An Interview with
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 highly
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
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)
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. At
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
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 equally
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.
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,
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
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?
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.
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
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
© Sandy Auden 2005.
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