Cubicle Comedy: Interview with Pete Flies

Nikki Tranter

'Success is an act. I think it's funny when people say, 'I could never be an actor,' and it's what we do all the time, in work, relationships, life in general.' Inspired as much by Voltaire's Candide as Mike Judge's Office Space, Pete Flies talks about Memoirs of a Virus Programmer.

PopMatters Books Editor

"Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements." icles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements."
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), Office Space

"This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel."
Horace Walpole

"First of all, Katya ... this is not a suicide note."
Johnny Pepper, Memoirs of a Virus Programmer

Pete Flies recognizes the comic connection between his Memoirs of a Virus Programmer and Mike Judge's seminal Office Space (1999). Flies' book, though, takes career stagnation within the computer-programming world into an arena near sidestepped by Judge's film. Funny as both are, it's almost as if Flies has taken the bulk of his inspiration from the more cringe-inducing Office Space moments: Lumbergh's (Gary Cole) refusal to make eye contact as he instructs Milton (Stephen Root) to move his desk to the basement, the "O" face, or Smykowski's (Richard Riehle) fading smile as he realizes the "Jump to Conclusions Mat" isn't about to set the world on fire. Memoirs mirrors Judge's film in that they both find comedy in the world of software engineering -- namely its corporate structure which serves to debilitate and dehumanize workers to focus on company advancement. But where Judge goes for comedy, Flies goes for the throat.

The book centers on Johnny Pepper, a software engineer who's had enough of the cubicle lifestyle, the Gareth Keenan co-workers, the dead-end existence that overwhelms his reality. Pepper drives the narrative. His story is a memoir disguised as a letter to a lost girlfriend -- Katya. As Pepper attempts to explain why he set the viral trap that will take down his place of employment, he reveals meeting the elusive and cute Katya, their falling in love, and how he ruined it all. Throughout, Pepper unabashedly reveals his flaws and misguided behaviors in his attempt to gain understanding of his losing Katya, as much as to come to terms with his own vulnerabilities and viral programming. What he finds forces the reader to ponder just how dissimilar men and machines really are considering both run on set commands directed to wires and tubes in a box.

Memoirs of a Virus Programmer
by Pete Flies
Stone Garden Publishers
December 2005, 236 pages, $8.99

Amid the devastation of corporate obnoxiousness, Flies' takes time out to be both hideously funny and completely sweet. At one point, Pepper describes a co-workers wallet-sized family photo as "a collage of Danny the peanut head, an albino female ape, and a tiny goblin child." At another, Pepper reveals how he accidentally caught Katya's attention:

Before I said anything to her, I swerved clumsily into a tall planter and knocked dirt all over the floor, then I followed up the performance by spilling beer on the spilled dirt, then breached the second commandment with swearing, which [Katya] found quite humorous. Hearing her laugh inspired me to pathetically choke the plant as if it had accosted me in the first place.

Pepper's reflections shock the narrative with as much caustic examination as sympathetic reflection. He's a brilliant character to spend time with, which makes a few of his chosen roads here all the more (possibly) distressing.

Pete Flies is awaiting release of his follow-up book, the family drama Immaculate. This month he entered into a "shopping agreement" with Bonsai Entertainment, which could see Memoirs on movie screens in the future. He divides his time between the United States and Zurich. PopMatters spoke to Flies about his book, his inspirations, and Chevy's new model starships.

You worked as a software engineer -- how apt are stories like Johnny Pepper's and Peter Gibbons' from Office Space? Does boredom compel the creative, or the romantic, to act so out of character?
I think for some virus programmers, it's just the ability to exploit a security gap. For some it's fun to screw the system, rage against the machine. Malicious code is like intellectual violence. Corporate property stays behind closed doors, it's untouchable, and there is a lot of anger out there about corporations. Corporations are so clean -- logos, advertising, press releases -- to dirty them up excites some people. It's an outlet. When Microsoft gets caught by a virus, everyone slams Microsoft as much as the bastard programmer.

What is life like behind the engineer's computer?
It depends. A lot of different roles exist for programmers, but for Johnny Pepper I wanted to make it utterly silent, quiet enough for his head to explode with neuroses. Danny [Johnny's co-worker] consistently talks down to Johnny, and he has no choice but to listen. Programming can be a really creative job, incredibly frustrating, or very rewarding. When something finally works, you want to sing and dance.

Was that your objective here to showcase those different sides of the job?
My objective was the same as Office Space's. The movie came out when I was about halfway through the book, and I loved every minute of it. I did a standing ovation in my living room. It was all about cubicle comedy, and the time was right for it. The fact that Office Space had a virus plot made me rethink some of the storyline for Virus Programmer, but not much. Mike Judge had the comedy pitch I was seeking for my book. I was shooting for a different tone, but the same setting.
The character and voice of Johnny Pepper started with Candide by Voltaire. The gross optimism of Candide makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. But with Virus Programmer, I wanted to start with that positive voice and have it degenerate into something like the narration in Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky, or Holden Caulfield, or The Stranger. I actually made graphs in Excel to show the negative slope, y = time, optimism = x.

That's new!
It's pretty geeky. The programming mindset sometimes bleeds over into the way I think about writing stories.

How did you set about creating the supporting characters?
Some of the other characters started with stock personalities of the business world. Danny is just a permanent employee salted with cynicism. He never burned out; he burned in. Katya is the reformed saleswoman, the rejectionist and proponent of a balanced life. Ted [Pepper's friend] is the guy that everyone admires who can balance life and work, excel at both, or at least seem to. He's the Dale Carnegie type. The manager -- he's the student of business, the long-term operator that makes things work. And Johnny -- he's a wreck looking for the niche, the reason behind things, and he can't figure out the business face, the act. Success is an act. I think it's funny when people say, "I could never be an actor," and it's what we do all the time, in work, relationships, life in general.

When or how did you decide the Candide model would work for your story?
Virus Programmer doesn't do a chapter-to-chapter, one-to-one allegory with Candide. I considered doing that, to mimic James Joyce with The Odyssey, but decided against it. However, what I like about Candide is the pace, the short chapters, the satire and wit, the observational comedy on the world at large. Candide changes settings every few pages, it travels the world quickly. Johnny Pepper travels the modern world quickly, going from suburb to slum, to Internet dreamscape. I also read a lot of Aesop's fables and tried to pepper the story with small allegories about nature. The fables intertwined with the chapters. It's hard to get nature in an office story.

How has life in Zurich influenced you as a writer, or in general?
I'm always looking for unique settings, and Europe has a lot of pockets. If anything, living overseas deepens the idea well. Zurich has a pace of life like America -- it's business driven. But they seem to take more time to enjoy things. A study at Johns Hopkins suggested that Americans have a "Hypomaniac Edge" because of their genetic makeup, like we all have a built-in restless gene. When I read that, I thought, "Wow, that explains a lot." I think I have that. At first, I went to a restaurant expecting to eat fast, get the check, and get back to work, but that's not the style here.

How did you end up with Stone Garden? What was it about the publisher that attracted you?
I liked the publisher because they liked the story. The idea of virus programming is a hard sell, and most people though I was glorifying the act. But if you read the story, you can see that it's less about the virus, more about the world at large. Virus programmers are considered as criminal filth. I think the title leads people to believe that I'm writing something like Hackers, The Net, or The Lawnmower Man. StoneGarden supported the story in every way.

Where, in your opinion, are we going technologically? What are we doing to ourselves with all our new robotics, iPods, cell phones, computers, video games. Is there reason for concern?
In 30 years, we'll be buying Honda and Chevy starships made with lightweight carbon nanotubes, light as pumice, stronger than pig-iron. Well, maybe. I'm a fan and opponent of nanotech, AI, robotics, genomics. It's all converging quickly. The RAND Institute put out a paper called "The Global Technology Revolution" that predicts tech in 2015. Information technology is joining so many things together -- biology, chemistry, business. I can't help but be excited and worried at the same time. When Bill Joy wrote the article "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us", I became a temporary Luddite. The article was powerful. He outlined all the "grey goo" apocalypse scenarios that many tech apologists poo-poo. But he raised some important issues. But with the speed of things right now, even if we can foresee a disaster, I sincerely don't think we will pause to avoid it. It's like Ahab's syndrome with Dr. Faustus's symptoms.

+ + +

About the publisher:

Stone Garden Publishers
Stone Garden Publishing began in 1997 as an e-book publishing house and has since grown to accept and publish paperback submissions. From its humble roots, the group has always sought to give unpublished authors a chance to break through by taking risks with unconventional, sometimes non-traditional stories and writing styles.

Memoirs of a Virus Programmer currently resides on the company's bestseller list alongside Robert Mann's The Apple Lady about a man searching for his past, and Jennifer Caress's Perverted Realities featuring a paranormal buff and boy who wants to be a cartoon.

Stone Garden can be found on the Web at

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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