An Interview with Max Barry
Author of Machine Man
As a long-term fan of Australian author Max Barry, I’ve followed his career with great interest. First in 1999, there was SYRUP, then came JENNIFER GOVERNMENT (2003), followed by COMPANY (2006). And then a long gap while Max entertained a legion of his devoted fans via his blog, www.maxbarry.com as he wrote a serial called MACHINE MAN. This serial eventually formed the basis for the novel released 8/11 in North America by Vintage Books.
MF: We’d like our readers to rush out and buy dozens of copies of MACHINE MAN. How would describe the book for the curious?
MAX BARRY: A darkly comic look at an engineer's quest to remake himself piece by piece. You shouldn't ask authors to describe their own novels. It's inhumane. It makes us feel like marketers.
Of course, I am a marketer. But still.
MF: Machine Man had a somewhat unusual beginning via your blog. How did this novel evolve?
MAX BARRY: I decided to throw a story up on my website, one bite-sized piece per day, as I was writing it. So it was a web serial, which you could get in your email inbox each day and read without much of a time investment. I wasn't sure how that was going to work out, but people seemed to dig it, so I kept going. Nine months later, I had a 50,000 word story.
When it came time to adapt it to a novel, I realized I had a ton of work to do, because it didn't work in long form at all. Every two hundred words, a cliffhanger threw you out of the story. So I had to fix that.
MF: What sort of research did you do for the book?
MAX BARRY: I emailed and went on forums. And I was tipped off to a few fascinating concepts by readers of the serial, which was the most wonderful part of that experience: getting ideas and feedback for the story as I was writing it. For example, midway through the serial I was contacted by a neuroscience major, who introduced me to the concept of free-roaming neurons: this became a pretty major part of the story. If I'd been writing in isolation, I might never have come across that idea.
It's easy to find information now. Ten years ago, research meant traveling to libraries and phoning people who didn't return your calls.
MF: Have you had any feedback, positive or negative on Machine Man yet?
MAX BARRY: This whole process has been nothing but feedback. That was the fascinating thing about writing the serial: I was constantly hearing what readers thought. Normally, of course, I lock myself away from the world for six or twelve months while I bang out the first draft. That's the sensible way to write a novel. This was the stupid, experimental way.
At first I was worried that I would receive a bunch of negative feedback and it would leave me unable to continue--because first drafts, and writers, are usually pretty fragile. But people were kind.
MF: You mentioned in an interview with Lee Bob Black that you dislike blurbs and avoid reading them. How much control did you have over the blurb for Machine Man?
MAX BARRY: I hate reading blurbs because I don't want the story spoiled. But I realize other people don't feel that way, and those people buy books. It would be a brave move to put out a blurbless book. Tempting. But brave.
Anyway, I've been asked to write the blurb for every one of my books. So I assume this is an industry-wide thing. I don't control the blurb, exactly; the publisher does. But they tend to use what I write.
MF: Man as a cog in the machine to man as machine. Is this a natural evolution? Do you see any connection/progression between your books?
MAX BARRY: Aside from the fact that I'm hopefully improving my craft as a writer, no; I don't think there's much of a thematic connection between COMPANY and MACHINE MAN. It has a near-future sci-fi kind of vibe, without going all-out into that realm, which is something you can find in all my
MF: What sort of experiences have you had working within a corporate culture?
MAX BARRY: That was where I honed my concept of what corporations are, which is to say: soulless, bizarre bubble worlds. The most significant thing I think is how the environment changes you as a person. When my wife comes home from her job, she is a little more focused and results-oriented than she was when she left in the morning. It takes her a while to transition back to the person I married. That's pretty strange.
MF: SYRUP was the only one of your novels to be translated into French. What’s the story there?
MAX BARRY: JENNIFER GOVERNMENT was also translated into French as "Jennifer Gouvernement." As to why some novels are translated into some languages and some aren't, it just comes down to sales: if my agent can't find a publisher willing to make a reasonable offer for the rights, they hold them against the day I become wildly famous.
MF: SYRUP is currently being made into a film, and you’ve been on the set. What is your involvement in the film and what does it look like so far?
MAX BARRY: It looks amazing. I've never seen a film being made before. I was impressed by how fifty or so smart people manage to work together in a pressure environment, each doing their own role.
My involvement was to adapt my novel into a screenplay, which the director Aram Rappaport then rewrote. So I think I'm credited as co-writer. Also I have a brilliant eight-second cameo. So if this
MF: Who are the main influences on your writing?
MAX BARRY: I think MACHINE MAN reveals a misspent youth alternating between Stephen King novels and wild science-fiction. I could mention a dozen sci-fi authors, but I'll say Philip K. Dick as the most influential.
MF: You have three videos on youtube. In the latest video, you bring up the fact that you’ve been encouraged by the publisher to do your own marketing. While your video is funny (especially if you’ve read the book), there’s a serious side to your marketing. Over the years, you’ve maintained a very active blog, and your fans tend to be extremely loyal and may I say even rabid. How important a role has your blog played in your writing career?
MAX BARRY: It's been very important in reminding people that I have not died between books.
MF: You’ve mentioned the “schism” that exists between creating and writing and then selling and promoting a book. I have the impression that the “schism” makes you uncomfortable. Is this correct? How do you address this “schism”? How important do you think it is to be involved in the promotion of one’s own book?
MAX BARRY: It's a little uncomfortable because the two jobs I have--writing books and convincing people to buy them--are so different. They have very few transferable skills. But most writers need to be able to do both well to enjoy a career. The solution, of course, is for me to become so popular that I can give up promoting and stay home all the time playing with stories.
MF: What’s next?
MAX BARRY: I have finished the first draft of something I'm very excited about but not allowed to reveal.
MF: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We hope everyone enjoys MACHINE MAN as much as us... and look forward to all your future writing.
Read our review of Machine Man at MostlyFiction.com