Hello Mr.Barry, I was required to read your book Lexicon in my college literature class and enjoyed it very much. However, I’m forced to create a presentation about Lee Bob Black. So my question is: Who the hell is Lee Bob Black? All I’ve found is his website with a bunch of links to his blog. Which would have sufficed if my teacher didn’t think you were this ingenious wordsmith wizard or something. She thinks you made him up basically. Something to do with marketing and illusion. Can you help me out? Is Lee Bob Black a persona you made up or are we digging a dry well here? Thanks. Maybe.
Lee Bob Black is an actual person. Sorry. That website with his work on it is completely legit, not a carefully constructed piece of reality augmentation for the book. There are a few pieces of reality augmentation floating around, but Lee isn’t one of them.
Basically I needed a lesser-known poet. In the book, people get poet names based on rank, so Woolf and Eliot and Yeats are serious headkickers, while Lee Bob Black could be a younger guy working the streets. The real Lee I had met in St. Kilda sometime around 2001 when his friend graffitiied my house. Artists. Anyway, we got talking and then he moved to New York and we lost contact, but I remembered his great little poems.
At some point I emailed him:
You are in my novel-in-progress. I needed the name of an obscure real-life poet and you sprang to mind. I was intending to change it, but since here you are, I will ask if I can use it. Context: there are characters in the book who adopt the names of real poets, and the one who uses your name is cool but sleazy. So do not feel compelled to say yes.
I’m a little shocked by that now because I wouldn’t describe the character as “cool but sleazy.” He’s outright despicable. He does things that you wouldn’t want to be associated with in any way. But Lee, not knowing this, was delighted and honored. And I was happy, right up until the book was published, when I suddenly realized I had done a terrible thing and Lee was going to freak right out when he read it.
At a reading in New York, I looked into the audience and surprise! There he was. I had to stop and check whether he was about to serve me with legal papers. But no. He was incredibly gracious about it.
I understand your teacher thinking Lee Bob Black must be fictitious, because no author would be stupid enough to name that character after a real, living person. But actually I am that stupid.
SPOILER WARNING: Mild spoilers about Lexicon follow
I am currently enjoying reading Lexicon, however my pedantic nature forces me to question the storyline at page 190-191 where Emily sleeps with Harry then he is not there next morning.
How does she get home?
How does she get home in such a way that she has difficulty finding her way back?
I’ll be honest, Graeme: You are my nightmare. When I’m trying to move the story along while developing character and a satisfying emotional arc, blah blah blah, there is always a little voice in the back of my head that says, “You didn’t explain exactly how she got home.” Henceforth I will call that voice Graeme.
How did Emily get home? I don’t know. I never thought deeply about it. I presume it was somehow. She’s not that far from home; she is resourceful; she has feet; I just figure she gets it done.
But I know this isn’t a satisfying answer, because all stories are real, and real things have facts. So here is THE ACTUAL ANSWER that I just invented:
Her shoes were useless, of course, two-inch heels, so she carried them. She didn’t know the area but followed the dirt road in what she hoped was the right direction. It was an hour before she reached anywhere she recognized, which was another hour away from town. It would be less if a car passed by, but that would also mean she was recognized, and never live it down. So she walked with her head down. She was never going to see him again. She had already decided that.
Now I want you to bear in mind, Graeme, that rural roads are like rivers. There’s a main road, from which smaller roads branch out. If you start on a small road with a vague idea of the right direction, you can follow it back upstream until you reach the main road and there you are. But going the other way is more difficult, because you have to remember which branch to take. Right? And it’s dark when she returns. I hope we can agree on this.
I try to provide the minimum amount of detail necessary when writing. I think that’s my job: to figure out how to have the greatest effect in the fewest words. Because what amazes me over and over about novels is how much of the story is provided by readers. The page holds only the tiniest details, yet we conjure whole worlds. That’s the only reason novels work.
I don’t think they work when the author tries to explain every little thing. Or when they describe physical objects to death. I can’t stand that. It actually feels a little insulting, like they don’t trust me enough to share the story. Just tell me there’s a broken glass, dammit. I can do the rest.
This is Russian. I actually thought it was awesome until I noticed the handgun poking out of her mouth. That kind of took it over the line for me. It reminds me of a terrifying poster for some werewolf movie that used to hang in the window of a video store I had to walk past as a kid, where a wolf’s snout is poking out of the man’s mouth. That was really scary. I was about fifteen but even so.
This one is from Turkey. I didn’t remember any Moon references in Lexicon, so I checked. I did actually use the word “moon” twice and “moonlight” once, in sentences that were about something else.
That’s pretty great. Good job, Taiwan.
What? Come on, Greece. It’s like you tried to redraw the American paperback cover from memory.
This is from Israel. It strikes me as the philosophical opposite of the Russian cover. It’s funny how the same book says to one person, “Man in a suit walking up a flight of concrete steps,” and to another, “Woman shooting bullets out of her mouth.” And neither of those things happens in the story.
I’m trying this thing where I wake up very early, like 5am, or, not quite on purpose, 3:43am this morning, make a coffee, and head straight to work. It’s a good feeling, being up and productive that early, once I’ve stopped feeling like I need to throw up. It’s a quiet, distraction-free time; just me, my words, and my pounding Scott & Brendo tunes. The only downside is that after lunch my brain doesn’t work at all. But I use that time for non-creative work like email and writing blogs, so that doesn’t matter so much.
This year is all downhill for me. It has to be, because in 2013 I had a new book come out that was almost universally unhated, plus a real film based on my first novel. I practically feel like retiring after that. Like maybe I could go make snowboards. I don’t know anything about snowboards. I don’t know much about snow, either. I’m in Australia. But I’m sure there’s a craft there, hiking out to find just the right tree, cutting it down, then, like, sandpapering it into the right shape or something. Actually, now that’s sounding like a lot of work. Forget that. I don’t even like snowboards. My point is that 2013 was a big year.
Lexicon gets a paperback release in… holy hell. Four days!? How did that happen? Last I checked it was coming out at the end of May. Okay. So I just discovered the UK publisher moved up their Lexicon paperback release date, so it was ahead of the US, then the US publisher was like, THE HELL, and moved up theirs by two months. They did actually tell me they were doing that. I just skimmed over the “by two months” part.
So I should have been a lot more active on social media lately. Anyway: Lexicon comes out in beautiful paperback on April 1 in the US & Canada, and April 10 in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
And it has my favorite cover ever!
See, the eye is made from little words. I like it because it looks like a sci-fi movie poster, plus people are saying I’m awesome on it. Those are two big ticks. Also it’s reminiscent of Jennifer Government, which was super-stylish.
Lexicon made some “Best” lists over the last few months, which I’m required to mention. I don’t like doing this. But you’re a busy person; you might not have noticed. And I need to make a living. So here are some of them:
- Time Magazine Top 10 Fiction Books 2013
- Kirkus Best Fiction of 2013
- Chicago Tribune Page-Turner of the Year
- NPR Best Books of 2013
- Goodreads Best Books of 2013
- 2014 Alex Award Winner
- iBookstore Best of 2013
- Amazon.co.uk Best Books of the Year
- Aurealis Award Finalist
The Aurealis one makes me especially happy because that’s the first magazine to which I ever seriously submitted fiction. I only sent them that one piece and was outraged by their rejection, despite it being totally deserved, because I was 24 and the story wasn’t that good. But I vowed revenge, i.e. becoming skilled enough at writing to get a story accepted by Aurealis. Then I got more into novels and kind of forgot about it. But look! I still have my Aurealis rejection letter from 1997:
And I still have the story! As Aurealis noted, it is very short, so you can read it in about one minute. It was never published anywhere, for reasons that may become obvious.
The brevity might be a selling-point in these days of Twitter novels and flash fiction. But 1997 was a different time, a slower time, when people expected their stories to last longer than a cup of coffee.
Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about publishing more short fiction on this blog. I’m not saying it will happen. Because it’s easier to think about than do. But it’s an idea.
You know what I discovered on book tour: AMERICA HAS GONE TO THE FUTURE. I was there two years ago but in the meantime America advanced about a decade. Now you use your phone to carry boarding passes and movie tickets. When you need a ride somewhere, you summon cars with an app. I tried to buy a sandwich in New York and the store didn’t take cash. DIDN’T TAKE CASH. I met two people who don’t carry wallets any more, just credit cards. In two more years, I guess, they will just carry phones.
Now I’m home in Melbourne, Australia, I’m all, “Ugghhh, stores that only take cash, how 2011.” I just bought some sushi and it seemed really stupid, handing over a twenty and trusting the cashier to remember and figure out the right change. That process is fraught with potential errors. If we didn’t already do it like that, and somebody invented it, it would seem like a terrible idea.
Besides marveling at technological process, I was in the States to read and sign books. During my New York event, a person asked, “What’s the worst thing about being an author?” At first, I was overwhelmed by things to bitch about, like, just that morning, I had really felt like some wheat-based cereal, but my fancy hotel restaurant only did Granola. This is the kind of rough justice I’m expected to put up with on book tour.
But beyond that, there was the whole thing about having a career that occasionally seems like it’s about to dissolve into nothingness, which is sporadically terrifying, and sometimes I write things nobody likes, which is disappointing, and working on the same idea for years at a time can be challenging, too.
I didn’t catalog these pains, though, because they were hard to justify in the face of a room full of people who had all come out to see me and buy my books so I could keep writing stories for a living. That is just plain awesome. I think I’m getting more appreciative in my old age, by which I mean less deluded about how rare and special this is, getting to write books and have them published and people liking them. Thank you so much to everyone who reads my stuff, and comes to see me, and tells other people my books exist.
Speaking of which! I don’t know how you politely slip into conversation that you’ve received a crapload of positive reviews, but CHECK THIS OUT: a crapload of positive Lexicon reviews! You have to admit, that’s a lot. Even I feel like buying a copy after reading that.
Another thing I’m doing is fielding outrage from librarians. At the end of Lexicon are Acknowledgments, which contain this:
And, hey. You. Thanks for being the kind of person who likes to pick up a book. That’s a genuinely great thing. I met a librarian recently who said she doesn’t read because books are her job, and when she goes home, she just wants to switch off. I think we can agree that that’s as creepy as hell. Thank you for seeking out stories, the kind that take place in your brain.
This sparked some amount of LIBRARIAN RAGE, expressed via email and Twitter. In retrospect, I should have seen coming, because I am married to a librarian and know how they work. See, librarians come in two flavors: Kick-Ass Librarians and Mundane Librarians. Kick-Ass Librarians love books with a deep and fiery passion, and have firm opinions about censorship, and will cross burning coals and defeat ravenous lions in order to deliver an age-appropriate book into the hands of a willing reader. Mundane Librarians—of which there are very few, compared to Kick-Ass Librarians—just do the job. To them, books are rectangular things that need to be scanned and filed. When I say it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad. But to Kick-Ass Librarians, a Mundane Librarian is a new mother in a Birthing Ward who says, “Yeah, I just had a baby. He’s around here somewhere.” It tears at the insides of Kick-Ass Librarians that these people are entrusted with the care of books (and readers!). And it burns them up to think that people believe all librarians are like that: Mundane.
So I am sorry for not being clearer about that, Kick-Ass Librarians.
Finally! Are you Australian? Do you want to win a copy of Lexicon? Do you sometimes lie awake, regretting things you did in high school? If you answered YES to at least two of these questions, and they were the first two, post a comment here on maxbarry.com plaintively begging and/or arguing the merits of your case! The Australian publisher is kindly letting me give away five copies. Entries close Friday 5pm!
Also! I just saw a minute ago that Syrup is opening in Canada this weekend in Toronto and Calgary! That is literally all I know. I know this seems like an incredibly stealthy way to release a movie, not telling anyone where it’s playing, but that’s because you don’t understand marketing, and apparently neither do I. OH WAIT I just sleuthed out some info: Friday in Toronto at Carlton Cinemas. You can even win free tickets.
And that reminds me! Sorry, I have to mention this, too. While I was in the US, I managed to collect two movie souvenirs. One is a can of Fukk, which by rights belongs to Mat Coad, because he won a competition to design a Fukk can on this site six years ago. The other is the book “Lipstick Lesbians… And Why Men LOVE Them! (A Girl’s Guide to Giving Straight Guys a Hard Time),” which Scat discovers in 6’s apartment:
As it turns out, the designer of this prop, whose name I’m going to put here as soon as I discover it, not only did an amazing job creating this work of art, but also embedded jokes on the rear side:
Which I just think is awesome. Also, apparently he used The Scarlett Pimpernel as a template.