Home: Perth, Australia
Novels completed: 8
Novels published: 3
Routine: "Wake up. Roll out of bed. Start writing."
Career goal: "To shoot an arrow into big corporate government."
Secret weapon: "Feedback. I crave it. It saves you the embarrassment later."
Forgivable foray into corporate theft: His "borrowed" laptop. "HP forgot to ask for it back."
Max Barry wasn't always a hot novelist with a couple of movies in the works. He used to be a cuddler. He can explain. "Hewlett-Packard had these stud sales reps earning six-figure salaries," Barry says, recalling his first big job, in corporate sales at HP. "The studs were in charge of seducing the customers and landing multimillion-dollar deals. But the second they finished the sale, they wanted to jump out of bed and race out to the next customer. I had to slide in and cuddle."
As far as professions go, cuddling isn't very lucrative. The now 32-year-old Australian earned just $25,000 a year at HP and drove a $200 Toyota. But like the heroes of his three merciless corporate satires, Syrup, Jennifer Government, and this month's Company, Barry imagined a life beyond the bureaucracy, office politics, and management-think of the mainstream business world.
When not snuggling clients, he began writing, "borrowing" a company laptop and drawing on his experiences in corporate life. He wrote his first novel, Syrup, one 40-minute lunch break at a time. "To get out and do that for 40 minutes a day while I was working was such a relief," he says. For feedback, Barry turned to the Internet Writing Workshop, an online group where writers of all skill levels critique one another's work. "I didn't really feel like I was accomplishing that much at work," he says. "I really wanted to create something, to build something that would be there forever. That sales quota is gone at the end of the year." He pauses, his own BS detector ringing in his ears. "And, yes, I also wanted to do something that would make me famous."
He left HP to pursue writing full time in 1998. Australian publishers weren't interested, but Syrup's story resonated with U.S. publisher Penguin Putnam. Though the book sold poorly, it developed a cult following, particularly in young Hollywood, which saw the cinematic potential of three twentysomethings taking on a Coca-Cola-like behemoth to launch a new soda. His next novel, Jennifer Government, was a dark comedy/science-fiction tale about a future in which corporations, not countries, rule the world. The book was a hit, and he sold the movie rights to Section Eight, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's production company.
Both Jennifer Government and Syrup are currently in the script stage, and Barry is touring to promote his third novel, Company, about a young protagonist who stumbles onto a business experiment in which the employees think their company produces one thing, but it secretly produces another. (Surely HP couldn't have been that bad.) So is Barry one of these anticorporate pranksters aiming pies at the face of capitalist society? Not at all, he claims. After all, where would he get his inspiration? "As much stupidity as there is in companies, there's not as much as you'd expect when you have 25,000 employees. Companies are actually pretty good at keeping things normal." He pauses at this, then laughs out loud.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.