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Bright of the Sky: An Interview with Kay Kenyon

by Karen D Fishler

Bright of the Sky by Kay KenyonBright of the Sky, the new novel by Pacific Northwest-based novelist Kay Kenyon, is the start of a four-book series, The Entire and the Rose, which is her first multi-title work; it appeared in April 2007 from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books, and received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Kenyon's novel Maximum Ice was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, and The Braided World was a finalist for the 2004 John W. Campbell Award. In these and her other four novels -- The Seeds of Time, Leap Point, Rift, and Tropic of Creation -- Kenyon established a pattern of high-stakes, big-story writing, in which plots build and build. Here she discusses the new book, the series, and other writing topics.

Bright of the Sky is available through the links at the end of this interview, in most bookstores, and signed copies can be ordered online at Kay's website,

Karen Fishler: Before Bright of the Sky -- that is, before The Entire and The Rose, of which Bright is the first part -- you wrote individual novels. What possessed you to start a series?

Kay Kenyon: I sure wish someone had asked me that before I started! Maybe there could have been an intervention.... But to answer you, I thought it would be a challenge. I like big stories, and this would just be bigger, right? But that is only true if the novels just share a universe and some characters, not a story arc. Because I write intricate plots, carrying the story sensibly into Book 3 (which I'm writing now) has been both torturous and sublime. By Book 2, even small decisions can set off bombs in future books. Of course some of the surprises are splendid (at least to me). But four years into this series I'm managing -- sort of -- the high-wire act of projecting multiple plots into the future. This may signal a major breakthrough in time travel, or an unfortunate delusional sink hole.

KF: How was the process different from that of writing a stand-alone novel?

KK: The planning consumed months. I kept rewriting the synopsis, trying to find my story and give it enough launch velocity. The challenge was to give each of the four books its own internal story arc as well as a solid relation to the overall series arc. One of the oddest aspects has been my sense of obligation, if you will, to future books. Instead of devotion to this story, the current story, I am negotiating with myself about changes to the future books. Other than that, writing long stories or shorter ones is really always about the current scene embedded in the through line. That is the dance of novelists: the current scene and why, in the end, that scene matters.

KF: Was there a particular inspiration for this series?

KK: Sometimes inspiration comes from the right question. I asked myself how I could write an epic SF story without much emphasis on space travel. I was tired of hand-waving around the limitations of FTL travel; it is starting to annoy me with space opera, and I am for some reason less interested in pretending it will work. Thus a parallel universe. Or, more accurately, the tunnel universe.

KF: The setting for Bright of the Sky is intensely visual and dramatic, with world walls and a burning river in the sky. How do such ideas come to you?

KK: I'm afraid to ask. If I figure out where bizarre ideas come from, will the analysis destroy the muse? To mangle the uncertainty principal, it may not be possible to know both the content of an idea and its origin. Another explanation -- and one that I find somewhat disturbing -- is that I may have trained my brain to seek out weird associations ... parts of my brain that I might otherwise have used to learn Italian or understand my TV remote.

KF: The parallel universe of the Entire is unusual for SF in that it has a geography. You call it a radial universe. How can a universe have a shape?

KK: If there are many universes, they may be contained by membranes (branes). Loosely imagined, we can picture them probing each other in tunnels -- or at least I could imagine it. The Entire is shaped like a starfish, with arms as long as a galaxy, and radiating out from a hub. And then it begins to get outrageous. I wanted to overwhelm the reader with strangeness, and then slowly build the environment as a believable and seductive vision. Think of the things we believe in our lives. Preposterous things, illogical things. If there is an apparent integrity, an emotional rationale, a person can accept impossible things like the storm walls of the world and the lid of bright energy overhead. This is not true of most of my family members. They keep hoping I'll write something true. (Sigh.)

KF: Bright is a really big story, with multiple characters and a complex and extended timeline. Complicating things is that a number of the point-of-view characters are aliens. What would you say is the connective tissue of a book that's taking on so much?

KK: Reviewers have been calling the world-building in this book things like "unique," and "groundbreaking." I'm glad it's making an impact, but the story's heart is really Titus Quinn and his odyssey to reclaim his family. Family is a complicated thing for Quinn. His is shaped not only by love and loyalty but betrayal and transience. So the internal through line is whether he finds love and whether, amid the large scale forces, it still matters. The external one is which world will dominate and at what cost.

KF: Another striking feature of the novel is that it contains such extreme ideas, yet it's essentially a character-based story. How do you achieve the right balance between your big concepts and the people (and aliens) you're writing about?

KK: You write a long book. Practically speaking, it takes time to build world, plot and character. Another answer is that the extreme ideas, both cultural and geographical, exact an emotional reaction from the characters, particularly the human characters engaging the new world. We see the Entire through their eyes, and this lens distorts, interprets and is seduced by the bizarre world. So point-of-view weaves character into the setting. The obverse is true with alien beings coming to grips with human visitors.

KF: The main character, Titus Quinn, is both an action hero, called upon to make physical choices for himself and those he cares about, and a conflicted man, struggling to find his way in ambiguous and morally confusing situations. What was your approach to reconciling these contrasting hero types?

KK: I undercut the classic hero to create a more nuanced protagonist. Titus Quinn has great courage, but that quality is strained by moral ambiguity. He is, I believe, a hero to root for -- despite one reviewer calling him an anti-hero. He's a man who would die for his country, his world. But his world's demands and his family's are in opposition. I ask the reader to share Quinn's uncertainty, his irreversible choices, so that when he does act -- no matter how troubling his decisions -- the reader doesn't lose faith in him.

KF: At first the Tarig, the enigmatic master race of the Entire, are presented as malevolent. This begins to change as the book progresses. Did you plan that evolution?

KK: No. The book was so complex that I thought I'd keep some things, like the Tarig, simple. But the story wouldn't let me. Quinn's moral dilemmas kept seeping over into his relationship with the enemy. And to preserve the god-like reverence that the inhabitants have for the Tarig, they must inspire loyalty.

KF: The Earth society portrayed in Bright of the Sky is cruel to those of lesser IQ. Do you see us heading in the direction of such a society?

KK: I didn't think of the Earth society in the story as cruel -- just corrupt. People are taken care of; the wealth is shared. I do explore how the Dole can enervate society, and it's not pretty. As for the direction we're going in, yes, I think its possible. In 300 hundred years people like me won't be any smarter; we still won't be able to do advanced math and analysis, but the human work left to us will require it. The complexity of physics and biology may make the education most of us are capable of not only inadequate but irrelevant.

KF: The society of the Entire is based on Chinese culture. You've drawn on other non-Western societies in your stand-alone novels. Why do you think you're so attracted by other cultures?

KK: It gives me an anchor in my world-building, keeping me tethered. There is so much richness and variety in what humans have already developed: ancient China, the Catholic church, the Gypsy culture. Extrapolating changes to these institutions gives the reader a base of knowledge while enjoying the metamorphosis that SF tends to employ.

KF: How has writing this book, and planning the rest of the series, changed you?

KK: That's a hard one. I hope it hasn't made me more compulsive, but I fear all those daunting notebooks sitting on the shelf behind me! I have still to figure out who in this series will be able to forgive what has been done. Deciding that may teach me something about myself, because, in the end, you are always writing about your own heart.

KF: Give us a hint about Books Two, Three, and Four.

KK: Book 2, A World Too Near, brings Quinn face-to-face with Armageddon and confronts him with a choice between worlds; Book 3 brings Earth into the conflict in an extraordinary way and pits father against daughter. Book 4 is the final confrontation, reconfiguring both worlds. Throughout, there will be new powers introduced or strengthened, including the godders, the telepathic Inyx, the navitars, and the invading Paion, as well as further revelations about the world including buried cities, the origin of the Tarig and the structure of the Entire.

Karen D Fishler's short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, the British quarterly The Third Alternative, and the webzine The Infinite Matrix. Her story "Africa" is forthcoming in Interzone. She is a graduate of Clarion West.

© Karen D Fishler 2007.

Bright of the Sky by  Kay Kenyon The Braided World by  Kay Kenyon
Maximum Ice by  Kay KenyonTropic of Creation by  Kay Kenyon
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