Max Barry on mind-control, privacy and 'Lexicon'

Max Barry on mind-control, privacy and 'Lexicon'
Author Max Barry (Jennifer Barry)

Australian science fiction author Max Barry is creative and a little bit twisted. In his fifth novel, "Lexicon," trained "poets" wield words to compromise and manipulate others.

Like novelists, only more insidious.


Barry will be in Southern California on Thursday, signing and reading from "Lexicon" at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Redondo Beach on Thursday at 7 p.m.

The plot of "Lexicon" revolves around Wil Parke, who is assaulted by a pair of men who tell him they are trying to save him from the "poets" while asking him for information about a catastrophe he doesn't recall, and Emily, an orphan from San Francisco with poetic potential.

In a phone interview with Jacket Copy, Barry answered questions about the power of words, privacy and the newly released film based on his first novel, "Syrup."

In the novel you ask, "What is a word? What power do words have?" What led you to tackle these questions?

Obviously as a writer I am fascinated by exactly what is happening when I am getting words to people.... Two people will read the same book -- the same sentences -- and come up with very different opinions. One person is saying what you've written is fantastic, and someone else is saying it's terrible even though it's the same sentence.

What became more obvious to me as I wrote more books … is that the story is very different for different people because it happens inside the brain. The story is what happens inside the brain when you feed the words into it.

I'm a hobbyist programmer, and it seems fairly similar to … when I write a program and I use particular key words to provoke a particular reaction from the computer.

That combined with what I've learned from marketing, how we're always trying to persuade people and use coded language to provoke particular purchase decisions, all that came together.... There's a lot of science behind persuasion that wasn't there 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago and people are getting quite skilled at it. We're learning more about how we can directly influence the brain. So it seemed like a natural progression of those trends to end up in a place where there are words that can code directly into parts of your brain.

In the book you show that in order to defend against persuasion, you need to hide parts about yourself. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that contrasts with the cultural impulse now to share everything on the Internet?

I find it an interesting issue, privacy, because we say we care about it, but we act like we don't. We get very upset when it is discovered that people have been snooping on what we've been doing, but very few of us take any steps to actually avoid giving out information about ourselves.

We'll take the store card, and we'll let the store track us and track our purchases in exchange for loyalty points. We'll store apps on our phone that will be able to access our email. We all give away a lot of information about ourselves on Facebook and through our profile pages. Yet we're very worried about our privacy.

I think … that for the most part we're not really concerned about hiding any particular piece of information about ourselves. What we are concerned about is when someone gets to know so much of these little pieces of information that they can actually build an overall picture of who we are as a person....

You don't really feel it as a threat until it gets to that point where you know you are completely exposed as a person, and that's not really a threat for most of us. Because the people that are  tracking our data are not interested in us exactly as individuals. They're just … trying to segment us into groups.

I thought maybe there is a way to … talk about privacy in a way that isn't just logical and [how] in theory we can end up in an oppressive police state but, rather, getting to the real roots about what concerns us about other people knowing us.


So is the blank state the ideal state? Do we not want to be persuaded at all?

The people [in the book] who are the poets ... they wouldn't want to be open to persuasion themselves. They become privacy nuts. They shut themselves off from everyone, and they'll never risk giving their true selves away. Of course there's a cost to that. It's terribly isolating if you are so concerned about your own privacy that you don't let anyone else in.

We've talked about privacy as a social issue where you don't want some anonymous stranger knowing who you are, but it's a very personal thing as well. It's a decision we all make of whether to expose ourselves to another person.... You're taking a risk when you do that, and the risk is that you're giving them not just the power to approve of who you are or reject you but you're giving them a kind of power over you as well.

That situation is blown up a bit in this book. Made a bit more traumatic for the storyline, but it's the same concept. It's guys who are wrestling with the question of whether they expose themselves enough to become decent human beings and actually interact with other people or if they protect themselves to the degree that they sort of cut themselves off from everyone else.

How did you pick which poets' names were used in the book?

In a very early draft of this, they were just sort of fake names that didn't have to be poets; they were even baseball players at one stage, I think. Then I switched over to poets, and it just seemed to make sense that they would be these guys that could wield language and were using words to evoke particular emotions or reactions from people, so poets obviously fit.

How I chose the exact poets … they're mostly some of my favorite poets, and I've just sort of wedged them in [the novel]. They're obviously supposed to be very well known in that one of the ideas for the people taking these names is not just to hide who they are but to bury themselves in this mountain of public data about this other famous person. It's so difficult to do a Google search, for example, on someone who shares the name of a famous person because all you get are the hits on the other person.... I couldn't not use Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and some of these people that I really love.

You're also in the U.S. promoting your movie?

Yeah, that's right. They just released "Syrup," which is based on my first-ever novel. So I got to watch them turn this book I wrote when I was 23 years old -- 17 years ago now -- into a film.

Did you work on the film?

I worked on the script through many different versions with many different sets of producers, and I wrote a huge number of drafts. So many that I thought I'd never write another screenplay in my life. Then it ended up with the people who actually made it, and one of my scripts was used by the director who then rewrote it, so we are credited as co-writers on the film. I also got to come over and do this blink-and-you-miss-it cameo as a waiter in the movie.


Since you worked on it, is it pretty faithful to the original novel?

I changed a lot. I'm a serial rewriter, so the chance to actually write a screenplay version of my book to me is like a chance to tell the story in a different way again and fix all the things that I wanted to fix in the book. The first bit is kind of similar, but it veers more and more wildly away from the book. What I wanted to do was be faithful to the characters and be faithful to the ideas of the book but not necessarily the book.

Are there any plans for "Lexicon" to be adapted into a film?

"Lexicon" is with Matthew Vaughn, who's a really terrific director. He optioned the rights very early. It was great because he connected very directly with me, and we spoke on the phone a bunch of times....

I was at the end of maybe the third major rewrite of the book. Having chopped bits out and moved bits around … as soon as I got to the end of that I thought, "Oh, now I don't have to look at this book for another few months at least." Suddenly Matthew is on the phone wanting to talk about what we move here for the movie and what we do there. I could hardly remember what was still in the book and what I removed in a previous draft by this stage.

He bought the rights with his own money. He didn't want to go through a studio. I'm really hopeful that we can get a good film out of that.