Providence is about four people on a spaceship who are sent to defend Earth against an alien threat. There are other spaceships, but this is the only one that matters. If they fail, everyone is screwed. But that seems unlikely, because when we learned about the aliens, we plowed everything we had into building these ships, which are immensely powerful, and, to be honest, more than seems necessary to deal with aliens who aren’t even that smart.
I try to write stories that are smart and suspenseful. I’m a big fan of both of those. Especially as I get older, I find I need to believe in a book’s characters: I need them to be making smart choices and asking smart questions. But I also love a story that drags me into it because the simple dynamics of the situation are compelling.
So I hope Providence is this. It has aliens and spaceships in it, which is new for me, and something I’ve wanted to do since… well, since I was about fourteen, probably. Because I really love aliens and spaceships. But it had to be smart and suspenseful and character-driven, too. Hopefully I figured out a way to do that.
If you’re in a place where you could do with a good story, please take a look! If not, I hope you’re doing okay—because I know this isn’t a great time for a lot of people. But we are kind of all in it together. I have to say, of all the terrible crises to be facing, I do like how this one puts all of humanity on the same side. It’s not people against people, for once. We get to face this one as a species.
Not your fault, obviously; you couldn’t know, as you toiled away, taking your time to carefully craft each word, that your release date would be scheduled for the tipping point of a worldwide crisis. That’s just bad luck. There’s no point fretting about those canceled bookstore and media events now, though, or how New Zealand just shut down every bookstore in the country, even online retailers, and what if other countries do that, I mean, my God. The question is: What do you do?
First, identify which category your book falls into:
- Books about pathogens or pandemics, which are suddenly super relevant.
- Fun escapism books offering to whisk the reader away from terrifying reality for a few hours.
- Books no-one cares about any more.
This is not a great time to be releasing a withering satire of consumerism, for example. No-one wants to hear that right now. We have bigger problems. Take your book and go away until I can stop worrying that I’m going to be coughed to death if I leave my house.
If your book is in the first category, you don’t need to be reading this. Go to your room, close the door, and think about how you might remodel your kitchen once those blood money royalty checks start coming in.
If you’re in the middle category, though, it’s tricky. You want to walk a fine line between coming off like you only care about promoting your novel during a global health crisis—you heartless monster—and not selling any books and having to fall back on your other skills, like pan-handling.
When you do media—if you do media, because, you know, there’s a lot going on, and you’re not the center of the universe—you’ll find they want to talk about something—anything!—other than the virus. Because that’s all they’ve been talking about, all day long, for weeks. But also, if you can relate your book to the virus somehow, to make it seem timely and relevant, they want that, too.
So try to hit secondary themes: topics that are more relatable because of the virus. For example:
- being forced into a confined space with other people who you might love very much, but my God, they’re around all the time, you can’t even go to the bathroom without someone asking you a question
- socially distancing, because haven’t we been doing that for a long time, in a sense, when you think about it
- coughing to death
Scrap that last one. Sorry. I just can’t stop thinking about it.
The best kind of promotion now, obviously, is online promotion. And by “best” I mean “only.” The danger here is that in the absence of anything else, you find yourself pounding your existing social media followers with increasingly see-through attempts to thrust your book into their faces. So you’re not spreading awareness far and wide so much as stabbing the same two hundred people in the eyeballs over and over.
If you can, offer something of interest to a wider circle. Like, if you can drop everything and work 16-hour days for two weeks to build an online game based on your novel, then your followers might enjoy that and pass it along to others. The game, that is. Not the virus. Then awareness of your novel can spread from person to person, exponentially, in a similar manner to how we’re all going to die.
Whatever you do, though, I think it would be wise to avoid being overly flippant. Sure, in these grim times, we could all use a little levity. But if it turns out that we’re standing on the precipice of a chasm filled with bodies, I don’t think you want to be the person having a good old chuckle about it. Don’t go too far the other way: Don’t start yanking on the plague bell. You won’t be shifting any copies of your book doing that. Save your existential dread for after pub date.
Aside from that… I’m really not sure. I mean, I wish you all the best. I really do.
Max Barry is the author of Providence, a sci-fi thriller to be released on March 31, 2020.
So as fun and dangerously sexy as it would have been to travel from American city to city, meeting people in flagrant violation of government medical advice, it’s not going to happen. I’m really sorry for everyone who had already made plans. Let’s try this again in 2021.
You can still buy the book, though. And you should. I recommend pre-ordering now, so you have something to read while you’re self-isolating. It’s perfect, because when reality is this bizarre, you need to go to that next level for a decent hit of escapism, and Providence has space battles with aliens that spit out black holes.
Take care, wash your hands, look after each other.
I remain totally willing to fly to the US and get infected if that’s what it takes. Book tours are great fun, and I don’t want to miss one just because the world is in the grip of a major pandemic. I will come to America and shake hands with anyone who lets me. And you know I’m virus-free because this will be the first time I’ve left the house in years.
But as I write this, the US has closed its borders to Europe, and Tom Hanks has tested positive for coronavirus in Australia. Which aren’t great signs. If this were a movie, and in the early scenes Tom Hanks was coughing weakly into a handkerchief, I’d feel pretty certain that before long a large number of people would be dead. I just hope that number doesn’t include Tom Hanks. The moment Tom Hanks keels over, I’m barricading myself indoors with tinned food and a shotgun.
So for now: tour is on. I believe in you, Tom. You can get through this.
What are the chances of you adding more cities to your book tour?
Zero, I’m sorry to say. I have to point out that I don’t get to choose my own tour. It’s organized by a publisher who has to try to extract some kind of value from my time that exceeds what I’m going to order from hotel room service. Also they have to find bookstores that want to host me on the exact date that works with my schedule. So it’s harder than it seems.
Will you be blogging the book tour, like you did a long time ago?
I think I will acknowledge that the world has moved on from blogs and use some kind of social media instead. I’ll have my daughter with me this time, so instead of cooling my heels alone during my down-time, I’ll probably be exposing her to the wonders of the United States, like how power points don’t have switches on them.
How many of your books is too many to bring to one of your readings?
I’m treating this as a serious question because I know sometimes people have strange ideas about what might be considered rude at book readings. For example, people have apologized for asking me for a photo. In reality, I love being asked for a photo. That makes me feel super famous. I mean, I’m not Chris Hemsworth here. I understand that if you ask Chris for a photo, sure, that’s probably the thirtieth time he’s been asked that day. But I only get to do this occasionally. I will stand for photos all day long.
Similarly, there is no number of books you could bring to a reading that would be too many. If you backed up a truck full of my books, I would sign them all, then spend the rest of my life telling people about the time someone backed up a truck full of books to a reading.
Why did you choose to create Nationstates?
I’ve come to realize that I didn’t choose to create NationStates. NationStates chose me as a vessel to bring itself into the world. But at the time, I just thought it would be fun, and help to promote my novels, and not consume my life. Two of those things turned out to be true.
I cannot create nation on nation states, and I’ve never played it, and no one has ever played it on my network, so I’m having a hard time understanding why it refuses to let me do anything. I’m even blocked from sending help requests since someone in my neighborhood spammed it.
Yes, this can happen: You can get IP banned from NationStates even though you are a perfectly lovely person who never hurt anyone. That’s because we’re not yet at that point in the future where everyone is required to prove their identity before being allowed online. I mean, obviously that future is coming. Google and Facebook already know who you are at all times. I signed up for Instagram a while ago, not because I planned to post anything, but just to follow my kid’s school, and even though I didn’t tell anyone and didn’t connect it to anything, within 24 hours I had friend requests from everyone I’d ever met. I think Facebook fingerprinted me and then told all my friends.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that NationStates, which is not Facebook, can’t be sure who you are. We have to guess based on the data we have, like where you’re connecting from. So if there’s someone we want to keep off the site, because they’re a terrible person, you might get caught up just because you look similar.
Obviously this isn’t great. The general idea is to let people into the site, not keep them out. But sometimes it’s important to keep them out, because they’re terrible, and in that case, I would rather accidentally block some good people for a while.
I’m a big fan of NationStates, I’ve just been wondering… How was your day?
The 11-Pointed Leaf
It was great, thanks! I finished another book recently, so I’m feeling super productive and proud of myself. I have exercised the dog. I posted an app online to generate efficient netball rosters using a genetic algorithm. Everything is pretty swell.
A lot has happened since I was last in the US. The world became a dark dystopia ruled by corrupt oligarchies. Data-driven marketing companies sucked up our fears and turned them into products. The book publishing industry fell into crisis.
Ha ha! I’m kidding. It was all like that already.
If you’ve never seen me in person, boy, are you missing out. I mean, the accent alone, you can’t even imagine. So what happens at these things is first I talk about whatever’s on my mind. I’ll be traveling with my daughter this time, so, you know, brace yourself for some insights on what it’s like to take a 14-year-old Australian around the US on book tour.
Then I read from the new book a little. But not for long, because, really, you can read it yourself. That’s why we printed all these copies.
Then comes my favorite part, where people ask questions about whatever. Writing, NationStates, why Australian Rules Football is the greatest sport in the world: you name it. This is really the bread and butter of the bookstore event for me. Any kind of situation where people will sit and listen to my opinion on things, that really works for me.
San Diego, CA
7pm @ Wednesday April 1st, 2020
7pm @ Thursday April 2nd, 2020
Powell’s Books — Cedar Hill Crossing
7pm @ Friday April 3rd, 2020
Elliot Bay Book Company
San Francisco, CA
3pm @ Saturday April 4th, 2020
Mountain View, CA
2pm @ Sunday April 5th, 2020
7pm @ Monday April 6th, 2020
Tattered Cover — Colfax Avenue
7pm @ Wednesday April 8th, 2020
The Book Cellar
7pm @ Thursday April 9th, 2020
Politics & Prose — Union Market
I also sign books. The new book, older books, you name it. I will sign anything not nailed down. Although if all you want is a signed Providence, you can contact one of the bookstores and we’ll arrange that without you having to leave home. I mean, that’s not my preference. But I want you to know that option is available.