(Photo by Lauren Thomas)
Max Barry is insane. I say this not as a criticism, but rather to explain that his brain does not seem to work like our brains do. Syrup his first novel is ostensibly about the crazy world of marketing, but has been called by some (Drew) the best insight into the mind of the early adult male ever written. His other books cover an American government that has become a corporation (Jennifer Government) and question when violence is an appropriate reaction to corporate red tape (Company). His newest novel Machine Man just released this month from Vintage Contemporaries is about a brilliant scientist who loses his leg in an industrial accident. He creates a bionic leg for himself and then thinks, “Why stop there?” Not only that, but he wrote the entire novel as an online serial first. (See what I mean? He’s not like us. He’s so much better!)
How different was writing something that started as a serial work from
writing something intended to be a full-form novel? Did you have to
worry more about pleasing your audience with every page?
Usually when I'm writing a book I try to forget that the rest of the
world exists. But with the serial a few thousand people were basically
watching over my shoulder as I typed. I don't think I could have handled
that as a writer any earlier in my career. It was hard to adjust to. But
it also turned out to be the most rewarding parts of the project:
working so closely with readers that we uncovered the story together.
Science fiction has had a presence in most of your novels, from the
sci-fi film within the book Syrup to the cybernetic prosthetics in
Machine Man. With that in mind: Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, or Robert
Asimov. No question.
Alright, time for a question that has zero bearing on any of your prior
books: Coke or Pepsi?
Neither, but I like Coke's marketing better. It's unadventurous, but
it's built a concoction of sugar and water into the world's strongest
brand. I admire that level of mind control.
If you had to replace a part with a better-functioning cybernetic part -
any part, any one part, eyeball, leg, pinky, temporal lobe, any part -
which one would you replace? (And no cheating with nanotechnology and
giving yourself a fingernail that doubles as a perpetual motion
generator or anything. In this interview we respect the laws of
I get neck pain occasionally, so I'd like to fix that. I could probably
just exercise more, but a titanium implant would be easier. In terms of
enhancement, I'd guess I would like to be able to regulate my brain
better. So I'd like a Philip K. Dick-style Mood Dialer. Does that count
as an implant? If not, I will take something that tells me where I left
What's for dinner?
Beer and pizza. Meeting friends tonight.
You once received a cease and desist letter from the UN. Anyone else
not particularly fond of Max Barry?
I wrote an online game called NationStates that lets players create
their own countries and debate politics, and some people get way too
obsessed about that. If someone breaks the site rules and their account
is deleted by a moderator, for example, they'll email me about how
they're going to unleash their terrible wrath by spamming book sites
with 1-star reviews of my novels or whatever. Three or four people a
year threaten to sue me over things like that. Fortunately they're all
teenagers with short attention spans, so it never comes to anything.
In most of your prior works, your protagonists have had a strong
Everyman vibe to them (meant as a sincere compliment, by the way).
Charles Neumann is a definite step away from that. How difficult was
that transition, and was it something that came naturally from the book,
or something you decided you wanted to do from page one?
I think Charlie is an Everyman to a particular culture. That is, I think
I observed him more than invented him. In fact, the one thing I most
wanted to accomplish in the MACHINE NOVEL was to chart this new
personality I see a lot of on geek-oriented websites and forums. There
really are a lot of people like Charlie out there, and they're gaining
influence as more of the world comes to depend on technology.
Machine Man has a deft blend of surprisingly dead-pan, witty humor
and... we'll just call it 'dark humor', and leave it at that. Was there
any point in the writing where you were worried that you'd gone too dark
- or that things were getting a little too quippy?
No, it's usually the opposite; I'll try to remind myself not to settle
in to any particular rut. That's an easy trap to fall into, when you're
writing a novel, because at first you're so desperate to find anything
that looks like a story, you can latch on and stop taking risks.
What was the last book you read in just one or two sittings?
I read a few in a row on a 14-hour plane trip from Los Angeles to Sydney
last month. The final one was "Rampaging Fuckers of Everything On The
Crazy Shitting Planet Of The Vomit Atmosphere" by Mykle Hansen.
I just want to say - there's a certain scene in Syrup that involves a
tipped-over Coke Machine that made me laugh harder than I may ever have
laughed in my life. Is there an absolutely favorite gag in one of your
novels; one zinger, one physical gag, one perfect comedic moment?
I like all moments where characters are unsure how to take each other,
because those are evidence that each of the characters are fully
realized enough to live in their own contexts. For example, I get a lot
of personal joy out of a simple moment like when Charlie tells Lola, "I
like your hair," and she thinks he's razzing her, because her hair is
terrible, but he actually meant it. I know my story is going okay when
the characters can misunderstand each other.