1) Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are two of your most beloved novels. What is it like to return to this setting so many years later, both in the fictional continuity and at this point in your career?
I’ve done glances backwards in my work before (this near-Europe is also explored in two other books – The Last Light of the Sun, and The Lions of Al-Rassan). I am interested in shaping a long view, a sense for the reader of time passing, looking in on history at various moments and periods. But this is not a sequel, it is 900 years after the Sarantium books, and part of my task was to make it resonate for readers who have never read a word of me before.
2) While the book is, in its broadest strokes, inspired by the period following the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, how do you feel the book reflects on contemporary events and the current political state of the region today?
Well, I do believe we are at risk as a society if we are ignorant of the themes of history. That doesn’t necessarily mean the minutiae of dates and places, it has to do – for me – with patterns, lessons, warnings that can emerge. With every book I begin by asking myself what it is I want to share about the setting I am evoking. Why, in other words, am I writing this book, spending so much time on it, asking readers to invest their time, emotional commitment, thinking? I think the conflicts of that period and the way ordinary men and women try to deal with them have real resonance for today.
3) Which character in the book did you find most satisfying or intriguing to write? Which was the most challenging?
I can never answer that! What I’ll say is that the challenge in this one was to keep the five major characters in balance, I wanted them all to matter to the reader (and many of the secondary ones, too), and I didn’t want it to become one person’s story. Everyone will have their own favourites, always, but I did aim for that balancing. This is a book abvout people pursuing very different goals, ambitions, lives, through and around the edges of a war. I need all of those people to matter for readers in order to bring out that idea.
4) The novel has a number of powerful scenes of vicious battle and duplicitous court intrigue, but it also has many beautiful little grace notes that add colour and tone to the plot. Which of these introspective moments is most important to you?
Many of them. I am not a ‘detached’ writer, when intense things happen to my characters, or even quietly moving ones, I am very much engaged as I write them. Danica and her grandfather all through, Miucci stopping Leonora on the ship, Pero and Marin in the ancient, empty Hippodrome, Damaz on the three farms, and coming home. I really believe, as a writer, in what you are noting here: the need to vary the tension, drama, the type of scenes a book has, even the langiuage in which the story is told. If a book is done well, readers can be moved by a single line about an artist becoming a sculptor of hands … because they know why he did that.
5) In both of the Sarantine Mosaic novels, as well as Children of Earth and Sky, an artist is depicted with the same importance as great generals and leaders of nations. What do you feel the role of the artist is in the sweeping tide of history?
I wouldn’t say ‘the same importance’ in history, but certainly in the story I am telling! Children of Earth and Sky was deliberately set up in my mind to be about people who are not important in the scheme of things. I wanted to write about people trying to ‘go about their lives’ in the borderlands between cultures and faiths, how the grand events of a time often do not matter as much to someone as their own needs, family, longings. And, at the same time, how those grand events can reach down and affect people far away – the one hundred men who set out northeast from Senjan are all about that. Artists are, more good or ill, the recorders, chroniclers of a time. Writers, painters, musicians … they can become, for later eras, the emblems of a day, even if they were not so while they lived. The relationship between art and power, how they often need each other, has always fascinated me,.
6) Over the span of your career, how would you say that you have changed as an author? Do you still have the same drive and enthusiasm that you had as a young writer?
I think if we do not change as writers something is wrong. If we are changing as people, our work will change as well if we are writing with ambition. I’ve certainly migrated more towards a fascination with history (as we discussed above) with my own way, that ‘quarter turn to the fantastic’ of writing about it. But the drive, intensity, desire to do it as well as I can – unchanged, probably even stronger as I get older.
7) When approaching a new project, do you prefer to develop your characters first, before shaping the plot, or does the story structure dictate, to some extent, the creation of your characters?
The usual process (not every time, but usual) is to discover a period that engages me, because I find a number of themes and motifs I want to explore and share within it. Having said that, every book surprises me along the way, elements come into it that were not there when I began. That’s part of what ‘exploring’ is, as a writer, for me. Usually ideas for the main characters start to take shape as I research, and the first broad outlines of a plot arc. But I never outline in detail, and the story evolves as it goes.
8) In July, 2014, you were appointed to the Order of Canada alongside Rick Mercer and Chris Hadfield. What are your reflections on receiving such an honour?
I was profoundly touched. It is a wonderful, even a thrilling honour. One of the better telephone calls of my life when they called to let me know.
9) In a post on the Bright Weavings website (http://www.brightweavings.com/journal/2015/08/one-books-cover/), you discuss the process of conceptualizing and refining designer Larry Rostant’s cover for the novel. The cliché says that one should never judge a book by its cover, but what are your thoughts about what good (and bad) cover design contributes to a novel?
Covers are hugely important. Research confirms it – people are influenced by jacket design. Of course the dilemma for the poor publishers is that what one person loves, another hates or finds boring. That’s what ‘taste’ is all about. For me, the goal is to emerge with a cover that honours the nature of a book while still drawing the eye of someone browsing in a bookstore or online. After you’ve been around awhile, you also want covers that link up with earlier work, making that association for buyers. I’ve been very lucky in my last several covers, and some of the foreign language covers have also been gorgeous. As a writer I’m touched when I see a cover that reflects thought, care, even a degree of love for a book, on the part of editors, art directors, artists.
10) Your previous two novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars, were recently released in Chinese editions. What has the reaction been?
Those are two of the most beautiful covers I have, to join this to the last question. Have a look in the Art Gallery at brightweavings.com and see if you agree. Chinese readers and academics have been truly generous in their response. There is a long tradition in China of looking at their own history with a slightly fantastical spin (martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are indicators of this). There was a symposium on my work in Beijing a few years back and it was clear that those presenting the papers ‘got’ this aspect of what I do, and how the slight elements of fantasy are about respect for the real lives involved in history.
11) Your writing has found a dedicated and enthusiastic readership around the world. What is the most memorable thing a fan has ever said to you?
What an interesting question! Also: impossible. There are so many. Readers saying they named their children for characters of mine. Reporting they moved from one country to another after reading one of my books. Readers telling me their course of study, or another aspect of their life was shaped by reading one. Writers sharing the books inspired their own careers (though these terrible people always make me feel old!). But if I am to pick a single one this morning, it might be the woman who stood up in the audience at a reading to thank me, because having her husband and father read a scene in one book was how she was able to convey to them how she’d felt when sexually assaulted, something she’d never been able to share. I was terribly moved, hearing it, many in the room cried. I won’t forget that day.