Interviews

Q&A with Kevlin Henney

First up, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself and background?

I live in Bristol — one wife, two sons, three, no cats or dogs — and work as a software development consultant. I’ve written books, columns and articles on software development. A few years back, after a brief hiatus (of a couple of decades…), I decided to get back into writing fiction. This was possibly some kind of manifestation of mid-life crisis.

Software development and flash fiction, is there a correlation?

Not sure there’s a direct correlation, and I’m not sure it applies to all software developers or to all flash-fictioneers, but for me there are many connections between the two, some logical and some personal.

Abstraction is common to both, both are acts of communication and, in both, clarity and economy are valued. A story is not simply a rambling collection of words that tell, in simple linear form, everything that happens. You choose what to omit, you re-sequence, you sharpen your words to bring out the characters and significant moments in a plot. Similarly, in code, the best code is not simply a brain dump of “if this is the case, then…”, “… and then it does this…” and “when this happens, then…”. You arrange to make clear the ideas and goals of what is going on, and to keep the low-level mechanics out of the way. You try to capture the essence and emphasise character and interaction.

Although much software is bloated and poorly structured, that is largely a problem of poor practice rather than intrinsic to the nature of code. Much code that is considered exemplary reflects a minimalist aesthetic, an aesthetic that I see paralleled in good flash fiction.

Another thing I think code and fiction share — especially speculative fiction — is worldbuilding. This is obvious in spec-fic, but perhaps not as obvious in code. In code you make choices about how to represent and organise the world of concepts in your software, you create an elaborate and executable fiction based on a number of conceits, some of which are dictated by programming language and some of which come from the metaphors you choose to imagine and describe how the software should work.

As an aside, I have come across a number of software developers — not necessarily a great number, but more than I might have expected — who also write fiction.

What attracts you to writing flash fiction say over short stories and novels?

There is a certain immediacy both to writing it and to reading it. You can often write the first draft in a single sitting or, depending on word count and interruptions, just a few sessions. If you’re after a quick writing hit, this is a way to get it. That said, don’t be fooled: sometimes the run up is longer than the jump and often the editing and refinement is the long tail, but these activities also have a certain immediacy and completeness to them.

When you read a flash you are delivered a story that is complete and evocative in a single reading. Rather than repeated or prolonged immersion, it’s a cold plunge before coming up for air. You drop into someone else’s world with its characters and events, sharply and briefly defined, then you’re back again, but changed.

That is a quality of good flash fiction: the journey is short, but it leaves a strong impression. It is this quality that defines for me another attraction of flash: the challenge of creating a story with these qualities and within such constraints. As in other forms of art, constraints are liberating. They fire creativity and make you focus on your words. There’s no slack to take up purple prose, no space for exposition, no tolerance for grand acts of worldbuilding and backstory. You are forced into a position where you not only cannot be lazy with your words, but where each word carries more weight, where the style is the substance and, in the absence of extensive narrative real estate, you use implication and work with the reader more than in longer forms.

You can also tell different stories. Not every story wants to be a novel, and is not well served by being written as such. A novel can paint a richer view of characters and their connections over a more meandering flow of time that takes in a far broader landscape than a novella or short story. But if the story you want to tell does not have these connections or that landscape, perhaps a novel is not what it wants to be. Likewise, once you hit the shorter, flashier end of the scale you don’t want to tell stories that have been cut to fit. If the story doesn’t fit and would rather burst the banks of the low word count, it deserves a longer form. A good flash fiction is a short short story that would lose something if made longer.

Another aspect of telling different stories is being able to tell stories differently. The shorter a story is, the easier it is to play with ideas and techniques that might grate with longer stories. You can experiment with styles and suspensions of disbelief that work at the quantum scale, but simply wouldn’t scale over classical distances. By the same token, there are stories you cannot effectively tell in flash. Each story has its length: the trick is to find it. In writing, my preference is at the shorter end of the scale.

How would you describe your writing style, fast and furious or thoughtful and planned?

To get started I often need a deadline — either for a submission or something else that I should be doing instead of writing a story! — to bring on the element of fast and furious that will bring the idea to mind or the story to the page, but overall it tends to the thoughtful and considered but not necessarily planned.

Some stories are revealed as they are written, others need to have firmer foundations in my mind before I’m happy to write or rewrite them. Some of the very short ones may be fast-and-furious in their conception, emerging from a time-boxed writing exercise or while I’m waiting at the gate for a flight to be called, but they are generally edited and repented at leisure.

Even when writing longer stories I don’t tend to plan, but I’m often not comfortable starting unless I have a vision of who the story is about, the general arc of the story and some concrete specifics in my mind. Sometimes those specifics are images, sometimes phrases, sometimes the mechanics of the story telling, sometimes the feel of the place of the story. A story may appear in what feels like an instant or kick around my head (for years…) while I wait for a missing piece to fall into place — a ‘big idea’ often misses a character, a ‘clever’ situation often misses a plot, a ‘cool’ way of telling a story often misses actually being a story. I may also spend time reading around and researching, whether science, mythology or history, but not actually planning anything out. So although preparation may often play a part, the precision associated with planning does not.

So rather than planning, it can feels more like adding weights to a balance scale, waiting for it to tip, or getting the edge and corner pieces on a jigsaw sorted, with occasional opportunistic forays into the heart of the puzzlescape, before proceeding to work on the substance of the puzzle. Of course, having the feeling that I grok what the story is about and who the characters are is often an illusion, but it can be a necessary one, one that gets me started.

What do you prefer, dark with an edge, or light and uplifting? 

If what I write is a reflection of preference, I guess my writing covers the range from dark to light, but always with an edge. Uplifting is for monkeys and dolphins.

Bristol, huh? Are all the best and brightest of British fiction now living in Bristol? 

Of course! Why would they go anywhere else?

Bristol and surrounds do seem to have a lot going on at the moment with writers of all stripes — including prizewinners and professionals — whether literary or genre, from flash fiction to epic novel cycles, from urban fantasy to urban crime, from allohistorical to historical. In terms of events we have BristolCon, CrimeFest, the Bristol Festival of Literature and many writers’ groups and spoken word events. Bristol has an unusual outlook, two universities, lots of tech, a thriving arts scene, its own currency, a local council that has an emergency plan for a zombies attack, connections to Canada going back to 1497… the list goes on!

Like I said, why go anywhere else? (And no, I haven’t been sponsored by the Bristol tourist board to say any of this.)

You do quite a few readings I see. Do you feel this is a natural outlet for flash fiction, like poetry?

Yes, very much so. Spoken word can add a different dimension to a story and can also be a lot of fun. I think it’s also a natural step: historically, there was little separation between the story and it’s telling. Many writers already read out their own work out to themselves to check voice and reveal oversights. A good reader can really bring a story to life, and hearing a story read out well often adds something that wasn’t apparent on the page.

But the longer the story the harder this can be, for both reader and listener. With longer works you become restricted to excerpts; with longer readings you are more likely to fall victim to the limits of attention span. In this, flash fiction occupies the same cultural continuum that poetry and popular (and obscure) music fill. You get to have it both ways: as released and at your leisure; live and direct.

Are you to remain the Flash Fiction King, or can we expect a novel from you, in the future? And what’s up next for you in the short term?

Not sure that being enthroned as royalty is quite my thing! I’m sure I’d remember something like a coronation — unless, that is, the after-party was really good. But I’m pretty sure I’d have seen the photos.

I have had a number of stories published in anthologies, both flashes and shorts, and I’m contributing to a couple more, so those should be out next year. As well as the odd flash fiction, I have a couple of longer short stories in the pipeline, so let’s see what happens with those.

As for novels, my current ambition is to not write a novel — and that’s going very well!


AUTHOR BIO

I’m an independent consultant, speaker, writer and trainer. My software development interests are in patterns, programming, practice and process.

I’ve been a columnist for various magazines and websites. I’m co-author of A Pattern Language for Distributed Computing and On Patterns and Pattern Languages, two volumes in the Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture series, and editor of 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know.

I also write short fiction, with a particular emphasis on flash fiction, and perform it at spoken word events. I have helped organise the BristolFlash events for National Flash Fiction Day and the Bristol Festival of Literature.

Find Kevlin online at: TWITTER | BLOG