INTERVIEW: Max Barry on LEXICON

lexiconWay back in 2011 the Scrolls Book Group recorded an episode on Max Barry’s satirical near-future novel Jennifer Government.  It was a hell of a lot of fun to read and packed in some great ideas.  I’ve been meaning to read more of his work ever since, but we all know how my BookStack laughs at those kinds of plans normally…  Well, today sees the publication of LEXICON, his fifth stand-alone novel.  In defiance of all bookshelf creakery I’ve nabbed myself a copy and stuck it at the top of my reading list.  I’ll be posting a review when I’ve finished the book but until then, here’s a short interview we conducted with Max recently.

GS: For those of our readers not familiar with your work, how would you describe the Max Barry oeuvre?

MB: Oh man, I wish I knew. It varies. I try different things. I wrote a romantic comedy, then a sci-fi thriller, then a satire, then a sci-fi/horror. And now LEXICON is a thriller. So, you know, make sense out of that.

GS: Your first book ‘Syrup’ has recently been made into a movie, for which I understand you provided the screenplay. Will you tell us a little bit about it?

MB: “Syrup” is a story about a young man who craves the life he sees on TV and billboards. He comes up with a brilliant marketing idea to make himself rich and famous, and meets 6, a young woman who’s just like him, only more so.

GS: What was your experience as a screenwriter compared to your life as an author?

MB: The movie has been a crazy ride. Sometimes I swore I’d never write another screenplay, because it was so frustrating when it seemed like it would never get made. Because that’s how it usually works for screenwriters: you write forever and it never gets made. So it’s the most unsatisfying thing ever. It’s not like a novel, where even if nobody reads it, at least you have a finished work of art. A screenplay is just an incomplete movie.

But then it did get made and I got to watch people bringing these imagined scenes to life. That was completely amazing. I would write screenplays all day if it went like that.

It was also fun to go back and retell SYRUP in a different way. I’m kind of addicted to rewriting, so that was really appealing to me. I would rewrite my books until the end of time if I could.

GS: Our Book Group thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Government. You created the Nation States computer game as a wonderfully imaginative marketing tool to help promote the book. You have since dipped your toe in other alternative media projects like Subtext and written/published another novel (Machine Man) one page per day on the internet. Why do you feel it is important to push the boundaries of the publishing world in these fashions, and what kind of responses have you gotten from them?

MB: It’s always interesting to try new things. And it helps to answer the question of how stories work. Because that is a very magical process.  You read a bunch of words, you feel things. That is pretty mystical. I’m supposed to be doing this for a living and I don’t understand it at all.

Plus of course the internet came along and changed everything. Authors actually get to hear what readers think now. And vice versa: authors are no longer these shy creatures that hide away for years at a time; instead, they’re tweeting and updating their blogs. The ‘net has renegotiated the relationship between the author and reader. It’s made it more personal. Which is a good thing and a bad thing. But when your job is to deploy words to make people feel things, and a whole new word-delivery medium springs into existence, you want to check that out.

GS: Your latest book ‘LEXICON’ is coming has just come out from Mulholland in the UK today.  It’s at the top of my BookStack for review and the blurb has got me fizzing with excitement for it. Can you tell our readers some choice things about LEXICON to get them fizzing too?

MB: It’s really cruel to ask authors to describe their own work. It’s basically saying, “Tell me why I should care about your life.” You know there’s a good answer but it’s so hard to put it in a couple of sentences.

LEXICON is about an organization of people called poets who can use language to manipulate people. They ask a series of questions to determine your psychological makeup and then they hack your brain. And to prevent their own brains being hacked, they carefully guard their true selves. Which means no friendships, no love. Which isn’t really sustainable, of course. So the rules get broken.

GS: In your work you raise a lot of interesting questions about power, manipulation and responsibility. Since you began writing, what changes have you noticed in society that have given you particular concern?

MB: The main one for LEXICON was privacy. The loss of privacy over the last ten years has been extraordinary, but it’s hard to get worked up over because it’s such a theoretical issue. We know privacy is important, logically, but when we’re offered things like reward points or increased safety, we usually go with that instead. Because those things are pretty cool, with more defined benefits.

And privacy is really interesting. We’re social animals; we want to connect. We want to know other people and be known ourselves. But there’s a great vulnerability in doing that. Even on a purely personal level, forgetting about government spies and corporate data mining, allowing someone to truly know you is granting them power over you. It’s a very delicate thing.

GS: You couch many of your concerns in dark humour and outlandish plots.  What does this heightened sense of reality give you as a writer that a straight up ‘literary’ version would not?

MB: I don’t know where humor works in the brain, but it must be deep down. It’s primal. Babies smile and laugh almost before they do anything else. I love the way humor can zip by all your higher thought processes and pull an emotion right out of you.

Beyond that, I love how versatile humor can be. How it can provide a contrasting light to the darkness. In high school I discovered Robert Lowell, these poems that are smart and funny and just as you’re smiling, they sock you with something horrible. That’s not very nice. But it’s powerful.

GS: Are you working on anything else at the moment? What’s next for Max Barry?

MB: I’m not telling, sorry. I used to tell. I even used to blog about it.  But then the book I was working on turned out to be really bad and was never published and everyone was like, “Hey, what happened to that book you were working on?” Now I don’t tell.

GS:  Hah!  Fair enough.  Where can people find out more information about you, and are you reachable on any social networking sites?

MB: I’m at www.maxbarry.com. I post stuff there. And I’m on Twitter and Facebook sometimes.

GS: Thanks for spending time with us Max, and best of luck with the launch!

GS Interviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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