Transcript of Chat with Guy Gavriel Kay on April 8, 1999
Welcome, everyone, to another Flashpoint show. Tonight our guest is Guy Gavriel Kay, author of some great novels, such as Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and, most recently, Sailing to Sarantium.
Guy_Kay: Evening, Jim, my old Freund.
EH_JimFreund: Jawohl. Let’s start right in talking about the newbook/series. Just where/when is Sarantine, and what is it based upon?
Guy_Kay: Sarantium’s my “take” on Late Antiquity, specifically focusing on Byzantium after the fall of Rome. The period is gloriously fertile for a writer – and by extension for a reader.
EH_JimFreund: How many books do you expect the series to go, or don’t you know yet?
Guy_Kay: No, this is two volumes only. I’m about 80% done with the concluding one. Will deliver in June, it’ll be out in March 2000.
EH_JimFreund: Could you tell us a bit of the premise/synopsis?
Guy_Kay: Jim, the focus in this one is not on the major “players” on the world scene, though they do appear strongly. This time I wanted to make the protagonist less central to the great events and at the same time examine how those great events can impact on ordinary lives. So the central figure is a mosaic artisan summoned from the “fallen” west to the city of Sarantium to play a role in the building of an immense religious Sanctuary. The first volume chronicles his journey and the the events that transpire in the very first days after his arrival.
EH_JimFreund: What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
Guy_Kay: Have to say, by now my “usual” . . . which is to say about ayear and a half of reading and contacting people. The major shift this time was the degree to which online contacts, various academics linked to Byzantine scholarship, made themselves available by email to answer a writer’s very arcane questions.
EH_JimFreund: Any travel?
Guy_Kay: Not in the recent past, though I’ve been to that part of the world. The “Constantinople” I’m interested in for these books isn’t acutely present any more. Too many changes in 1500 years.
EH_JimFreund: Are the religions completely original? I was most taken by the pagan one, both beautiful and dangerous.
Guy_Kay: Yes, they are “original” in that I don’t know of any specific parallels, but obviously solar deities are not uncommon (Mithraism, for example) and the elements of sacrifice in certain forms of paganism, especially associated with crops and fertility, are equally central to religious history. The sacred bison is in fact a major image/icon in Lithuania.
EH_JimFreund: How about the magic, such as the soul being captured in the icons? Again, truly captivating. (No pun intended. Really.)
Guy_Kay: Puns? Here? Can you sink Dat Low? (Um, I didn’t type that.)
EH_JimFreund: To Ell ‘n back, yes.
EH_Datlow: You bums you! :>
Guy_Kay: The magic here emerges strongly from the flavour of the time and place. Byzantium suggests mysticism, intrigue, danger, the pursuit of the arcane, and all of these elements led me to feel comfortable with raising the “magic quotient” as it were higher than it was in, say, LIONS OF AL-RASSAN.
Of course the real danger is punning on Ellen’s name.
EH_JimFreund: True. . . .
Datlow_EH: (Yeah, you guys, I’ll come and get ya!)
EH_JimFreund: Still I would say that your magic quotient (good term, that) is lower than that of some writers, whereas others don’t use any at all. Do you believe there has to be magic in fantasy?
Guy_Kay: Has to be? No. While trying to avoid my soapbox I’ll say that “fantasy” is much too narrowly defined these days. The scope and ambit of the genre, what it can do is far wider than tends to be perceived. I see magic as a possible element that is available to the writer when the story suggests or demands it. It is not the defining component of the genre.
EH_JimFreund: What then is, or can be, such defining elements when magic is not present?
Guy_Kay: A great many, and this gets us tangled quickly in the whole “category” debate – one that I dislike, because it seems to me far too much energy is spent trying to “slot” a given book as opposed to trying to assess it. The question isn’t, “Is this sf or fantasy” or “mainstream or fantasy” but is it good. What does it do to me as a reader.
EH_JimFreund: Agree, but I still like understanding components that make something work to make it genre. Do you have an academic background? (I ask because reading your work is almost documentary for me – you are there.)
Guy_Kay: Formally? Not at all. Undergrad philosophy and English, then law school. One of the odd things about today, increasingly, is how we tend to assume academic expertise as a prerequisite for knowing about certain things. In this way I actually found law school helpful (I shouldn’t be admitting this, of course) because a lawyer, especially a litigation lawyer, has to become an instant “expert” on some areas he or she might have known nothing about before a given trial. A novelist in my sort of work needs some of the same skills. It helps a lot to know whom to ask, and what to read and, if I may say it, not to rush.
EH_JimFreund: What drew you to the genre to begin with, both as a reader and a writer?
Guy_Kay: As a reader, myth and legend, very early. My angle ofincidence to fantasy was through the old tales. I read more pure sf than fantasy when young. When I came to do my first work in the genre, Fionavar, the underlying idea was to play off the notion of a prime world where the core version of many myths and legends of “our” world might be found. That led, pretty naturally, to incorporating something like the Arthurian triangle, the Wild Hunt, even Freudian “readings” of myth. It is a very Oedipal book, for example.
EH_JimFreund: Yes, I thought I percieved that Oedipal angle there with the relationships. Have you considered writing science fiction?
Guy_Kay: I’ve considered writing many things at one time or another, Jim, but the truth is that when I finish a book I have no idea what the next one will be!
Cgl: There was a long gap between SARANTIUM and AL-RASSAN. Why was that?
Guy_Kay: The gap was three things. One was reading. A lot of it. I’m likely to always be 2-3 years between books. I also wrote a television miniseries script (an adaptation of a Robertson Davies novel), and a new baby named Matthew showed up rather disrupting productivity in all sorts of ways.
LisaL: I noticed that divine intervention seems to play an important role in most of your works (save for LIONS), is this a theme you will continue to work with? (By divine intervention, I mean the gods – the divine – intervening/interacting with mortal lives.)
Guy_Kay: Actually I’d characterize the progression from work that focused on myth and the interaction of men and women and their gods towards an equally strong interest in how religion uses and mobilizes belief. In LIONS the core theme has to do with how the space for ordinary men and women to come close to each other vanishes when ideological warfare emerges. It was a theme so resonant for me to the present day that that was one reason I downplayed the “distancing” aspects of magic in that book. I like the question, though, Lisa, because there is a movement to catch between the books.
Mat_C: I’ve only read TIGANA, I’ll stick with that for my first one: What was the inspiration behind TIGANA?
y: Oh, my, Mat. TIGANA was such an overloaded set of inspirations! Early Renaissance Italy, the feuding Italian city states, Brian Friel’s play Translations about an English survey team in Ireland, the breakup of the Soviet Empire and the entire issue of cultures that had been suppressed for decades, trying a variation on the mage/source bond in Fionavar . . . so many more!
Mat_C: The Italian influence was quite noticeable *g*
Ran: Given that you’ve been involved in the television industry, such as the adaption you mentioned above . . . has anyone ever approached you for the rights to serialize one of your novels? I’ve always felt that TIGANA, in particular, had some wonderful cinematic sequences.
Guy_Kay: Ran, the agents are in fairly chronic low-grade discussions with Hollywood but my work is hugely expensive to produce and I don’t sell in the megablockbuster numbers that make the huge expense a “safe” bet. Odds are something will happen at some point. My own guess is that if the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films “works” in the market, a lot of copycat films will roll out in the genre.
Mat_C: Do you use the net a lot in your research?
Guy_Kay: I did for this book. Acknowledge two listservs on Byzantium and late Antiquity and I was in email contact with some wonderfully generous academics. The net has entirely changed the idea of access to people. It isn’t rare for me or other writers to get e-mail from people reporting they have just that minute finished a book and wanted to talk about it with the writer.
Mat_C: I’m sure when you get your G3, that built in 56k will help you out immensely. *g*
Guy_Kay: When I get my G3 am I suddenly GGG Kay?
EH_JimFreund: (Bad stutter you got there)
Guy_Kay: Touché, JJim.
EH_JimFreund: What radio stuff have you written?
Guy_Kay: Jim, I spent about 8 years as principal writer and associate producer for a radio series here in Canada called The Scales of Justice, drmaatizing famous criminal trials. Took it to TV as well, but by then I was only writing for them ass the main focus was very much on the books. But Scales paid the rent and mortgage while FIONAVAR was getting on track internationally.
LisaL: Have you considered putting up a web page or otherwise publishing a list of research sources?
Guy_Kay: Lisa, of course I’ve pondered a website but I’m quite ambivalent, disliking most author sites. I confess I always quote Cato the Elder, who said, “I would rather the Romans ask why there are no statues to Cato than why there are.” Love that line.
Cgl: There are so many stirring moments in your work, such as the reason why Arbonne is preeminent among troubadours, or when in THE DARKEST ROAD Dar dies to break Arthur’s cycle of despair. How do you make these scenes so vivid for the reader?
Guy_Kay: There is truly no real way for an author to answer that, though I’m grateful for the generosity of the question. But it would be strange for me to try to “deconstruct” why a given passage works. And I always remember that the same passage can resonate deeply for one reader and leave another cold, or worse.
Ran: Don’t know if this has been asked during the interview portion, but the maps in LIONS and SARANTIUM are different in some regards. I think I know the answer to this, but . . . what happened? Error on the artist’s part (same map artist, BTW?) or intentional?
Guy_Kay: Ran, the LIONS map was meant to just show the “west” with a “pointer” to where Ammuz and Soriyya were. I had no intention of “fixing” eastern borders because I had no idea I was going to the east and back in time in the same world. Tolkien would have tried to construct some brilliant elaborate “explanation” for the difference, as part of his worldbuilding “game,” but here you have it straight. 🙂
Mat_C: Do you have any hobbies outside of writing and traveling?
Guy_Kay: At the moment, being at the bottom of a pile-up of kids in the park down the road. 🙂 In truth, many hobbies. Single malt, baseball, tennis, film. Yes, Ellen, done before I tell all. 🙂
EH_Datlow: LOL. I love single malt.
Guy_Kay: Jim, can I name Ellen a hobby? Safely?
EH_JimFreund: Yeah, do it.
EH_Datlow: (she blushes :>)
Leslie: Thank you for writing The Fionavar Tapestry, which moved me deeply. I was just wondering what the sources for your take on Arthurian myth were.
Guy_Kay: I read all I could on the legends over many years. The “Childslayer” element was my own. A product of late-night musing on the implications of returning over and again and only at the “darkest hour” and how that might more properly be seen as a curse not a blessing. For what could Arthur be cursed? For the killing of the children early in his reign (which is not my invention) in his attempt to destroy Mordred.
LisaL: Speaking (from earlier) of movement through the books. There is the movement in our own history from “the god makes the sun rise and set” to “this is how the planets move”, that is, from the gods running the universe to science. Since you have two books in the same world (LIONS and SAILING), and the progression in the books goes from more divine presence to less, have you thought of continuing that trend in a third book set in the same world?
Guy_Kay: I understand what you are asking, but as I said earlier, I never know what a next book will be when one is done. The key for me is finding an underlying motif, a reason why I’m writing the story (and expecting people to read it).
EH_JimFreund: You have written for the printed page, the listening ear, and the viewing eye. Do you have a preferred medium, or one that you haven’t tried that you’d like to, e.g. theater, hypertext?
Guy_Kay: Oh, novels, by far. But having said that, I have to say they are also by far and away the most difficult. Scriptwork is almost criminally easy by comparison with the 3-year process of doing and living through a long book. I put a lot more of myself into the novels, but at the same time they are all mine. The writer on a TV or film project is, as everyone knows, a long way down the creative hierarchy.
Mat_C: Previously, you’ve mentioned Tolkien quite a lot. How has he influenced your work ?
Guy_Kay: The influences are complex and might be unexpected. Take too long to answer properly. I’ll say this, the main effect of my year working on The Silmarillion was to reduce the level of awe and the sense of a vast shadow (if I may put it that way, speaking of this!) lying over High Fantasy. Because I saw the flase starts, the errors, the drafts and redrafts, I emerged, quite young, with a sense that The Lord of the Rings and his other work had not simply sprung full-grown from the high brow of easy genius, but that long, diligent work might produce something. I was desensitized, in a way, to intimidation.
Mat_C: What do you mean by “vast shadow”? The stereotypes we’ve sometimes drawn from his work?
Guy_Kay: No, the shadow of a work so large and admired that most serious fantasy writers in my generation turned to “other” forms of fantasy. I think urban fantasy was born, in part, of a search for a way to “use” the genre that didn’t tread in that shadow.
Cgl: In LIONS, did you know from when you commenced writing who would win the tragic battle between Rodrigo and Ammar, or did it reveal itself as you wrote?
Guy_Kay: The latter. I never block out the entire story. It is very much a discovery process for me, as well.
Ran: This is about the Arthurian element in Fionavar again. Some readers apparently never liked it (from comments on newsgroups) but I can’t understand that. 😉 In any case
: the triangle is, I must say, the first to strike me as truely equal on all sides. Malory was stuck in the cultural mindset of his own time, and Guinevere (being a woman) wasn’t much more than a McGuffin to give characters an excuse to advance plot . . .
Guy_Kay: The desire to write a “better” Guinevere was a big element for me. Even in my beloved TH White, the queen at her best (his best!) is simply “Pretty Jenny, who could think and feel.” This is the moment when Lancelot rethinks his idea of her. Oh dear.
Ran: You say you never know what book you’ll write next. But, expecting that sometimes a ghost of a thought will flit through your mind on occasion, has trying your hand at pure Arthuriana come to mind?
Guy_Kay: To be honest, not now: I have a horror of repeating myself and I’ve done my Arthurian take for now.
Alison: What do you read for fun?
Guy_Kay: My reading is all over the place. And way behind, too, right now, as I have spent about 4 years now immersed in Byzantium and associated things. Like sorting out where the best horse in a four horse team was placed in the Hippodrome. I love Dorothy Dunnett, George Garrett (both historical), Anne Tyler, Alan Garner . . . so many more.
Alison: Loved the racing sequences!
LisaL: Like Book 1, will Book 2 of The Sarantine Mosaic be published in Canada first? (Border dwellers want to know!)
Guy_Kay: No, my guess is this one will be out at the same time everywhere. Contract negotiations in the US took longer for SAILING and so they lost a season, down from fall to spring. It is all done this time. 🙂
But I do enjoy the implications of the three different covers for each book. Each English language country involved, Canada, UK, US has an entirely different idea how to “package” my work.
LisaL: (I do like the Canadian cover.)
manny: The American editions all had a “romance” feel to the covers.
Leslie: Although I realize that you probably invest a little of yourself in all your characters, are there any in particular that you feel especially close to?
Guy_Kay: Too hard, in most ways, to give a “true” answer. I’ll say Dianora has felt to be the most truly “tragic” figure I’ve done.
EH_JimFreund: What will you be working on once SARANTINE is finished?
Guy_Kay: My reading list, Jim.
Alison: Book tour in US?
Guy_Kay: No immediate tour plans, Alison. I do get to one or two cons a year.
EH_Datlow: What cons this year?
Guy_Kay: I’m likely to make World Fantasy, and am GoH at Eastercon in Glasgow next April.
EH_Datlow: Good. I’ll see you in Providence.
LisaL: I enjoy trading reading recommendations. Any particularly interesting book that you’ve read recently (or will be reading)?
Guy_Kay: Nonfiction but brilliant, Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory . . . I got my zubir from him. 🙂
LisaL: I like nonfiction. For something wacky and offbeat, try Tim Cahill’s Road Fever.
Phoenix: Do you realize when you’ve written something which has a strong emotional impact, ie: the end of LIONS, or Diarmuid’s demise?
Guy_Kay: Phoenix, yes, I usually do have a sense when something “works,” but not always. I can be surprised at responses.
EH_JimFreund: Guy, do you ever get down to NYC?
Guy_Kay: Jim, we’re in NY about twice a year for escapes, not business. 🙂
Mat_C: Do you ever visit the southern US?
Guy_Kay: Florida most winters, Mat. Kid-holiday stuff.Mat_C Disneyworld? *g*
Guy_Kay: Mat, shh. I’m a suave, cultured type.
Mat_C: A suave cultured type with a Mickey Mouse hat.
Guy_Kay: Damn, the photo got out! 🙂
EH_JimFreund: We are technically out of time, so let me thank Guy and the rest of you for being here. And Guy, thanks so much for your work!
Phoenix: Thanks for everything, Guy.
Alison: Thanks very much!
Leslie: Thanks . . . this was neat.
manny: Keep up the good work.
Ran: Thanks a lot. 🙂
Guy_Kay: Thank you all. Nice time, fun questions. I enjoyed it. Night all.
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