Out of this world

Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay speaks about using exotic backgrounds to tell everyday stories

Guy Gavriel Kay (photo credit: Beth Gwynn)
Guy Gavriel Kay (photo credit: Beth Gwynn)

The place names are different, but read the books and you may recognize medieval China, Reconquista-era Spain, and the Provencal Court of Love in the fantasy novels of internationally bestselling Canadian novelist Guy Gavriel Kay. Often featuring epic battles, doomed love, and a passion for art in all its forms, Kay’s novels are also an exploration of the vicissitudes of human history — and what it means to be human.

Kay’s novels are difficult to categorize: they are fantasies that explore history, and are regarded in Canada as some of the country’s most noted literary fiction. An internationally bestselling author, Kay has written eleven novels to date and his most recent work, “Under Heaven,” was longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the most prestigious in the world.

Kay’s involvement in the fantasy genre began before he published his own first novel, when he helped to edit J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” in collaboration with Christopher Tolkien.

This interview was conducted via email from Kay’s home in Toronto, Canada, where he is currently at work on a new project.

A number of your books are available in Hebrew, and “The Last Light of the Sun” will appear this spring. What have your experiences with your Israeli readership been like?

It brings me a great deal of pleasure to be available in Hebrew, and I’ve met several of my editors and translators. Israel may be a small market but it is very dear to me. I had a wonderful experience several years ago as guest of honor at a convention in Tel Aviv, had some really sharp and interesting interviews on television and in print. I’d come back any time.

Your novel “The Lions of Al-Rassan” is a fantastical rendering of the conflicts between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in medieval Spain. Did your own Jewish identity influence your depiction of the Kindath, i.e., Jewish characters in the book?

Yes, of course it did. The complex interpenetration of three cultures in the period before the Christian Reconquista is absolutely fascinating, and has intense and challenging resonance for the present day. I wanted the book to be about the relationships between people and faiths, not the doctrines, to help guide readers away from assumptions, but there is no question that my interest in the setting included a keen awareness of Jewish history (and major figures) in that time and place.

Can you describe your role editing Tolkien’s Silmarillion? How did your involvement in the project come about?

‘The “tale grew in the telling,” as J.R.R. Tolkien once said of his own writing’

For a whole variety of reasons, I don’t discuss the blow-by-blow of the editing process. The connection was by way of Christopher Tolkien’s second wife, who is Canadian – as am I. Our families knew each other and he and I had met a couple of times. After his father’s death he initially conceived of the process as a scholarly exercise, a “classic” senior academic/bright young student process, and that’s how it began. The “tale grew in the telling,” as J.R.R. Tolkien once said of his own writing.

There have been rumors and options for film surrounding your work for some time now. What’s the current state of play there?

Everything you have ever heard about the strangeness of Hollywood is true! But it is immensely powerful and seductive (they go together) and my agents are currently, again, in discussions as to two and possibly three different projects. There’s an interest in both history and fantasy these days, and some of that connects to long-form television, not just big-screen film. I would never be so reckless as to place any bets regarding movies, but at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if something emerged in the next year or so.

In your essay “Home and Away, ” you write that exploring themes in history through fantasy is ethical, as it doesn’t presume to depict the personal lives and thoughts of historical figures. In “Ysabel” and “Under Heaven,” your most recent works, you not only explore history but take it a step further and explore the idea of history itself. Can you explain your growing fascination for history?

Well, for starters, I should note that I have never argued that the fantastic is the only ethical way to address history. I make the point that it can be a substantial and important form, and can avoid certain traps that lie in wait for writers and readers, when thinking about history. My own fascination is lifelong. I used to quote Santayana all the time: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Now I am, I fear, a bit more cynical. Even if we remember the past, odds are good we’ll still repeat it. Today I am more engaged by the idea of Greece’s Nobel laureate, George Seferis, who wrote a poem suggesting that memory needs to be kept in balance. He asked: “What can a flame remember? If it remembers too much it goes out, if it remembers too little it goes out.” Israel and the Middle East represent one example of the complexities of how memory and history inject themselves into the present day. This all engages me powerfully in my writing.

You’ve written your books in locales as diverse as Crete, New Zealand, Tuscany, and Provence. Some of your books possess a particularly strong sense of place — the prologue to “Ysabel” probably could not have been written anywhere but in Provence. In this manner your work differs from most fantasy, in which the worlds are usually only a faint echo of a real historic setting. When we read George R. R. Martin, for example, we know the books were inspired by the Wars of the Roses, but his setting doesn’t feel like England, and there isn’t the sense that he would want it to. In contrast, in your books, the place often seems very important, even fundamental to the themes of the story.

I use real history and real places to shape narratives (and characters) that I filter through the prism of the fantastic

All writers, over time, seems to try to shape a clearing in the forest for themselves. Mine is much as you describe: I use real history and real places to shape narratives (and characters) that I filter through the prism of the fantastic. I’ve written speeches and essays outlining why I see this as a strength, for both author and reader, but one aspect is that if I do it rightly, then the story can become universalized, the themes expand for the reader. They aren’t just about, say, Spain in the 10th or 11th century, or China in the 8th. They can’t be limited or dismissed as applying only to one time or place. They come home for the reader more.

Your novels evoke literary fiction in that they are riffs on a complex intertwining of themes. “Tigana,” for example, is about the intersections of memory, identity, power, and the effects of tyranny on the spirit (among other things). Do you decide on the themes you are going to explore in each book before you begin writing, or do they emerge in the process of writing?

Made me think with that one! In general, the main themes emerge early for each book, even before the storyline and characters, as I research the time and place I want to draw upon. Having said that, every single book, so far, has offered me surprises en route, and these include motifs that come forward as I am writing. Each novel is an exercise in discovering what it intends to be about.

One of your primary interests, as evidenced in various essays through the years, is the protection of privacy. Some of the poems in “Beyond This Dark House” are intensely personal. Did you feel conflicted about releasing these works to the public?

What the author, any author, chooses to “release” to the world implicitly contains the idea that he or she is comfortable with the degree of exposure in that work. (And it is always important to remember that novels, or poems, remain works of art, not autobiographies — and even memoirs can be suspect!) My privacy concerns have to do with the world, other people, technology intruding upon us — what Talmudic scholars once called “the unwanted gaze.” Here I see major issues and concerns as society evolves and I’ve written often on the subject.

You’ve said elsewhere that you have a custom, upon finishing a book, to emit a primal yell. How did this custom originate?

I may yet regret letting that information out into the world! What have I done? But the short answer is that when I finished my first, never-published novel in a fishing village on the south coast of Crete, I was typing on the roof of my hotel, overlooking the sea (yes, I know, someone has to do those miserable things!) and realized I had actually completed a novel. I was 24 years old. I stood up and offered a loud cry to the sea and sky. Did it again with my next book a couple of years later, and realized I had a personal tradition.

Can you divulge what you are working on right now?

It may cut against the tenor of the times, where everything is leaked in advance, but my own strong preference has always been to only talk about works in progress when they are just about ready to appear. Having said that, the same news culture means that information that used to stay within publishing houses gets out there (which means online) much, much earlier. So there’s word of the new book beginning to circulate.

Here’s what they released at Penguin: “Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel is once more inspired by Chinese history, this time during the Song Dynasty, almost four centuries after the story told in his bestselling ‘Under Heaven.'”

I am hoping to deliver the new book later this year and have it appear in 2013.

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