New Author Spotlight: Barry King
What drew you to writing stories that were moving across genres? Is this a new direction for your writing?
I’m not a big believer in “the individual”. I think that under the hood we’re a loose accumulation of different ways of being, tied together by memory and body into the illusion of a single person. I think my job as a writer is to take that higgledy-piggledy of contradictions and pull out pieces to create characters and highlight conflicts. These bits can’t be bothered to obey me as it is. I’d be a fool to expect them to obey genre.
The theme for this issue is “Favors (Gifts with Consequence)”. Can you talk a little about how your story reflects that? And did you write it for the theme, or was it something that you’d already completed that seemed to fit?
It was written back in February. I jumped at the chance to submit it when I saw this issue’s theme because the story all hinges on the gift that’s presented at the end. The gift represents far more than itself. It’s a gift of intimacy, but also of recognition of one character’s passion through the lens of another, and it’s a gift of trust. Intimate trust is a strange gift: one fraught with consequences because the giver and the receiver both benefit from it as much as they gain the capacity to do each other harm.
Your descriptions of the narrator’s workspace feel very real, but they’re more than that–they’re interesting. What’s your secret skill in turning a story about paperwork and office machines into an intriguing read?
Very kind of you to say so. The title plays on a technology I use every day, the VPN, which is a classic bit of IT disingenuousness propped up by an acronym. VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network”, and is, in fact, none of those things.
I’ve found corporate space (both physical and mental) focuses heavily on the virtues of both networking and privacy despite (or perhaps because) it is anathema to both for the vast majority of people in it. But this is the space that many people, including myself, have spent a good portion of our lives. We swim in its absurdity, and develop ways to deal with its hypocrisies and contradictions. One such way is to deaden yourself: think “It’s just a job,” and you can get through it. Another is to embrace it like the game it is and keep “leveling up” until you retire. But you can also look for the cracks that let the light in, and that, I think, is where storytelling comes in.
You have some lovely descriptions of people, especially their actions, that stem from the mind of the narrator. One of my favorites is, “He smiles, his face betraying a deep satisfaction, like a man long imprisoned, hearing he has been pardoned and will soon be released.” When you write descriptions like that, do you see the characters in your mind, or do you come up with them a different way?
One advantage to writing is that you get to go over what you’ve written several times before anyone sees it, but it also means that the actual source of things gets obscured by overpainting. So what probably began as an image of Matt Smith (Doctor Who) in an ill-fitting suit got paired with some phrase I heard somewhere in the past that stuck with me. When I read it now, I definitely have a visual image, but I don’t know exactly how it got there.
At least two of the characters in this story “have the knack” for something. Do you think everyone has a knack? Do you have one?
I suspect everyone does have a knack for something, one of those ways of being I mentioned earlier. It’s something that can’t be taught, that seems to be inborn. I guess it comes down to how your brain is wired. If you have it, you have what it takes to do the thing, even though you may struggle with it or only do it once or twice in your life. If you don’t have it, you can achieve competence in something, but there’s a spark that’s always missing.
But it’s different from an affinity or predilection. I have the knack for making computers go, but I’m not fond of computers. I hate devices. Nothing bores me more than having to discuss what’s the best operating system or text editor or how many megas are in anything that beeps. For me, obsessing over high technology is no different from praying to your sword or constantly polishing your car: it’s a perverse fixation on tools as an end in themselves.
So I find meaning in composition: a piece of well-written and elegant code is like a poem. It has structure and clarity, and encapsulates a spark of insight to be shared with others who can read it. I couldn’t write code without the knack, or without a computer. I tried to capture a little of that feeling in this story.
Since this issue is about favors: What’s the biggest favor you’ve ever done for someone? Was there a price?
The favors I remember best are the ones where I did something very small, from my perspective, like explained a difficult concept to someone about to have a test, or stepped in and fixed a broken system, or let someone know they were needed by someone else. They didn’t cost me much or even anything, but they made a huge difference for the persons involved later down the road.
Big favors tend to turn into permanent jobs, like helping someone to raise a child, or run a business, or build a household, and they become daily obligations. So it’s the small ones I remember.
Where is your favorite writing place? Can you draw us a visual picture of the kind of space you create for yourself when you write?
I need a little quiet. Not silence, but also nobody talking loudly or similar interruptions. But other than that, no. I “rent” a table at a local coffee shop for the price of a couple of coffees an afternoon. They haven’t thrown me out (yet).
What’s the question that you wish someone would ask, but no one ever has?
What gender is the narrator of this story?
What’s the answer to the previous question?
It’s about trust, not gender, so I left it up to the reader to decide.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important or that readers might want to know, either about you or about the story?
Just some background: Like the narrator, I’ve had to clear porn and associated malware off a few computers in my time. It’s given me an interesting peek into what makes some people tick. Curiosity and fascination seem to have been the real drivers, not frustration and lust—like most things in life, the interesting part of sex is the fireworks in the brain, not the body. But you wouldn’t reach that conclusion based on what the porn industry offers. This makes me think that conformity causes more harm than greater tolerance might allow, which was one of the themes of this story.