint Presentations,” with your character choosing a class like “Intern” or “Direct Sales Representative” and working his way up to the feared “Executive Vice-President.”
If this takes off, maybe the next thrilling virtual ride could take you into a bottling factory, where you spend eight hours a day inspecting caps for defects. One thing’s for sure: Mountain Dew has finally responded to all those people clamoring to work for it for no pay.
It turns out, though, that when it comes time to design your drink in DEWmocracy, all you can do is pick from a pre-selected range of options. This was getting suspicious: first they warned me evil corporations would try to stamp out my creativity, and here I was confronted with a corporation trying to reduce creativity to pick-a-box as part of a marketing effort. Aha! Clearly I was meant to reject DEWmocracy as an attempt to control the population, and go firebomb Pepsi’s offices. Yes?
I caved in and signed up to Facebook. I never had a problem avoiding MySpace, because every MySpace I’ve ever seen was clearly designed by a hyperventilating color-blind monkey. And the monkey had no idea about HTML standards. But Facebook looked nice, so I went ahead and created a profile.
I wasn’t sure I should be doing this, since I already have way too much unanswered e-mail. I don’t really need any new avenues for people to get disappointed when I don’t reply to them. But then I saw a Facebook group called “Max Barry is fricken awesome.” That was a big plus for me. There’s just something about a group of people telling me I’m fricken awesome that makes me think, “These guys are all right.”
At first my goal was simple: I would jump on this bandwagon and friend up anyone who asked. Facebook: put up my face, maybe sell some book. Made sense. But then I discovered it’s pretty cool to see what your friends are up to on Facebook. I felt like I was being social, but without any effort. That was nice. Maybe, I thought, I should keep this just for friends and family.
Then I realized my friends and family are boring. Day One, sure, it was crazy: Brit was pregnant, Dan had a new job, and that girl I liked in high school was now an architect. There was a lot to catch up on. But a few days later, Brit was still pregnant, Dan still had the new job, and the girl was still an architect. Where was the progression? The twists and turns? It was like a soap opera where nothing happened, and I received email notifications of every non-event.
The other problem was I had friend requests piling up. It became hard to know where to draw the line: did someone I’d only met once on book tour qualify as a friend? What about someone I’d only emailed? What if I’d never heard of them before, but they listed me in their profile as one of their favorite authors, and they were incredibly hot? Well, obviously that one was an easy decision. But the others: tough. On top of that, I accidentally friended one guy by clicking the wrong button, and another because I thought he was someone else. The walls had been breached.
So I decided to go friend whoring. My new policy would be: I’m anyone’s. I accepted every friend request I had, and searched out new ones. I know: I felt kind of dirty. But then I realized it was pretty nice to have a page of links to people who liked my books. Some of my actual so-called friends have never even bothered to crack the spine on one, and I still turn up to their kids’ birthday parties, the selfish bastards. The parents, I mean. The kids are lovely. What’s that about?
Maybe these people I’d never met were more deserving of social recognition than people I met face-to-face. They had read something of mine that mattered enough to them to affect their lives, or at least their Facebook profile. Wasn’t that something? Wasn’t that a connection—a meeting of minds? Yes, I decided; yes it was.
I just noticed that a strong candidate in the race for next President of the United States is Fred Thompson. Fred played the District Attorney on Law & Order, and has acted in movies and TV shows as a Senator, Director of the CIA, White House Chief of Staff, an admiral, and, indeed, the President.
Now, let me be clear: the US is the world’s leading light when it comes to freedom and democracy. Anybody who disagrees deserves the wiretappings, slur campaigns, arrest, and/or bombings they get. But come on: Fred Thompson? Isn’t that purely because people will think, “Yeah, he seems like he should be in a position of authority… for… some… reason.”
I have trouble with the whole idea of actors as politicians. We’re electing someone whose primary skill is pretending. Maybe it’s just me, but a guy who has spent most of his life honing the ability to lie convincingly; that makes me uncomfortable. Electing that guy seems to say, “Look, we don’t care what you get up to. Just make sure you look earnest about it.”
I understand a little. After all, we’ve all got to look at whoever gets elected for the next four years. They might as well be pretty. Then there are those international conferences, where the leaders of multiple countries get together to usher in new eras of co-operation and outsourcing. Sometimes they wear funny shirts. You can’t send some shy, weedy nerd to that. Well, you can. Australia does. But it’s embarrassing. You know if Arnold Schwarzenegger was President, he might be a policy disaster but America would look totally rocking in the APEC group photo. And while I’m not totally sure how these international agreements get formed, physicality has to be involved to some degree. I’m not saying they decide carbon emissions targets by sealing the doors, stripping to the waist, and grappling for supremacy. There’s no way Bush could have taken Schroeder. That man is huge. But maybe late in the day, when everyone’s tired, having Schwarzenegger plant his ham-sized fists on France’s desk could close the deal.
The ideal, then, must be job-sharing. You have a strong, good-looking President to shake hands at the UN, and a smart, ugly President to stay home and make the tough decisions. Americans have clearly figured this out already, and it explains Bush-Cheney. And why Kerry lost in 2004: he’s got a face like his pet hamster just died, while his running mate, Edwards, is too good-looking. You’d worry that Edwards would be at a tanning salon while Britain and France were sniggering at mean drawings of Kerry during his speech at G8. That ticket just didn’t make sense.
The more physically attractive the President, the uglier the Vice should be, to compensate. It’s the Conservation of Beauty principle.
Now Harrison Ford and Alan Greenspan: that would be a hot ticket. You wouldn’t even have to know their policies. You would just look at that coupling of Ford’s wild charisma with a guy as old as God and something inside you would click.
Forbes is running a special on “The Future,” and a bunch of writers, including me, contributed fiction. The deal was everyone’s story had to be based on this:
It’s the year 2027, and the world is undergoing a global financial crisis. The scene is an American workplace.
I was intrigued by the idea of going head-to-head against other writers. It sounded like a kind of writers’ cage match. I found myself thinking, “All right, Doctorow’s gonna lead with a world controlled by draconian IP law, he won’t be able to resist. But maybe I can counter with the entire American economy being purely about advertising. He’ll never see it coming.”
Possibly no other writers saw it this way. They may have just been concentrating on writing a good story. Suckers.
Forbes has a 90-day exclusive on this piece but after that I’ll post it alongside my other short stories, with formatting that doesn’t suck so much.
In other news, you can now search this site. Little box on the left there. Thanks to Wyatt, who complained about this until I got off my butt and added it.
Maybe you heard about the arrest of Jose Luis Calva, who is described as an “aspiring horror novelist.” Police found a draft of his manuscript Cannibalistic Instincts, along with pieces of his girlfriend stashed in various places around his apartment, including in the frypan. I know, I know, I had the same reaction: it’s pretty unfair to call him “aspiring.” It sounds like that draft was finished. And not just finished, but comprehensively researched. Sure, some people say you’re not a novelist until you’re published, but in this day of print-on-demand and internet vanity presses, is that really a meaningful distinction? I say, if the guy went to all the trouble of crafting a story arc, putting words on the page day after day, and boiling his girlfriend’s flesh, he’s a novelist. Give him that.
I’m sometimes asked how much research you should do when working on a novel, so let me say: this is probably too much. It wasn’t just the girlfriend, you see; there’s also a missing ex-girlfriend and a chopped-up prostitute. That seems excessive to me. One, I could understand. I mean, I wouldn’t support it. You let horror novelists start cutting up hookers, and the next thing you know Tom Clancy is commandeering nuclear submarines off the coast of Florida. Or, I guess, appointing ghost writers to do that for him. But the point is I can imagine a frustrated Jose at his keyboard, a half-finished sentence dangling from the screen, thinking: “How do you sever a femur with a railway spike?”
Three corpses, though, that’s getting carried away. I haven’t read Cannibalistic Instincts, but I bet it contains long, tedious passages where Jose was unable to resist info-dumping his hard-won knowledge onto the reader. That’s the problem when you get to body number three: your research overshadows the writing. At that point, Jose really needed to be cutting fewer limbs and more adverbs. Fleshing out his story, not his apartment. Also, having a supportive spouse or girlfriend can be really important, especially to a first-time writer, so I can’t help but think it was counter-productive to eat her.
But there’s something in this tale to make writers everywhere feel a little better about themselves, because no matter how bad your own work is, at least you wrote it without butchering anybody. That’s a plus in anybody’s language. The corner Jose has backed himself into is that even if his book is published, when people read it they’ll be thinking, “Yeah, it’s good… but is it three murdered innocents good?” It’s extra pressure he doesn’t need. I mention this because I’m sure there are unpublished horror writers out there thinking, “No wonder I can’t get an agent; all the other horror writers are out there sawing limbs.” Sure, that probably provides a certain amount of realism that could elevate your fiction to a more visceral plane. I mean, I’m just guessing. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that Hollywood bible Variety reported this story with the line, “How soon before someone gobbles up the film rights to this?” But still. Call me a purist, but I prefer to do things the old-fashioned way: dismember people in my head.
Joe writes in to point out DirecTV’s wonderfully creative interpretation of the Do Not Call register:
DirecTV is defending automated sales calls to Do Not Call List subscribers as “informational,” and “not telemarketing.” The satellite TV provider recently called customers to say: “Because you are on our Do Not Call List, we can’t call you with all of our super-awesome special promotions.”
This sounds eminently reasonable to me. After all, the promotions were super-awesome. If they were only slightly awesome, I can understand why some people might not want to hear about them. But super-awesome promotions—if anything, it’d be wrong not to let people know about those. Faced with that dilemma, DirecTV’s only ethical choice was to have a computer dial people at home who had explicitly asked not to be bothered and play them an automated sales message.
DirecTV response is via their lawyer Rose Foley, who stresses that since the calls were “informational,” they “fall outside the scope of the Telemarketing Sales Rule and related federal and state laws and regulations governing telemarketing sales practices.” I have to say, I am looking forward to hearing Rose explain the precise informational nature of the phrase “super-awesome.” That’s going to be pure entertainment.
If I was running PR here, though, I think I would put Rose back in her cage and reach for the mea culpa. I’d issue a public apology and explain that the real problem is that here at DirecTV, we’re just so gosh darned excited about our specials, we sometimes forget that not everyone feels that way.
Because the only alternative is that DirecTV knew exactly what it was doing, having being previously fined $5.3 million for telemarketing to people on the Do Not Call list, and it weighed the likely punishment versus the potential sales benefit, valued the time and goodwill of people on the receiving end of these calls as zero cost, and decided it was worth breaking the law. Of course, in this far-fetched scenario, the only reasonable response by the FTC would be to correct this economic imbalance by fining the almighty bejeezus out of them. If $5.3 million doesn’t do the trick, it would have to see if ten or twenty million balances that equation. “Sorry, DirecTV,” the FTC would say. “But clearly regular penalties are insufficient. The only penalties left are… super-awesome!”
I read this book and promptly gave it to some of my work colleagues—I’m sure you hear this all the time. I wanted to buy a case to keep under my desk to hand out to people who came in my office.
Now my manager and some others have read it and they want me to come to their book club to lead a discussion! If you have any ideas to lead me into this land of discussing this with upper management who just happen to be members of this book club please let me know. I need to keep my job!
Hmm. Tough one. Perhaps, “What I got out of this book was a deep, abiding relief that our company is nothing like this. That’s why I hand it out to people at work; everyone enjoys stories that have nothing to do with their own lives. It’s pure escapism!”
One of the interesting things about corporate workplaces is that they turn otherwise decent human beings into… well, management. They’re not like that because they’re petty, deceitful scumbags. I mean, obviously that helps. But it’s the environment that encourages those personality traits. This could be a cry for help from your boss, who in a flash of self-discovery has thought, “My God, what have I become?” Your job at this book club, then, is clearly to reassure him/her that it’s only the other managers who are like that, and gather information that will be politically useful at your next performance evaluation.
In the morning, with Fin nestled between us in the bed, Jen and I discussed plans for the day ahead. “You could go to the B-E-A-C-H,” I suggested. It’s like with dogs: you don’t want to get their hopes up.
“Beach?” Fin said.
Probably coincidence. And, I have to admit, the sequence of letters B-E-A-C-H does sound a bit like “beach.”
That night, Fin wanted to read “Farm.” This is a book with pictures of things you find on farms, labeled accordingly. It’s not much in the plot department, and forget about character development, but she likes it.
She pointed at the first letter of the title and said, “Green F.”
She’s just turned two. Sometimes I get frightened at her growing power. Today she can spell. Tomorrow she may shoot lasers from her eyes. The day after that, she may leave me.
And sorry to abuse your email inbox, but I’ve just signed on with the good people at ChuckPalahniuk.net to run an online writing workshop based around novel-writing. Places are limited, so if you want in, clicky clicky:
Yes, they photoshopped me into a suit.
Holy crap! I thought I might get some great can designs, because, well, not to boast, but my readers tend to be smart, talented, and exceptionally good-looking. I’m sure you’ve noticed this. But still: holy crap! I am getting some great designs here. It is only a matter of time before Coke or Pepsi blatantly rip these off and launch them as new products. And a special mention to Lucia Suarez for coming up with the brilliant “Kinetic Beverage.” You know in two years they’ll all be called that.
Here are a few of the best entries so far: James F, Nataliya Lalor, Emily Elizabeth Moser, Nathan Carnes, Lucia Suarez, Karan Juneja, Kyle Huberman  , Chris Hubbard, Andrew Roff, Lori B, Sean Marks, Rod McBride, Shane Smith, Petar.
Lots of people emailed me questions about how to enter, so let me answer some of those here: you should get your entry in this week. A web-friendly JPEG is ideal for submission, but hang on to your high-res original, which we’ll need if you win. And yes, the product’s name is “Fu*k,” asterisk and all.
Next week I’ll create a gallery of all entries, for the film producers to peruse. You’ll be able to do that, too. If you submitted a design but don’t want me to post it or put your name on it, please let me know.
Update: The Fu*k Gallery is now online.
Update 2: Congratulations Mat! Chosen as the best submission from an excellent bunch. When the cans get mocked up, I’ll post a pic. Thanks again to everyone who worked on a design.
The Syrup film producers want to mock up some cans of Fukk. I think they are hatching some kind of promotion. They asked if I had a design in mind, and I said not really, but I bet if I mentioned it on my web site, somebody would come up with something good.
So here we are. If you invent a graphic design the producers like, they’ll mail you some of the mocked-up cans, and I’ll send you an autographed book, and the next time we’re all in a limo with Natalie Portman and she says, “I don’t wanna go home! Where can we party?”, we’ll suggest your place. Although that last one has never happened yet, so I wouldn’t count on it. Still: cans and book.
Your design should:
- be for an energy drink called “Fu*k” (as opposed to a cola called Fukk; that’s changed in the script)
- be shaped appropriately to be used on a can
- probably have a black background
- be cool
I’m thinking you may not need to be particularly fancy on this one, because understated is cool. But whatever you think. If you want to enter, email me.
Let’s get this out of the way first: some parents tried to name their baby “@,” which is the name of a character in Syrup. I guess it’s a good month for real-life Syrup connections. Unfortunately the baby does not appear to be a blonde, slutty, backstabbing corporate villain, but still: I need to mention it because every newspaper in the world ran the story, and everyone who’s read Syrup (all seventeen of you, bless you) e-mailed me about it.
Going above and beyond, however, was Andrea, who also pointed me toward TatAD (“Bring your advertising to life!”), which is a company that brings together corporations who want to get their logos branded onto human skin and people who think that sounds like a pretty good idea:
Are you ready to start making some BIG BUCKS as a TatAD promoter? All you have to do is get our logo tattooed on you! Then get ready to cash in BIG TIME!
To its credit, TatAD takes the time to address the notion that getting yourself imprinted with a logo for money is some kind of sell-out:
You are already a walking billboard for your favorite companies simply by wearing their clothes or driving their cars or smoking their cigarettes.
You are a salesman for your favorite companies without a paycheck!
In fact… YOU PAY THEM!!!
Don’t look at it as the corporate world has initiated this, the people have, we had no potential sponsors when we began, only people who wanted to be sponsored.
When you look at it from that angle there is no corporate sell out, in fact it’s the other way around. We have the opportunity to get something in return for once.
It’s that simple, we’re all walking billboards anyway so why not get paid to do it
Now, I might quibble with TatAD that there is a difference between simply telling people about a product you like, and getting paid to be branded with logos. A few differences, actually. One of which is “credibility.” But that’s just details. What interested me most was TatAD’s supply and demand problem. Their forums are full of people people pleading to be tattooed, many being not too particular about with what, exactly. (My favorite: “Who wants my face?”) It’s clearly a buyers market: if you’re looking to imprint your logo on some flesh, you’ve got yards and yards to choose from.
So naturally you’d look for prime real estate: the young, the beautiful, the admired, and the desired—as opposed to, say, the guy who has “a few spaces left on my right forearm”. Sorry, dude, in advertising we call that clutter. It’s the same rules as celebrity endorsement: if you’re a sports star, Nike pays you to wear its products; if not, you pay Nike. But now the bar is much lower. You don’t need to be one of the best tennis players in the world; you can earn a little sponsorship money just by being kind of awesome.
Ideally you’re gorgeous, of course. That’s the kind of awesomeness that everyone understands. But I bet an admired DJ can make a few bucks from logo tattoos, no matter what he looks like. Or a college high jump star. Anyone who’s kind of awesome, even on a relatively small scale, I think can look forward to a bright future of ever-increasing options for turning their awesomeness into cash. A certain amount of shamelessness will be required, of course. But that’s a small price to pay for being able to make a career out of being awesome. After all, you were going to do that anyway.
I’ve been working on a Syrup screenplay for a while now. Longer than I like to think about, really. Anyway, there’s a bit I’m using from the book where our hero, Scat, is trying to come up with a brilliant new idea for a Coke TV ad, and instead has a bad one:
I have started to wonder about the beach: about variations on a giant inflatable beach ball. I am thinking about this ball rolling through a major American city, with people running and screaming.
It’s the kind of idea that is stupid yet oddly attractive. I have lots of those. So, apparently does Pepsi.
Now come on. That’s Scat’s stupid idea. The only difference is it’s Pepsi instead of Coke, and people having fun instead of being crushed to death. And that change, frankly, was disappointing. I really thought I was about to see some mayhem.
(Thanks to Jake for the heads-up. So to speak.)
One thing that’s always bothered me about sci-fi movies is how bad everybody’s communications technology is. Well, that and the costumes. Seriously, if the future is Spandex, I take back what I said about never wanting to die. But anyway, every brave new vision of the future you see, the phone system has gone to hell. Alien, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, you name it: people are flying around, firing laser guns, and talking through intercoms that make them sound like Stephen Hawking gargling. Even a simple video link spits and fuzzes as if they’re tuning it through a coathanger. Will the future really be filled with technological marvels that enhance every area of our lives but this?
Now I realize: yes. We’re already on the way. I used to listen to music on CD, watch TV on a television, take photos with a camera, and talk to people on a phone with a cord. Now I have internet radio, MP3s, YouTube, VoIP and a cellphone. Even my home landline is a wireless thing that makes people sound as if they’re calling from inside an empty beer can. I don’t yet watch TV on my cellphone, but my phone company wants me to, even though the screen is one inch wide. I do take photos and videos on it, and that’s what I’ll have to look back on: a bunch of 8x6 pixel images and footage so jerky everyone seems to be having a seizure.
You know where this started? Vinyl. Oh yes, we laughed, when the purists said CDs didn’t sound as good. Well, maybe you didn’t, you weren’t born. But ask your Dad. Those long-haired freaks were right.
I was going to let this slide, because calls for schools to chase the corporate dollar are nothing new. And I like to reserve my outrage for really odious new forms of marketing. Not just whacking ads on anything that moves, but the truly insidious slime you don’t really notice until it’s smiling you in the face. Like the “charm offensive” aimed at making the French more polite to tourists: now that gives me the heebie-jeebies. Polite French people? That’s just wrong. I like my French arrogant. If I ever step off a French airplane and hear, “Missing you already!,” I will take that as a sign of the Apocalypse.
But to schools. This particular push for big business to step in to educate young minds comes from Professor Brian Caldwell, who calls the public funding model “outdated thinking”:
He says partnerships with business could be valuable for both parties, for example in areas of science and technology.
“With a company like Rolls Royce you’re getting not only cash support but you’re also getting the opportunity of having top engineers work side by side with your teachers and your students and who also can provide marvellous work experience so yes there is self interest but it’s a self interest that matches the public interest,” he said.
Phew, that’s lucky. For a minute I was worried that the public interest in delivering quality education to children might not completely overlap with Rolls-Royce’s interest in stuffing great wads of cash into the pockets of its shareholders. Actually, I had thought that if we were brainstorming for large organizations with scads of money and an interest in public education, we might have thought of, you know, the frickin’ government. I mean, I don’t want to blow their cover, but government does occasionally provide services for the national good. Roads, bombing things, education; there’s a whole package.
What really bothers me here is the persistent idea that you can get money from companies for nothing:
Professor Caldwell doesn’t believe there is danger of too much interference, such as for example fast food companies influencing students’ diets.
Corporations are the most ruthlessly rational economic entities on the planet. They have to be, because if they aren’t, they die. They are subject to intense competitive pressure, and the evolutionary effect is that today’s corporate giants are the sharpest, most efficient wealth-generators in history. Anything they do, it’s because there’s a return.
I’m fine with that. But I’m not letting one loose in a school without asking: What does it get out of this? Or put another way: What are we selling?
Advertising is so pervasive is because everyone thinks it’s money for nothing: you put up some ads, you get paid, what’s the harm? The non-monetary side of the transaction can’t be measured. What’s the undivided attention of a twelve-year old worth? What’s the real cost of making our police dependent on ad revenue? What’s the final invoice on installing corporate patriotism in our kids?
I don’t know. But I bet it ends with smiling French people.
We need Max’s comments about the iPhone launch!
I think if I was writing Jennifer Government today, it would be phones, not sneakers.
Now what we’re going to do is ignore the whole “What the Fukk is happening to Max’s new book?” question. Because it’s going to take some time to resolve, and me posting regular updates on my blog is going to freak everybody concerned right out, and for my own mental health I should probably start thinking about something else.
But thanks to everyone who wrote in with kind words. That means a lot. I’m sure this book will be published. It’s a good book. You’ll like it. The question is not if, but when and how.
So instead of alternating between maniacal cackling and weeping into my sleeve, I will write you a book review. This review is not of books I’ve read. That would be Helpful, because I could tell you if they were any good. This is an Unhelpful review, because all I’m going to say is how these books got onto my bedside table, where they have sat, neglected, as centuries turned.
On top is “Maisy Likes Driving” by Lucy Cousins. Fin brought this in one morning and wanted to read it. So I have actually read this one. It’s about 6 pages long and has pictures of Maisy driving things, which she enjoys. I can recommend it if you’re into Maisy and like to know everything that happens in a book from the title and are aged two.
Next is “Unpolished Gem” by Alice Pung. I met Alice at a writers’ festival and everyone said her book was good. Alice herself is so polite and smart and cute that I want to take her aside and say, “Stop that. You’re making the rest of us look bad.”
“American Hoax” by Charles Firth. This I also picked up at the Sydney Writers Festival. Charles and I did a panel together, and afterward he bought my book and asked me to sign it, so I was forced to buy his, even though he was a complete tosspot. I say that because I know that’s the type of humor he’ll appreciate. Actually Charles I liked a lot, even though he’s not as polite and cute as Alice Pung. His book is a satire on… well, America, I guess. I haven’t read it.
“Phineas Poe” by Wil Christopher Baer. I keep seeing Baer’s name pop up in connection with mine on places like Amazon. If that was enough to get me to buy something, I’d own a copy of this, but Baer came recommended, so I bought this collection of three novels. Unfortunately I discovered that it’s so heavy I can’t read it in bed without breaking the bones in my wrist. I got about four pages in and needed a rest. I think I might relocate Phineas to the bathroom.
“The Contortionist’s Handbook” by Craig Clevenger. Actually, I have read this one. That shouldn’t be there. I liked it a lot, although not as much as “Dermaphoria.” This puts me firmly in the minority of Clevenger fans, though, so you shouldn’t trust what I say. See? Still Unhelpful.
“The Art of Funerary Violin” by Rohan Kriwaczek. My Aussie publisher, Scribe, gave this to me, telling me it was hilarious. I thought it was a novel, but on closer inspection it really does appear to be about funerary violins. And I’m really not sure how hilarious that can be.
“The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. In LAX, about to board my flight to Melbourne after my 2007 American book tour, I had some leftover cash, and bought this because it’s meant to be good. I dunno, though. It looks very literary, and the problem with literary books is that if you don’t like them, you can’t even extract minor enjoyment out of the gratuitous sex and violence. You just have to sit there and wade through mind-numbing wave after wave of symbolism, eloquence, and character development. I hate that.
“Third Class Superhero” by Charles Yu. I think I got asked to give a quote for this. It’s a short story collection. I liked the first story, then got distracted and never finished it. They sent me a second copy, perhaps thinking the first had gotten lost, and this bumped it right up to the top of my pile, but unfortunately just before I left on tour, and returned with Life of Pi.
“Einstein Never Used Flash Cards” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. This was very kindly given to me at a 2006 reading I did in Mountain View, CA, in by a guy named Peter, who thought I needed some parenting advice. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of insulting. Anyway, I read a little, but then Jen stole it. I recently got it back, which is why it’s relatively close to the top of the pile.
“Heyday” by Kurt Anderson. The bookstore I read at in Phoenix, AZ, offered me a book for my trouble, and I chose this because I liked “Turn of the Century.” In retrospect, it was clearly the most expensive book in the store. I may not be invited back to Phoenix.
“Persuasion & Healing” by Jerome D. Frank and Julia B. Frank. I read half of this as research for my latest novel. It’s an overview of modern psychotherapy. It’s written by a father and daughter, which must have been interesting. Imagine arguments in that house.
“The Sleepers Almanac 2007.” A short-story collection. Apparently one of my stories will be published in this next year, so the publisher sent me this to help me figure out if that’s a good thing.
“Prodigal” by Marc D. Giller. A sequel to his very good first novel, “Hammerjack,” which arrived just before a particularly busy time and got hammered down in the pile before I could read it.
“The Cubicle Survival Guide” by James F. Thompson. I have no idea where this came from.
“Alien Sex in Silicon Valley” by Dave Alber. The author gave me this at a reading in 2006. I think he was self-publishing. I read the first chapter and quite liked it and then got distracted. This book is now so far down the list I will never reach it. If only I had stayed with it, I might have loved it, given a rave quote for the cover, and helped it become a national bestseller, thus changing Dave’s life forever. Although probably not, since I raved about Paul Neilan’s Apathy and Other Small Victories, and did that become a bestseller? Shockingly, no. That’s out in paperback now, by the way. If you respect me at all, you’ll go buy it.
“Raga Six” by Frank Laura. Frank is my media escort in San Francisco. He gave me this book in 2006 and I hadn’t gotten to it by the time I went back there a year later. I wasn’t sure which was worse: to admit this, or to say nothing and have him think I hated it. I went with saying nothing.
“Pendulum” by Nathan Provence. Pretty sure this is another self-published book given to me by an enterprising author who came up to me at a reading, although I’m not sure which year. By now it has been crushed for so long under the weight of other books that all its pages have fused together.
The one I’m actually reading is “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” by George Saunders. I’d never heard of this book or the author before, but I saw it in a bookstore last week and liked the first page. I started reading it because my wrists were aching from attempting Phineas Poe. That’s my system, you see: last in, first out. It makes no logical sense, but has the advantage of being easy. I use the same system for my email. Anyway, I’m really loving this book so far. It’s fantastic. So if you made it this far, there you go: that’s a little helpful.
By the way, in the course of writing this review, I moved the books to see what was on the bottom, and the pile fell on me. I nearly died.
My fear, of course, has been that Bill would say, “Max, you know this book you’re so excited about… well, it’s not so great.” Every time this has threatened to overwhelm me the last couple of weeks, I shooed it away, because I knew in my heart that surely that could not be true: this was a great book, my best, even.
And it turns out that Bill does think it’s great. So too, apparently, do other people he’s shown it to. I pushed him on this, in case he was doing that thing where you say only nice things to the author because my God they’re temperamental, but no: I really think he considers it quality.
That’s the good news. The bad news is he can’t publish it.
It’s hard for me to explain why. It’s hard for me to understand why. I think it has a little to do with the nature of the story, and a lot to do with the nature of the publishing business. I can’t relate the details here without being immensely unprofessional, even for me, so that will have to do, sorry. But the situation is incredibly bizarre, like something out of one of my books. (One of the published ones, ha ha.)
Bill is a genius editor. When he says there’s a publishing problem, I completely believe him. I know he’s looking out for me and my career. He’s proven his skill and dedication over a couple of books.
There are options. I have to believe I can get this book out there somehow. Surely we’ll figure out something.
This is a very weird feeling.
You can buy paper made from elephant feces. It’s called Poo Poo Paper. I know this because I saw it mentioned in DailyCandy, which is “the ultimate insider’s guide to what’s hot, new, and undiscovered.” At first I thought DailyCandy might be scraping the bottom of the hot, new, and undiscovered barrel when they reached for the Poo Poo paper, but then I read more and discovered a profound insight into modern consumerism. Here:
Kid 1: Wow. Look at that elephant. He really thinks his sh*t don’t stink.
Kid 2: Actually, it doesn’t always smell bad. Just yesterday I was trying out my new Crayolas on paper made from elephant poop.
Kid 1: Cootie alert.
Kid 2: No, no. It’s totally clean.
Kid 1: Keep talking.
Kid 2: So these people collect the dung, dry it out, and wash it, leaving fibers from the grass, bamboo, and fruits the little guy’s ingested.
Kid 1: Grody. To the max.
Kid 2: I’m not done yet. Then they boil the fibers so they’re super clean, add banana tree and pineapple fibers to thicken the paper, and dry it in the sun. You’d never even know it was made from caca.
Kid 1: Okay. Kinda rad.
You see the genius. Regular non-hot, un-new, and already-discovered people might think that paper made from elephant crap is kind of disgusting. But for that very reason, ultimate insiders find it hot. The selling point is the repulsiveness.
I think marketers worldwide will find this a pleasing development. Until now, they’ve been hamstrung by the need to make their products useful, or at least non-awful. But if leading-edge shoppers are willing to buy the opposite—and not just willing; already eagerly seeking such products out—then the doors are wide open. For example:
Consumer 1: Hey look, shoes made of razor blades. They actually inflict injury on you while you walk. What a stupid idea.
Consumer 2: Actually, some of the hippest Hollywood celebs are wearing these now.
Consumer 1: Keep talking.
Consumer 2: According to Variety magazine, there’s nothing hotter than leaving a little trail of blood spots from your mangled feet. The pain is what makes it outrageous.
Consumer 1: Okay. Kinda rad.
Incidentally, I noticed the slogan on the Poo Poo Paper web site: “WE TAKE THE ‘OO’ OUT OF POO!”. Following that is: “TM”. Someone actually came up with that phrase, then thought: “Gee, that’s some gold right there. I’d better officially register that before anyone steals it.”
On the weekend I went to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Many years ago, before I was published, I went to one of these big festivals and hated it, because it was full of self-congratulating blowhards trying to crawl up each other’s butts. But now that I’m one of those butt-crawling blowhards, it was awesome.
I did three panels and got to meet lots of other Aussie writers, which I hadn’t done earlier because until recently I was completely unknown here. Now I’m exactly the right amount of known: enough to get invited, but not so much that I qualify as a commercial sell-out whom everybody bitches about. It was a perfection distraction for a guy waiting to find out if his publisher likes his new novel. (Not that I’m, you know, completely freaking out or anything.)
On my second night I pulled a muscle in my leg. I was asleep at the time. I dreamed that a tiny, blue, jelly-like alien invaded my kitchen and tried to kill me. I stabbed it with a fork and it squealed and staggered around, then it tried to make a run for it so I kicked it as hard as I could against the cupboards. This is where I think I injured myself. Then the alien looked up at me and said, “Mom-my.” I was so shocked I woke up. I think this must be a side-effect of having an active imagination, or doing a lot of drugs before bed.
For my last panel, “Laugh Out Loud,”, I opened with a bit where I pretended someone close to me had just died, then revealed it was just a character in a story I was working on. This probably would have been funnier if moments earlier the host hadn’t paid tribute to Anna Politkovskaya, who attended the Festival last year, and was assassinated for political reasons five months later. If I was a little more professional, I would have junked my opening right there. But I’m not, so I didn’t. Fortunately not too many people seemed to think I was making funny at Anna. And you know, I’m told she enjoyed a laugh.
I read a couple of blogs from this site, which went down very well. It was also terrific to be on stage with my old high school buddy, Wil Anderson; I felt like I was back in 1990, only with no hair.
On the plane ride home I noticed they’re still advising us to brace our heads against the seat in front of us in an emergency. This made sense ten years ago, but now that location is a small, solid screen. If I’m preparing for impact, do I really want to carefully position my face against a rectangle of glass and metal? To me, that really confirms that the whole procedure is there purely to give you something to occupy yourself with other than running around screaming and clawing at flight attendants.
I got home to discover Fin had grown up. I swear, I was away three days, and she learned a hundred new words, got attitude, and her face changed. I am not 100% certain my wife didn’t replace her with a similar-looking child.
I mentioned earlier that I’m planning to talk a little about writing this year. Today I carry that threat through.
To those of you who couldn’t care less about this topic: my God, can you put aside your own selfish interests for five seconds? No, wait, I mean: sorry. But there are people out there interested in this. I know because whenever I post about it, I get emails of weeping gratitude. That’s hard to resist.
So to originality. I raise this because I think it’s reasonably common for unpublished (and underpublished) writers to think: “Man, the only way to make it as an author is to churn out predictable, formulaic crap. Nobody’s interested in publishing really original books.” Well, when I say this is a common attitude, I mean I used to hold it, and I assume everybody is like me. There I was in 1998, collecting rejection letters for Syrup, and the underlying message seemed to be that it wasn’t mainstream enough. And I couldn’t describe my own book; I couldn’t find the pithy couple of sentences that people seemed to want, that would make them say, “That sounds interesting,” instead of their eyes glazing over with confusion. I needed something like: “Terrorists hijack a submarine and ex-Special Forces agent Jack Fyre is the only man who can stop it.”
It’s tempting to believe that formulaic crap sells because there seems to be so much of it. But I now think you can look at a shelf full of Grisham novels or whatever and assume they’re all the same until you read them. Then you find some common elements, for sure, but much less than you thought. There is formula out there, but not much of it.
I reacted to my Syrup rejections by writing a standard, genre thriller. It was terrible. And I learned that you never improve anything by making it less original. It’s the opposite: the worst thing writing can be is not new.
I’m convinced this isn’t just me. I think everybody wants newness. Editors, agents, readers: we all want new plots, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. Nobody wants to get twenty pages into a book and know where it’s going, or even feel too much like they’ve seen all this before. Even within a genre’s iron-clad conventions, we want twists, surprises, and reinventions.
Young writers in particular can sometimes try to crawl inside a pre-conceived box labeled “novel” or “screenplay,” and end up with something far less interesting than if they’d forged their own path. I’m not saying you want to hit the other extreme, and pursue a lone, bizarre vision with no regard for how it reads. But you must nurture the things that make your story and your writing unique—that make you unique, since writing is letting people crawl around inside your head. Billions of people can write a sentence. Why should I bother reading yours, unless they’re different?
Now I don’t want to go on and on about this new book. Well, I do. I really do. But I realize that’s of limited interest when you can’t actually read it, and probably won’t be able to for at least a year. And maybe it’s of limited interest even then. Although why are you bothering to read my blogs? That’s just weird, man.
Anyway. The fact is, the most exciting thing I did this week was email it to my agent. From there it will go to Bill, my editor. Bill hasn’t read it yet, so I will wait with thoughts like these: “He’s going to love it. It’s by far my best book. Maybe he’ll hate it. It’s probably all wrong for my demographic and the market has changed and he’ll ask if I’ve written anything else lately. Oh, shit. I’ve wasted a year.”
Now I know from responses to a recent blog that some of you find the idea of my career heading anywhere but upward laughable. Or at least you were kind of enough to pretend that. But you have to keep in mind, I’ve been dumped by a publisher once. If you had heard nothing but positive things right up until the moment they showed you the door, you’d have paranoia issues, too.
So even though I love this book, love it, I know that until I hear back from Bill I will fret. I will regret posting this blog, for making the humiliation when it gets rejected so much more public.
But today: damn. I just sent my best book to my publisher. I’m ecstatic.
A while ago I watched The Biggest Loser. This is a TV show in which fat, unhappy people turn themselves into thin, self-satisfied assholes. Well, some of the contestants are assholes to begin with. They either stay the same, or turn into different kinds of assholes. The nice ones, though, it’s like watching Annakin Skywalker become Darth Vader: by the end they look cooler, but will destroy planets to get what they want.
Why is this? I suppose skinny people might be innately more evil than fat ones. But I don’t know. I mean, Mother Theresa. Or maybe it’s that attractive people are more evil. That sounds about right. (Again, Mother Theresa.) I’ve always been suspicious of very good-looking people. I think they should be microchipped and tracked, so we can keep an eye on what they’re up to. I would feel a lot better if I knew beautiful people were being monitored to make sure they weren’t skipping lines, getting out of speeding tickets, and having impromptu sex with flight attendants. If I can’t do those things, nobody should be allowed to.
But I can’t blame the Biggest Loser people for becoming pricks. If I abruptly became a lot hotter, I’d develop a huge ego and poorly-concealed contempt for my fellow man, too. I mean, even more so than now. That’s just the natural consequence of being able to look at yourself in the mirror and think, “Wow… I’m amazing.”
I keep hearing about the importance of self-esteem, but I’m not convinced. I think we may be underestimating the value of crippling self-doubt and insecurity. If you go to the beach, you’ll see a hairy, fat man in his 50s strolling by in a thong, while nearby a 20-year-old with the body of a movie star tugs at her skirt to make sure it’s covering thighs she thinks are too large or pale or freckled or god knows what. I don’t think it’s coincidence that human beings are afflicted with chronic lack of confidence just as they begin to scale the peak of their physical attractiveness: I think that’s the only thing stopping young people from taking over the world. Imagine how horrendous it would be if that 20-year-old had the self-confidence of the 50-year-old. No, not because of the thong. The thong would be fine, obviously. The problem would be that once she realized how vastly superior she looked compared to the rest of us, she and her young, beautiful friends would round the rest of us up and lock us in labor camps, where they wouldn’t have to look at us.
And we would let them, because they’re beautiful.
Are you available for a phone call?
Claire is the assistant to my agent, Luke, so I email back in the affirmative. I wonder what’s up: phone calls out of the blue are usually good news, like maybe something exciting happening with a film.
I have some good news and some bad news… I’ll call you in a min.
Now, let me skip ahead and tell you that the bad news isn’t anything serious: they just have to subtract some money from my royalty check to pay US withholding tax. But in the five minutes before I find that out, I am convinced that either:
- Doubleday has decided to drop me as an author; or:
- Company has sold much more poorly than anyone let on and Doubleday has decided to drop me as an author.
This completely out-of-the-blue, oh-by-the-way-everybody-hates-you-and-your-career-is-over thing happened to me once before, in 2002, and suddenly I’m back there, staring into the abyss. The “good news” will turn out to be: “And that means we can start looking for an even better publisher!” Everyone will try to be positive but the inescapable truth will be: I’m history. I know this for a fact.
I love being able to write for my job. I love it. But boy, I could do without the occasional heart-stopping moments where I see my entire professional world fall apart. I really could.
P.S. Oh, and later I emailed Claire to ask what the good news was again. She probably did mention it in the phone call, but I didn’t notice because I was too busy planning my new career as an ice-cream salesman. She said it was that I had some royalties.
So I’m almost finished the last pre-publisher draft of my new book, and I’m watching the TV show Heroes. Where I live we’re about three months behind the US. Well, a few weeks ago on Heroes they introduced a minor character with a super power that’s very similar to one of mine. Uh, I mean, similar to a particular talent that one of my characters has. It’s not particularly original—it’s a form of mind control—but in the show it’s described in an atypical way, the exact same atypical way I’ve used.
Last episode, this character shot herself in the head. On the sofa, I said, “Yes!” It was a terrific moment.
Hopefully by the time my book comes out, nobody will remember her.
Last week I helped my 17-year-old brother-in-law build his own computer. Moo, as I shall call him, as I have since he was four, is not particularly geeky. He is what they call emo. And he lives in England, so all I could do was give advice over the phone and hope I wasn’t about to hear, “Is this bit meant to be smoking like… OH MY GOD IT’S—beep, beep, beep.”
But he put the whole thing together with no real dramas or explosions, which I was very impressed with. Then we got to what turned out to be the hard part: setting up Windows XP.
I haven’t used Windows much in the last three years. It’s possible that my mind has become clouded by the religion that is Linux. But I don’t think so. I think Windows has gotten crappier.
I seriously can’t believe how many hoops you have to jump through now to do even simple tasks, like upgrade Internet Explorer. (Before you are permitted to plug the gaping security holes in the 2001 version that comes on the CD, you must install some other software that’s of no benefit to you, which requires much clicking, restarting, and rebooting.) The Internet Chat program, Messenger, is so crammed full of ads and promotions that it’s hard to work out where the non-commercial content is. Programs crash. Installing drivers is click-and-hope. It won’t recognize your wireless network card because it wasn’t invented in 2001, and you can’t go on the internet for updates because it won’t recognize your wireless network card. Even if you could, you don’t have any security patches installed, and by the time you download them, your system will be infected with Sasser. Everything you install tries to change your home page, start by default, and fill your desktop with icons.
But what really bothers me is the feeling that you must constantly fight for control of your own computer, because your aims are apparently in conflict with those of Microsoft and half of everyone else who writes Windows software. They want your computer to report information about you, keep ongoing watch over what you’re doing in case you turn pirate (activation, registration, and validation?), show you ads, and lock you out of protected media. If you lose this battle, then six months later you find yourself with a computer so clogged with malware that the only way to make it usable again is to reinstall the operating system and begin the fight again.
Occasionally I see articles about whether Linux is ready to compete with Windows on the desktop. But it’s become obvious to me that Linux is already a better operating system. That’s purely on the merits—features, reliability, and ease of use—and even before you throw in the fact that Linux is free and has more accessible support.
So to me the question isn’t whether Linux is good enough any more. It’s down to the applications: whether Linux programs are available to do everything you want.
Today the latest version of Ubuntu was released. Ubuntu is the best home Linux distribution going around, so if you’ve thought about switching, it’s a good time. You can download a Live CD, which lets you try Linux out without actually installing it, but even better might be to consider which applications you could switch to. If you can find Linux versions that do everything you need, you’re good to go. If you can’t—and there are certain holes here that will rule Linux out for some people—then you might want to stay put. (It is possible to run most Windows applications on Linux with emulation, but it’s clunky. And dual-booting for anything except games gets tedious fast.)
P.S. Here is the last thing I wrote about Linux, in February 2005.
P.P.S. I understand that to many people, Linux users are fanatical freaks with no appreciation for the basic fact that the majority of the world doesn’t fall in love with computers but simply uses them to get things done. But that’s because they’re running Windows. If only they switched, the scales would fall from their eyes and they too would realize that they are eating delicious cherry pie while everyone around them chews on mud, saying, “It’s not too bad, once you get used to it.”
Oh, and the mud is evil.
I wake to the aroma of banana loaf. I’ve made barely a dent in Katrina’s goodies, and my hotel room smells as if Momma’s been a-bakin’. It’s quite delightful. Hotels should consider leaving out banana loaf instead of chocolates, I think.
Take two for Google. This time I seem to have the right day, and Ricky leads me through the campus to do my talk. And oh my God. The stories are true. It is the most wonderful place in the world. It’s like the company is saying, “Just come in, hang out, and I’ll give you everything you could possibly want. And if, you know, you have a minute free and want to do some work for us, that’d be cool, too.”
There are endless cafeterias; free, of course. Snack and drink machines everywhere. Massage chairs. A laundromat. A beach volleyball court. A wave pool. Grass, trees, open space. A full-scale model of SpaceShipOne. A T-Rex skeleton being attacked by a flock of pink flamingos. And geeks, geeks, as far as the eye can see: young, free, happy geeks. I want to weep for the years I spent at HP: why did I waste a single minute of my life there when this exists? If I didn’t already have my dream job, I swear I would throw myself on the Google doorstep and beg for employment.
Which makes things a little ridiculous, because I am here to preach about the innate evil of workplaces, and Google’s campus is so wonderful that I expect bunnies to frolic amongst the cubicles while chocolate donuts rain from the sky. Still, I’m not persuaded that my thesis is wrong. I strongly suspect that Google will never be as good a place to work again as it is right now. Today, Google’s corporate identity is dominated by the personality of its founders. I expect that as it ages, and outlives the people who started it, the corporation’s natural inclinations will gradually take over. After all, one time, long ago, HP was something like this.
The good thing about speaking to a room full of people who have probably never heard of me is that I can dredge out old stories I no longer tell on book tour out of fear that everyone who cares has already heard them. I also try to make the most out of the sensation that I am a Person Worth Listening To, because I know that in 24 hours I will be back to Person Who Needs To Do Those Dishes.
[Update: Here’s the full Google video of my talk.]
The very first question is whether I am wearing the same shirt as in my author photo on the back of the book. I confess that I am, and use as my excuse that it’s all I have clean on my last day of tour. But hey, I’m at Google. There are guys here who probably consider it unnecessary and inefficient to own more than one shirt.
Back to my hotel, and as I pack for the last time I begin to feel like I might miss this. I dunno; there’s just something about people rushing to open doors for you and delivering hamburgers to your room at 1am that’s fairly easy to get used to.
The desk clerk asks if he can fetch me a cab, and I say, “No thanks, I’m catching Bart.” I am quite excited about my plans to catch Bart, and being able to use the sentence, “No thanks, I’m catching Bart.” I was meant to take a cab, but when I mentioned this to Katrina last night she was horrified at the idea, since Bart pretty much runs direct from my hotel room to SFO check-in. So I trundle my suitcase down Market St to the station. Unfortunately it’s 5pm and a lot of people are doing the same thing, only without suitcases and with annoyed looks at people standing around with suitcases trying to figure out where they’re going. I know that most public transport systems don’t make much of an effort to tell newbies how to use them, but Bart seems to take that to a whole new level of mystery. It even leaves up to me how much the ticket should cost: at first it suggests $20, I bargain it down to five cents with the down arrow, then we compromise on $5, which sounds about fair to me. I hope any transit police I encounter feel the same way.
The train is packed and disappointingly not covered with Simpsons characters or, really, remarkable in any way. It’s just a train. So sitting there with my 50-pound suitcase biting into my thighs, I’m thinking I probably should have caught that cab after all. But I don’t want to leave you with the vague idea that this is all Katrina’s fault. I want that to be clear. It totally is.
On my ninth journey through airport security screening in eleven days, I find myself appreciating how polite and serene the staff are. They deal with the exact same situations about a million times per day. I am already shouting in my head: Hey, you! Shoes off, idiot! You there, a laptop in your bag? What are you, stupid? Whoa! Where do you think you’re going with that jacket? Hey! Yes, moron, you! Shoes! SHOES!
For the flight home I am reaquainted with my old friend seat 48G, which no amount of begging, calling, and mouse-clicking over the last two weeks has been able to budge me from. But it turns out that the seat beside me is miraculously empty—one of only a handful of spaces on the entire flight. This allows me to angle my legs diagonally under the next seat along and, oh sweet jesus yes, straighten them. It’s a wonderful feeling, knowing you can fall asleep without risking Deep Vein Thrombosis.
We touch down in Melbourne and before long I’m through Customs. At first I can’t see Jen and Finlay, and do a big circuit of the arrivals hall. Then I spot them from behind. I yell, “Hey!” They turn and grin. Jen sets Fin down and she stumble-runs toward me across the floor. It’s like the day I left, except instead of leaping into my arms, she pulls up right in front of me, looking suddenly shy. I sweep her up and hug her tight, and after a second I feel her little arms hug me back.
I can’t sleep. Part of the problem is that when I lie down, all the blood in my body rushes to my sinuses. Actually, maybe that’s rushing phlegm. Yeah. It’s phlegm. The other part of the problem is that back home, it’s Round 1 of the football season, and my team is playing.
It would be stupid to get up, turn on my laptop, and check the scores online. The game won’t finish until 3am my time, so I won’t get to find out the result tonight anyway. But…
I get up, turn on my laptop, and check the scores online. It’s Richmond 44, Carlton 44. I also discover that there’s a streaming radio broadcast available. “Hmm…” I say.
At 3am, I’ve got the laptop in bed with me, piping out commentary. We lose. I turn it off and fall asleep.
Sunday is a travel day: the first day without a bookstore event since I started the tour. All I have to do is fly to San Francisco, check into my hotel, and marvel at the can of personal oxygen on offer in the bathroom. It’s a relief to know that’s there, just in case, say, all the oxygen molecules in the air coincidentally rush to the other end of the room. I will grab that can and inhale until the entropy principle reasserts itself.
For dinner I meet up with Katrina, a NationStates moderator, and discover that she’s the girl who gave me a home-baked banana loaf in San Francisco when I was here last time. I figure this out because this time Katrina has brought me not one but two banana loaves. And not just that: she and players John and Thom have hand-made a “NationStates Monopoly” set, complete with “Issue cards,” “UN Resolution” cards, custom money, and a board where key regions and alliances are the property. It’s amazing. And I would post a picture, except when I set up the game back at my hotel room later, my camera batteries die in the middle of extending the lens. But trust me: it’s amazing. I can’t believe how much time and care went into it.
On Monday morning I shave my head, because my hair was getting so unruly, and meet Frank, who was also my media escort from last time. One of the many great things about Frank is that he has an extraordinary, apparently endless store of pithy quotes. Any given situation, Frank can produce a famous quote to express what I was trying to say, only better.
Frank takes me out to Mountain View, where I’m scheduled to read at Google. I’m very excited about this, because I’m a geek, and because as far as I can tell Google is the best big company in the world. I have heard many tales of wonder about the Google offices and want to see if these are true.
We’re there early, though. Really early. About 24 hours early, in fact. There’s been a miscommunication and I’ll have to come back tomorrow.
So instead of wandering through the magical fields of Google, I drop into San Francisco bookstores and sign stock. Everyone in San Francisco is very fit, I notice. Not that I’m surprised. Just walking up and down those hills, residents must build incredibly powerful thighs. They probably need to exercise a lot to balance that out.
I call home and discover that Finlay has really gotten into YouTube lately. When Jen turns on the computer, Fin comes up and says, “Movies? Movies?” Then she sits on Jen’s lap and watches clips from the “Pets & Animals” section. Apparently Charles has a licking problem is popular.
Then it’s time for my reading. I’m expecting a small crowd, because it’s in Danville, which was met with howls of despair from my Bay Area readers when announced. And indeed there are fewer people, perhaps 15 or 20, but since most have made a big effort to get here, they’re a lovely audience. One guy, Fazil, has brought me a bottle of the legendary Fukola Cola, which I discover tastes pretty much like regular cola. I was expecting to at least hallucinate a little. Disappointing.
On the drive home, Frank suggests that I take a photo of each audience and post it on my blog. That’s a terrific idea, one that I could have used about ten days ago. Damn. Next time.
The last thing I do is a little more bathtub washing. I thought I was done with this, but since my Google reading was knocked back a day, I need one more non-ugly shirt. I decide to try a technique recommended by Tim in the comments of a previous blog, whereby you wrap the wet item in a towel and stomp on it. I’m generally in favor of plans that include stomping on things. And this technique seems to work pretty well, although Tim did promise that I would be “astounded” by it. I’m not sure I’m astounded. I think to astound me, my shirt would need to come out bone dry and already ironed. Or have maybe transformed into a much hipper, more expensive shirt. That would be astounding. This is merely satisfyingly less wet.
On the plane from Austin to Phoenix, I finish my advance copy of Rant, the new Chuck Palahniuk novel. Somehow I have ended up reading incredibly explicit books on every flight. I flew from Melbourne to LA with Past Mortem, by Ben Elton, and unexpectedly found myself in the middle of the filthiest sex scene I’ve ever encountered. Seriously, it was very educational. Only a Brit could could produce a book that’s essentially a comedy of manners, but with felching. I was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a mother traveling with her two young children, and had to tilt the book away from her during these passages. The danger then was that the man across the aisle would think I was trying to show it to him. It was a delicate balance.
Next up was Craig Clevenger’s Dermaphoria, and a sex scene involving a dripping tap. By the time I got to Palahniuk, I decided that if people didn’t want to know about olfactory cunnilingus, they shouldn’t be reading over my shoulder.
All three were great books, by the way. I’m now going to get myself a copy of Clevenger’s first, The Contortionist’s Handbook. And Rant is brilliant; nobody messes with my head as delightfully as Chuck. Definitely one of my favorites.
It’s my first visit to Phoenix, and the city has a great feel. Although maybe part of that is my joy at seeing the sun again, which I last sighted in Denver. My cab driver is an effortlessly cool Jamaican man who jabbers into his cellphone and gestures wildly with his free hand, controlling the steering wheel with, as far as I can tell, sheer willpower.
Phoenix has palm trees, mountains popping unexpectedly out of endless plains, and cacti. The latter strike me as jokes, as if somebody put them there to be funny. I’m not really sure why. But they are very amusing.
I settle into my hotel, pausing only to note that the doormen wear shorts, and then it’s off to Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. I’m supposed to do a 2-hour writing workshop ahead of my reading, and not really sure what that means. I’m imagining maybe five or six people and an interactive session where I set them a writing task and then we discuss their work. While they’re writing, maybe I’ll go out for pizza.
But 20 or 30 people have turned up, and the questions fly. I end up doing the entire session as Q&A. I think most people are relieved at not having to write something and talk in public about it, although a few were clearly looking forward to that part. I guess my next workshop should be longer.
Some people leave, others arrive, and then I do my reading. Halfway through, I realize that a young girl in the audience, maybe eight years old, is staring at me stonily. At first her gaze is startling, and then I find it funny, and have to deliberately avoid looking at her to keep it together. Really, you try reading something in public while a little girl with eyes the size of dinner plates stares at you unblinkingly. It’s not easy.
Afterward, her mother brings her up to have a book signed, and I learn that her name is Kaia. Kaia has a question: “Have you met The Wiggles?” She thought that seeing as we’re all Australian, maybe I occasionally bump into them. But, sadly, no.
In line, Lisa gives me a home-made rabbit. It’s extremely cute, with long, dangling arms and legs, and wearing a sweater. She tells me not to give it to Fin, though, because the hands and feet might pop off and choke her to death. But I can put it on her bedroom shelf, where it can smile down at her temptingly.
As I’m leaving the store, a young, muscular man rushes out the darkness at me. “Max! Max!” This turns out to be Kale, who wants some books signed but I guess didn’t want to wait in line. It’s just as well for Kale that I’m not very famous. If I was Jimmy Carter, my bodyguards would have put five slugs into him. Maybe one day I will have armed bodyguards. One day.
I love my breakfasts. But when I’m at home, I don’t usually get to them until late—11 or 12, if I’m writing. (Some writers drink. Some do drugs. I find creativity via coffee on an empty stomach.) And I eat cereal. Or oatmeal/porridge. Milk should always be somehow involved with breakfast, I feel. The hearty, American-style breakfast of egg and bacon and sausage and hash browns is a little too much for me, especially early. If you ask me, there’s something a little immoral about cooking anything before noon but toast.
This is why I’m having a little difficulty with the hordes of people in line for pizza at 8am at the airport. And “breakfast tacos!” You can’t just put the word “breakfast” in front of something as if that makes it okay! No! There are no breakfast pot roasts, are there? Breakfast buffalo burgers? Breakfast prime rib steak?
It’s raining in Austin. But that’s okay, because I have to stay in and do my washing. Originally, my plan was to have the hotel dryclean some clothes for me. But I’m never long enough in one place for this. So I fill up the bathtub, toss in some soap, and wash a load of shirts and underpants, old-school. Then I wring them out, arrange them on hangers, and distribute them around my hotel room. It really adds something to my luxurious hotel room; a certain third world ambiance.
I call home, and we get the webcam thing happening. Jen puts Fin on her lap, and Fin sees my picture and smiles. I sing nursery rhymes to her through the phone and she grins and claps and says, “More?” when I finish. It’s wonderful. Being able to see them, even in jerky low-resolution, makes me feel much closer to home.
On a geeky note, I’m very pleased with my laptop computer. It’s the first time I’ve left home with a Linux-powered machine (it’s running Ubuntu), and thought I might hit problems trying to hook up with the internet services of various hotels. But nope: everything’s worked perfectly.
Today’s amusing email:
im doing a book report on your book “Jennifer Government” and i need some books that contain information about you as an author. my stupid english teacher insists that i find at least 3 books that contain information about you as an author, even though it seems to be impossible.
i also need to know if you are “respected” as an author in the writing community because it is part of my paper.
please please help me
That’s a good question, whether I am respected. Who knows what those bitchy other authors say about me behind my back?
I wonder if authors ever go on tours together. That would be cool. All this travelling would be more fun if there was somebody else. I should go with Paul Neilan, because I’m recommending his book at every stop. It feels good to recommend Paul’s book here, because back home, every time I tell someone how great it is, I have to add, “But you can’t buy it here.” This makes them disappointed and angry. But it’s not my fault no-one’s published it in Australia. I don’t control the world. But here, at readings I can say, “And it’s available in the US!” Then we all look at the bookstore person, who says, “I don’t think we have that.”
At tonight’s reading, a girl named Jessica asks whether Chuck Palahniuk and I hang out together. She says that she read online that he’s a fan of my work, and I hyperventilate for a few seconds before realizing that she’s confusing Chuck with the webmaster of chuckpalahniuk.net, Dennis. So I guess Chuck won’t be calling up any time soon and asking if I want to come over and shoot some pool, or, you know, murder some puppies or something. Whatever, Chuck. I’d be up for it.
Jessica has an adorable accent and says “y’all.” It’s so strange to hear actual “y’all”s. I kind of assumed they were just in movies and Jerry Springer. For some more local flavor, a guy—I want to say Mike, but my notes aren’t clear, sorry—gives me a “Fightin’ Texas Aggies” T-shirt, from Texas A&M University. He helpfully advises me not to wear it in Austin, though, because it may prompt locals to beat me up. I’m glad he mentioned that. I hope it doesn’t cause any problem with airport security tomorrow.
What happens to the soap? Every day I check into a new hotel and unwrap at least one small, packaged, and apparently pristine bar of soap. I use a tiny amount before I leave. What happens to the rest? I can’t believe they’re throwing all that out. I haven’t seen any big soap collection trucks backing up to hotels, and that’s what they’d need to haul away all the leftovers. They must collect the used bars, mold them into new ones somehow, and repackage them. So when I’m in the shower, I’m actually rubbing myself with soap that has passed over hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bodies before mine. Maybe the way to look at hotel soap is as a hundred million invisible skin particles from everyone who stayed there before you, compressed into a sweet-smelling bar.
Feeling more connected to humanity, I head down for some breakfast. There’s a TV running FOX News, and on screen people are agreeing that the only way to deal with Iran’s seizure of British soldiers is to “make them feel some pain.” Anything less, like diplomacy, would cause the UK to become “a laughing stock.” It’s amazing how similar all this is to the last time I was here, and the time before that, and that. The names of the countries change (Iraq, Iran), and the precise issue everyone’s agitated about, but the solution is always the same: send in the military. And I understand that mindset. But I don’t understand how they can still be talking as if it’s February 2003.
A little later I receive the following email from David:
In today’s blog entry (March 28, 2007) you mention that Finlay crossed her arms for the first time earlier in the day, and express wishes that you could have a picture of this occurrence. I cannot provide you with an actual photograph of this important milestone in your daughter’s life, but I can offer this artist’s rendering of the occasion. I hope that it will convey the situation to you just as well as an actual photograph would have.
Now I don’t really want to encourage people to Photoshop pictures of my daughter. But that completely cracks me up, so I have to share it.
At Madison airport, the woman at check-in is surprised that my final destination is Chicago. I figure out why on the plane: I’ve just about finished buckling up my belt when we commence our descent. I spent more time going through security than actually travelling anywhere.
Chicago is a great city. I’ve been here twice before, once in January and once in July, and I love how completely different it looked each time. And I still think that having a beach right in the heart of the city is one of the best ideas ever. Of course, I’m going to see practically nothing of the place this time except through the window of my taxi. I keep getting great tips for incredible places that I absolutely must visit, but never get to use them. This is not much of a way to sight-see, catching a plane every day.
My reading is at Barbara’s Bookstore, and it’s an especially chatty, interactive crowd, which is awesome. I like that I’ve done enough of these now to be able to relax and have fun—in the early days, it was all a little too nerve-wracking to do that.
In the long line of wonderful people who want me to deface their books, I meet Joe, who rode 11.86 miles on his bike to be at the reading. I know people who drove for many hours to make one of my readings (I believe the record is 6.5 hours), but Joe posits that nobody has ever cycled further than him. So there you have it, people. The bar has been set.
Mary is my media escort for the day. We’ve just stepped out of her car at FOX-6, ahead of my first TV interview in eight years, and Mary can smell worms.
“Ewww,” she says. I look down and see that what I initially took for sticks strewn across the sidewalk are indeed long worms: dozens of them, hundreds. We have to pick our way carefully toward the studio doors, and wipe our shoes of any collateral damage when we get there. On the one hand, it seems a little disgusting to be leaving a bunch of worms on the doorstep of FOX. On the other, it feels a little appropriate.
I still can’t actually smell them, though. That’s got to be some kind of super power: the ability to smell worms.
I’m nervous. I try a few calming techniques—thinking about it being over already, telling myself nobody cares, remembering that it’s only FOX, not a real TV network—but they have limited effect. “Dress cute,” Mary advised me on the phone earlier. I don’t think I packed cute.
I’m taken into the studio and miked up. Seen from behind, the set looks like something cobbled together by high school students for a play. Everything is scuffed, small, and fake. Except the presenters: interviewing me is Kim Murphy, and she’s lovely. She takes a couple of minutes to chat to me off-air beforehand, helping me settle in and feel more comfortable. And then, without warning, she’s reading from the auto-cue. It’s go time!
I think I do okay, considering what a TV noob I am. I look pretty tired. But I don’t stammer or freak out or stare too obviously at the cameras. That’s a plus.
After the interview, Mary drives me to Madison. We stop along the way to drop into bookstores and sign stock. This can go either way: sometimes the person behind the desk is excited to meet me; sometimes I am clearly about the fifth author to stop by that day, and the novelty has well and truly worn off. Usually at chain stores it’s the latter, but at a Barnes & Noble on the way out of Madison, I get my best reception ever. By the time I leave, it seems as if half the store’s staff have been called over to meet me. It’s like I’m famous.
Mary is kind enough to suggest I catch a nap on the way, and also kind enough to not tell me if I snore in my sleep, or mutter, or jerk my legs around. Apparently I can do that.
Last time I was in Madison, January 2004, a huge blizzard was blowing. I fought my way to the store to find that endless rows of seats had been set up, and nobody was in them. I think I ended up reading to about six people, who were (of course) mostly sitting right up the back. That was tough. If I get more than six people tonight, I’ll be happy.
But it’s a good night for a book reading, I’m told: not so cold that you can’t bear going out, but not warm enough to want to do anything more exciting. I can’t see how many people are here until I actually step in front of them, but then it’s a pleasant surprise: there are lots. The store guy tells me later that he counted 55, which makes it my most well-attended reading so far. So all is forgiven, Madison. Thank you.
I can start to see differences in audiences. Tonight, I suspect that many more people have read the book than usual. Four people down the front are all reading along with me from their copy, which is kind of funny; I’m used to one or two people doing it, but not a whole block of them. It feels a little like taking English class.
There’s a long line of people to sign for afterward, and then I’m done. That’s four down! I’m halfway through this tour already.
I get up in the middle of the night to gargle antiseptic mouthwash and discover that this stuff is much stronger than back home. I think it actually dissolves my teeth a little. But I’m prepared to take a little friendly fire. This throat needs to be liberated.
The key to getting out of a hotel room on time is to corral all your gear into one small area and not let it escape. It tries, of course. When you’re not looking, your shoes sneak under the desk and your wallet climbs onto the bedside table. Then when you’re chasing them down, your underpants run giggling into the bathroom. You have to be vigilant.
My dilemma this morning is that I have no dollar bills with which to tip the guy who will inevitably try to lift my bag into the back of the taxi. I’m not sure which is weedier: not saying anything or launching into a big sad story about how I don’t have anything smaller than a twenty because I lost my credit card temporarily and blah blah blah. But luckily I manage to get out to the curb on my own, and then the cab driver lunges for my bag before the doorman can reach it. That’s good: I can tip him with my credit card. Crisis averted.
I check-in but am not assigned a seat, instead being told to see someone at the gate. In retrospect, I should have realized right away that this meant a problem. But I’m still a little naive about flying and assume that if you book a ticket, they’ll let you on the plane. This silly notion is beaten out of me at the gate, where a woman explains that the plane can only take 49 passengers instead of the booked 50 because of weight issues. “And you’re number 50,” she says. This strikes me as a little unfair. I mean, I know I’m not a teenager any more, but there have to be plenty of passengers with more significant weight issues than me. Surely in this situation it should be surivival of the thinnest?
The solution, apparently, is to get a passenger to voluntarily give up their seat. So I stand by the desk while she makes a series of attractive offers to anyone willing to do so. Nobody bites. Finally, when everybody’s on board but me, she shrugs and just prints me off a boarding pass. I’m reminded of the movie French Kiss, where Kevin Kline says: “The pilot says there is a crack in the engine, but not to worry, he take off anyway.”
“Head through to Door E,” she says. “E,” I say, nodding. “No, E,” she says. This is the sort of discussion that could go on a while, so rather than educate her about Australian accents, I just nod. Door E is down a stairwell eerily reminiscent of my old high school, complete with chewing gum stuck to the rail. Then I am told to wander out on the tarmac for my plane. “It’s the gray one,” an assistant says helpfully.
I walk outside and there are about 18 gray airplanes in a row preparing to take off. I choose the closest one and climb aboard. It feels like catching a bus. “Is this Milwaukee? Are we going to Milwaukee?”
The answer is maybe, because while we’re in the air, a thick fog rolls over Wisconsin. The pilot tells us we might end up in Chicago. I’ve never been diverted before, so this seems quite interesting, albeit something of a problem in that a bunch of people are expecting me to be at a Milwaukee bookstore in a few hours’ time. But that wouldn’t be my problem, exactly. One of the wonderful things about being on book tour is that other people are responsible for figuring out where you are supposed to go and how to get you there. It’s kind of like they assume you are a complete moron, unable to do anything for yourself, and once you learn to go with that, it’s very pleasant.
Our pilot, who has a deep Southern accent and clearly isn’t the sort of guy to let little things like excess weight regulations stop him from flying his plane his way, decides to take a stab at a Milwaukee touchdown even though he can’t see anything. The ground materializes out of fog about eight seconds before we make contact, but it’s a pretty smooth landing. He talks the talk, our guy, and he backs it up.
Milwaukee is cold. Not as cold as the last time I was here, in January 2004, when everything was under a two-foot blanket of snow. That was awesome. But still cold; colder than it looked when I did a quick search on US temperatures before I left home and tried to convert fahrenheit to celsius in my head. Since I’m kind of sick, I don’t think I’ll be doing any sightseeing on foot today.
I have a media escort here, Mike, whose job it is to assume I’m a complete moron for the day. Mike is a great guy, very easy to talk to, and he plays tour guide as we drive around and I drop into book stores to sign stock. “The only bad thing about Milwaukee is the crime,” Mike says. “Crime is worse than it should be. But where you’re staying, downtown, that’s safe. Well… relatively safe.”
I find the bookstores a little depressing, especially the big Barnes & Noble store. There are so many new books; endless shelves of them. And every hardback has a carefully crafted eye-catching cover and amazing quotes from allegedly rave reviews and is written by a good-looking celebrity. I wonder how it’s possible for a small, good book to fight its way out of this circus. I’m glad I don’t have to see this very often: the pointy, business end of publishing. I love writing books; I don’t want to have to think too much about selling them.
My reading is at Harry W. Schwartz in Bay View. It’s a new store, and I think the unfamiliar location is probably why people keep trickling in at a steady rate throughout the reading. Either that or because I initially posted the wrong address on this web site. I’ve been changing the parts of Company I read from stop to stop, but think I’ve got a good selection now. Then we have a particularly good Q&A session, with lots of great questions. Afterward, I sign books, including about a dozen hardbacks for a guy who has laminated the covers. He’s a collector, so I ask him how that works: how does he decide how long to hold on to an author’s books, and when it’s time to cash in? I’m particularly interested in his opinion about when I’m going to peak, or if I already have. But he says he’s the kind of collector who can’t bear to sell his books. “I have 16,000 hardbacks,” he says. “My wife doesn’t especially like that.”
Back at my hotel, I have a fax from Martin at Vintage saying I have a TV interview in the morning on FOX 6. Wow. I’ve only ever done one TV interview before, a show called “Jersey’s Talking” with Lee Leonard on my first ever book tour in 1999, and I’m sure I was completely terrible. I will try to do better tomorrow.
Finally I call home and hear that earlier today Finlay crossed her arms for the first time. Crossed her arms! That sounds hilarious. I need a picture of that.
I wake at 7am and don’t feel like heaving. This is a big improvement over this stage of my last book tour. I’m pretty pleased with how I’ve adapted to the 17-hour time difference so far. The only issue I have is with my appetite: it’s coming up on 24 hours since my last meal and I’m not hungry yet. That’s just not right.
I pack up my stuff and leave my hotel, pausing only to try to check my reflection in the TV. Honestly, this thing is the size of a surfboard; I keep thinking it’s a mirror. I also swipe a hotel pen, because back home I’m running low, having by now lost most of the pens I stole from hotels on my 2006 tour.
I board my flight to Denver and settle in to my seat. The woman to my left dabs at her nose, and with dawning horror I realize: she has a cold. Over the next 90 minutes, she sneezes, hacks, coughs, and wipes, while I try to breathe through a pillow. I wish the check-in screen had mentioned that during seat selection. I would definitely have chosen the “non-virus bearing” area of the airplane. In fact, when choosing my seat I’d ideally like to see little pictures of who’s going to be seated where. That would be interesting. I would choose to sit near small but tired-looking people.
But for now, I am stuck leaning to the right, away from Cold Woman and her contagens. Then the passenger on that side, also a woman, unexpectedly tells me: “You have lovely eyes.” I don’t know quite what to say to this. But I suspect I may have been leaning too far.
This is my first visit to Denver, and I like what I see: it’s quite charming, the kind of size that’s big enough to be interesting but not so crowded that you can’t stroll down the sidewalk without elbowing somebody, or being mugged. It’s definitely spacious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much ground-level car parking. I imagine that if you tell a Denver resident that in other cities they have entire buildings for parking cars, one level above the other, their eyes would widen in shock.
I check in to my new hotel and go searching for food, since it’s now a day and a half since I’ve eaten and my body has decided it’s ready for something now. In fact, in between ordering a burger and it arriving, I become ravenous. Then, eight bites in, I’m not hungry at all. I’m getting a bit exasperated with my appetite. It needs to figure out what the hell it’s doing, and get with the timezone.
My reading is at Tattered Cover, which is a completely cool bookstore in a converted theater. It’s 25 or so people, very warm and friendly, and I think it goes great. While signing books, I notice a guy still in the seats, feeding a baby, and start to get misty-eyed for home. Then the baby starts barking like a dog. It’s coughing, but seriously, in the most eerily dog-like way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As a parent, I completely understand that kids do odd things. But people in line could very well be under the impression that this guy is feeding a bottle of milk to a swaddled-up pooch.
Beth, the organizer at Tattered Cover, has a surprise for me: an Advance Reader Copy of Syrup. This is the first incarnation of my first novel ever printed, back in 1999, and I managed to lose every one of my copies many years ago. Since then I’ve been trying desperately to get my hands on one. And suddenly I’m being given one! Well, when I say “given,” I mean that Beth asks me to sign it for her, and then I tell her this sad story about not having any of my own left, and she caves in and hands it over.
On the way back to my hotel I stop off at a drugstore to load up on bio-weapons with which to fight off any viruses I acquired on the plane. There I discover that I have somehow lost my credit card. This is my second worst fear on tour, right after running out of dollar bills and having to endure the silent contempt of doormen, and I panic, because if I have no cash I can’t even pay for a cab to the airport tomorrow morning. I finally locate my card in my other pants, back at the hotel, but only after spending my last dollar bill at the drugstore. Oh-oh. Tomorrow morning could be tough.
Wow, I probably shouldn’t write blogs at 3AM. When I began typing up yesterday’s post, I intended to describe the rest of my day, which involved meeting NationStates admins for dinner and enjoying some ice cream that was like sex in a bowl, only creamier. But it was the middle of the night (I’d woken and couldn’t find sleep again), and after typing for a while, I started to feel like the only person on the planet. Then thinking about Fin saying “Neena, neena” tipped me over the edge, and it all abruptly ended in a very melancholic place.
On Sunday, however, I am reminded that I am actually incredibly privileged to be here, because today is my first reading. And before that, I get to do the LA thing: take meetings with movie people. First it’s the Syrup producers, to discuss the next draft, then Steve Pink, who’s writing the Company screenplay. Steve throws questions at me like, “Okay, my problem with Eve is this: in the third act does she redeem herself with Jones or should I have her sink deeper?” And I have absolutely no idea. I can’t even remember the book properly any more; I get confused between what’s in the final draft and what I threw out several years ago. I wish I could give Steve the kind of great story insights that only the original author can provide, but I’ve got nothing.
While being completely useless to Steve, I have breakfast, or lunch, or something. My body is still suspicious about what time it really is, and doesn’t want to commit to full-blooded meals: it wants to eat lots of small things, spaced about an hour apart. I order a bowl of oatmeal and an orange juice, which unexpectedly shatters my previous record for most overpriced book tour meal: it’s $53, excluding tip. Even the waitress is a little embarrassed, and this is Beverly Hills. It may be difficult to explain this one to my publisher.
In the afternoon I have my event at Book Soup. It’s at an odd time, 4pm on a Sunday, which I’m expecting will mean a smaller crowd than last time. On previous tours this would have worried me, since I’m still emotionally scarred from the experience of reading to empty rows of seats on earlier book tours. It’s pretty hard work to stand at a microphone when the only six people in the audience have all chosen to sit at the very back of the 90 seats the bookstore laid out. (Ah, Madison.) But now I think a small crowd would be fine. More personal and fun, even. I had such amazing turnouts on the hardback tour a year ago; I think it’s made me less paranoid that a small crowd means a freefalling career and crawling back to Hewlett-Packard to beg for my old job back.
Twenty or thirty people show up, which is about perfect for the space, and that’s when I realize I have to stop wallowing in homesickness. Because how amazing is it to have people actually bother to come see you and talk about how much they like your books? Most writers would kill for something like this. I get to do it for the next eight days, plus eat bowls of $53 oatmeal.
The reading has a great, casual feel; I talk a little about the origins of the book, read a few sections, then answer questions. It finally occurs to me why the publisher was a little reluctant to send me to the same city I visited on the hardback tour: I need to come up with something original for anyone who was here a year ago. So one of the things I do is read a couple of pages from the new book I’m working on, which I’m calling The Exceptionals. This is actually a little nerve-wracking, because it’s still pretty raw and almost nobody’s seen it yet. But it seems to go down very well, and a few people tell me afterward how much they liked it. So I might do that at my other readings, too. I just have to hope my editor doesn’t find out and want to know why the hell other people get to hear about it before him.
After the reading, I meet Dennis Widmyer, who runs the Chuck Palahniuk web site The Cult (and who read an early draft of Company for me, several years back). I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me at book signings that they first heard about me at that site, so I probably owe Dennis half my royalties or something. Instead I buy him a hot chocolate. Really, it is a very nice hot chocolate.
And then back to my hotel. I’ve noticed that this tour seems to have a much easier pace than the hardback one. There’s almost no media by comparison, so I have time to do things like eat and check my email. Man, that’s pretty sweet. The last thing I do on Sunday is settle down to call Jen and Fin. It turns out that Fin has just woken from her afternoon snooze in a foul mood and is screaming the house down. Yikes. When I put the phone down on her howls, I get into bed and watch a video clip I took before I left where she’s all smiley and gorgeous. Ahhh. Bliss.
Yep. Not too bad, this trip.
“Daddy!” Fin shrieks, and begins to run toward me across the airport hall floor. There are a million people around but no-one between her and me, and she runs/staggers/falls toward me with a huge grin on her face. I crouch down and she leaps into my arms. Her little fists bunch the material of my sweater, trapping it in her miniature iron grip. It’s so good to hold her again. It’s so good to smell her.
I haven’t seen my daughter since she got bored in the check-in line, about an hour ago, and Jen took her off to play near the fire engine that moves if you put in a dollar.
My quest was to avoid seat 48G. I was booked on seat 48G, but I didn’t want it: thanks to SeatGuru.com I knew it was the row behind the babies in bassinets, two rows behind the toilets, had reduced leg room, and was in the middle section. Melbourne to LA is a fifteen hour flight; you want a good seat. The only way to change it, the travel agent told me, was to turn up early at check-in.
Which I did, to find that the line is already so long that it snakes through several other dimensions. Whenever I make some progress, an airline employee wanders through the line and calls passengers on flights ahead of mine to come to the front. This continues until finally I am one of those passengers who needs to be called to the front, which occurs exactly six places before I would have gotten there anyway. By that stage, I don’t want their help. It’s like ascending Mt. Everest and then with a hundred yards to go and the summit in sight, my Sherpa offers to carry me.
The woman at check-in can’t change my seat. She says, “If you want to do that, you have to get here early.”
So it’s time for goodbyes. I kiss my beautiful wife and daughter. Fin says, “Bye-bye.” Last time, 14 months ago, she couldn’t talk. She didn’t even have teeth. Nowadays she’s smart enough to come to the bottom of the stairs, rattle the stair-gate, and yell, “Daddy! Daddy!” until I appear. I don’t even want to think about how much I’m going to miss her.
Once through security, I proceed directly to the gate, pausing only to drop into the bookstore and see if they’ve got mine. They do, but it’s on the very bottom shelf, filed under “W.” I can only presume that some unethical author has swapped their books for my prized “B” placement. Appalling. I take my books and swap them for some novel that looks exactly like The Da Vinci Code if you aren’t paying attention.
The flight itself is notable only for the fact that my seat’s entertainment system plays all dialogue at near-inaudible levels. So I can enjoy a movie for its visuals, background noise, and soundtrack, but can’t hear a word anyone is saying, unless they’re doing it off-screen. This strikes me as the kind of fault that is so bizarre someone must have carefully engineered it.
Then it’s US Customs. Ah, Customs. How we have danced, over the years. This time I notice that as a visiting alien, I am granted certain rights; in particular the right to appeal any decision by a Customs official. I know this because on the back of the Customs form, I am required to officially waive these rights. This seems a little like offering somebody ice-cream but only if they first agree to not have any ice-cream. It seems to be getting more common lately that the way I discover that I have various rights is when I’m asked to waive them.
One small thing really bugs me about LAX Customs. There are about two dozen booths, maybe half of which are occupied by officials. Above these booths are scrolling LED screens, which usually tell you something helpful, like please present these papers, or don’t drink and drive because you’ll die. (Seriously.) But on the unoccupied booths, the screens advertise themselves. They scroll messages about how many characters they can display at once (27), how vibrant their colors are, and how simple they are to operate. Not so simple to change the default messages, apparently, because it’s been this way for frickin’ years.
Customs asks me a series of questions about the purpose of my visit, including a request for me to describe the plot of all three of my novels. I’m not sure whether they guy is just curious or my entry to the United States of American really does depend on having sufficiently engaging storylines. But either way, he lets me go through. The next guy asks me about my book as well, and takes a fancy to the way I say “satire.” He says it himself, trying on my accent. On one hand, I appreciate that anyone in this Gulag has a sense of humor. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this guy can order me stripped, probed and deported if I don’t laugh at his jokes. I bet he finds his audiences mystifyingly less appreciative away from here.
At my hotel, I am pleased to discover that Los Angeles is just how I left it: all eating disorders, tiny dogs, and 70-year-old guys in baseball caps. My first job is to find one of those hole-in-the-wall stores that sells international phone cards, so I can call home without bankrupting myself. But my hotel is in Beverly Hills, and this is hard to do. If I wanted to whiten my teeth or buy diamonds, it’d be no problem. But phone cards are very thin on the ground.
I finally find a Rite-Aid (medicine and booze in the one store! What could possibly go wrong?), secure a card, and head back to my hotel for a phone interview. On the way I’m passed by a fire engine. If Fin was here, she’d say, “Neena, neena.” She likes fire engines. I wish I could teleport my girls here. I wish there was no time difference. I miss them so much already.
So I’m going to do another travel diary. That was fun last time, and what else am I going to do in my downtime, dance around my hotel room naked and get drunk from the mini-bar? I mean, apart from that?
This will mean an increase in the number of emails you’ll get from here (daily-ish instead of weekly-ish), if you’re subscribed that way. If that will bother you, you might want to change your preferences now. (Unfortunately, no, there is no “Un-hear that sentence about Max dancing naked” option.)
[ US Tour Details Here ] <— (note change of venue in Milwaukee)
Yesterday I received a letter from the Australian Department of Defence. It is in fact from the Defence Security Authority section of the Department of Defence. I bet they have slogans like “Defending the Defenders,” or “Watching Your Back While You’re At The Front.” Or at least they should.
Anyway, they wrote to me because I have a friend who works there, and apparently he:
… is currently undergoing a security clearance process for access to extremely sensitive information. As part of the security clearance process, it is required that we contact nominated referees to ascertain the subject’s suitability to have access to this type of information.
Then there are a bunch of questions like this:
Are you aware of any matters of potential security concern with regards to the subject? (Unexplained changes in work patterns or performance; changes in personality; changes in their personal life)
Those are some pretty suggestive examples. So naturally I’m thinking of writing something like this:
Not at all! In fact, just the other day he said he’d never been happier, not since he met “the true believers.” I think that must be a club you have there at Defence. Anyway, he’s really been broadening his horizons—learning to speak Mandarin, for example, and always dropping into the Chinese Embassy, just to soak up some foreign culture! And I know he’s really looking forward to his next vacation; he said he really deserves it. Actually, what he said was, “Then everyone will get what they deserve.” Then he rubbed his hands together and cackled. I think he must be planning to get YOU guys presents, even though he’s going away! Hope I haven’t spoiled the surprise! Ha ha!
It’s a nice feeling, knowing that I can destroy a friend’s career with a few lines. I think it brings us closer together. I might ring him up and tell him that, and suggest that this would be an appropriate time to have me over for dinner, and spare no expense on the wine.
But I do wonder about this system. If I take this form at face value, the method the Department of Defence uses to identify potential spies is to get them to name a few friends who are willing to say they’re on the level. It seems to me that if you’re going to all the trouble of infiltrating a hostile government and working your way into a position of significance over a period of several years, you can probably arrange that. I mean, I’m no expert on international espionage. But that would seem like one of the basics to me.
Maybe Defence is right, though. It would be pretty stressful, maintaining an ice-cool facade at work all day. Maybe after a a hard day’s pretending to not revile capitalism, you might want to hit a few bars with friends in your “THE REVOLUTION IS COMING” T-shirt. Everyone needs to blow off steam sometime. If it were me, I’d always be having conversations like this:
Them: “… which is why our country’s economy is so strong.”
Me: “Yes, exactly.” (mutters) “For now.”
Them: “It sounded like you muttered “for now” under your breath.”
Me: “That was gas.”
Them: “Oh. Okay.”
Me: (mutters) “Fool.”
One thing I’m looking forward to is discovering what wacky new security schemes US Customs has come up with since I last visited. In 2006 they’d added fingerprinting and digital mug shots. This time I’m thinking maybe they’ll swab my mouth or get me to sing the Pledge of Allegiance. Or maybe they have followed this route to its logical conclusion and now herd foreign visitors straight from the airport to prisons, where any of us not intending to commit terrorist atrocities can fill out applications to be released.
Wow, that was pretty cynical, even for me. I’m not sure if that struck the appropriately witty, feel-good note I want to promote a book tour. But anyway. I have dates! And here they are:
- Los Angeles, CA
Sunday March 25th, 2007
- Denver, CO
Monday March 26th, 2007
- Milwaukee, WI
Tuesday March 27th, 2007
- Madison, WI
Wednesday March 28th, 2007
- Chicago, IL
Thursday March 29th, 2007
- Austin, TX
Friday March 30th, 2007
- Phoenix, AZ
Saturday March 31st, 2007
- Danville, CA
Monday April 2nd, 2007
As usual, I expect any outrage over ill-considered dates, places, etc, to be directed at my publisher. Remember, they’re the ones organizing this stuff. I’m just turning up and cleaning out the mini-bars.
Scenario A: Fin Needs Something
Me: “It must be lunch time. Let’s get you some food.”
Scenario B: Fin Wants Something
Fin: “Book? Book?”
Me: “No book, it’s time for lunch.”
Fin: “Book? Book? Book?”
Me: “No, honey.”
Fin: “Book? Book? Book? Book? Book? Book? Book? Book?”
For a while now I have thought of raising Fin like a video game. You start off with fairly simple tasks to accomplish, to help you get a hang of the basic controls. Thereafter you encounter obstacles of steadily increasing difficulty.
The only real difference is that if you fail a level, you don’t get to go back and try it again. Instead, all of that level’s monsters follow you to the next one. Oh, and you get no power-ups.
Here are the levels I think I’ve completed so far:
Level 1: Don’t Drop Me
Level 2: Keep Me Warm But Not Too Warm
Level 3: Guess Why I’m Crying
Level 4: I Did A Poo In My Pants
Level 5: Food
Level 6: Try To Make Me Sleep
Level 7: Guess What I Just Put In My Mouth
Level 8: I Have Noticed That You Do What I Want When I Cry
Level 9: Biting Is Fun
Level 10: Am I Sick?
Level 11: I Can Reach Your Valuables
Level 12: But I Don’t Want To Wear Pants
Level 13: I Can Climb On Things To Reach Your Valuables
Level 14: No
Level 15: My Education Depends On You Signing Me Up To A Good School’s Waiting List A Year Ago
Some future levels I’m expecting:
- Why Don’t I Have A Penis?
- But Mom Said I Could
- I Want A Pony
- All The Other Girls Have Pierced Belly Buttons
- Boys Are Cute
- I Should Look Like The Girls In The Magazines
- My Boyfriend Has A Car
Then of course there are the optional bonus levels, such as I’ve Decided To Go Backpacking Through Thailand, and Dad This Is My Life Partner Susan.
I think I need to read some more strategy guides before then. I believe they are called “parenting books.”
USA & Canada
The paperback is out March 13, and I tour two weeks later. The early word is that I’m headed to Los Angeles, Denver, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Austin, Phoenix, and San Francisco. So the result of that polite discussion seems to be that Phoenix beat out Dallas, Milwaukee supplanted Boston, and LA and Madison combined to defeat Ann Arbor. I’m not saying that necessarily reflects on the inherent worth of those places. But you could certainly read it that way.
The dates and places should be confirmed shortly, and I’ll post ‘em here.
Also in the US & Canada, an audio version of Syrup has been released. I wonder if that’s some kind of record, a publisher coming out with an audio version nearly eight years after the book. No, probably not. In fact it wouldn’t even be close. I don’t know why I brought that up.
Australia & New Zealand
I’ve spent most of the last year moaning about my publishing troubles in Australia. Because it really grates on me that in my home country I am near-completely unknown, while in the US I am near-completely unknown, but not quite so much. This has nothing to do with wanting recognition for my artistic achievements, you understand. It’s about impressing chicks. But now I have a publisher, Scribe, and they’ve been crazy busy organizing publicity ahead of the March 5th publication. Seriously, you want your publisher to be enthusiastic, but this is almost beyond that. Just today, they’ve sent me… let me check… eleven emails. I have conversations with them that go like this:
Scribe: “Wow. Company. It’s such a great book.”
Scribe: “I mean, seriously. I own ten copies. Not for publicity purposes. For myself.”
Me: “Oh, that’s… keen.”
Scribe: “Sometimes at night, I take off all my clothes and rub myself with the pages.”
Well it wouldn’t surprise me. Anyway, the result is I’m doing a lot of Aussie media and book readings and festivals. Here’s what I have details for so far: the Como Writers Festival in Melbourne on the 17th and 18th of February, a Sydney book reading hosted by supercool comedian Wil Anderson on Friday March 16, the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and the Melbourne Writers Festival in August.
The Dutch Company paperback is out in March, and the publisher has produced this incredibly slick Zephyr Holdings website. It’s got desktop wallpapers and email-your-friends cartoons and everything. I have no idea what they’re about, because they’re in Dutch. But I bet they’re frickin’ hilarious.
Unfortunately I suspect that this means Company needs to sell about a million copies or Uniboek will collapse under the weight of its outlandish web design expenditure. But fingers crossed.
They also seem to be re-publishing Jennifer Government under the title Logoland, and synchronizing the cover with Company’s. I love synchronized covers. They make me feel collectible.
Still bugger all. Sorry.
For 2007 I have resolved to make every single blog about writing. Okay, no, not really. That would be boring as all get-out. But I am still a little giddy from my staggeringly disaster-free latest effort, so I might do a few more than usual. I mean, it’s not like anyone’s forced to read them, right? If you’re here for the cutesy Finlay pics, you can skip on by, can’t you? Right. And where possible I will try to relate them to non-writing areas, in order to avoid disappearing up my own butt.
So. To discipline. I have come to suspect that discipline is a myth. These elite athletes who train at four in the morning until their toes bleed; the child violinists who stay locked in their rooms practicing while all their friends are out doing fun stuff like drugs and unprotected sex; we’re supposed to think they’re disciplined. We’re meant to shake our heads in admiration and say, “Wow, she really earned it.” But I reckon what they’ve actually been doing is having a good time and calling it work.
I’ve reached this conclusion because I have no discipline, and I assume my character flaws are shared by the rest of the world. (The good parts are just me.) I work from home. There’s nobody stopping me spending my days browsing girls-with-glasses-having-mudfights.com instead of writing novels. The fact that I do manage to squeeze out a new book now and again is often interpreted as evidence that I must have great discipline. But I write books because I love it. That’s not discipline, is it? Isn’t that just being fortunate enough to get paid for recreation?
When I first decided to give full-time writing a shot—before I was published, by the way, which should tell you how very stupid I was—I was extremely disciplined. I had daily word targets. I graphed my progress. If I fell behind, I would berate myself about wasting precious time. And I did write many words. But I didn’t enjoy it much, and my output fell off, and the book I was writing turned out to be a steaming pile of crap, which I never finished.
I bet the same thing happens if you’re trying to become a professional violinist, or swimmer, or even something more mundane like trying to get into shape. Unless you enjoy the process and take pleasure from practicing, you give up.
Hmm. When I started this blog, I thought it was going to be kind of inspirational. You know, about how there’s not that much separating us normal people from world-class achievers. But now I think about it, you can also read it as a depressing indictment on how people are pathetic they can’t achieve anything unless they get lots of little rewards along the way.
Well, either way.
Note: I didn’t really mean to skip a whole month of blogs there. Sorry about that. I did get a ton of writing done, though, and played with my daughter. So, really, can you complain? I mean, and still sleep at night?