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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Wed 28
Apr
2004

Throwaway dialogue as art form

Writing I stumbled onto that TV show Newlyweds the other night, and quickly became engrossed. I never realized this was a documentary about two pop stars; I just assumed it was some kind of reality TV show where the recently wed compete to break up each other’s marriages. Hmm… actually, that’s not a bad idea. Let me just call my agent…

One of the things I loved about Newlyweds was that Jessica seems to have a rent-a-friend: a person hanging around whose only job is to laugh at her jokes. Next time I go on book tour, I’m asking my publisher for one of those. (Max: “So you’re Jeremy?” Jeremy: “Right! Ha ha ha! Very good!” Max: “You and me are going to get along just fine, Jeremy.”) In fact, I could do with one in everyday life.

The other thing I loved was the dialogue. If this thing was scripted, I’d be campaigning for them to hand over the Emmy right now. See, I have something of an addiction to throwaway dialogue. This is an exchange between characters that has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, but is fun anyway. Or, at least, fun for the writer. (It’s very liberating to write a scene that doesn’t have to do anything.) But it’s not so much fun to read, which is why my throwaway dialogue tends to get deleted between drafts one and two. It’s basically just me being tricksy, and I don’t think anyone wants to pay money to see that. You can just visit my web site.

Anyway, there was a tiny scene in Newlyweds that was so perfect that it sent me running for pen and paper. This is classic throwaway dialogue. It may well do nothing for you, but for me… goosebumps, dude. Goosebumps.

Jessica and Nick are walking down a hotel corridor. Suddenly Jessica lets loose an enormous sneeze.

Nick: Bless you.

Jessica: Is that true, that if you sneeze, your heart stops?

Long pause. Nick turns around to look at her.

Nick: Why would your heart stop?

Jessica (defensive): That’s what I heard… just… what I heard.

Nick: From who?

Jessica: I don’t know.

Loooooooooong pause.

Nick: Never heard that.

Sat 24
Apr
2004

Dangling puppies

Jennifer Government Of all the questions I get about Jennifer Government, the one that’s surprised me the most is, “What happened to Kate’s puppy?”

A typical e-mail is this one, from Meghan:

I have one question for you: What kind of dog did they get? Did they get it? If not, I’ll be very grumpy.

While Jonn assumes the worst:

I notice Kate never got her puppy, you heartless sod.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, what the hell is wrong with you? No, sorry, I mean: for those of you who haven’t read the book, there’s a little throwaway scene where Jennifer promises to buy her daughter Kate a puppy. Then she gets distracted by having to save the world, as you do. There is, I think, every indication that Kate will get her puppy, but you never actually see it happen.

This is mainly because having my characters wander through a pet store hand-in-hand and fall in love with a brown-eyed Beagle named Floppy didn’t strike me as the greatest way to finish a fairly brutal thriller about corporatization. Even a line like, “Now let’s go get that puppy,” threatened to engage my gag reflex. I think most people will be with me on this one. But still, I have to admit: I have a dangling puppy reference.

Closure is very important. As Jerry Seinfeld said: “If I want a long boring story with no point to it, I have my life.” Novels have to end, and when they do they’re meant to wrap up all their loose story threads. I realize this; in fact, the main reason Miranda Hewlett-Packard disappeared between drafts three and four was that I couldn’t tie her story thread neatly enough to the others. So don’t tell me I’m not prepared to go the hard yards for closure. It’s just… well, I never thought so many people would care so much about that puppy.

I wonder if there’s some group I could join. “Hi, my name is Max and I have a dangling puppy reference.” (“Hi, Max.”) You know, that feels good. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Wed 21
Apr
2004

Vote 1 The Other Guy

What Max Reckons There’s no question in my mind that George W. Bush has been great for democracy. Previously, a lot of people were becoming disillusioned with mainstream politics, frustrated at having to choose between one corporate-backed rich white guy with good hair and another, slightly different-looking corporate-backed rich white guy with good hair. The feeling was: “What difference does it make if I vote? They’re all the same. What will one guy do that the other won’t?”

Thanks to Bush, now we know. He’s like a walking object lesson in the importance of voter turnout.

I’m Australian, but one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen was a rally outside City Hall in New York in 1999 to protest the police shooting of Amandou Diallo. Thousands of people voicing their grief and outrage… all quietly and competently supervised by the target of their protest, the NYPD. In plenty of countries, the cops would have been beating the crap out of those protestors. In the others, the protesters would have been throwing rocks at the cops and setting their cruisers on fire. But not in the United States. It was, to me, not just impressive but almost magical.

Then there was September 11. In the aftermath, there was a global outpouring of grief and sympathy for Americans—and more than that, of allegiance. If you lived in the US, you might not have noticed this. Your attention was, of course, focused inward. But it was there, and it was extraordinary. It was overwhelming. What I heard over and over was, “Today, we are all Americans.” Throughout the world, people wanted to stand by the US.

I wonder now what might have happened if the war on terrorism had chiefly been a diplomatic one. If the Bush administration had defined what terrorism was and called the world together to expunge it—not just in one country or two, but globally, and no matter in which cause it was employed. In 2001, with that incredible worldwide feeling of unity… maybe it was possible to take that act of great evil and extract from it a great good.

But it’s not possible now. That global unity is gone, and in its place is cynicism and mistrust. It happened because George W. Bush told the world it was irrelevant. As the war on terrorism morphed into an invasion of Iraq, Bush and his administration said it again and again: “You either agree with us or you are meaningless.” Maybe it was ignorance of the importance of international diplomacy. Maybe it was arrogance. Maybe it was even realistic. But one thing’s for sure: the world had offered its hand in solidarity and it didn’t like having it slapped away.

Opinion of the US has fallen so low that America is now widely viewed as the greatest threat to world peace—not just by people in “Axis of Evil” countries, or Muslim countries, but by majority populations in Western countries, like Australia, that are staunch US allies and have troops in Iraq right now. That sounds absurd if you live in the States, I know. But to understand it, imagine you don’t. Imagine it’s China that has more military power than the next 20 countries plus yours combined; China’s new government that rapidly cancels international treaties on everything from anti-missile proliferation to global warming; that announces it has no use nor care for world opinion; that conquers two countries in two years and hints of more to come; China that says other countries must choose to either support it without question or be “with the terrorists;” and China’s new President who describes entire nations as “evil” and his country’s military operations in religious terms.

I hate how the US is viewed by the world today. America is a truly great country, and doesn’t deserve to be considered deceitful, dangerous, arrogant, and greedy. But it is, because in the eyes of the world, George W. Bush is the US. It’s not as if we foreigners watch CNN. All we know about American politics is who’s President and how many bombs he’s dropping on other countries.

Which is why I hope like hell that John Kerry wins the election this November. If he does, people around the world won’t know it had anything to do with who had the better service record, or was more credible on jobs. But they’ll think, “Maybe Americans didn’t agree with Bush after all.” They’ll think, “Maybe they’re not all like him.” They’ll think, “Maybe we can stand together again.”

Sun 18
Apr
2004

Catch-22 in de vorm van The Matrix!

Jennifer Government The Dutch edition of Jennifer Government is out, and it’s a whopper. It’s 405 pages compared to 321 in the US paperback, but because it’s been printed on paper as thick as carpet samples, it’s three times as big. I like that; it makes it seem more significant. If it were up to me, you’d have to carry my novels out of the bookstore on a forklift.

Publishers routinely alter a book’s paper thickness, font size, and spacing depending on whether they want it to appear light, fun, and fast, or weighty, serious, and important. This makes it tough to judge which are genuinely longer than others. War and Peace, for example, is really just four paragraphs printed on pages as thick as wet towels.

I always find it awkward when someone asks me how long one of my books is, because the conversation goes like this:

Me: “It’s about eighty thousand words.”

Them: “So… what’s that in pages?”

“It depends a lot on how they set it. But somewhere around three hundred.”

“Um… is that a lot?”

“So you want to know how thick it is, is that it? You want to know whether it’s a thick book?”

But then, I’m very touchy.

The other interesting thing about the Dutch edition is that they’re running some kind of barcode competition as a promotion. There’s a web site where you type in the barcode that comes with your copy of the book, and if you’re lucky you win… actually, I don’t know. They never told me that. Books, I guess. I assume that if the prize was a date with me, they’d have to notify me first. Although now that I think about it, I haven’t read my contract that closely.

There is something odd about using a barcode as a symbol of consumerism in an anti-corporate-ish novel, then having a corporation use that symbol to sell copies of the book as part of a marketing campaign. At some point there, I’m thinking, “Wait a minute… that’s not ironic. That’s just a promotion.”

Mon 12
Apr
2004

Big Berry Crunch!

Max Max Berries pic People often call me Max Berry by mistake. At first I thought it was because of my Aussie accent, since whenever I visited the US I had encounters like this:

Max (checking into hotel): “The surname is Barry.”

Desk woman: “Berry?”

“No, Barry. With an A.”

“With an e?”

“A. A for apple.”

“E for epple?”

I swear, it really happened.

After that I tried laying on a thick American accent whenever I pronounced my surname, but I just got strange looks, especially outside the States.

I get called Berry in print too, though, so that can’t be it. I wouldn’t mind so much except I went to high school with a kid named Scott Berryman who moved in on a girl I was deeply in lust with, so he was my arch-nemesis for, you know, about three weeks around the end of 1987. Every time that damn Berry name comes up, I get flashbacks of Scott and Tracy sitting under a tree together, holding hands. Damn you, Berryman!

Still, even I can appreciate this pic, which a mysterious person called RaptorRed whipped up on the NationStates forum. Now that’s funny! I especially like the little heads floating in the bowl.

Thu 08
Apr
2004

On Your Face Advertising

What Max Reckons Another day, another company tattooing itself onto people’s foreheads. This is why I love marketing: it’s not just shameless, it’s shameless and imitative. In 2003 it was Dunkin’ Donuts, now it’s Toyota taking the word “brand” too literally and slapping Scion logos and prices onto 40 human foreheads in Times Square.

“This is the first time we’ve used foreheads,” says Toyota exec Brian Bolain, which is, just quietly, not a sentence you want to put into your press releases, Brian; not ever, not about anything. It sounds like there could be a second time; like forehead billboards could be the next big thing in advertising real estate. Presumably companies will pay varying rates for foreheads, based on available space (low hairlines equals low pay, people with fringes need not apply) and smoothness of texture (perhaps a deduction per zit).

But wait! I’m forgetting the most important part: attractiveness. Because the point of forehead advertising is to embed the brand into the human host, so it becomes the most whole-hearted product endorsement ever. A person wearing a corporate tattoo says: I like this product so much, it’s literally oozing out of my skin! You don’t want uglies walking around embodying your product; if you’re buying human flesh by the inch, you want the good stuff. The nice-looking stuff.

In the Ad Age report, Josh Tierney, one of the walking corporate billboards, says, “It is a little compromising.” Getting the tattoo, that is. The logo tattoo. Tattooed on his forehead. Josh strikes me as the kind of guy you want around when your plane crashes in the Andes and you need to pick someone to eat; he’d complain, but only a little.

I have no doubt that this was pitched to Josh as a bit of fun: make some money, do something silly, why not? Don’t worry about concepts like dignity and individuality: you can have them back when you’re done. But look at the pic of the two marketing geniuses who convinced him, standing in Times Square as their forty Frankenstein Inc’s monsters roam around. Decent-looking guys. Nice, wide, smooth foreheads. But whaddya know? No tattoos.

Wed 07
Apr
2004

Tattoos 4 U

Jennifer Government I did say that people who join my site could win stuff, right? Right. So here we go. A couple of years ago my publisher made up some honest-to-God Jennifer Government barcode tattoos — the idea, I think, was that bookstore sales staff might wear them. (We’re talking stick-ons, not permanent, just in case you were wondering.) I never heard any reports of this occurring, so possibly it was one of the world’s less effective marketing stunts. But still, they’re kind of neat. If you had one, everyone would be jealous at your next anti-globalization rally. So that’s what I’m giving away today.

I couldn’t decide whether to do this randomly or based on whose quote made me laugh the most, so I’m going with one of each. The random selection is Kareem Badr of Austin, Texas, and Jamie of Auckland, New Zealand scores for tapping into one of my pet hates with this quote:

Anyone still spelling “internet” with a capital “I” is probably struggling with the complexities of their new-fangled electric typewriter.

Ahhhh, yes. Stupid dictionaries. They have words from 1682 but when I want to put down HYPERLINK in Scrabble, it’s not in there. How unfair is that? But I digress. Kareem and Jamie, e-mail me your postal address and I’ll send you some tattoos. Oh, the excitement!

Fri 02
Apr
2004

Café satire

Writing I’m working up a new draft of Company, so the last few days I’ve walked down to my local café and scribbled away there. I’ve always hated writers who do this, because I reckon they’re concerned not so much with writing as with being seen to be writing, and those people are even more pretentious than actual writers. Whenever I see someone sipping a coffee over their laptop, I want to say to them, “Oh, you’re so important with your fancy computer, thank you so much for sharing this mystical act of creation with the world.” Of course, that’s a personal problem and I should probably see someone about it.

When I’m writing I like to be home by myself and play really loud music. But with edits, I’ve found it useful to get away from the study, the phone, and the urge to see if I have any new e-mail. So it’s off to the café.

After I turned up three days in a row with 200 pages under my arm, the waitress got curious enough to ask what I was doing. “Editing,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.”

“Oh,” she said, not very enthusiastically. Some people get very excited when they hear you write novels; others react like you said you work in the tax office. “What kind?”

“Satire.”

“What’s that?”

“Um… a comedy with social comment.”

“Oh, okay,” she said. “So do you want another coffee?”

I did, but mainly I was impressed with myself for coming up with such a good definition. It’s not often that I come up with clever things like that. I usually need to go away and do a few drafts first. That’s why I’m a writer and not a stand-up comedian. But dammit, that’s a great definition. That’s what satire should be.

Satire has a bad rep. When Syrup was published, my agent warned me, “Don’t call it satire. Say it’s a comedy. Nobody likes satire.” My editor advised me against writing any more of it. And for good reason: most satire is boring as all fuck. It tries to sell you a moral first and tell you a story second; then, if you’re lucky, it might get around to being funny. I don’t want to read novels like that. I sure don’t want to write novels like that. I want to write the good kind of satire, the kind that has engrossing stories and characters you care about and are scary and piss-funny both at once. These are out there, too, but there aren’t piles of them.

So I often describe my novels as something other than satire. But because authors are terrible at describing their own books, I end up saying things like, “Well, Syrup is a kind of comedy-romance-corporate-thriller… and Jennifer Government’s more of a science-fiction-comedy-action-thriller… or… something.” It’d be a lot easier if I could say I write satire and know that people weren’t thinking, “Oh, dull, unfunny, pretentious crap.”

Maybe if I use my new definition a lot, that’ll help. Maybe I can change people’s minds one waitress at a time.

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