Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Interview With Guy Gavriel Kay

I'd like to thank Mr. Kay for this opportunity to chat about your latest novel, “Under Heaven.”

1. This is your first foray away from Europe and a Christianity-based world and out of all of China’s massive history, you chose the Tang Dynasty during the An-Lushan rebellion (circa 763) as your focus. Why did you choose this time and place?

I truly never know what a next book will be when I finish one. I am wide open at that time. With The Sarantine Mosaic, I ended up researching that world because three reviews of Lions of Al-Rassan (the previous book) made reference to my 'Byzantine' characters and plotting … so I took it as a 'sign' to learn more about Byzantium! As I said … wide open.

With Under Heaven, I originally approached it with an idea for a 'Silk Road book' but gradually as I read, and corresponded with people, the Tang period began to impose itself on me - the combination of high drama, brilliant figures, flux and chaos, dazzling wealth, and themes that 'worked' for me made it ultimately feel like a place I'd want to spend three years. One academic I know wrote me after, 'I always knew you would do the Tang.' I wrote back, 'I'm glad at least one of us did.'

2. Were there any other times in China’s history that appealed to you and do you plan on visiting them?

Absolutely: there were and are other deeply compelling periods. This is a history over two millennia with overwhelming richness for a writer. But as to visiting in the future: see previous answer. I truly never know.

3. Language barriers must have been a challenge when conducting research. What other challenges did you face writing “Under Heaven” that were unique to this book?

Interesting query. Every book has its own issues that confront me, from trying to make sure the names aren't daunting to looking for legitimate ways to explore the role and scope of women (something I am always engaged by). Language tends not to be a serious barrier, given how much scholarship is available in English. It did enter as I tried (very hard) to come to terms with the staggering achievement that is Tang Dynasty poetry … but so many translators and scholars have felt the same fascination that I did have guides and signposts there.

4. Charles DeLint said in a recent book review in “Fantasy and Science Fiction” that, “The quirkier, and often more interesting books—which are usually the ones with an actual sense of wonder—don't have the sweep, violence, and action that appears to have become the primary requirement for the genre.”

This put me in mind of a comment you made in a thread. You mentioned how much you liked George Seferis’s work and that his power as a writer was refined in the crucible of World War II. That sort of refinement takes place in characters as well and made me realize, you rarely write your characters into the center - the action and violence - of warfare. They may fight: the end of “Tigana,” the battle scene in Fionavar, the fight at the end of “Lions of Al-Rassan,” but many of those episodes ended in a man-to-man combat challenge or much of the close-up fighting was put at a distance from the reader. Their development takes place before and after the battles and the conflicts you depict are carried out within the lives of the characters. I assume you made that choice deliberately, but why did you choose that route?

Another interesting question, you may force me to write an essay here! I'll try not to. I think what engages us creatively needs to shift, evolve, or we become (by definition) static artistically. I actually have done my share of 'warfare' scenes or battles, small and large scale, because this is simply a part of addressing history. But sometimes I do (as you note) like to play against that, offer scenes and themes that come off to the side of those battles. In The Sarantine Mosaic, for example, I was exploring the mood in a time and place that carried the expectation of warfare (based on Justinian's actual invasion of Italy). I shaped that book to challenge or explore our expectations of history, invite consideration of other possibilities. I did this in A Song for Arbonne as well, with the Albigensian Crusade.

In Under Heaven I'm doing something different with historical reality and the 'usual' approaches of fiction, but I don't want to discuss it too much because I hate spoilers as much as I'm sure you do!

5. You’ve used a central world idea many times in the past, but I don’t think I recall seeing it this time around. Did you feel it didn’t fit with the culture or was there a different reason behind your departure from that philosophy?

Partly, didn't want the motif (two moons, etc.) to become expected, or an obstacle to different nuances. I didn't want to be locked into something, in other words. For this book, as it happened, one secondary character, inspired by a real poet, had an intense (real world) identification with the moon in his life and art … and I thought off the top I'd use that to steer me away from the pattern of the previous few books. So that small element guided me to a different creative space.

6. I understand you prefer to write historical fantasies instead of claiming your novels contain the thoughts and feelings of a person who lived and breathed, but what was the impetus for the initial decision to do historical fantasy? Why “Tigana” after “The Fionavar Tapestry” and then “A Song For Arbonne?”

This one invites another speech - you are leading me into temptation! The short-short answer is I didn't want to write what I called a 'four volume trilogy' after finishing Fionavar. Those three books felt like what I had to say in that vein, and though it is often easier (and commercially wiser!) to repeat, I didn't want to do it. The segue towards Tigana and then even further to history with Arbonne wasn't formally planned or thought out (be wary of writers who claim all was premeditated when they look back!) … it grew organically, and I came to realize I had found a literary 'space' that suited me creatively and ethically.

7. You’ve written eleven novels of historical fantasy (and one book of poetry) and I’m curious if you’ve ever considered a different or additional genre? For instance, an historical mystery with or without fantastical elements.

Of course I have. One considers almost everything at some point or another (often when dodging the burden of getting back to a difficult chapter!). I may yet surface with a book of seafood recipes for you. Or a baseball novel. I'd enjoy that.

For more information on Mr. Kay's books and a wonderful forum where the author has candid discussions with fans, go to

Finally, Mr. Kay was so generous with his responses, the remaining portion of this interview is posted on Victoria Dixon's blog.


Amanda Borenstadt said...

Fascinating interview! :)

Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks, Amanda! This was a professional highlight for me. ;D

Amanda Borenstadt said...

And I posted a link to this interview post on my facebook. :)!/profile.php?id=1593487880

Jeannie Lin said...

I had to jump over here for any extra tidbits after reading the interview on your blog.

I kept on wanting to shout at Mr. Kay, no, no, go ahead! Make the speech. Expound. :)

Victoria Dixon said...

LOL! Yes, I would have been delighted, Jeannie, but he was really amazing considering how many questions I asked. Everything short of "What is your favorite color?" I've only had about 30 years of questions built up. Poor man.

Victoria Dixon said...

Thank you for posting the link, Amanda!!! That made my life SO much easier. ;)