On October 26th, 2010, established webcomic artists Ryan North and David Malki ! and writer Matthew Bennardo independently released a compilation of short stories called Machine of Death. The concept (outlined in its entirety here) hinged on the hypothetical creation of a machine that could, using only a sample of your blood, predict the manner in which one would die. Utilizing an innovative marketing strategy, Machine of Death rose to #1 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list, superseding Glenn Beck’s “Broke,” Keith Richards’ autobiography, and a new John Grisham novel. I sat down with David, Ryan, and the disembodied teleconferencing head of Matthew to talk about the book’s creation, the editors’ own writing choices, and how they’re going to die.
So, Ryan, you started this project with your comic—
Ryan: Well, I wouldn’t say—the comic wasn’t meant to start the project. It wasn’t like I put the comic up and said, “Now it begins.” [laughs]
Did you have any idea it would blossom like this?
Ryan: Not really… I liked the idea. And I put it up and people on the message board said, “Hey, we’ve been writing some stories about this, some little quick two-paragraph things,” and I was, like, “Yeah, we should totally do an anthology,” and I did nothing for… how many months?
David: Over a year.
Ryan: Over a year. I did nothing with it, and then Matt and David teamed up and said, “Look, Ryan, you, uh, are not good at doing things.” [laughs]
David: Ryan’s a busy dude, we [had] kind of an idea of how this could come together, so we asked Ryan if that would be okay, and Ryan, surprisingly, was totally cool with it.
Ryan: You thought I wouldn’t be?
David: We got 675 submissions in total.
Matthew: I think that equates to two million words, which is something like reading through all of War and Peace twice in a row. And not all of it was as good as War and Peace.
Ryan: We had to update the site halfway through because we kept getting a lot of stories with the same theme.
David: We were like, “We’re probably good on ironic twist endings.” And there were a couple that kept recurring, like suicide, HIV from the needle… In fact, the one that’s in the book, “HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle,” is the most concise expression of the same idea we saw 40 times.
Ryan: A lot of papercuts, too!
You ended up kind of taking advantage of Amazon’s metrics at first, but then it became something real, is that right?
David: Yeah, well I had read about someone named Scott Sigler, who figured out that their metric is sales over time. So if sales are high and time is low, the rank goes way up. And the interesting thing is that I went back and looked up that article more recently, and I realized he only made it to #7 on the Amazon list, so we actually demolished his record. Uh, accidentally… [laughs]
Ryan: After we reached around #20, or #25, and it seemed like this could actually happen, people were saying, “What’s happening?”
David: There was this one lady at Amazon—we got a lot of emails the first day, from people at Barnes & Noble, The New York Times, various publishing companies, saying either, “Who are you? What are you doing?” or, “I googled you; I know what you’re doing — this is amazing.” And one was, “This is Amazon, Let Us Help.” She ended up being a big help, because we turned around and made a Kindle version right away, and she was instrumental in that.
Which kind of stories interested you the most in reading them?
Ryan: I mean, seeing all this come — in a very selfish, egotistical way — from a comic that I wrote one morning, and people exploring and saying, “Well, what does this mean, how does this work, what does this imply,” I thought was really cool.
Matthew: I was really getting excited about stories that take the Machine of Death kind of as the starting point to something else that goes on into a more familiar genre that we’re familiar with. They act almost as genre stories but they have this new element in them that gives them a different angle. I got really excited about this concept of how the Machine doesn’t just change the world, but it changes all these narrative possibilities, and all these other types of stories that exist in the world.
David, you’ve got two very different stories. The first one, “Cancer,” seems very personal.
David: A lot of the interactions between the character and the father in the story are some that I had with my dad when he was ill with cancer. It was a particularly meaningful time in my life, as I watched him go from someone healthy to someone who was dead in the space of a year. It was the type of thing that weighed heavily on my mind. It was something that I wanted to work it out in one way or another — it just so happened that this Machine of Death idea came around at roughly the same time. And I thought, “You know what, this would be an interesting way to explore some of these issues — use the machine as a prop in a larger story.” It’s something I’ve been gratified to see—people write to me saying there’s something personal about it that touched them too.
What about you, Matthew? Where did your story come from?
Matthew: It came from two places. One is, again, that kind of fascination I have with genre stories. And so I was thinking about how these predictions could create a situation that would drive some kind of action or adventure. And so I thought, “What if there were these two guys who have predictions that look like they’re leading towards a certain conclusion, and they’re alone, and how does it play out?” But then… I’m not really comfortable with this idea that things are fated to turn out in a certain way, so I wanted to write a story where just because something appeared to be destined doesn’t mean that it necessarily was. Those were the two impulses that drove the story that I wrote.
I thought the idea of, “don’t have the fate happen to them immediately” was fascinating. Just because you’re destined to die in a car crash doesn’t mean that the next time you drive a car you’re going to die…
David: We saw that a lot, where the story is, “Jim didn’t know what was going to happen when he went to the Machine of Death. He pulled the card and it said, “CAT.” What did that mean? Was he going to have to get rid of his cat? Engrossed in thought, he stepped into the street and a Caterpillar tractor ran him over. The End!”
Matthew: Personally, if I got tested and it said, “CAR CRASH,” I would drive everywhere. As long as you have hundreds of thousands of more potential car rides going, the chances of this one being the bad one are really low. Until there is only one car ride in your life and you can’t refuse it, that’s going to be the one! So, always be driving. [laughs]
Do you have any plans to do this again? A second volume? A new concept?
David: We’ve actually been very pleased to see people write to us unbidden asking, “Are there more of these?” or, “Can I write one?” I personally feel like there’s more meat on this bone. It’d be really cool to see — given the 34 stories in the book as it stands — if you take that for granted, where do you go from there? I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the concept.
One last thing, sort of a James Lipton question — What would your Machine of Death slip say?
David: I was thinking… I made one and I framed it and I hung it on my wall. And I thought, what’s something I don’t want to be creeped out by, but is also probably likely? And the answer I came up with was “ANTICS.” That’s sufficiently broad and probably pretty close.
Ryan: I’d love to go with “BATMAN.” Or, “REGRET.” It’s a very, like, Gothic way to die. There’s a story there… My life would have a full narrative arc if I died of regret.
David: Right, like you waste away in your room, locked away like the Miss Havisham of Toronto.
Matthew: I would like mine to be as ambiguous as possible. Whatever prediction has the widest possible number of interpretations, which I guess could be like, “HEART STOPS BEATING,” or, “LACK OF OXYGENATED BLOOD TO THE BRAIN.” Again, I’m not really comfortable with the idea of destiny, so I’d want something that’s as unset as possible.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
Matthew: They can spread the word, and they can participate! Far and away, our most successful publicity has been the result of readers talking about whatever part of the project excites them — on Twitter, in blogs, in book clubs, or just telling their friends. There will also be some announcements on our website in the next month about more direct ways that people can participate — and we are going to need lots of creative, enthusiastic people to make some of our future projects as awesome as we know they can be!
David: Yeah, as far as a single thing, I’d actually encourage folks to download our totally free PDF! They don’t even have to read it. (But they can!)