Barry King Author Interview

Your story, Something in Our Minds Will Always Stay, is rich in imagery, and weaves together a lot of narrative threads – the nature of self and memory, the relation of humans to technology and to each other, and that’s just scratching the surface. Did one particular thread of the story come first, or were they interwoven from the beginning as you set out to write the story?

The themes of self versus identity, trust versus faith, and certainty versus doubt are enormously important to me, and all deeply tangled together in my head. I found this story very hard to write initially because there is so much that ties together under the surface. Eventually, I had to fall back on faceted development of the plot because there’s no way to narrate something that interconnected in a linear fashion.

What are you currently reading/what have you read recently that you’re excited about?

Right now, I’m reading Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria and enjoying it very much. The writing is excellent, and there are many lovely turns of phrase on every page, but I find the story is more intriguing than the language or the rich worldbuilding. From what I’ve read so far, it’s a story about someone caught in between cultures, and so reminds me of other novels of the kind (Naipaul’s /A Bend in the River/ and Levi’s /Christ Stopped at Eboli/ gave me the same feeling). But it also reminds me very much of the people I grew up with, who for a variety of reasons found themselves constructing their lives out of found cultural objects from different cultures. In a way, the entire work and its world is an amalgam of that kind. So I feel very much at home reading it.

What’s your favorite piece of cryptographic fiction (written, filmed, or otherwise)? Alternately, what real world cryptographic mystery (solved or unsolved) intrigues you the most?

Cryptography was a passion for me in the early days of the Internet, when it was still considered a controlled munition by the U.S. Government. I was one of those early cheerleaders for Phil Zimmerman, with the PGP rings of trust and all that. I still have a copy of Bruce Schneier’s Applied Cryptography in my office, but that was thirty-something years ago, and nowadays cryptography is ubiquitous, routine—even banal. The stories I like nowadays are the ones about decyphering ancient texts: the Rosetta Stone, Linear B, and, recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe.

What are you working on or do you have coming up you want people to know about?

After experimenting with the short story form pretty much exclusively for a couple of years, I’ve gone back to an unfinished novel. It’s a fairly standard fantasy, set in a vaguely familiar Regency/early bourgeois culture, but one that might have come about in London if Danelaw had never ended, and if alchemists had discovered genetic manipulation. “Oliver Twist” with vikings and genetic engineering sort of thing. It ties into a world I wrote another novel in, for which it serves as a sort of prequel and backstory.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I hit the workforce in the U.S. about the time when traditional jobs started to mutate into blurry sets of duties aided by computers. My first job, which was titled “Administrator” for a small refugee organization, was really a chimera of IT & Communications, logistician, and video editor, as well as general office dogsbody, manning the fax machines and negotiating contracts and correcting the rolodex. The seige of Sarajevo and the “safe zones” was our big issue when I began and the Rwandan genocide started in earnest four months later. A lot of what I write about now, stories that take place during international and intercultural conflicts, involves processing that period of my life.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

My high school experimented with the idea of “Theory of Knowledge” in the Senior year. It was, for the most part, Socratic discussion of the big issues like facts versus truths, perception versus reality, the good of the individual versus the collective good. It underscored to me that knowledge is useless without the ability to think critically and to know the difference between symbol and reality, word and thing. I feel this much more strongly, now that people from any part of the world can debate anyone else online, we trade in totally intangible collections of bits, and our news sources are shedding the last vestiges of unbiased reporting on facts. More than ever, we need bullshit detectors, and we need to get them earlier in life. Give them that, and I believe students will answer the question of “why do I need to do this” for themselves. They’ll also become more insufferable, but that’s why the young exist in the first place: to vex their elders.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

If you haven’t read Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban, do so right now. Buy a copy and start by reading it aloud. Persist with it, because it’s worthwhile. It conveys more about the fall of civilization and the dark age mindset in the smallest space of words possible. But the real payoff is that it also shows how the apocalypse doesn’t happen to all of humanity at once, but to each individual separately, which I think is one of life’s great open secrets.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

Actually, it wasn’t that long ago at all. I sold a novella, “Pythia” in early 2012 to The Colored Lens, which was on its second issue at the time. Psychologically, I found it very difficult to write any sort of fiction when my parents were still alive. They were both novel writers and amateur historical scholars in their own right. My father had a lifelong fascination with Greece and Byzantium, and my mother read and re-read the Homeric epics for as long as I could remember. I was born in Greece and raised with Greek Myth, Art, and History as a staple of my childhood. I put into it all the ancient history I’d osmosed, and the strangeness of the ancient mind from Jaynes and Herodotus that I’d been fascinated with as a teenager, and the idea in West African/Carribean tradition of being “ridden” by a god, which I suspect survived in Greece in the form of mystery cults. So what came out was a broken-pot amalgam of parts of history that the three of us loved from that period, all embodied in the broken-pot mind and body of the protagonist.

It was the second short story I’d written since grade school, and deeply personal in that way, and I don’t think it’s always healthy to write something that you can’t get any distance from. I don’t want to write anything quite like that again, but sometimes, “you just need a Ceremony”, to paraphrase Leslie Mormon Silko.

After being born in Greece and raised by U.S. diplomats in Tunisia, Pakistan, Brunei, and the Phillipines, Barry King spent several years as a technician in Washington, DC’s refugee policy community. It was only natural, then, that he move to his wife’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario and convert to Canadianism. He now works across timezones as an IT consultant to non-governmental organizations and human rights activists, and moonlights for ChiZine Publications. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Crossed Genres, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Imaginarium: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and other publications. He maintains a token web presence at http://barry-king.livejournal.com.

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