My first question is
about the opening scene. It's an absolute classic -- a master class in how you
hook a reader. How did it come to you? Was that the first scene you wrote?
I had to check through a lot of notes to answer this question, Lev. A lot of
It turns out this is the first scene I wrote that stayed in the book. At the
time, I was writing a lot of unconnected scenes, not looking for anything in
particular, just seeking that feeling a writer gets when he stumbles onto
I had 20,000 or so words of scenes like that before I reached this one. Originally,
it was very short, ending when the strange men ask poor Wil a strange question.
But I thought it was interesting. Over the next few months, all the stuff
around it dropped away, but it stayed in. Eventually I figured out why it
should be longer -- how it would progress from a vignette to something that
established a real world.
The best thing about a novel opening is you can do anything. You're not bound
to established plots or characters or story scope. Really, it's your first and
last opportunity to set the book's orbit -- after those first few scenes, you can
only tinker. So I did try to restrain myself from launching before I had
something that would fly.
Tell me about the inspiration for the Poets.
My first thought was, Oh my God; he's taken the neurolinguistic-hacking device
from Snow Crash and spun this whole amazing new novel out of it! But is that a
valid connection? Do you, in fact, owe a debt to Neal Stephenson (and who among
us doesn't, one way or another)?
I owe such a debt to Neal Stephenson; I should send him royalty checks. I live
in fear that one day Neal Stephenson is going to come to my house and punch me
in the face. I don't mean to steal his themes. It just keeps happening. I
honestly got all the way to the end of Lexicon before I thought, "Wait a
second, linguistic-based memetic brain hacking....FFFFFFF."
I've always written about persuasion, though. That's been a big interest since
studying marketing at business school. It's such a mundane yet powerful thing,
to be able to speak in a way that people find compelling. We all do that. Every
day we try to persuade others to do what we want, and they do the same to us.
The body of knowledge around persuasion is quite sophisticated, with many
techniques working at the not-quite-conscious level, where you provide various
cues that a subject finds reassuring without quite noticing them. And this
knowledge seems to be rapidly advancing as we learn more about how the brain
makes decisions. So it's always seemed fairly obvious to me that a future is coming in which persuasive techniques are
considerably more powerful than today.
It's an interesting
narrative scheme you've got going, with the two points of view, alternating
with each other. I tried something similar in The Magician King sort of by
accident -- I'd planned on just using one POV, but then the other character insisted
on telling her story too, and she was so obviously right that I wound up
braiding them together. How did you decide on that approach?
Most of my favorite stories are told from a single point of view -- the intimacy
you feel when it's just you and the main character is really special, I think,
something that doesn't exist in quite the same way outside of a novel. When I'm
writing, though, I find it hugely tempting to leap from one character's head to
another, over and over. Because that's just fun.
So I guess I arrived at a two-person narrative from the opposite direction to
you: I started with many different points of view and culled them, knowing I
find multi-POV stories more enjoyable to write than read. I'm really happy I
did that, because when I gave them the space, a few of the characters grew into
it in a way I haven't experienced before.
It's sort of like Bleak House. Except completely different.
Tell me about a
moment or a passage in the book that you're particularly proud of -- that seems
quintessentially Barry-esque to you.
I'm actually proudest of the moments that aren't very Barry-esque (if that's a
thing). When Emily goes to Broken Hill and establishes a life there, that felt
very real to me -- it's nothing enormous, but the kind of thing I've struggled to
get right in the past.
I love playing with big ideas and concepts, but those don't make a book breathe;
characters do. So although I put a lot of work into the story's conceptual
framework, I'm most proud of the people I found to live in it.
That is a very very
strong section. One of my favorites. Reminded me of that Star Trek episode
where Picard lives a whole life on another planet and then wakes up and
realizes it was all a dream from an alien probe. In a good way.
Now I want to talk
about action sequences, because it's easy to write bad ones -- it's easy to screw
up the pacing, or get the details muddled, or run into clichés, which God knows
there are a lot of them. But you never do. What's the secret? (I'm asking so I
can steal it.)
Again, I crib from Neal Stephenson. There's an amazing
passage in Cryptonomiconwhere a bunch of US Marines struggle down a
road in WWII and are spotted by an enemy fighter. The Marines attempt to find defensive
positions while the fighter prepares to strafe them and one -- I hope I'm
remembering this right -- manages to set up a honking great machine gun. Then the
next word is "Afterwards." The whole action sequence is skipped. I
remember reading that and feeling breathless. In another book, there would have
been pages of description: bullets smacking into the earth, the plane disintegrating...
but none of that is important. Action sequences are compelling not because
they're full of gunfire but because they're full of uncertainty. Anything can
happen. Once the uncertainty is resolved -- the Marine setting up the machine gun
in Cryptonomicon -- everything else is details.
Also, I'm a fan of absurdity, when the bizarre and the mundane run into each
other. There's nothing more wonderful to me than someone stopping to tie a shoelace
as the world burns down. That kind of thing tickles me. And I think that helps
keep the story feeling real and personal.
I'll happily watch things explode on a movie screen and enjoy the visual feast.
But that doesn't work in a novel at all. In a novel, those scenes just make me
want to wait for the movie version. The novel's equivalent of visual explosions
are ideas, I think: suggestions that this might happen, or that; something that
would fundamentally change the positions of the characters and how they relate
to one another.
Stephenson is the
master. I always remember his line about that machine gun -- "It had its
own infrastructure." And then the gunner bites it halfway through the
sequence. (He pulls that same trick twice: there's also the famous
"they'll listen to reason" sequence in Snow Crash. But you can't pull
that trick too many times.)
Speaking of ideas: Is
there a serious meditation on power and persuasion at the heart of Lexicon? In a
funny way it contains its own metafictional self-critique, as a way of thinking
about how words and rhetoric can be used -- by, say, novelists -- to push beliefs on
other people, and influence their behavior. Or am I overthinking this?
I don't want a reader to stop and think, "Heyyyy, this book is manipulating
my brain." Because that breaks the spell. But you're right, of course; one
reason I'm interested in the power of language is that my job as an author is
to throw words into people's brains that provoke particular reactions. Clearly
there's a parallel there.
It's intriguing how differently people can react to the same book, or even the
same sentence. Probably all authors go through this: you put some words out
there, and some people say they're wonderful and some say they're terrible. But
they're the same words. And you discover how interactive novels are: how much
of the story takes place not on the page but in the reader's brain. It's not all
about you, the writer. It's about the thing you and the reader make together.
The reason people have different opinions about a book is that it really is
different for everyone.
The more I read and write, the more I feel like that's the writer's ideal: to
shift the story from the page to the brain. On the page, you've got 26 letters
and a bunch of punctuation. But in the brain, you can do anything. The brain is
the world's greatest sound stage.
For this reason, I have an aversion to beautiful sentences -- by which I mean
sentences so delightful that you can't help but think, "Wow that is well-written."
I admire them. But I don't think they help. Because those sentences never get
off the page.
I may be biased,
because I'm married to an Australian, but it seems like there's a
disproportionately large number of good Australian SF&F writers around. I'm
thinking of Margo Lanagan, Greg Egan, Daniel O'Malley (I admired The Rook), you...Is
there something about the Australian state-of-being that lends itself to this
kind of fiction? Or not? Is your Australian-ness part of your identity as a
I'm not going to say Australians are the best at everything. I'll just say that
per capita, we do pretty well. At everything.
I'm not sure whether sci-fi is an Australian strength or just more evidence of
all-round competence. There are a lot of good Australian writers. Maybe SF&F is
simply the most accessible genre to foreign readers, since it tends to create
new worlds rather than assume your familiarity with existing ones. I actually
think we're really strong in Young Adult fiction, but perhaps that's less
translatable, more intimately tied to its setting.
There is an Australian style of writing, for sure. The stories Australians
watch and read usually come from the US
and the UK,
but we're 10,000 miles away from both, which allows us to pick and choose our
influences. For example, I admire the structure and plotting of American
stories, and the humor and quirkiness of British stories. So my fiction tends to borrow from both.
Personally I am
extremely suggestible and also very unpersuasive, so I would have
no chance to get into the Poets' Academy whatsoever. How do you think you'd
fare on the entrance exam?
Yeah, authors are gullible. We'll believe anything, even our own first drafts.
I'm so easily charmed, it's ridiculous. It's only later, after I've had time to
think, I realize, Waaaait, that was all lies. I need that thinking time.
Back when I had a real job, I was a junior rep in a high-end sales team, and
the top guys were something else. They created their own reality, like a
bubble, and it would envelop you when you got close. Inside the bubble, it made
perfect sense for you to fudge their numbers, or keep secret what you saw them
do after-hours with the girl from Accounts, or whatever. You wanted to help
them. It was like a spell.
Maybe if I'd stayed, I'd have picked up some of that. But biology is a big
factor. We draw heavily on physical cues when we're evaluating someone. One of
the cues is hair. Hair is super important. I say this as a bald dude. I've
become suspicious of CEO appointments with excellent grooming just because I
know that has to be part of the reason they got the job. Someone who doesn't look the part, though, must be talented to have
overcome that biological handicap.