Max Barry is the author of five novels, including “Lexicon,” the New York Times Notable Book “Jennifer Government” and “Syrup,” now a film starring Amber Heard. He is also the creator of the online political simulation game “NationStates.” He lives in Melbourne with his wife and two daughters.
1. Your novel Lexicon won the Aurealis Award for Best SF Novel this year – congratulations! The novel’s plot revolves around the power of words, which isn’t in theory a new concept but you take it in a really remarkable direction. Did the plot and the SF aspect emerge separately or together? And were you pleased with the result?
Thank you! I was very happy with how that book came out. The SF angle… I never think of my stories as science fiction or anything else until my agent or publisher starts talking about how to sell them. I have three or four novels now that could be correctly classified as science-fiction, in the sense that they deal with ideas and a slightly modified world, but to me they’re just stories. They’re about people in a particular situation. The characters don’t think they’re in a science fiction book so I don’t either.
2. An earlier novel, Machine Man, was adapted from an online serial that you started in March 2009 and continued for nine months. What was it like to have the deadline of completing a page a day? And was the process of turning it into a novel easier or harder than writing one from scratch?
The serial was a brave experiment in writing with people looking over my shoulder. It was amazing to have that immediate feedback, posting a little page and seeing people react to it and comment the same day, so different to novel-writing, where I find out whether anyone likes what I’m writing two years later. It was terrifying, and raw and rough because I couldn’t take my time to build the story. It was just: Go!
Turning it into a novel was challenging because the serial was in bite-sized pieces, which doesn’t really work for a reader who wants to sit down for an hour and be immersed. I had to retell the whole story for the new medium. But I had a big first draft that I wrote quickly because I had to, so that was helpful. It made for a different kind of book, in the end; I think I mostly hid its roots but they’re still there.
3. On your blog you note that you’re working on “too many books.” Do you tend to work on more than one project at a time? Are the ideas all pushing impatiently to get out?
It’s easy to lose perspective on a story when you work on it every day for months. You forget how to see the book through the eyes of a reader. So it’s valuable to take a break, go do something else, and come back a few days or even weeks later. When I do that, I see its strengths and weaknesses far more clearly.
But the drawback is, yeah, too many books. I get immersed in the thing that’s meant to be a temporary distraction and suddenly a month has gone by.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
“Splitsville” by Sean Condon. I had always really enjoyed Sean’s books but recently I got to hear him read some of one and it elevated the whole thing to a new level. Because Sean is not some writer sitting back cleverly constructing bitter, intricate, insane, gallows-humor fiction; he is actually intricate and bitter and insane. So it’s even funnier. You have to read his books slowly, and normally I hate that, writers being tricky with sentence structure, because I just want the story, but Sean is so hilarious he breaks the rule.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be writing in five years from now?
The industry is undergoing change, for sure, but I don’t feel affected that much. It makes a difference to the finances and mechanics of how I publish books but in the end almost all of what I do that matters is between me and the reader. How I get words to them, exactly, is not that big a deal. Not compared to how important it is to make sure they’re the right words.