Max Barry Interview

Nine years ago I sent out a chance email for a shot to interview one of my favorite authors, Max Barry. Just that the guy would take time out to answer an email from a fan like this is amazing. Clearly he’s awesome. Read:

Update October 2004

Pie Driver interviews Max Barry

When you were 12 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be the newsreader on TV. That guy really seemed to have his shit together.

What’s your daily writing regiment?

I roll out of bed about 7:15am. I iron my wife’s clothes for the day (she’s a school teacher), because yes, I am just that sensitive. Then I go into my study and start writing. I stop when the words do, or when I start to feel faint from hunger, both of which usually happen around 11 o’clock. Sometimes I write in the afternoon, but more often I do all my creative stuff for the day before noon.

Do you outline before or during your writing? While Syrup has a more evolving storyline, Jennifer Government seems more structured. How are your story-telling techniques evolving?

I start with an initial idea, usually about a couple of characters and what they might want to do, and go from there. I very rarely know what’s going to happen more than a couple of chapters in advance. That helps the story from becoming too predictable, and, more importantly, keeps me guessing. I can’t think of anything more boring than planning out an entire novel, then having to write it. As much as possible, I try to avoid ending up pushing characters around like chess pieces, trying to get them to hit particular plot points. I much prefer they take the lead.

It’s funny that Jennifer Government seems more structured. That’s only because I rewrote it so hard; those story threads didn’t come together so neatly in the first draft, I promise you that. This is the downside of not doing outlines.

What has made Syrup and Jennifer Government keepers as opposed to the other novels that were shelved?

Mainly that they were not crap. That’s a big reason. Crap novels, onto the bonfire. Good novels, I call my agent.

How did it feel to finish Jennifer Government and yet have no publisher want to publish it?

My SYRUP publisher (Penguin Putnam) didn’t want it; other publishers were much more receptive. But yeah, it was pretty shocking. When I first got published, I felt so pathetically grateful to everyone that helped me there that I swore I would always stick by them, even if I became hugely famous and popular. They were all so very nice. But they had to make a business decision, and they made it. Tough for me, because I seriously thought my career was over. And I’m very attached to my career. But it was a rough time for Penguin Putnam financially. If I’d been in their shoes I might have cut me, too.

Has Jennifer Government been a success? By what standards? Do you think it will help sell your next book?

Any novel that allows me to keep doing this for a full-time job is a success to me. Getting good reviews is nice, too. In terms of sales, yes, Jennifer Government has done great. I get a stack of fan e-mail, which is just brilliant.

I have a feeling that the sales of novels tend to reflect the quality of the one before them. If you like this one, you buy the next one; if you don’t, you won’t. So very possibly Jennifer Government was just a reaction to Syrup. But hopefully not. Hopefully my next one will get out there and do even better.

Has NationStates been a success? What the future plans for it? Did this evolve as a game or a marketing ploy?

Oh yeah, very much so. I created it as a game to hopefully attract 1,000 people, and so far somewhere it’s had around 400,000 players. I’m not exactly sure what to do with it, since it has become such a big deal all by itself — many, many more people have played the game than read the book — but I’d like to do something.

The idea for — that you get to see what a country based on your idea of perfect politics would look like, and play with it — was one I’d had for a while. And it tied in to the concept behind Jennifer
Government. But I probably wouldn’t have ever coded it unless I could justify that time and expense as a way to promote my novels.

Who do you see as your peers, whether in story-telling or as a novelist? Any authors that you model yourself after?

It really depends on the novel. Two writers I adore, though, are Neal Stephenson and Chuck Palahniuk.

Has being a young author been an asset or a detriment to establishing your career?

I think it’s an asset on the promotional side. The media is definitely more interested in talking to young authors. But as for the actual writing, I think I’ll be creating better novels with another ten or fifteen years’
experience. I sure hope so, anyway. If I’m not, I haven’t been paying attention.

Now that making shit up is your profession, what do you do for fun?

The thing is, though, making shit up is fun. I have that rare and amazing thing: a fun job. But these days, when I’m not writing, I’m trying to maintain That thing is a real time sucker.

What’s so bad about being Australian?

There seem to be an awful lot of us, wriggling our way into the bastions of American culture. It started with Aussie actors, then came directors, now we’re all over the place. You can’t take five steps in the US entertainment industry without tripping over an Australian. So I apologize for being yet another one.


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