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The World of Guy Gavriel Kay

I am not your typical fantasy reader. I don’t like orcs, trolls, gnomes, goblins or unicorns. I will confess to a weakness for elves, and I enjoy the occasional dragon story, as long as it’s original and well-written. I also don’t care for the latest werewolf-vampire-demon hunter that paradoxically ends up in bed with said werewolf, vampire and demon. My tastes tend to bend toward more literary faire, so yes, I’ll say it for you: I am a snob. A snob that nevertheless enjoys fantasy, as long as it isn’t too…fantastical.

Years ago, I was lamenting my dilemma to a wonderful friend of mine. I wanted something with just a little bit of magic. Something that almost read like historical fiction but that still transcended reality. (This was before Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, whose gritty, bleak realism snagged many a heart.) Without hesitation, my friend said, “Guy Gavriel Kay.” Too Arthurian to be true, you say? I can assure you, you can absolutely trust this name. You will not be misled.

In my humble opinion, Kay, who makes his home in Toronto, is the king of the subgenre known as historical fantasy. If you’re not familiar with it, its basic conceit is exactly what it sounds like. A true historical setting is tweaked, given a new name and usually an unobtrusive magical framework. Take for instance Kay’s Tigana. Here the Italian Renaissance is brought vividly to life, but with an epic curse and battling wizards. A Song for Arbonne, even more subtle in its fantasy elements, is medieval France. Get swept away by troubadours, courtly love and political intrigue, with a beautiful weaving of a Goddess whose priestesses can work a little magic.

One of Kay’s most common questions is, “Why not simply write historical fiction?” To help answer this, I’ve borrowed from one of Kay’s essays on his website Bright Weavings:

“First of all the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer – and the reader – to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.”

In spite of frequently hitting Canada’s bestseller lists, Kay’s soft approach to fantasy is also an issue for some readers. He does not write the multi-volume series that die-hard fantasy readers enjoy, but because his books are considered fantasy as opposed to mainstream literature, he often misses the attention of non-fantasy readers as well. It is his writing that is the bridge to these readers. Also a poet, Kay’s writing is nothing short of stunning. In reading his most current offering, Under Heaven, I often paused simply to savor a beautifully crafted sentence or vivid metaphor. His writing is lyrical without being flowery. And his characters and plots are equal to the writing. I’ve fallen in love with at least one character in every book, and his villains are wonderfully complex with enough pathos to often win our sympathies. In other words, it shouldn’t matter if you love fantasy or not. Kay’s books are sensational in and of themselves.

Still, if you’re hesitant to jump in due to a preference for high fantasy, Kay’s got you covered. His trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry is the story of college students who are transported to a very magical realm. Want something lighter with a modern setting? Try Ysabel (winner of the 2008 World Fantasy Award), where an ancient story with mythical Celtic and Roman figures plays itself out in our modern world. History aficionados have many settings to choose from; in addition to those previously mentioned, there is The Lions of Al-Rassan (15th century Moorish Spain), the Sarantine Mosaic duology (Byzantine), The Last Light of the Sun (Vikings), and my new favorite, Under Heaven (Tang Dynasty China). Poetry lovers will enjoy his collection in Beyond this Dark House.

Kay’s books have sold millions of copies in over 25 languages, and Under Heaven was one of the Washington Post’s picks for Best Fiction and Poetry of 2010. Want more proof of his clout? He was also retained by the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien to assist in the editorial construction of Tolkien’s posthumous The Silmarillion.

Well, I’ll get off the soapbox and give you the man himself as he has graciously consented to an interview. I will just add that I immensely enjoyed a lively email exchange in which I learned many interesting things, namely that with regard to the English language, Kay is a paradigm of integrity. This is not a man with whom you can let loose a barrage of cutesy texting acronyms (I seriously doubt he would ever condescend to using “LOL” in any context). I suspect the experience would be akin to corresponding with a 19th-century poet. Even during hurried coffee-break emails, his words were concise, witty and delightfully sparring.

You started out writing poetry, which garnered your first publication and awards. At what point did you decide to make the transition to novels, and was that route to publication more difficult than it had been for your poetry? Do you have a preference between writing fiction and poetry?

In my last year of law school I began telling everyone I knew, and a selection of strangers, that when I finished I was going overseas to Greece to write a novel. I could have said I was taking a year off after the three year grind of law, to drink ouzo with European women and that I might take some writing notes, do a few poems … but I blackmailed myself (I still do this) by setting up a scenario wherein if I came home without a book I had … failed. So that winter on Crete was my first foray into fiction. ‘Publication’ is really two entirely different things, between poetry in literary journals, and a book taken up by one or more trade houses. There’s really no way to compare them. I was very fortunate in that my association with The Silmarillion some years before meant that my name was known (or could be easily made known by my agent) to editors looking at my manuscript. At this point I’m a novelist, with occasional forays into poetry, and some of those forays are within the setting of a book.

When you are ready to begin a new novel, do you begin with the time period and setting (i.e., Italian Renaissance) and then formulate the plot and characters? Or is it the other way around?

Setting. Themes. Characters. Plot.

Which of your novels has been the most successful, and is it at all surprising to you?

Success has too many measurements. In terms of sales, the last two, Ysabel and then Under Heaven have sold the most copies. This is partly a function of critical mass and (alas) being older…you build up a larger core readership. You come to the attention of first-timers just because books are ‘out there’ in some numbers. Reader or critical response (another measure of success) is also tricky to assess – and I like that. Ten readers in a room might pick half a dozen different titles as their favourite.

Your novels have been translated in over 25 languages. Are you frequently asked to make changes for new editions or translations from the original publication?

I’m often asked to write a Preface or Afterword, and I enjoy doing that. Korea, for example, asked if I’d highlight how Tigana had resonance for their own history in the early 20th century. Sometimes text changes get made without the author aware of them. I obviously can’t monitor closely what phrasing changes occur in Latvian or Bulgarian, nor is it fair to ask an agent to track these. I do alert all foreign language houses that I’m happy to be contacted by translators, and sometimes I end up with really interesting exchanges with them. The most recent, the Chinese version of Under Heaven, coming out in May, involved extensive back and forth with a dedicated and skilled (and demanding!) translator.

Ysabel is a departure from, not just your usual genre of historical fantasy, but also from your usual writing style. And because it has a teen protagonist, I’ve often seen it categorized for teens. Did you write this with teens in mind? And did you borrow much from your own children when writing from a teenaged POV?

Ysabel, as much as anything, was written to give me a chance to comment on the motifs of history I’d been exploring for some time. Instead of taking the reader back somewhere, I brought elements of the past forward, and it lets me riff on differences, similarities, motifs. So in that sense it is less a true departure than a different slant on ongoing interests. I didn’t at all write it as a YA. In fact I was initially disconcerted by comments along those lines. I can (and you can!) rattle off a dozen books with teen protagonists that are not meant for young readers. Having said that, two things. One: a bright 14, 15, 16 year old can (should!) read anything. Two: it would be foolish of me to deny my publishers the chance to target or add sales by way of the very large YA market these days. No, I didn’t borrow from my sons, other than some consulting on music and listening to both of them when they pointed out settings in Provence that ‘had’ to be in the book. But children ‘change’ you, and as they grow and change, so do you, so there’s no doubt I’m a different writer (and person) than I would be if I was childless.

The Lions of Al-Rassan and Ysabel have both been optioned for film. Can you tell us anything new on the film front?

The film world is a strange place. They do things differently there. The short answer is no, nothing to report as of this typing. Energy is being expended most right now by film people on Under Heaven, and Lions again. Discussions on others of the books also happen. I don’t want to say ‘all the time’ but often enough to force me to filter them to background murmurs, lest they be way too distracting. If and when there is news to report, there will be press releases, and it’ll be announced on brightweavings.com.

You are somewhat reclusive when it comes to hype and the media. Are your fans fairly agreeable to your keeping a low profile? (Besides the obnoxious lady at Fantasy-Faction.)

You beat me to the obvious joke! In fact, I don’t think I am so terribly reclusive. I just believe every author needs to seek and find a balance between privacy, silence, focus, and the emerging expectations of being ‘out there’ either online or in person. I have an essay on this in a new book, Finding the Words, and it was excerpted in the National Post.

I don’t in any way deny that it can be ‘useful’ to cater aggressively to readers, but there is a price to be paid, and different people have a different comfort zone. I think there can be a negative impact on work when we focus too much on marketing ourselves.

What other professions and/or hobbies occupy your time besides writing?

Certainly no other ‘professions’ given that I can’t count vast and dazzling baseball acumen as a profession, especially since my partner and I haven’t won our fantasy baseball league for three dismal years now. (Close, close, close.) I write some social and political commentary, occasional essays, usually when something in the morning paper drives me crazy. Travel remains a passion, so does single malt scotch. The Wire and Deadwood (first two seasons) were splendiferous. Winter’s Bone was the best movie of 2010 for me, even with the too-soft ending.

And, if I may be so bold to inquire, what are you working on now?

What? An interviewer? Bold? Will wonders never cease? New book will be underway before spring. (See blackmailing self, supra.)

Fantasy-Faction would like to say a HUGE thank you to Mr. Guy Gavriel Kay for taking the time to speak with us and also a congratulations to staff member Ashley Bernard for doing such a wonderful job in meeting with this treasured author and choosing the questions.

For a much more detailed guide into the world of Guy Gavriel Kay, please visit http://www.brightweavings.com/.

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Great interview! Thanks. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Under Heaven, so that’ll probably be the next one I read by GGK. I’m poor, so it’s paperbacks for me…

  2. Under Heaven is fantastic. I think the paperback is coming out very soon.

  3. Avatar Julia says:

    Loved the interview! And, what a fantastic and informative introduction about the author. I have to check out his books now!

  4. Avatar Chase says:

    This was great! I have only read two of Mr. Kay’s books (Tigana and Under Heaven). And they were both incredible 🙂 I love his lyrical writing. His books are so beautiful.

  5. Excellent interview! Kay is one of my favorite authors and, like the interviewer, I am not a traditional fantasy reader. Other than LOTR, Deed of Paksinarian (sp? Elizabeth Moon) and Fionavar, I have not really gotten into much standard high fantasy, not due to a distaste for orcs and goblins, but because I don’t find most of them well written. I do like contemporary fantasy and some of the vampire stories that are out there are guilty pleasures, but none of them compare to Kay. He is the finest writer whose worlds I have had the pleasure to be engulfed in.

  6. Avatar Bucknuck says:

    Great to see an interview of my favorite author. I picked him up when Tigana was a new release and ever since it is a weakness of mine that I cannot wait for the softcover and have to buy the brand new hardcover the week it comes out.

    I am so glad you asked the question about the order he comes up with ideas (setting, theme, characters, plot). I have often wondered at that.

  7. I had the pleasure of seeing Mr Kay when he visited Beijing, China on book tour to promote Under Heaven. He gave a great talk spending time going into the creating of Under Heaven and which spheres of Chinese history influenced the book etc. He stayed and talked with the small group in attendance individually and signed everything he was handed. Super nice and professional author.

    Oh yeah… I seriously recommend Under Heaven and Lions of Al-Rassan.

  8. Avatar Michael says:

    Wonderful introduction and interview! Great interplay between Guy Gavriel Kay and the interviewer. I am marching to the bookstore to buy Under Heaven.

  9. Avatar ibeeeg says:

    I loved this interview. I am very much intrigued by Kay’s work,and added to that, I am currently reading Tigana which only helps to heighten said intrigue.

    I love historical fiction and fantasy so reading Kay’s books have been a beautiful blend of the two even when I do not always clearer know from the start the historical setting the book is based. The feeling of history is always present.

    Very true that many books are written with teen protagonists but meant for adult readers. Sadly though, those very books are often marketed to the YA crowd regardless. With that said though, I did read Ysabel and loved it. I think it would make a great read for teens; a solid read that has a fantastic elements throughout. I agree with the statement: “a bright 14, 15, 16 year old can (should!) read anything.” As a parent of teenagers, I have come to realize the truth of that statement.

    Again, loved this interview. Now to choose my next Kay book. Hmmm… Under Heaven? Lions of Al-Rassan? Last Light of the Sun?

  10. Avatar pj says:

    I loved your interview. I discovered GGK many years ago, with Lions of Al Rassan as my first introduction. Since then, I have read all his books, except his poetry, which is next on my list. I have also listened to his audible books, the ones that have been published anyway, and I just love Simon Vance’s narration. I can’t wait for GGKs next book!

  11. Avatar jj8 says:

    I love epic fantasy , I love historical novels (hate urban fantasy) and also love guy gavriel kay. Interesting what he said about different peoles loving different books. Because’ unlike many people I think lions of al-rasan is the best- such a touching bitter sweet story about platonic love between two men.

    I also must add that knowing history, while maybe diminishing from the wonder of his books, really makes you appreciate his subtle themes by the ways in which he diverges or stays closer to the historical events. Also makes you appreciate how much research he put into each book.

  12. Avatar jah says:

    Thank you for a wonderful interview with GGK! I have read most of his books, and think that Under Heaven was a true masterpiece. Like jj8, in the last posting, having read and knowing much about history, even makes GGK’s books more intriguing.
    Looking forward to his next book. Congratulations on your publication of “Shadow Fox.” Here’s to more good
    writing!

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