Guy Gavriel Kay described the process of picking his six favourite books as a thoroughly regrettable, “evil, sadistic exercise.” This first appeared at www.cbc.ca in 2016.
The historical fiction that first hooked him
I’ll start out by cheating and name two authors who grabbed me early with their work and have (it’ll be obvious, I suspect) had an impact. I wasn’t yet 10 when I found Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease in the historical fiction section of my wonderful local library in Winnipeg. Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth and Warrior Scarlet and so many others, and the same for Trease with Cue for Treason and Crown of Violets (my first novel about classical Greece) – and so many others. A taste for the drama of history, and for the same-yet-different aspects of it was stamped into me early.
The poetry he couldn’t resist
I have to name a poetry book here, and if I am being roughly chronological, it’ll be Yeats or Dylan Thomas. I’ll say Thomas’s Collected Poems, because when I was young the word-drunk (and also often really drunk, in his case) quality of his language… well, intoxicated me. I mean, really:
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
You resist that as a literary teenager.
The series that taught him the value of research
Also, still in my teens, I fell hard for another historical fiction writer, this one surpassingly adult: Dorothy Dunnett. Her series of six books set in the 16th century – crisscrossing Europe (adding Russia and Constantinople), featuring a flamboyantly brilliant protagonist – taught me vital lessons about the colossal value of research, of steeping yourself in a period, and also about the way narrative could be married to character revelation. They were also just staggeringly great fun – as much sheer pleasure as any books have ever given me (though with the pain of losses embedded). Dunnett also flatly refuses to talk down to her readers; she makes demands and rewards them – hugely. The series is collectively called the Lymond Chronicles. Must-reads.
The writer he loves more than anyone else
I defer to no one in my love for Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction. Her sly, wry, sharp-but-tender short novels (they are all short) achieve so much with such small strokes that they frequently feel miraculous. How did she do that to me? I consider her last four novels her best. The Blue Flower is usually cited (probably rightly) as her masterpiece, but I start people off with The Beginning of Spring, about an English family in Moscow before the Revolution (with the first hints of its arrival present). A.S. Byatt has written that Fitzgerald might be the finest novelist in the language in the second half of the 20th century. Maybe I’ll defer to her. Or just agree.
The book he recommends with a warning
Cormac McCarthy is very strong medicine. His work comes with a warning label, really. Some people can even be irked by his punctuation (low down on the scale of what can disturb in his writing!). But no one I have ever read has merged the lyric with the violent so uniquely, to make such a dark, unforgettable magic. His works have been filmed a few times (with the usual limited success). All The Pretty Horses is accessible McCarthy, but Blood Meridian, utterly harrowing in its images of the Old West in America, is the Great Book here. I really do warn people when I recommend it. I also think it is one of the best novels I know.
The masterpiece he recommends as the best he’s ever read
I hate the ‘best novel you ever read’ question, which comes all the time, of course, as we readers are hungry to find excellence. Whatever book I name on a given day, a dozen others crowd in crying “What about me?” that same night. Still, as often as not, the book I am comfortable offering is Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. Gods, I love that novel. The language can be called brilliantly aphoristic but, in fact, as you move through it you realize that description sells the writing short: Hazzard isn’t just witty and polished, she is stunningly acute about people and their families, loves, losses, rivalries, growth (or failure to grow). It is a story of Australian sisters as they venture forth (to varying degrees) into a wider world, and I don’t think I know a novel that is better written, more astute, or more subtly moving. “Masterpiece” works just fine for this one.