For today’s interview, I’m extremely proud to welcome one of my favorite fantasy authors ever: Guy Gavriel Kay!
GUY GAVRIEL KAY was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and raised in Winnipeg. In the 1970’s he was retained by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien to assist in the editorial construction of Tolkien’s posthumously published The Silmarillion. He returned to Canada from Oxford to take a law degree at the University of Toronto and was called to the Bar in Ontario.
Kay became Principal Writer and Associate Producer for the CBC radio series, “The Scales of Justice”, dramatizing major criminal trials in Canadian history. He also wrote several episodes when the series later moved to television. He has written social and political commentary for the National Post and the Globe and Mail and for The Guardian in England, and has spoken on a variety of topics at universities and conferences around the world.
In 1984, Kay’s first novel, The Summer Tree, the first volume of The Fionavar Tapestry, was published to considerable acclaim in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, and then in a number of countries and languages. In 1990 Viking Canada’s edition of his novel Tigana reached the national bestseller list, and his next book A Song for Arbonne debuted at #1 nationally.
Kay has been a bestseller with each novel since. Translations of his works exceed twenty-five languages. He has been nominated for and has won numerous literary awards and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Prize (presented in Mexico City) for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic.
Guy Gavriel Kay lives in Toronto with his wife and sons. His new novel River of Stars is out on April 2nd, 2013. I’m very grateful that Mr. Kay took the time out of his busy pre-release schedule to answer my questions.
Far Beyond Reality: The settings of many of your novels evoke specific historical periods and events: the Albigensian Crusade for A Song for Arbonne, the Moorish occupation of Spain for The Lions of Al-Rassan, and of course the Tang and Song Dynasties of China for your two most recent novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars. At the same time, they are clearly fantasy novels. How do you decide when to stick to recorded history and when to diverge from it?
Guy Gavriel Kay: Well, on the most obvious level, I am always diverging from ‘recorded history’ because these are invented settings inspired by the real, with invented characters also influenced by the real but never identical to them.
That is the ‘quarter turn to the fantastic’ one reviewer cited, in a phrase I like enough to have stolen! Each book seems to have different impulses and demands of me (which is good, I think). In A Song for Arbonne I wanted to have the reader thinking a little about how the status of women in our own day be different, had the culture of Provence and the south not been overrun and destroyed. I reversed history there. In Lions of Al-Rassan I telescoped events dramatically while keeping the main arc of what happened. The last two books have different impulses again (and different from each other) but I never like spelling these out – especially for a novel just appearing! Let me say this: I am intensely interested in shaping novels that work on and explore both the macro level of larger events, and the micro level of individual lives, sometimes very ‘ordinary’ lives. That’s an aspect of that staying with and diverging from known events you are querying.
Far Beyond Reality: Aside from the historical period it references, what would you say are the main differences between Under Heaven and River of Stars?
Guy Gavriel Kay: This is another good question that leaves me hesitating. I’ll tell you why: I always prefer to leave it to readers to think about something like this (or not, if they’ve only read one of the books, since they don’t require each other). I worry when authors begin to offer clues ( or worse, instructions!) as to how to read their books.
Let me also offer another angle. If someone wrote a book about 16th century Italy (think, Renaissance) and another about Garibaldi in the 19th century, would we be discussing how they were similar or different, 400 years apart? I think it is too easy to think ‘China’ and somehow assume similarities of theme, character, tone. Having said that (I like to reverse ground!) one of the elements of River of Stars that I am comfortable mentioning is a longtime personal fascination with how we look at the past – and how doing so shapes the present day. In matters such as the role of the army or the status of women, the Song Dynasty was greatly influenced by views as to ‘errors’ of history, and this is a theme of the new book.
Far Beyond Reality: Why did you decide to have just one moon in Under Heaven and River of Stars, thereby making it clear they’re not set in the same world as some of your previous novels like A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan?
Guy Gavriel Kay: Really, it was mostly a matter of not wanting to have readers make assumptions about some Grand Unified Field Theory across my work. I used the two moons in Tigana first and saw them as a small, effective way of saying to the reader, off the top, ‘We are not here.’ As I wrote, I found many ways that appealed to me to work with the moons for images, myths, writing effects. I stayed with them for a few books and three were specifically linked, (Lions, the Mosaic pair, Last Light) by the religions I’d created, and thus they needed to share the moons. But I never intended to lock into this notion, and it just felt time to shift – or I risked readers attaching too much weight to them. In Under Heaven, three years ago, an important secondary character was inspired by the great Tang poet, Li Bai, often seen as the ‘poet of the moon’ and that may have been an added spur to me to go back to a single moon.
Far Beyond Reality: When you’re preparing for a new novel, how extensively do you research the history? What’s your research process like?
Guy Gavriel Kay: The research phase is wonderful.I am just learning things, and by definition they are things I’m interested in, since I’ve chosen to spend a few years exploring them. While researching I’m not yet on the hook for anything! I’m reading, corresponding with scholars, making friends (even curmudgeons make friends sometimes), travelling, talking, scribbling notes, discovering brilliance … what’s not to enjoy? It usually takes me 12-18 months, though the research doesn’t actually stop when the writing begins as I often discover I must know more about something – say chariot racing in Byzantium, and where the best horse in a quadrigas was placed, on the inside or the outside.
My feeling has always been that a writer needs to know far more about his or her material than ever gets into the book, or you run into the too-common problem of an author dropping ‘stuff’ in to prove they read a bit. Or the even worse (for me) mess of an info dump, where they want to get ‘value for money’ in their research and, dammit, it is going to get into the book! As a reader I hate info dumps, so I try hard to avoid them as a writer. I want the details of time and place to emerge, as much as possible, organically, and that requires a fairly long gestation and immersion for me. I should add here that I feel immensely lucky in my readers — there are enough of them and they are patient enough (with occasional lamenting) to let me shape the books at my own pace and as carefully as I can. That’s a gift for any author.
Far Beyond Reality: After reading Under Heaven I spent some time reading up about the Tang Dynasty. Somehow, in my review of the novel, I accidentally used the name of the real poet (Li Bai) you based Sima Zian on. Which non-fiction titles would you recommend to readers who are also interested in researching the history of Tang and Song Dynasties?
Guy Gavriel Kay: I think I remember that! I’ll confess I’ve done the same thing at times in my mind, especially in early stages of a book. I put selective bibliographies at the end of all my novels now, since readers do often want to know more, or track my own reading. The problem with histories of China is that there is so much ground to cover (think about it!) that they become either massive or sketchy. I think the best of these are Patricia Ebrey’s illustrated history of China for Cambridge University Press and Mote’s Imperial China 900-100, reading the sections on these two dynasties. (Mote is good on the ‘barbarians’ from the steppe.) There are a tremendous number of good books on very specific issues, such as the status of women, military history, biographies of major figures (Mountain of Fame by John E Wills Jr is a lovely set of vivid portraits), magic and the supernatural, myths and legends, and even the conduct of a magistrate investigating a murder. Have a look at the ends of both books for authors and titles.
Far Beyond Reality: Which other historical periods or events are you interested in exploring in your fiction?
Guy Gavriel Kay: The question that always kills me! I honestly don’t know what comes next, and I almost never do, and I probably wouldn’t tell if I did. The only time I did know what was coming was when I finished Ysabel. That’s because I’d gone back to the south of France after many, many years away (had written there three times before) intending to write a book on the Silk Road. But as soon as we got back to Provence, I was overwhelmed by my renewed response to being there, and almost immediately ideas and images began to come to me – even as I was reading on the Silk Road – for a book set where we were, examining how the history of a place could linger and reverberate. So when I finished Ysabel I did suspect that I would pick up where I’d been before I started it. In the event, I didn’t, quite: I dropped the Silk Road idea (I think it would have been too structurally similar to Sailing to Sarantium) and by then I’d become fascinated (obsessed may be a better word) with the Tang Dynasty – and that’s how Under Heaven emerged.
Far Beyond Reality: And finally: if you could interview three historical figures you’ve referred to in your novels, who would you pick and what would be the first question you’d ask each of them?
Guy Gavriel Kay: Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium still intrigue me. So does Alfred the Great. And leaving royalty, if you’ll grant me two poets, Li Bai of the Tang and that magnificent man, Su Shi of the Song Dynasty. I don’t know my questions, wouldn’t want to over prepare such encounters, but I can tell you that for the two poets I’d just keep the good wine flowing and listen all night long.
Far Beyond Reality: Thank you for this interview!
Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, River of Stars, is out on April 2nd from Roc.