There's little dispute that Guy Gavriel Kay has crafted some of the most innovative and challenging fantasy books over the past 15 years. He has created both high fantasy with his trilogy The Fionavar Sequence (consisting of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road) and recreated periods of our own history in books that cross the ages from Byzantium to Medieval France.
His most recent book, Ysabel, sees him working in the same geographical area of France – Provence – as a previous book, A Song For Arbonne, but on this occasion he has set the action in the present. After reading Ysabel I was reminded of how much I appreciated the works of Mr. Kay and set out to see if I could interview him.
Fortunately I was able to catch him before he hit the road for his publicity tour for Ysabel, and he very kindly agreed to answer questions via email. The only edits I've done involve required HTML code, but aside from that, these are his words completely unadulterated.
We decided to make the focus of the interview primarily his work, but if you are interested in finding our more about him, including the fact that he helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father's papers and spent a year working on The Silmarillion, I suggest you check out the biography page at the Brightweavings web site. There you will find more then enough information to satisfy your deepest curiosity about his personal life.
Without further ado I turn you over to Guy Gavriel Kay.
1) I'd like to ask about some of your earlier work to start with, beginning with the three books of that make up The Fionavar Sequence, The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. There are some obvious cultural influences that show up in the books, Celtic, as well as Moorish, and even some Native American, but what possessed you, or I guess to be polite, what was your inspiration, to attempt such a mammoth undertaking? Did it one day just pop into your head: "Oi this sounds like a good idea, think I'll give it a go?" Or was there a little more to it than that?
I was actually intimidated and anxious about the scale of what I wanted to do. It is harder today, when multi-multi-volume fantasies are so ‘normal’, to go back to a time when a young writer insisting that he receive a three-book contract was … alarmingly uppity.
But even back then I had a dismal sense that too much of the market (writers and readers, both) had reduced Tolkien and high fantasy to lowest-common-denominator elements. D&D had played a role in this, so did the emergence of commercial viability in the field. It is worse today, but 20 years ago the signal to noise ratio was already badly skewed. I wanted to consciously use as many of the tropes and elements of the field, as it was being defined then, but see if I could preserve a measure of complexity in character motivation and themes. I wanted to ‘play’ with the implications of a first, mythic world, to nod towards Freud and Jung, both, if I was going to cast as wide a net as I did in myth and legend (as you note in the question). I wanted to let sexuality and less-than-heroic reasons for actions play their parts. And to give rather more scope to women than tended to be the case. My inward metaphor was opera, in fact.
2) Why the switch to a more historical fiction/fantasy approach in the next three novels? Tigana is loosely based on early Renaissance Italy while The Lions Of Al-Rassan is the reconquista of Spain, and A Song For Arbonne the troubadours and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France. Were those periods of time or places that had a particular fascination for you, or was it the subject matters they provided more important?
Intelligently or otherwise, I’ve always had some fear of cloning myself. Fionavar achieved a measure of success and there was some pressure to ‘consolidate’ that and keep going. My sound bite at the time was, ‘I don’t believe in four-volume trilogies.’ We were living in Tuscany when I began to research and think about Tigana, and that was the year the Berlin Wall fell… leading me to a variety of reflections on the ‘tools’ of tyranny. These dovetailed with an idea I’d had for a while that fantasy was being limited (in the English-language world) in terms of what it was being allowed to do or be. Tigana came alive around the metaphor of magic as a way of erasing the memory of a people or culture. I was anxious again, being aware from the outset that it was not prudent to be departing so greatly, both from I’d done before, and from what genre expectations had become.
But Tigana did extremely well worldwide, and gave me more confidence to continue using the fantastic as a way of examining different periods of the past and different themes and styles arising from those periods. Some of these were indeed periods I’d had a longstanding interest in, others were discoveries, revelations.
3) Of those three books, Tigana is the only one with an overt use of magic, while in the other two it is non-existent – save for a minor talent among the priestesses in Song For Arbonne to 'see'. Was this a conscious choice against using magic, or was it simply because it was not needed for the plot?
The latter, absolutely. Some readers and academics began to postulate a through line in my work, that ‘conscious’ downgrading of the fantastical. It was never so, for me. I treat magic and the supernatural as elements of a story, and the scale of that element needs to be assessed in terms of the requirements of the story. Last Light of the Sun, for example, which followed Tigana, Arbonne, and Lions, had much more of a supernatural element (so does Ysabel) because the settings and narratives I was shaping seemed to demand it.
4) The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors finds you moving to the Middle East and back in time to the time of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and Byzantium. What is there about this era that attracted you to it?
Funny, true story (really true, not ‘truthy’!). I never know what a next book will be when I finish one. Lions had just come out, and I received a sheaf of international reviews from my publishers. The first three I pulled out all made reference to my ‘Byzantine plotting’ or ‘Byzantine intrigues’ or ‘Byzantine levels of character development’ … and I laughed and did a ‘note to self’ that it was time to learn more about Byzantium. Went online, ordered a dozen books, and started reading when they came. I was hooked. What elements? The interplay of artist and state. Religious tension and transition. East vs west. Urban vs. rural, the role of walls (personal and literal), of forest and field, how these have changed in meaning from place to place and time to time. The ways in which women have, historically, needed to operate to shape their worlds. The idea of permanence and transitoriness in art. The power of the historian/writer to shape later understanding of even the leaders of a given time. The way in which the deeds of the ‘great’ can feel trivial to those going about their lives, faced with their own calamities and joys. Chariot racing. Dolphins. Yeats.
Longer answer than you wanted, probably.
5) In the earlier three books there are/ is a dominant religion, but in the Mosaic your characters while protesting their belief in "Jad" are also keenly aware of the existence of other powers no matter how hard the Church would like to deny their presence. The wooden birds with the captured souls, and the wood Bison god, are they based on actual tribal beliefs and gods from the time or are you using them for the sake of the analogy? Why did it feel important to include them – historical accuracy concerning people's beliefs or to make clear the idea that other forces exist outside of what we are supposed to believe in?
The birds are an homage to Yeats, in fact. The bison figure I adapted and made use of after reading Simon Schama’s wonderful Landscape and Memory. It seemed to me that what little people (including me!) knew, or thought they knew, about Byzantine history incorporated a strong element of the mystical or spiritual (along with violence, Imperial mothers blinding sons, and so forth). Certainly the ‘pagan’ fertility rituals are drawn from readings and not invented wholesale … though, equally certainly, every author’s responsible for the use he or she makes of these things. I did want to create a tension between what we are taught, what we are told to ‘think’ and intuitive, instinctive truths – and how art can sometimes emerge from this tension, or great suffering. I took this even further in the next book, Last Light of the Sun.
6) One of the elements I've always been particularly fond of when it comes to your work, has been the almost opulence of your language. It lends a splendour to events, but it also seems to elevate everything above the mundane. Even in contemporary times you have a way of making the words splendid. Was this style inspired by anyone in particular, is it even something you're aware of doing?
Tricky question. Certainly not a linguistic attempt to echo anyone else. In Fionavar I did (as I said before) think in terms of operatic rhythms, the tale rising to and moving away from major arias, duets … and I used mythic, Biblical cadences to try to achieve that (lacking, obviously, music!) in such scenes. The language in the later books has varied as I try to fit it to the setting. The language in Last Light, for example, is harder, terser, less lyric than the books before (and some reviewers and scholars have commented on this).
7) This was my not so subtle way of trying to lead into your latest release – Ysabel which is just out in Canada and due out for release in the U.S. in Feb, right?
As I type, some stores have jumped the gun and it is already on sale in Canada. It’ll be in the US by early February, in the UK by March. There are a plethora of early reviews online already, off the advance review copies … the book business has changed greatly in this regard, influenced by the Internet, shifting more towards a model like the film world, with teasers and trailers and rumours going on for months and months before actual release.
8) Ysabel is your first book set entirely in the contemporary world, and it also features as its protagonist a 15-year-old (Ned). Why, and why to the first two, and was it a coincidence that your first entirely contemporary book would have a teenaged hero?
The broad answer you can guess from what I’ve said above: I keep wanting to test myself as a writer, try something different, see what emerges. One reason for a younger protagonist is that when I was writing Last Light I was conscious of working with very young and much older central figures, and my readings in history made clear that those very young people could play major roles in a society. In ours, we keep teenagers (and twenty-somethings, too, I suppose) remarkably youthful, unfledged. I wanted to do some inner dialogue in the book around that point. I’ve always enjoyed a bildungsroman, a coming of age book, have been irked (slightly) by the emerging assumption that any such book is YA … it simply isn’t so, from Goethe to Dickens to Twain to How Green Was My Valley.
One sharp early reader noted that this is the first time I’ve been able to write about history, instead of in an historical period. And that struck me – I hadn’t thought about it before in those words – as perceptive, because that is central to what Ysabel is trying to do. A contemporary setting lets me comment and explore motifs of the past in a different way, and a younger protagonist offers an effective ‘window’ for the reader to grow into the book.
9) I thought that you did a very good job of getting into the head of an adolescent. Some might complain that he's a little sophisticated but I look at his parents, at teenagers in general these days, your style in general and as you have a character point out, when did 15 become young – used to be war leaders who were 15, (maybe its only because we live so long that we've made teenagers into something less responsible than they are capable of being), it was very apt. Did you find you had to adapt your way of looking at the world when working on his character in order to give it that authenticity, and if so how?
We’ve both made the same point here, it seems. I’m really pleased by the early response to Ned’s ‘voice’ and I’m also pretty adamant about something else: just as adults run a wide range of maturity, anger, patience, curiosity so – obviously – do people on the cusp of adulthood. I’ve often been ‘accused’ of having overly intelligent or perceptive characters … but to be honest, as a reader I get bored if I feel too much ahead of, quicker than, the protagonists of books.
10) Provence seems to have a special appeal to you, first Arbonne and now Ysabel What is it about the area that attracts you in particular?
What’s not to like? More seriously (though that’s actually not unserious!) it is such a gorgeous part of the world and for someone with any interest in history, it is such a crossroads of cultures (because of that beauty, in fact, which is a theme of Ysabel). I can get very depressed when I think about the state of France today, but can also be deeply and powerfully moved by what I see when we’re there. Years ago, I remember asking our French landlord at the time where he and his wife were going for their spring holiday. He looked at me with surprise. ‘I’m in Provence,’ he said, ‘spring is coming. Why would I go anywhere?’
11) In the story of Ysabel, you have a character mention an original Greek trader who was picked as husband by a Celtic princess. Is there a story like that which you then extrapolated the history of the area onto, or is the love triangle a complete invention?
I always worry about spoilers, and you’ll know I’ve deleted and dodged a few questions to avoid them in this exchange, but I suppose this one feels all right. I didn’t invent it, I was inspired and engaged by reading the founding myth of Marseille (Massilia) from Greek times, which sets out this legend. I even saw, at an outdoor antique sale, a 19th-century wooden carving of the figures (really should have bought it!).
12) I've been having a discussion with a couple of other authors I know about, what we strive to do with our writing and what we look for in our reading material, and I've been going on about infusing reality with magic and how much that appeals to me. Ashok Banker, who has recently adapted The Ramayana and is making it his life's work to do the same with all the great Indian epics, says, (loosely) he's looking to imbue myth with reality. How would you describe your approach to your work within that framework, especially Ysabel? Or is it even appropriate?
I’m currently most engaged by examining how the past doesn’t leave us (whether personal or cultural, small or large-scaled). Myth and legend, religious transition, folklore and propaganda … all of these play roles in this. We live in a startlingly a-historical era with far too little knowledge of even the recent past, the mistakes made, the truths learned once and forgotten. Assumptions that the ‘way things are’ has always been so, an arrogance about ‘today’ (the flipside is a western self-flagellation element, and this, too, turns on a lack of historical awareness). I think fantasy is a superlative tool, when used properly, to induce readers to shed prejudices about a given period (and their intimidation by it) and to look at a tale set in a fantasy analogue of a given time as being more not less connected to them … in the same way that when we read in a fairy tale that ‘the only daughter of a fisherman walked down to the strand…’ we are all linked to that only daughter (or the third son of a woodcutter!). This is what folktales were (and are) about … erasing the distance between reader/listener and story.
13) I've been very careful to try and not throw a labels at your work, fantasy, historical fiction, or whatever, and I don't mean this to be flattery, but it seems that would be an unfair limitation to place on your work. I know your books are categorized usually as fantasy, but that just seems to be the catch all these days for authors who write outside the little boxes. Do you feel comfortable with any label – do you have one that use personally?
From my days in university, long before I was a novelist, I had a dislike of over-categorizing. My first award-winning paper as an undergrad was on ‘The Classification of Troilus and Cressida’ (Shakespeare’s)… I found it slotted in some books on his problem comedies and in others on his problem tragedies and was genuinely taken aback at the ferocity of the rhetoric academics were unleashing on each other in pursuit of one label or the other. (I know, I know … ferocious academic battles, taken aback by them … how naïve!) I wrote an ‘A plague on both your houses’ paper, arguing that what matters was assessing quality, intent, success or otherwise … not slot or label.
It is probably a colossal irony (or maybe a quixotic acting-out of my dislike of these label-things) that I seem to have faced the same issues for years. We are a categorizing species, I suppose. We find what we like and want more of it, and look for labels to tell us where to find that ‘more’. There’s nothing very wrong with this, by the way. My friend, the novelist Charles de Lint, has talked at times of wanting bookstores to just shelve everything alphabetically … problem there is what if you don’t know what you are walking in to buy? What if you like mysteries or historical fiction or science fiction … there are an awful lot of books! Intelligent retail suggests we find ways (and online stores have taken this further) to guide readers to where they might be happiest. It does tend to narrow us, reduce risk-taking in art, and … to come back to the question … it can create some problems for those of us who blur or erode borders or categories. Me? I say I write novels.
14) One last question, I've read on the Bright Weavings web site that two of your novels' rights are owned by studios, Lions of Al-Rassan and Last Light Of The Sun. Would those be your first choices to be made into movies?
I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the two film projects but never that query! What would I have picked first, or expected to see first? I always thought Fionavar and the Mosaic pair were too big to be starting points for Hollywood. Tigana may lend itself more to a limited series format, also being very long. So the two in development probably do make a great deal of sense. I can see Arbonne being picked up by a strong female producer/director because the underlying motif there has to do with the way in which the culture of the troubadours, the ‘Court of Love’ represented a major possible turning point in western history as to the status of women … and there are such wonderful roles for half a dozen actresses ranging from 17 or 18 years old to 60 or 70.
To be specific about the current projects. Lions is being developed by Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) and Lorenzo di Bonaventura for Warner Brothers, with Edward Zwick to direct (and his Bedford Falls company are also producers). They are at second draft stage of the script. Much will turn on that second draft. Last Light is being developed by Robert Chartoff (“Raging Bull” and the “Rocky” films) and Ted Ravinett’s production companies and I’m currently working on that screenplay myself (which answers, I suppose, the question you didn’t ask: what are you doing next?).
Thanks for some challenging queries, I enjoyed doing this one.
There are some interviews you do, and sometimes you have a hard time coming up with questions for the interviewee. That was not the case in this situation and in fact just the opposite for a change. I've been fascinated by Guy Gavriel Kay's work since I first read the Fionavar Tapastry. He is one of the few authors whose work I read over and over again with as much enjoyment, if not more, as the first time.
I hope that those of you who didn't know the man before this interview will be inspired to obtain one or another of his books so that you, too can discover the pleasure he has brought me and countless others.