Guy Gavriel Kay:
devising worlds

An interview by Laurie Thayer,
May 2004

Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay has published nine novels and one poetry collection in his two decade career. As if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, he also has written essays, speeches and scripts. He was tapped by Christopher Tolkien in the mid-1970s to help edit J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. He spent a year in Oxford, then returned to Canada and law school.

His first published novel was 1984's The Summer Tree, the first book in The Fionavar Tapestry. The second novel of the trilogy, The Wandering Fire, won Canada's Aurora Award in 1987. He won a second Aurora Award in 1991 for Tigana.

Laurie Thayer: Did your work on The Silmarillion inspire your own writing?

Guy Gavriel Kay: The year I spent on The Silmarillion crystalized and focused my awareness that what I wanted to do was write. Having said that, in an entirely pragmatic fashion, I promptly entered law school after returning to Canada. I had an instinctive sense that I wasn't seasoned enough, I hadn't learned enough, to sit down and begin writing novels. My first one came after the law degree was done, when I escaped to Greece for a winter to write.

LT: Was that The Summer Tree, or do you have a hidden novel that no one should ever read?

GGK: That classic first-novel-in-a-drawer was a picaresque backpacking through Europe book. It got some truly generous rejection letters from editors in New York, all asking to see what I did next -- and The Summer Tree was the next one.

LT: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Summer Tree. If you were writing it now, would you write it differently?

GGK: Of course I would. I'm not the same person. But that doesn't mean, necessarily, I'd do it better. It would be a different book. In fact, on reflection, it probably wouldn't exist -- because my interests and themes have changed.

LT: You've mentioned the "middle book problem" with regard to The Fionavar Tapestry. What is the middle book problem and how did you solve it?

GGK: The middle volume of a formal trilogy tends to lack either the impetus and momentum of a beginning or the sense of closure or resolution of an ending. I addressed it, as best I could, with a second return to Fionavar at the outset of The Wandering Fire coupled with the introduction of the Arthurian motifs, and I wrapped it with the ending of a major strand of the story, the "eternal winter" Metran was shaping. I thought, or hoped, that these would deal with that issue. My sense, today, is that this works.

LT: The Fionavar Tapestry is very different from your later works, and you've previously said that you were making a statement with it. Do you think you'll have any more statements to be made in that vein?

GGK: Since I never, ever know what my next book will be, this is one of those impossible hypotheticals for me. I'm still exploring angles and aspects of the interplay of myth and history and psychology. The "statement" aspect of Fionavar had much to do with a perception at the time that the whole field or form of high fantasy was being surrendered by ambitious writers to those churning out purely commercial, derivative work. Today, although that's still the norm, it is fair to say a number of authors are attempting ambitious things with the form, which suggests that no such statements need to be made by me!

LT: In The Fionavar Tapestry, Fionavar was the first world created and all others are imperfect reflections. This implies other worlds beyond count, yet all of your succeeding novels have been set in the world with two moons. Is there a reason you keep returning to this particular world?

GGK: It isn't the same world in all of them. Tigana and Arbonne are independent, the last three books have shared a world primarily because I didn't want to give up the religions I created for Lions of Al-Rassan. The two moons are, more than anything else, metaphors, symbols that say, "We are not in Kansas any more." I wanted them to underscore the "elsewhere" component of the work, not to declare geographic continuity.

LT: Do you feel that the story goes on after we've left it? I'm thinking especially of the ending of Tigana, where the three men see a prophetic riselka, indicating a change in all of their lives. Do you ever wonder what your characters are up to now?

GGK: Good observation, and the answer, of course, is "Yes, I do." Not just Tigana, but every book I've ever written, starting with the last lines of The Darkest Road, is meant to suggest in some fashion that the story, the lives, do go on, and we don't know how they unfold. The saga or tale we've read is seen, by this author, as a chapter in the larger story of the lives within it -- and that imples, in every book, as well, events from before the tale.

LT: David Eddings once wrote, "We must not let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story." Given the amount of historical research that must go into your books, do you agree with that?

GGK: A short answer of yes or no to this would be misleading. All I can say is, "to a degree." And all of us will have a different measure of that degree. I'd note that if the poetic license or inaccuracy gets too extreme, for me, the story becomes inherently less "good."

LT: I recently read an old review in which the reviewer advised you to write fantasy or write history, but not to combine the two. How would (or did) you respond to that?

GGK: I've written essays and speeches (you can find them on brightweavings.com) on this topic. Suffice to say here that I am shaping my career to date, and the parameters of my work, out of a strong disagreement! I see enormous benefits for writer (and reader) in a melding of history and fantasy.

LT: Such as the universalizing of history?

GGK: That's a strong one for me, yes. The way in which fantasy works to be all-times-and-all-places. I also value the way in which being "elsewhere" allows telescoping of events, sharpening of focus. In the Mosaic, for example, the emergence of iconoclasm (no images in the churches) came several hundred years after Justinian's reign, but it is SUCH a powerful element of conflict in religious history, art history, the history of Byzantium, that the fantasy mode allowed me much greater access to exploring this.

LT: You're not afraid to let characters die. Are there any that you've been tempted to save? Or any that lived that you would have preferred to kill off?

GGK: Hmm, there was that interviewer ... more seriously, I don't usually think in such terms. The nature of the story shapes or dictates these things and there comes a point where it would feel arbitrary and dishonest NOT to have certain figures die -- and it would equally feel glib to kill someone just for shock effect. I did try, very hard, to think of ways around Diarmuid's death, but it was too profoundly compelled by the way in which he mirrors the "random" thread of the Wild Hunt, which is all about free will. Dianora's death probably affects me, personally, the most.

LT: You're sometimes very cruel to your characters. Dianora falling in love with Brandin in Tigana and Ammar and Rodrigo forced to battle to the death in The Lions of Al-Rassan are two examples. Why aren't you a little nicer to them?

GGK: You've stumbled upon the inherent, usually masked, sadism that underlies my nature. Ahem. The answer is essentially the same as the one above. I do feel that if you write a book declaring that the stakes (whatever they are) are very high, you cheat the reader if you don't make that so. This WILL mean difficult, painful, fatal consequences at times.

LT: You give even the most minor characters a great deal of life, and you sometimes show how the main storyline impacts their lives and even their children's lives. How do you arrive at characterization and how do you keep from pulling Stock Villain 12 or Generic Farmer 3 out of your closet?

GGK: Too many other writers are ahead of me in the lineup for Villains 1-12 and Farmer 3. I hate lineups. In truth, I have always said that good fiction involves interesting things happening to interesting people. It seems to me proper to put equal effort into both halves of that equation.

LT: Characterization seems to help make cultures we might otherwise find repellant into just plain folks. Does that help you in telling the story?

GGK: Understanding may not equate to forgiveness -- a character like Brandin in Tigana still elicits huge arguments among readers -- but it does introduce complexity into our response. I strive for that: complicated reader responses, mirroring the complex reality of the world as best I can.

LT: Have you ever felt, upon finishing a book, as though you never want to write another ever again?

GGK: I usually feel that at about the halfway point! The time when it seems I have been labouring forever and the ending isn't even on the horizon yet. When a book is done I start to get edgy and anxious pretty soon and the process of incubating another major idea starts. I don't let myself back away from that.

LT: And has that process started yet, given that The Last Light of the Sun has been out for almost two months now?

GGK: Just beginning. Of leads to. Short, irritated sentences. In interview. Replies. Grammar. Be hanged.

LT: Religion seems to play an important role in your work, especially in The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic. What draws you to religion as a theme?

GGK: The arc of that flows from Fionavar through Tigana to Arbonne and Lions ... a movement from pure myth towards a look at the implications of religion, the "organized" aspects of dealing with such things. Tigana has the balance somewhat suspended, but by Arbonne we are in a space where a "miracle" at the end turns out to have been carefully orchestrated and "planted" as miraculous. I don't think any writer interested in history and the forces that shape it can fail to be engaged by this!

LT: Near the end of Lord of Emperors, Crispin muses that even hundreds of years after he has completed them, people will still be able to see his mosaics of the courts of the two emperors he has known. Do you ever wonder what people reading your novels a hundred or two hundred years from now might think of them?

GGK: It is dangerous country for an author, musing on posterity. On a good day I do have a quiet sense that books will endure. On a very simple level, I'm touched and deeply pleased that Fionavar is still being reprinted in so many languages. Twenty years is a blink of time by one measure, it is a substantial period by another, when you think about how ephemeral and transitory our whole culture is.

LT: The characters of Aeldred in The Last Light of the Sun and Petrus/Valerius in The Sarantine Mosaic actually seem a lot alike, at least in their desire to leave a peaceful, prosperous, expanded realm behind them. The passage toward the end of The Last Light of the Sun where Aeldred speaks of his boyhood journey to Rhodias, but cannot remember Valerius's name, strikes me as profoundly sad. Is there a message about the impermanence of history there?

GGK: Yes, there is, and about shifts in cultural attitudes at different times. Aeldred also values the second mosaic Crispin made at Varena more highly than the first one (of Valerius and Alixana) and WE know how much more the artist esteemed that first one. Tastes in art, among other things, do change. Having said that, I think a case could be made that there are also a great many differences between Aeldred and Valerius!

LT: For a while, your trend was away from magic in your novels, but now it's back. Did you plan on having the faeries in a novel, or did they just show up one day and demand to be included?

GGK: There was never a "through line" of diminished magic. I use magic and the supernatural as a tool in the writer's toolbox, just as so many other elements are. In a given book, given tools seem appropriate, or not. For Last Light, with its Celtic elements, it seemed proper to make the world be as the characters thought it was -- in other words, to introduce those elements of faerie that are central to our sense of the time and place. In the same way, in the Mosaic, I made use of the enchanted birds that Yeats established (for me) as a central image of Byzantium.

LT: People have actually done scholarly papers on your novels. Are you sometimes surprised by their conclusions? Do you ever want to correct them?

GGK: Oh, of course. Scholarship, like creative writing, will range from brilliant to tedious, with waystations for agenda-driven and tenure-pursuing. I should add that I've also been touched, impressed and once or twice made to feel unnervingly exposed by some acute academic work.

LT: I just acquired a copy of Beyond This Dark House, much of which seems very personal. Was it awkward publishing that material? How did you decide to do so?

GGK: It wasn't awkward but there was certainly a decision-making period when I wrestled with whether to accede to the publisher's request that I do a selected poetry. I've always written poetry, my first awards and recognition were for poetry, but over the years since I started writing the novels I didn't send the poems out any more. They'd become the one form of writing that wasn't for a market ... I was doing novels, essays, speeches, commentary, reviews, television scripts ... it took a bit of reflection before I decided I did have the desire to work on the poems while also writing Last Light.

LT: Are there any questions you've always hoped someone would ask you?

GGK: Well, yes, but this IS a family website, isn't it?

- Rambles
written by Laurie Thayer
published 29 May 2004