This interview appeared in the fall ’99 edition of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Fantasy Magazine. The interview was conducted by Charlene Brusso. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with kind permission.
Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of quite a few acclaimed fantasy novels, including the groundbreaking “The Fionavar Tapestry” trilogy. His most recent book is Lord of Emperors, sequel to Sailing to Sarantium and concluding book in “The Sarantine Mosaic” series. He was born on November 7, 1954 in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada and currently lives in Toronto.
MZBFM: Moving from Saskatchewan to Ontario must’ve been a bit of a change for you, climate and population-wise. How old were you when you made the move?
GGK: It wasn’t quite like that — less of a story. I was born in Weyburn but have no memory of it at all. Moved to Winnipeg when I was 3 and grew up there until leaving for Toronto to go to Law School after the year in Oxford.
MZBFM: I’ve read generalizations that would have readers believe Canadians write with a noticeably different focus compared to authors in other countries. Do you think your background adds a different “flavor” to your writing in terms of the themes and issues you explore?
GGK: I don’t buy into the ‘national identity’ schemata for fiction. Too easy and glib, most of the time. Of course there are common threads that can emerge, but they can show up across borders or be shaped by one’s friends and peers – and today these need not be located in the same city or even country. I’m inherently suspicious of all categories and labels and that includes discussions of a ‘Canadian voice’ or a ‘British voice.’
MZBFM: You’ve been a full-time fantasy author for a while now, but that’s not exactly what you set out to do in life at first, is it?
GGK: No. I trained as a lawyer, but never practiced. I also spent many years as Principal Writer and Associate Producer for a docudrama series in Canada called “The Scales of Justice.” (That ended years ago. We dramatized famous criminal trials.)
MZBFM: Writing courtroom docudramas sounds very different from writing fantasy — and yet, I can see how dramatizing those “real world events” might not have been quite so different from using history as a springboard for fantasy…. Did writing for TV teach you any skills that are helpful in writing fantasy?
GGK: Not especially. Legal training _was_ helpful, in two ways that seem obvious to me, looking back. One is the way in which one has to learn to marshall large amounts of information in preparing for a trial (my training was in criminal law). Pulling together a large-scale novel demands some of the same ability to keep all the balls in the air at once.
The other (somewhat linked) is the way in which trial preparation forces one to become an “instant expert” in some very specialized areas. Learning enough about, say, ballistics to be able to cross-examine a ballistics expert isn’t much different from learning enough about mosaic or chariot racing to be able to work with these motifs. You learn how to get a grounding quickly, and where to go to learn more.
MZBFM: Along with everything else on your resume, you also have the distinction of helping Christopher Tolkien edit THE SILMARILLION from J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes. I’ll bet that’s an opportunity a lot of writers would’ve gladly sacrificed a year of their lives for. How did you happen to get the job?
GGK: My parents were very good friends with the parents of CJRT’s second wife, who is also Canadian. He and I met a couple of times while they were visiting her family in Canada and on the third occasion, after his father had died, he invited me to come to Oxford to assist him. As much as anything else the invitation grew out of his perception that the editing would be essentially a ‘scholarly’ exercise and the model in his mind, I suspect, was that of the academic and his graduate student assistant. The actual process turned out to be radically otherwise, but that’s a long, other tale.
MZBFM: Were you a big Tolkien fan before that point, or did it start out as just a “good opportunity”?
GGK: No, I was very much a fan, and had already “branched out” to other early fantasists by then … Eddison, Cabell, Dunsany, Peake.
MZBFM: One of the things that always amazes me is how far your work has come from the dark Tolkien-esque mood of “The Fionavar Tapestry.” As a fantasy writer you’ve grown from the very roots of the field (well, as far as “modern” fantasy is said to begin with Tolkien) to create a body of work that’s entirely your own — even though it would’ve been easy just to stay in “epic fantasy quest” mode. How did you manage to make that creative leap which seems to have evaded so many other fantasy writers?
GGK: There’s an enormous question in there and one that is truly hard for a writer to answer about himself. I suppose I can say, simply, that I have a horror of repeating myself and that made it easier to reject pressures to write “volume four” of a trilogy. I also have a very high sense of the “capacity” of fantasy, the importance it can have as a form of literature, not being merely a “beach read” escape. I came at the genre as a form of literature, not by way of fandom, and I think that may have affected my perceptions, for myself and the genre. Fionavar was intended as my ‘take’ on the traditional High Fantasy with certain elements added, and when it was done I really did want to find another part of the forest, as it were. Tigana, with its themes of culture and language and identity offered me that move towards history and “human-scaled” conflict.
MZBFM: Were you ever tempted to stick with (or go back to) the “epic quest”-style story that’s paying the bills for so many other writers?
GGK: Not really, but I’m lucky to be able to say that, since the more historical books have always done at least as well as Fionavar. There’s no question one can “lose” some readers, who want you to do again what you did before, when one changes ground, but there’s a good chance of gaining new ones, too.
MZBFM: Was The Summer Tree your first published work? (Not counting publishing credits for The Silmarillion)
GGK: Yes, it was. I’d written a mainstream, coming-of-age novel about backpackers in Europe in the 1970’s before (written the first time I lived in Greece). It was generously received by all the publishers who saw it but my agent had no offers, only strong indicators they wanted to see the next thing I did – which was The Summer Tree.
MZBFM: What kind of response did you expect from readers when The Summer Tree first appeared?
GGK: Truly didn’t even enter my head to speculate. What was even more enormously gratifying was the response from _writers_ when it first came out. I was happily surprised by the generosity and enthusiasm with which writers greeted the trilogy.
MZBFM: And then Tigana was published, and it was a totally different kind of story. It must’ve surprised a lot of people who were expecting something more like “The Fionavar Tapestry”. Were you worried that readers wouldn’t like or understand the new direction you’d taken?
GGK: As I said before, I _knew_ it was a departure and yes, I did worry. Not so much about whether people would “follow” me in this new direction, but whether I could pull it off! Tigana’s ambition makes me shake my head sometimes, even today.
MZBFM: Did you have any writers around you to ask for advice while you were working on Tigana? –Or are you glad no one was there to tell you “this is going to be harder than you think”?
GGK: No, I don’t work in any collegial or bounce-things-off-p
eople fashion. When I’m done I have three or four readers whose early responses I value and I do listen closely to what they say.
MZBFM: Does “pulling it off” get any easier with each book, or are they too different in your mind to compare that way?
GGK: A wise friend of mine has defined the difference between craft and art by saying that a craftsman _knows_ he can make a chair this morning because he made one yesterday. An artist does _not_ have that assurance of precedent. So there are no guarantees that flow (for me) from having succeeded in the past. What does happen is that I have some memory and experience of the stresses and roadblocks that can emerge and that experience makes it easier to deal with them when they come (as they always do) in a new project.
MZBFM: One of the really neat things about your books is that the details of everyday life — like chariot racing (and its fandom), and the art of creating mosaics in Sailing to Sarantium — are as fresh and believable as the major thematic issues. How do you set about researching your books?
GGK: I do believe God is in the details. One will never get it all right, and sometimes obsession with such things can slow the narrative drive of a book, but I love when I can work such small details smoothly into the story, make them _part_ of the story. The chariots in Sarantium (and the way in which a mosaicist figures out a race tactic _because_ of his own craft) are a good example of something that gave me much pleasure as a writer. As for research methods, each book, indeed each research issue’s different. For the chariots I ended up online, emailing various academics and even a number of present-day harness racers! There were too many contradictions in the texts.
MZBFM: Is travel an important part of research for you?
GGK: Travel has been important to me at times, but isn’t an absolute. Actually, as much as anything else, I have found that _living_ in the ambience I want to recapture is the most helpful thing, and that happened in both Italy and Provence. I’ve written books in Greece (twice), New Zealand, Tuscany, and Provence (three times).
MZBFM: Tigana is (sort of ) set in 15th century Italy. The Lions of Al-Rassan is based on 12th century Spain. A Song for Arbonne is medieval France, and Sarantium has clear parallels with the Byzantine Empire. When you’re thinking about a new book, which comes first? Historical time, or geographical place?
GGK: Good question. In fact they come together, mostly. Or they have, so far. The minor exception is Sarantium, where I knew I wanted to explore Byzantium, but wasn’t sure what _part_ of a thousand year empire I would steer towards until I was well into my reading.
MZBFM: What intrigued you most about Byzantium? How did you eventually decide on a time frame for the story?
GGK: The joke (except it _is_ true) is that over the years just about the most common adjective for describing my books has been ‘Byzantine’ with reference to complexity and intrigue. When I finished Lions, and had no idea what I was doing next, I just decided one day that I might as well find out something about Byzantium — since I seemed to have this label attached to me. I wanted to explore the images we have of Byzantine society.
A great many periods fascinated me, once I started reading. But Late Antiquity drew me for the way in which it represented a transition period, in cultural, religious, political and artistic terms. The tensions of east-west, rural-urban, old faith-new faith, aristocracy-emerging classes, church-Hippodome (and theatre), rational-mystic … all of these were vivid in this time, and the added element was — of course — the magnificent historical figures (sometime well-documented, which helps) from that period.
MZBFM: Have you ever any trouble with historical detail distracting you from your own storyline?
GGK: I try to avoid that since, as I said before, I see it as a chronic problem for certain writers … the desire to flash their knowledge, at the expense of their story. One area I always wrestle with is finding plausible roles for women in historical periods. I dislike ‘cheating’ too much and hate the sort of fantasy that gives women a broadsword. Too a-historical for me. At the same time I _always_ believe a book is more compelling if the characters have scope and complexity, and obviously that applies to female characters as well. Jehane in Lions represents about the limit of how far I’ll cheat: there _were_ female physicians at the time, some of them highly respected, so I’m anchored there, but it is almost inconceivable that one of them would have gone out with the army into the field as Jehane does, even though I have it happen on a fairly minor skirmish and under special circumstances.
MZBFM: That’s a interesting side point — which book or setting gave you the most trouble when it came to finding interesting female roles?
GGK: I don’t think there was any harder-easier issue for me. I do recall being immensely pleased when I started reading about the female physicians in medieval times … the opportunities that afforded for the creation of Jehane were exciting.
MZBFM: I’ve read that Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan and the Sarantium books are all set in the same “multi-verse.” Was that something you intended from the start with Tigana, or did it just work out that way?
GGK: They aren’t, really. Sailing is linked to Lions, as taking place hundreds of years earlier. The analogues are the 6th century AD for Sailing (and sequel) and the 11th century for Lions. I do have glancing references (usually as songs or vague legends) in the “historical” books to Fionavar, but that was _always_ meant as something small, a “grace note,” not part of a grand scheme to “tie it all together.” In fact, I think that late-in-life desire that besets many writers to create that grand linkage is a vice and undermines their work a great deal.
MZBFM: That’s a good point — sometimes I can’t help wondering if the desire is really to keep older works in print rather than to produce some synergistic link across the whole body of work. Why do you think some authors are tempted to do it?
GGK: I don’t have a global theory — different people are motivated by different things. I’ve never considered the commercial element you mention because the examples in my own mind are substantial figures without that impetus (but you may have a point _vis a vis_ some lesser authors). My guess is that there’s a valedictory aspect to this phenomenon when it happens to an older writer: Prospero making a final unifying statement. There may sometimes also be a flagging of new inspiration and a looking back nostalgically to the days when one had ideas and energy, and trying to catch a ride on those earlier works.
MZBFM: The advantages to using actual historical events as a framework for fantasy are pretty obvious; have you encountered any disadvantages as well?
GGK: There’s a constant knife-edge I dance on with respect to using the “real” events and angling away from them. Each book defines itself differently with respect to this. The newest one makes a specific motif of this balancing, actually. (Have a good look at the epigraph to volume two when it comes out!) There is a disadvantage for some readers, and I understand this. Some people are drawn to historical fiction precisely to get “real” facts with their fiction, the illusion they know what really happened. My approach undermines that, of course, but I happen to believe that that “illusion” _should_ be undermined, and that fantasy is a deeply honourable (and wonderfully liberating) approach to exploring the past.
MZBFM: “Honorable” and “liberating” — those sound like fighting words! We’ve all certainly seen fantasy which was one and not the oth
er, as well as fantasy which wasn’t either. How do you go about creating fantasy which does both?
GGK: Again, no simple answer. For me, the starting point is taking both the genre _and_ my readers seriously. I have spent my creative life assuming that people are smarter and more willing to stretch themselves than pop culture tends to regard them as being.
MZBFM: When do you decide to stop researching and start writing? Where does historical fact end and fiction begin? Or is the whole point to blur it so that either one seems just as likely?
GGK: As for stopping the research, it is difficult sometimes to resist what is sometimes called Graduate Student Syndrome … the avoiding the start of one’s dissertation because there’s always _one_ more book or article to chase down first! All my works are fictions, the facts are underpinnings for them, acting differently in different books (since my purposes in each will vary). They are also _fantasies_ in invented settings, so “historical fact” is a tricky phrase to use, in any case. If I say that the “Day of the Moat” in Lions is directly inspired by a “Day of the Ditch” in real-life Toledo (Spain) in the early middle ages, that doesn’t make my scene any kind of historical fact.
MZBFM: How do you avoid sticking too close to history; alternatively, how do you manage to “file off the serial numbers” and make a historical context your own?
GGK: It very much depends on what I’m trying to do with each book. Tigana really just takes an ambience from Italy and the reality of the city-states’ feuding, and how that made the peninsula easy prey for invaders. Arbonne was also a deliberate attempt to change the result of the Albigensian Crusade (France invading Provence and the southwest) and open speculation as to aspects of history (and sexual poilitics) had that result indeed been different. Lions cuts most closely to the ‘flow’ of our history but — and this is why I love using fantasy as a form — I was able to telescope four hundred years of events into two generations. I saw the ‘true’ story of the demise of Moorish Spain through emergence of holy warfare as acutely relevant to our own day, a way of exploring what happens to the space for interaction between peoples when ideologies harden. The two men, the two ‘lions’ of the peninsula, actually lose their identities (we can’t even “see” them in the last battle) as they become icons in a religious clash. So that book, with this very modern theme in my mind, uses the least magic, not because I was averse to magic as a tool (I’m not, at all), but because I wanted to reduce the distance between the story and today for the reader. Magic can be distancing, make it easier to dismiss a book as fantastical, less pointed towards today. Sailing has more magic, in part because the ‘feel’ of Byzantium is mystic, alchemical, resonant with hints of the supernatural.
MZBFM: Earlier you mentioned Tigana allowed you to move toward more “human-scaled” conflict. Magic has been a successively smaller component in your books since — although it’s actually got a slightly larger role than usual in Sarantium. Is that because it’s difficult to make magic-wielding characters feel “human” and believable, or harder to work with a world where magic can potentially be such a wild card in the plot?
GGK: Well, your parenthetical note anchors my response … there’s no “through line” here, no course I’m following. It will always be case-by-case for me, each book’s needs determining what I do. I treat magic as a possible element, a tool, something available — and whether I use it will always be decided by the needs of the given story.
MZBFM: So far (except for Fionavar) all of your books have been set around the Mediterranean. What intrigues you so much about the region?
GGK: I can’t answer with any more precision than to say I have _always_ been fascinated by European history. I’m not sure the Mediterranean is any unifying factor. For example, Lions isn’t a book about it, really; the desert is the key metaphor there.
MZBFM: So when you start a book, you’re beginning with a setting and characters and just running with it. How did that work with Sarantium? Which characters came first — the Sarantine intriguers who open the story, or Crispin, the iconoclastic mosaicist?
GGK: Crispin came earlier, and the notion of the journey from walls through wilderness to walls. The Prologue was an ambitious attempt to achieve two things. One was to evoke the technique of mosaic in prose. Mosaic (unlike painting, most of the time) works off juxtapositions of contrasting colors to create the illusion of a given color. I wanted the Prologue to hurl the reader into a colorful chaos, characters from all walks of life getting a few pages (or less) then giving way to someone entirely different and an entirely different mood, and then appearing and disappearing again. A mosaic of the City.
The second goal was to _establish_ the City itself as a “character” in a sense. The brilliant, dangerous, complex lure that Sarantium is meant to be. This was because (if you think about it) we spend the first half of the novel _away_ from the City, going there. I wanted the reality of it in the reader’s mind during that long journey.
MZBFM: Which authors have most influenced your writing?
GGK: Influences shift and change. There are no uniquely powerful ones. I could almost say that Vermeer, the painter has influenced me more than most writers. When I first began writing and being published it was as a poet. Dylan Thomas and Yeats were my main influences, then the wonderful Greek poet George Seferis (whose lines are an epigraph for Tigana). Tolkien introduced me to fantasy as an ‘adult’ form. Dorothy Dunnett taught me not to be afraid of complexity. George Garrett’s Death of a Fox (a novel about Raleigh) showed me that you needn’t rush your material, and if the characters are compelling enough, readers will hold with you.
I am a great admirer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially Love in the Time of Cholera, and will always respect Stephen Donaldson for the ambition revealed in his “Covenant” books, where he attempted to meld the modernist idea of the anti-hero with a heroic genre. Lately I’ve ‘discovered’ Cormac McCarthy and am often stunned by his juxtapositions of truly brutal scenes with almost impossibly lyric prose.
MZBFM: Are there any authors you’d like to collaborate with?
GGK: There are many, many writers whose work I admire, but I’m not a collaborative type. The creative process is too intense and idiosyncratic for me. I’ve done it a few times for television, but only with one very close friend. I don’t think I’d ever want to do so in fiction.
MZBFM: What’s your writing regime like? Do you like to work out the plot of the new book completely before starting to write, or just start writing from scratch and plot as you go? Are you a fast writer?
GGK: I started off writing 6 or 7 days a week, but since having children I’m much more a five day writer with ‘normal’ weekends off being a father. I -never- work out the plot. The discovery process en route gives both anxiety and adrenaline. I aim for about 1000-1500 polished words a day but I revise incessantly, both as I’m going along and then very attentively when the whole draft is done. I don’t send it to agents and editors until I’m awfully sure it is just about where I want it to be –one reason the books come slowly.
MZBFM: What fires up your imagination, inspires you? Where does your muse hail from?
GGK: Poughkeepsie? [laughs] In truth, I don’t want to give a glib and can’t give a really precise answer to that. I often say I write quickly but I get ideas _very_ slowly … and they tend to be large ones, producing large books. Obviously I’m inspired by and engaged by the whole process of exploring history through fan
tasy, but the actual _themes_ of the last four books have been hugely different, which is why I can’t say any single thing is what “inspires” me. I also do believe (with many other writers) that inspiration can be overrated, an excuse for not working!
MZBFM: When you’re starting a new book, how much time do you usually spend doing research?
GGK: Never less than half a year these days, closer to a full year for Sailing and its sequel.
MZBFM: Are you fun to be around when you’re in the middle of a new book?
GGK: My wife and friends could give a better answer, but on the whole I do a fairly good job of keeping the stresses of the book under wraps. I never talk about the characters or scenes, hating the idea of boring people that way, and preferring to let thoughts incubate silently rather than be nailed down by being spoken. Towards the end of a novel I’m rather more consumed by it, and can get into one of those states where I’m up several times a night making a note of something or other. My closest friends all say they know I’m working well when I seem slightly grumpy and distant over coffee, as if only “humoring” them with a visit while waiting to get back to my work. I deny this, of course.
MZBFM: What do you like best about being a writer?
GGK: I love the autonomy, especially the luxury I have of being able to write my books patiently and feel no real pressure to get them out quickly. I’m aware of what a gift that is. The long process, on the other hand, can be draining and in each book there have been times when it seemed to me it would _never_ get written, I would be slogging through in some sort of purgatorial state forever. [laughs] Obviously I hope no readers feel the same way.
MZBFM: If you could write in anyone else’s world, fantasy or otherwise, would you?
GGK: Because of the way I work, I can’t even conceptualize an answer to that!
MZBFM: Who are your favorite authors to read and recommend to others to read?
GGK: I’ve mentioned several names already, in terms of influences. I’ll also urge anyone who loves fantasy to read Alan Garner … I have long been saying that I find most adult fantasy these days increasingly juvenile, and that many allegedly juvenile books are really far more sophisticated in their use of the genre. Garner’s one of the very best at this, and The Owl Service is his masterpiece, for me.
MZBFM: It’s always a little surprising to me to hear how authors view their own careers. What do you consider the highlights of your career so far?
GGK: The emotional highlight is almost certainly the first acceptance letter (from England, as it happens) relayed by my agent for The Summer Tree. The auction for Tigana was hugely exciting (and rewarding) and marked a major shift in “status” for me. I’m completely unable to choose among my own books to pick a favourite or any kind of highlight in that way.
MZBFM: What was your darkest moment as a young writer?
GGK: No single catastrophe. The fairly predictable musings that I’d _never_ be recognized, never actually be published … which is why, as I said before, the first acceptance letter is probably the best moment I remember.
MZBFM: Did you always want to be a writer?
GGK: Yes, and a hockey player. I have just about reconciled myself to never making the NHL. Everyone retiring is younger than me.
MZBFM: That definitely has to be one of the differences of growing up in Canada! What position?
GGK: Right wing; I shoot right. Or center.
MZBFM: The loss to the NHL notwithstanding, I think it’s safe to say there’re a lot of readers out there who are glad you’ve stayed with the writing.
You just finished Lord of Emperors a few weeks ago, so this should be timely. What’s your favorite method for getting a new project started?
GGK: Half a year of reading, until I find a theme and a period that ‘ignite’ for me.
MZBFM: And what’s your favorite way to celebrate finishing a project? (assuming doing interviews is _not_ the right answer .)
GGK: Well, once upon a time the celebrations would be of the sort that I couldn’t _answer_ in an interview, but that’s a long time ago. In truth, right now, finishing volume two of “The Sarantine Mosaic” has me caught in a crosswind of emotions. Great happiness at being done (writing is hard, having written is _wonderful_), along with a real sense of wistfulness, because I’ve lived with this story and these characters for almost five years now.
MZBFM: Earlier you mentioned that your books all have very different themes. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, editor John Clute asserts that all of your work so far has been set around themes of justice. Would you agree with that?
GGK: I’ve never formulated it in those terms in my own mind … which by no means implies that John isn’t right. I’d have spoken more readily in terms of actions and their consequences, the weight of deeds, the price of power, the burdens of responsibility. I’m also very much involved in trying to explore the ambiguities in human affairs … the complexity of such things.
MZBFM: With “The Sarantine Mosaic” wrapped up, what project(s) are you currently planning or working on? –Or is it way too soon to even think about that yet?
GGK: Aie! After five years enmeshchsed in _this_?? Bite your tongue! Um, yes, a bit too early to speculate! I _never_ know the next book while writing one.
© Marion Zimmer Bradley Fantasy Magazine