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Historical Significance:
An Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

by Sandy Auden

Guy Gavriel Kay is an author is command of his craft. With a string of excellent fantasy novels behind him, he's ably demonstrated how he can recreate historical settings with an abundance of atmosphere and a The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kayhighly personal touch.

His Fionovar Tapestry trilogy is a flight through traditional fantasy tropes to show that not all Tolkien-style fantasy needs to be a weak imitation of the original; Tigana is a novel about memory, and how necessary identity is in cultural terms; A Song for Arbonne is a tale of art, courtly love and religious warfare inspired by medieval France and the Albigensian Crusade; The Lions of Al-Rassan features a character inspired by El Cid and looks closely at the conflict and tragedy of a fragmenting world based on the history of reconquista Spain; and The Sarantine Mosaic series summons forth the 6th Century Byzantine world from the ether as you read.

Now, in The Last Light of the Sun, Kay turns his attention to the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, re-creating their fearful days. He allows us a glimpse of what it could have been like when raiding and feuding was a major daily threat, and coloured every decision and action.

So how does Kay create these well-executed stories? We go in search of his modus operandi and discover that it's just not that simple ...

Guy Gavriel Kay (photo copyright Beth Gwinn)
Guy Gavriel Kay (photo © copyright Beth Gwinn)

What is the trigger that first draws you to a particular period of history?

The clarity-reducing truth is that there's no single formula I've evolved for how and why a given time or place begins to resonate for me. When each book is finished I end up, all-too-soon, with a pervasive anxiety that instructs me to get going on whatever's coming next. I never know what's coming next. At times my reading (it usually starts with reading) has involved casting a comically wide net. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel KayAt other times, something has steered me to a subject early and that subject has 'worked' for me. The most amusing (to me, at any rate!) example is this:

After Lions of Al-Rassan was published I was sent, within a 24 hour period, two separate early reviews noting the 'Byzantine' nature of my plotting and characters. I remember grinning about this and thinking, 'You know, if this is so, I really ought to know more about the Byzantines than I do.' I picked up a half a dozen histories of Byzantium, started reading, and, truthfully, I was hooked instantly. It was the reviews that sent me there. The challenge then became to identify a period within a1000 year history that engaged me the most. And of course, given that I spin fantasies upon themes of history, I was able to condense some motifs that actually involve events hundreds of years apart. (Justinian precedes the Iconoclast movement by a considerable period.)

How many non-fiction books will you read in order to complete your research to the required level?

No set number, and no set pattern. Which is consistent with my not planning out the novels when I begin. I don't block out the process--or even the moment I decide to start writing--ahead of time. The last few books have taken me about a year of reading and contacting people and note-taking, and travel sometimes, before I start writing. I often end up corresponding with interesting people, experts in various fields, sometimes form friendships, and invariably broaden my knowledge, scribbling away in a notebook.

Do you enjoy the research A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kayequally across eras, or do you have some favourite eras?

I've enjoyed the process the same for each book, I'd say, but I don't think all eras can possible resonate equally for a writer. We must have our areas of particular receptivity, intuitive understanding (or the illusion/delusion of that!). I felt easily 'at home' in medieval Provence when I researched and wrote Arbonne. I knew something about it beforehand and what motifs I thought I wanted to work with. I knew very little about Byzantine history when I started the Mosaic pair, and part of the challenge there was finding a period and themes that 'worked' for me.

History is full of facts, events, locations and battles. With such a wealth of information, how do you select the details to enrich your own stories?

For me, and I suspect for many people who struggle to shape creative works, it doesn't take place in so precise a fashion. I can't actually tell you how I choose details, or reject them. Sometimes I have a note to use a piece of information and it doesn't get into the book because there isn't room or time, it feels gratuitous, forced, or like one of those raw information dumps I dislike in other people's books (and try, accordingly, to avoid in my own) ... the James Michener Effect.

As you read more and more history, does the information from previous research influence a current novel?

Absolutely. One of the pleasures of what I do is seeing how elements of history repeat themselves, or ideas influence other periods and places. What I learn about religion, art history, medicine--to pick three examples--can't help but filter through and carry over from book to book.

I confess this is, in many ways, the very best part of the writing process for me. Research, once I know what I'm doing, is pure pleasure. I'm just ... learning things, without (as yet) any burdens or responsibilities attached to that. Those burdens come when the writing starts.

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel KayAnd what burdens are they?

Partly the 'get it right' process, coupled with the underlying reality of all creative activities: you never do get it entirely right. The inner vision never meshes seamlessly with what comes out. This, over the years, can become burdensome. On the other hand, to be honest, over the years it can also grow easier because you come to terms with this. There's an ebb and flow to the phenomenon, depending on one's mood, I suppose.

Another burden is a measure of awareness of one's own body of work, a sense of needing to match up to oneself, not let readers (or characters!) down. There's also the core truth that I never know exactly where a novel is going, en route, and this creates a chronic tension as it is being written.

Despite not knowing where the book will be going, you still maintain some common themes in your books. Why does 'the need to leave something behind to be remembered by' appear more than once?

The things that fascinate or interest us obviously shift, modify, emerge as time goes by. The 'legacy' issue emerged strongly in The Sarantine Mosaic because it was central to the world view of the time. Justinian's building of Hagia Sophia and the declared purposes of it ('Solomon, I have outdone you,' is what's he's reported to have said when he first entered it) mingled for me with things I learned about the anonymity of artists at the time.

Then, for no good reason, I started thinking about Breughel's painting of Icarus falling into the sea. Well, that's disingenuous--the reason was linked, obviously, to the presence of a sun god, and myths of Heladikos, his falling son. I remembered Auden's poem about that painting ... and the relative unimportance of great events (and people) for 'ordinary' citizens ... and another theme or motif of the two books arose strongly.

With The Last Light of the Sun, there was a natural extension (and comment) upon these issues, because of the presence of a fame-and-glory based culture in the Vikings, and the Celtic preeminence granted to bards and their task of exalting the ruler they served.

I've always been mindful of Pound's line:

Small talk, O Ilion and O Troiad
If Homer had not stated your case.
[from the Homage to Sextus Propertius]

I think every serious artist writes or paints or composes with some view to doing something that will last. In the Mosaic, I was also made to think about those art forms that are inherently transitory: dance, singing, cooking, sport ... the forms that cannot, by definition endure. (Or couldn't, until audio and video recording emerged.)

When your focus is on the history and the people living in it, why do you need to include any elements of the supernatural in your novels?

Tigana by Guy Gavriel KaySome of the major impulses of fiction (for me) are seeking delight and wonder, the story-telling, page-turning elements. In some of my books, the presence of magic, the supernatural, faerie, old gods, feels right in that process--the desire to keep you up half the night. In others, those motifs felt out-of-place, gratuitous, and I played them down, or took them right out.

There isn't, in fact, a single overriding 'purpose' to the fantasy elements in my fiction. In Tigana I wanted the central magical idea (erasing a people's name from history) to be a metaphor for the well-known actions of tyrannies all through history, in controlling those they've conquered. In The Last Light of the Sun I was interested in the transition from 'pagan' faiths to monotheism, and it struck me as appropriate to tell the story as if the way people very likely saw the world (faerie as lingering, threatening, alluring; old gods, as well) were really so.

You also seem to enjoy highlighting the similarities between the past and our lives today.

I enjoy a number of different aspects of intermingling the past and fantasy in the way I've been doing for a number of years. I'm fascinated by both the way in which the past is so different from today and by how similar it is in other ways. They 'do things differently there' but at the same time (so to speak), 'Tho' much is taken, much abides.' At times the expectation of difference misleads us. There was, for example, a fairly recent, very strong fashion among historians to assume parents didn't care much about their children in medieval times (high mortality rates, too many kids, etc.). Most of the recent data and research suggests that this is untrue. Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

I'm intrigued by all issues of this sort. I also find fantasy as a method to be exceptionally useful--a prism of sorts for addressing these matters. It removes a level of presumption, that we can know what Justinian and Theodora's marriage was like, or grasp the 'true' religious world-view of someone in the British Isles in the 9th century. Fantasy offers an up-front acknowledgement of the guesswork and imagination involved, frees author and reader (to my mind) from some moral and intellectual traps.

After the themes have been incorporated and the historical comparisons made, how do you feel when the book is complete?

Hmm. Well. I let out a ritualized primal scream when I finish typing the last word of every novel. I've done that since the very first book, written on Crete. I was writing on the rooftop of my hotel overlooking the sea, and announced the completion to the immediate universe. My sons have actually come to expect it, though it only happens, at my pace, at three year intervals these days, so they can't await it too eagerly. Only when they know I'm near the end.

For more about Guy Gavriel Kay and his novels, please visit the Bright Weavings website.


© Sandy Auden 2005.

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay
Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay
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