Killing to be Clever: Alone with Max Barry

Authors are like rock stars these days with their personalities and personal beliefs getting in the way of their scribblings. Throw out a name like Dave Eggers, for example, and you’ll find everyone’s got an opinion, whether they’ve read the man’s pretentious barrel-of-monkeys bullshit books or not. Which I haven’t. See, it’s almost impossible for readers to pick up a book without preconceived notions of the message held within.

Australian author Max Barry and his latest novel, Jennifer Government, are no exception. Former Hewlett-Packard employee Barry has been touted as this generation’s George Orwell (Book Magazine and the Washington Post aren’t the only publications to make the connection), with his new book presenting a future of company-sponsored surnames, the abolition of taxes, every service requiring credit card payment (including hospitals and the police), and a world divided into the countries America owns (all of them) and those it doesn’t (except France). His reputation as a man with his finger very much on the pulse of contemporary society follows him wherever he goes. But listen to the man speak and you’ll soon discover he’s not the paranoid prophet he’s so often made out to be. Barry, himself, is the first to admit his make believe world is just that.

And this is exactly the reason it permeates as well as it does. The book sees lowly ad exec Hack Nike torn from his boring day job and thrown smack into the middle of the changing face of marketing when commissioned by his company to kill 10 teenagers wearing Nike’s new line of sneakers, thus boosting the shoes’ street cred and, eventually, sales. Not exactly thrilled with his new venture, Hack embarks not on a journey of random slaughter, but a rather deadly transcontinental chase as he searches for a way out of his contract. On his trail is the mysterious Federal Agent, Jennifer Government, who has her own reasons for wanting to put a stop to brutal campaign.

Everything Barry has created in his pretend future society is scary because none of it is too difficult to envision. Corporations are becoming more and more powerful, with advertising and marketing dictating how we should live our lives to our best advantage; the world does seem to slowly be sinking further and further into the jaws of the United States as that country’s culture and ideology continues to influence others far from its shores; and the pervading fear that freedom is an illusion, that some day our credit cards and place of business will be our only identifiers, is becoming less and less a paranoid fantasy. Barry’s book exploits these already existing fears to build a story that’s much more a comment on contemporary society than it is a prediction of the future. And, with solid pacing and engaging characters, it’s creepily hilarious and ten times the fun you’ll have with Orwell (or Eggers, for that matter).

PopMatters spoke with Max Barry on the eve of Jennifer Government‘s release in the United Kingdom last month, about what it’s like living in a world besieged by constantly expanding companies and ever-more slick advertisers.

PopMatters: What was your objective with Jennifer Government?

Max Barry: I wasn’t really trying to do anything especially serious. It was more of a piss-take and the thought that by extrapolating a few trends with American cultural and corporate takeover I would have a good setting for a good story. I know that when I was researching the book, I was finding websites for people who were absolutely convinced that the best way to run the world would be to abolish the government. There are private corporations, they say, who will build roads for us and run national parks and all that kind of stuff. These sites are equal parts hilarious and scary as hell. But I think the majority of people don’t really believe in this vision of a totally unregulated capitalist system. It’s satire, so it’s taking a few things that are interesting about the world today, some trends, and pushing them until they become ridiculous.

PM: Was there any specific reasoning behind leaving out any description of the space between our world now and the world of Jennifer Government? To leave out the “how we got this way” time in between?

MB: Yes. I wanted to write this story and I wanted it to have a great setting, but I thought it would have to be set far in the future and I really didn’t want to write a science-fiction book with spaceships and laser guns or anything like that. And then I thought, “Well, what if I set it pretty much in the present day but just changed a few rules of the world?” So, all the technology is the same, everything’s the same, except the world is just run by slightly different rules. I know the publisher pushes it as a futuristic book or a near-future book because that’s a way to get a handle on the story, but in truth it’s set in the world we live in, only stretched a bit.

PM: The book features digs at big-name companies and corporations like McDonalds and Nike. Did you need any kind of permission to use those names?

MB: No, no — there’s no way I was going to get permission, I can tell you that. It’s the same kind of thing that happened with my first novel, Syrup, which is set in the Coca-Cola company, that Coke were either going to sue me or throw a lot of money at me, [the publishers] weren’t sure which. As it turned out, neither happened, which is kind of disappointing because either would have been exciting. I remember a kind of unwritten rule for amateur writers was that you can’t use a Coke can as a murder weapon. There’s no real reason for that, it’s just thought that if you do Coke will sue you. And that’s not true; it’s just what writers believe. We’re all a bit scared of big corporations with large legal departments, but big corporations put themselves out there into the cultural landscape, they’re part of the world, so we are allowed to say things about them in a fictional context. It would have been different if this was a non-fiction book and I was alleging the Nike actually went around shooting kids to build street credibility, but I wasn’t. It was clearly a parody. The American publisher was never concerned that there was going to be a legal problem.

PM: Not even from Nike, considering a character in the book winds up impaled on the all-mighty Swoosh?

MB: No (laughs). I got an email from somebody who read the book that said whenever they saw an ad for Nike now they could only think about that guy hanging off the Swoosh.

PM: Do you think the book could be viewed as a large advertisement for these companies, in that bad publicity is not always bad publicity?

MB: I have never bought into that rule. I think there is such a thing as bad publicity, so if I was in the marketing department of one of these companies, I probably wouldn’t be thrilled about it. But, then I wouldn’t sue me either, because I would want to protect the company’s image.

PM: Were there any radical or clever marketing techniques proposed for the advertising of the book itself, considering the subject matter?

MB: Not really — publishers tend to be fairly conservative. They produce a lot of books every year and they know how to send out copies to magazines and journals and other places, but they really don’t know how to do much more than that. They’re wonderful for actually publishing the book but they don’t tend to get wild and crazy with the marketing.

PM: What about your game, Nation States [Barry’s website features a web game based on Jennifer Government wherein players create their own country and system of politics]? Did you actively use that as a mean to promote the book?

MB: That was something I did on my own, and I think it’s been hugely successful. If nothing else, it made people aware of the fact that I had a book out who otherwise wouldn’t have known and wouldn’t have cared. It was a great way to give hundreds of thousands of people a sample of the writing that I do — a bit of a taste of my sense of humor, I guess. Most of those people would never actually pick up the book, and now some of them will, and thousands already have, which is fantastic.

PM: Was it just natural for you with a background in marketing to want to get in and market the book yourself or was it somewhat accidental?

MB: It was a little bit of both. With my first novel, I kind of assumed it would get published, get good reviews and become a bestseller and I would be on my way to fortune and fame, but it never happened. It got good reviews but it didn’t sell, because nobody heard about it. I did think, the second time around, that I would make an effort to get some awareness out there of the fact that this book existed. I don’t really believe that you can market books and convince people to buy them when they don’t really want them. What you can do is make people aware of them and those who think a certain book sounds interesting can check it out.

PM: What do you think of the Internet as a marketing tool?

MB: It depends what you’re trying to sell. For my book, which is a little bit science-fiction-y, it appeals to people who enjoy playing Internet games. There was definitely a tie-in based on the fact that the book and the game — the Internet, in general — are all about text.

PM: Do you think that people are aware that the majority of what they see these days — be it in on the street or online — is advertising?

MB: We get pretty good at screening them out. The average person sees something like 250 advertisements a day, and I think if you try to remember them all, you would get maybe one or two. This is a major problem in marketing — this idea of clutter. The fact that there are so many ads out there, your ad needs to be even splashier and there needs to be more of them to get people’s attention. It’s like this arms race for marketers — they’ve got to do more and more marketing because everyone is so used to the level of marketing they’re getting already.

PM: Do you think consumers are becoming more demanding?

MB: Partly. Outside the U.S., in places like Australia and the U.K., we’re very aware that there is so much American culture coming in, and we’re becoming more accepting of the idea that we can have Michael Jordan on a television commercial in Australia selling shoes even though basketball is not really played seriously in Australia. If you stop and think about that, it’s kind of bizarre — that you can try to sell shoes using a sportsman from a different country that no one may know and yet they do it. I think consumers are getting a higher and higher tolerance for marketing and that encourages marketers to get more and more brazen.

PM: Do you think that with the flood of American culture in Australia that we are losing our own?

MB: Oh yeah — I didn’t have to think very hard to come up with that one. There are people complaining all the time that Australia has been absorbed into the U.S. and that we’re already part of that country. It’s not true, of course, but you kind of think that Australia has become very Americanized until you actually go to America and realize there’s still a very unique Australian character. It’s a concern among some Australians, and people in other smaller countries, that find that 90% of their movies and their music comes from America — that these very important cultural aspects are American.

PM: Do you perceive any major differences between marketing in Australia and marketing the United States?

MB: There aren’t as many as there used to be. I remember when I studied marketing at university, which was less than ten years ago, there was a big talk about international marketing and the importance of localized campaigns. If you had an American company that wanted to do a global campaign, they would design it in the States, but when it went out to all the different countries, the local people would adapt it for the Australian audience, or the Japanese audience, or whatever. That’s becoming less and less of a factor. What you’re seeing now is that campaign being designed in the States and just thrown out everywhere with no stopping to actually localize it. Especially with something like Coca-Cola, where you have this very brand driven product — they’re selling not just the image of the drink, but the image of American-ness. Tommy Hilfiger is another one where they are selling American patriotism, which goes out around the world with no attempt whatsoever to put British accents on it in England or anything like that.

PM: There’s that thought, then, that anything remotely cool over there is instantly cool everywhere else.

MB: Yeah. In Australia, it’s much cooler to wear a baseball cap for an American team — even if you don’t really know what sport they play — than it is to wear a Richmond Tigers footy cap.

PM: Which is so weird because if you were wearing the Richmond Tigers hat in the States —

MB: Oh yeah, it’s cool again.

PM: I remember when living in the States, searching for anything remotely Australian just to get my identity back. It didn’t feel at all like the cultures had significantly blended.

MB: I spent a little bit of time in New York, and I had to buy a beanie. I got one of these ubiquitous New York Yankees beanies with the insignia on it. I got back home and realized I could never wear it again because in Australia it’s just the most pretentious kind of thing to wear.

PM: Do you think there are any really good cross-cultural ad campaigns?

MB: I don’t really like to put out good advertising campaigns because I feel it just encourages them. There’s one though that really took my attention — the Puma pseudo-campaign. There were a couple of advertisements and posters designed that found their way onto the Internet that looked a lot like a girl in her late-teens giving a guy a blow job wearing Puma sneakers. It was very stylish — basically the exact image that shoe manufacturers have been trying to push onto billboards in Australia for a long time. I don’t know what it is with shoe manufacturers, but it’s getting hard to distinguish them from the people pushing porn magazines or something — it’s the same kind of vibe they’re aiming for. Puma denied having anything to do with the advertisements and there was a big controversy on the ‘Net saying that the people who had posted the pictures could take them down — all this stuff that fanned the flames of the thing. Puma, to this day, deny they had any involvement in the campaign whatsoever. Personally, I don’t believe a word of it. That was probably the best marketing campaign we’ve seen all year. I first saw it in [Australian daily newspaper] The Age, so they were printing this advertisement [in the context of a news story], but if it had been legitimate they never would have run it. They never would have done it for money. It got all over the world, reprinted in magazines that normally wouldn’t touch it, and the image that they were portraying was the perfect image they would have wanted to get across.

PM: Do you have to be sneaky with advertising these days in light of the clutter?

MB: It’s cheaper to do it that way. The traditional forms of marketing where you make an expensive TV advertisement and you pay a radio or television station to put it on just costs so much money and is of dubious value. So, any time you do something different, it tends to be much cheaper and more effective. All the marketers are trying to sneak in and get you where you don’t expect them to be coming from.

PM: The book is not exactly anti-corporations is it?

MB: It’s not anti-capitalist, but I peg it as kind if anti-corporate in the sense that I think that if you took away all the laws that are currently regulating what companies can and can’t do, they would kill us all for a dollar. I think there’s a fine line between a corporation and an organized crime mob — they are after exactly the same thing, the only difference being that one is bound to follow laws and one isn’t. It’s this concept that a company is a purely economic entity. It exists for the sole purpose of making a profit — that’s no surprise to anybody, we all know this. Still, we kind of let ourselves get fooled by the idea that companies talk about being corporate citizens, and caring for the community. A company cannot just give a million dollars to a charity for the hell of it because it’s a misuse of the shareholder’s funds; it’s a breach of the fiduciary duty. What they can do is do something generous as long as they are going to make a profit from it, like a publicity campaign. That’s why you get companies pretending to be good corporate citizens, but everything they do is to increase their profits. That’s fine so long as we keep corporations on a short leash, as it were, and we keep them working for us and not against us. I find it more scary when you think about what happens when there is no leash anymore and corporations really are running the show. In the book, this is happening to an extreme extent, in the United States it is happening to a lesser extent where you have corporations with a lot of influence in the political process. I think, in terms of present day, the biggest threat from corporations comes from this idea that you’re getting politicians elected — this is happening primarily in the U.S. where you’re getting politicians elected who owe more allegiance to the companies that funded their campaigns than the people who voted for them. Corporations are fine as economic entities, but you don’t want that sort of corporation deciding the laws of society. They’re purely selfish beasts and you don’t want them deciding how society should work for the rest of us.

PM: Even coming from such a standpoint, do you still find yourself getting caught up in the hype of certain ad campaigns?

MB: Oh yeah — it’s hard not to be cynical about a lot of the marketing out there, but a world without any sort of marketing at all would be so different from today that you wouldn’t even recognize it. For the most part, I think marketing is harmless and pathetic rather than a threat to the world. I was involved in it — it’s superficial, it’s duplicitous, but I don’t see it as evil.

PM: Did you get out of it because of those things?

MB: Well, I always wanted to write books, so whatever I would have been doing I would have wanted to get out of it. I worked for Hewlett-Packard in Melbourne for two and half years in sales and marketing, and it was a great time and I worked with terrific people. It taught me a lot about companies and especially being HP and being an American corporation with a very strong sense of corporate culture, it exposed me to a lot of what that was all about which has given me fodder for my novels ever since. Note: The film rights to Jennifer Government are currently in the hands of George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s company, Section Eight Films.