Max Barry is an Australian who pretended to sell high-end computer systems for Hewlett-Packard while secretly writing his first novel, Syrup (1999). In fact, he still has the laptop he wrote it on because HP forgot to ask for it back, but keep that to yourself. He put an extra X in his name for Syrup because he thought it would be a funny joke about marketing and failed to realize everyone would assume he was a pretentious asshole. Jennifer Government, his second novel, was published in 2003 with no superfluous Xs and sold much better.
Max's third novel, Company, was published in 2006, and his fourth, Machine Man, in 2012, was based on a real-time interactive web serial written and delivered in real-time one page per day from this web site. It made more sense than it sounds.
Max's fifth novel, Lexicon, was named one of the Best 10 Books of the Year by Time Magazine.
Max also created the online political game NationStates, for which he is far more famous amongst high school students and poli-sci majors than his novels.
He was born March 18, 1973, and lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he writes full-time, the advantage being that he can do it while wearing only boxer shorts.
Displaying personal blogs. View all Max's blogs.
Hey Max. First, thanks for making NationStates. Second, did you really find a sock full of pennies? If so where?
I did not really find a sock full of pennies. That was a humorous fiction. But everything else on this site is true. Some people think I make up stuff for it, like I’m inventing the “Ask Max” questions, but that’s wrong. I’m actually a little shocked anyone would think that. The truth is that by the time I finish working on my novel each day, I’m fictionally tapped out. I don’t have enough creativity left to make up anything. It would be a good interrogation technique: If you have a terrorist, make them write fiction for eight hours, then ask them where the bomb is. By then he has no lies left, I guarantee it.
But I have been tardy about answering Ask Max questions, which I feel bad about. Here are some more:
How do you become a banana for a week?
You start by becoming a banana for a minute and work your way up.
Do you even look at these?
Have you met an Alien?
No. But I’m a little concerned by your capitalization of “Alien.” I feel like your next question is: “Would you like to?”
Does this site cover the complete list of all your works, or only a certain genre?
Holy God. So, what, I’m maintaining a stable of websites, one devoted to my mainstream fiction, one to my series of romances, another to my erotic swords-and-sandals fantasies, and so on? I think you’re saying I don’t publish enough, Skankhunt42. Okay. Message received.
What time is bed time?
I go to bed about 4am Pacific Time. This is 10pm in my local timezone.
What do you put on the census when it asks what your job is? Do you think it is creative that I put penguin tamer?
No I don’t, Greg. I think that’s irresponsible. The census is no joke. It’s used to make informed public spending decisions, like where to put schools, and which populations need suppressing because they’re too close to the truth. I put down “Writer,” which is technically true for anyone who is in the process of filling out their census.
Have you heard about these creepy clown sightings in the Southern and Eastern US?
It’s nerds with too much time on their hands, right? I mean, I don’t know anything about it. But it sounds like something I would have thought was an awesome idea when I was about 19: Dress up as a weird clown. Now it sounds like a good way to get punched in the face. People don’t like weird clowns.
How are you? Do you still live in Australia? Is there a lot of spiders? I’d love to come to your country, but bugs and spiders scare the sh.t out of me…
I’ll be honest with you, Kenza, there are basically no spiders here. We just like to perpetuate that idea because it makes us seem tough and fearless. Well I mean there are some spiders. I did just catch a spider in the living room yesterday and move it to the back yard. But only because its thick furry body was blocking the light. I could hardly see a thing in there.
what is your net worth
I am worth several hundred nets.
If there was one word you could use to describe Emily from Lexicon, what would it be?
Would you eat a brick if I told you it would cure the cancer of anyone afflicted?
Of course. That would be the most effective cancer treatment in the world. We’re currently shooting people full of poison and it doesn’t even work most of the time. Brick-eating would be a major technological breakthrough. You would win the Nobel Prize for discovering a treatment method as relatively simple and painless as brick-eating.
I would also kill an innocent person with a brick if that would cure cancer worldwide. I mean, I wouldn’t enjoy it. But cancer is the worst. In fact, I would let you kill me with a brick.
I knew someone who worked on The X-Files during its original run and when they were shutting down after nine seasons, she said, “It’s not like we were curing cancer.” Because occasionally in the arts & entertainment industry you can stop and realize that you’re making up stories while other people are doing important things like saving lives or growing food or building houses. I said, sure, but the people who are have probably been watching The X-Files. I hope that is true.
Hey Max, why do you hate Windows?
No one you ever heard of
I’M GLAD YOU ASKED. From the last time I whined about Windows:
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, 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.
Written in 2007. Windows today is that times a thousand.
At least Apple is up-front about how you’ll shut up and take what it gives you. I appreciate that honesty. On my phone, I’m happy for it. I don’t want to configure my phone. I just want to read email and look at photos. You make that happen, Apple.
But Windows! Windows is sneaky. Windows is the shady salesperson telling me it’s my decision but if I don’t want to upgrade it’s going to keep asking and then just go ahead and do it and say it was my choice.
I use Ubuntu Linux, which is part of an open source ecosystem where people make good software just because. That used to be only mildly notable, but the digital world has become so hard-nosed that whenever I switch to Windows, I’m a naive farm boy who just arrived in the big city: 15 minutes later, I’m bankrupt, naked, and everyone has my email address.
Oh, and the Start button. THE START BUTTON. The perfect symbol of everything that’s wrong with Windows. Well not everything. But a lot. Every edition of Windows for the last 20 years has breathlessly pushed one of two selling points:
We added a Start button
We removed the Start button
YOU’RE ADDING AND REMOVING THE SAME THING. How can your main feature of Windows 10 be something you introduced in 1995? Why is nobody talking about that? “Oh yes, I think Windows 10 is actually a significant improvement; it brings back the Start button.” That’s like someone was punching you in the face for a while, then stopped, and now you think things are better than ever! And it’s just a button! While you’re dreaming up new features, how about the one where you don’t need to reboot the entire freaking machine every time it wants to update?
So it’s mainly that: the sneakiness, and the sales campaign stuck on a loop.
What’s your age?
A lonely man
I’m 43. It’s a problem because the main photo of me on my website is from seven years ago and I designed the site’s whole color scheme around it. So now it’s about time to update that pic but I don’t want to have to restyle all the menus. It’s a real dilemma. They say age brings unexpected challenges but I didn’t see this coming.
Another problem is I have more trouble suspending disbelief. So where in my youth I would read a line like, “Commander Zorko strode onto the bridge, his brows furrowed,” and thought, “Yes, excellent, you have already impressed me, Commander,” now I’m more like, “That is some pretty cliched writing.” You might think this is a positive, raising my standards, but when your workflow is blasting out a terrible first draft and reworking it from there, it’s not. I have to drink a lot more coffee to delude myself into thinking that pearls are dripping from my fingers whenever they touch the keyboard, that’s for sure. And that’s a pre-requisite belief for any novelist hoping to complete a first draft, as far as I know.
It also means I finish fewer books. I used to finish everything, even books I hated. I would grind my way to the end, my hate for the author burning brighter with every page. Because once you check out of a story, there’s no coming back. It just gets worse and worse. Stories are a partnership, a deal between author and reader, and they don’t work unless both sides hold up their end. I went to a comedy show once and for some reason didn’t find him funny, but everyone around me was rolling in the aisles, so pretty soon I hated that guy with every fiber of my being. Also I felt kind of psychopathic, because it’s weird to be the only person not laughing. That’s not a great look. But now I bail out of a book at the slightest provocation. So I’m probably missing out on some great reads.
I liked The Phantom Menace when it came out in 1999. I really did. After the 13-minute pod-race scene, all I thought was, “That was a bold cinematic choice, inserting an action sequence with no relevance to anything else in the story.” All the stupid stuff I loved. But you just can’t do that at 43. I was unable to enjoy Pacific Rim because MY GOD WHY ARE THE ROBOTS PUNCHING THE MONSTERS. Like obviously that’s the point of the movie, why go see it if you don’t want robots to punch monsters, but SERIOUSLY ARE THERE NO LONG-RANGE WEAPONS, OH WAIT, YES THERE ARE, AND THEY PUT THEM IN THE ARMS OF THE ROBOTS, WHO ARE PUNCHING MONSTERS.
You see the problem.
What do you do in your off-time when you aren’t writing books?
I think about high schools. My daughter needs one in two years (I KNOW) and obviously the wrong choice will ruin her life forever. I mean, as a parent, you feel like every decision you make might ruin your kid’s life, right from the moment you get them, but this is a big one.
So I’ve been researching schools, and visiting schools, and emailing school teachers asking if I can come and speak to their classes, so I can figure out how good they are. If they say no, I know they have high standards. AHAHAHAHA. No, not really. It’s actually the opposite: If they say no, they suddenly seem terrible, like when you like someone and discover they don’t like you back. So all I’m really doing is making myself super biased.
Another problem is that when I visit a private school, I get a super-slick professional presentation, because that school is a business with an incentive to attract new customers. Whereas there’s a state high school near me that’s in such demand, they won’t even meet prospective parents. They had an Open Day but it felt grudging. So the private school comes off better, but they’re the only one selling.
Plus private schools are expensive. But then if you won’t bankrupt yourself for your kid’s education, what are you doing? But maybe that’s self-defeating because you wind up stressed and limited and that’s not good for anyone, either.
Then there’s the single-sex vs co-educational thing. I’m totally sold on the academic benefits of girls-only schooling, but I wonder about the social side, because there was a girls’ school across the road from my high school, and those girls were crazy. But then they were also Catholic. So that could have been it.
Today I visited a school where all the students seemed happy. That was pretty great. Maybe that’s it.
P.S. Aside from this I also:
write things that aren’t books, like TV pilots that will never get made
I had the pleasure of reading “Machine Man” for college and right now we have to write an argumentative essay on whatever we want. Do you mind sharing your thoughts on Technology and how it affects Relationships and Face-to-Face communication?
I’m not sure this is a good question for someone who never goes anywhere. My face-to-face communications today have been:
I bought a quiche and a cookie from some people in a cafe
I accidentally scared a girl while running
My cat was like, “I’m going upstairs,” and I was like, “Oh no, you’re not,” then she ran upstairs.
Also family. I do talk to my family.
But yes, it is a complex and fascinating question. For example, I convinced my wife-to-be to move across the country for me by writing her letters. She was two thousand miles away at the time. So in the absence of technology, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with her at all.
But if there had been more technology, like Skype, that would have been bad for me, too. I was very fortunate to be wooing her at a time of prohibitively expensive long-distance phone calls. Because I’m really playing to my strengths with the written word. I come off relatively well there. If I’d had to carry on actual conversations, I don’t think things would have gone so well. She had seen me attempt conversation shortly before she moved away and clearly it wasn’t very compelling. It was the absence of affordable communications technology that caused her to forget that and come back.
(Obviously once she got here, she remembered. But by then she’d already uprooted her life. So she was stuck.)
I believe that comprehensively answers your question. Good luck with your essay.