Max Barry, author of Company, Jennifer Government and Syrup, agreed to satisfy my curiosity about his online novel Machine Man, and other writing projects…
It’s not like it’s never been done before, but you may be one of the first Australian authors depositing installments of a novel into cyberspace day-by-day with Machine Man. What made you decide to tell this particular story this way?
I really liked the idea of each installment being short. I love the net, but never thought it was a great way to deliver novels, because novels demand long periods of undivided attention, whereas I can’t read more than eight sentences of anything online before feeling the urge to check my email. And that’s including when I’m reading my email.
So a novel delivered one chapter at a time via the web never seemed right to me – particularly a novel written as a regular print book. The art and medium just didn’t fit. But I heard about these tiny, bestselling Japanese novels delivered via text message, and found that intriguing. At that time I had the basic idea for Machine Man and a few hundred dull, ponderous words that sucked all life out of it: when I thought of that idea in a compressed, electronic format, it came alive again. The format changed the nature of the story.
What I’m doing now is a ‘page’ each day that’s a self-contained scene, maybe a couple hundred words long. Each five-day week is a chapter, and ideally ends with a small cliff-hanger. That structure means I don’t get to muck around; there’s pressure on each tiny page to justify its existence.
Since this is all very experimental, I thought I’d make it real-time as well: I’d post pages as I wrote them, one a day. And because that wasn’t terrifying enough, I added the ability for people to post comments. It’s like having a book club meeting in my study, yakking about all the things I’m doing wrong as I’m doing them.
If there was a jacket blurb for Machine Man, what would it say?
Man, I thought it was hard enough to write blurbs for my novels; now I realise that’s nothing compared to blurbing a book I’ve only just started. I’m not a planner, so I don’t know where this one is going. But it begins with a man who decides to replace bits of his body with artificial parts he builds himself.
You’ve got a great interactive following on your blog. Do your online readers come across your blog via your books, or vice-versa?
I think it’s books first. I started blogging because people were getting bored of waiting for new books; the site reminds them I haven’t died. But yes, the people who leave comments are amazing. I’m so grateful to have smart fans. Have you seen the comments on YouTube? Those people make you weep for the future of humanity.
In conjunction with the release of Jennifer Government you set up an online game called NationStates. Can you tell us a bit about both?
NationStates is what I’m best known for to high school and poli-sci students around the world. It’s this weird little web game where you run your own nation and decide what all the laws will be. I was researching political economic systems for Jennifer Government, my second novel and discovered it was funnier than you’d expect, so coded up the game. It became a small phenomenon and is still powering along five years later.
Have you currently got any other book, web or facial hair projects in the works? (Readers: the facial hair thing is a Max Barry blog-reader in-joke).
Oh, I’m sorry. I thought a ground-breaking experiment in online fiction would be enough for you. No, no, don’t apologise. It’s too late for that.
Actually yes: I have two books I’ve been working on, which is a fast way to finish neither. It was partly because they were taking so long that I felt I should serve up something in the meantime – again, just in case people thought I’d died. Of course, starting a third book may not be the best way to speedily conclude the first two. I may not have thought that through properly.
You’ve had short fiction published also, including the sweet, funny and at times frightening ‘Attack of the Tiny Miracles’, in the latest Sleepers Almanac. (Readers – in this story a man visits the doctor several times with his pregnant wife and keeps getting told there are more babies growing in her belly! The man has to deal with the knowledge, and handle his blooming wife delicately in the process.) How do you find writing short fiction, compared to longer narratives?
Short fiction isn’t as satisfying for me as a novel, but occasionally an idea strikes and it has to be a short or nothing. So I usually write the short. I don’t feel like I’m the world’s greatest short story writer, though. There are plenty of people who are scary-talented at that. So I only go there if I’m forced to.
Who or what do you like to read, in print and online?
Funny you should ask! I just put together a ‘Bookshelf’ page for some of my favorite novels: http://www.maxbarry.com/max/bookshelf.html
Online, I am currently reading what people I barely know believe is worthwhile posting to Twitter, and trying to figure out why I can’t stop.