Interview with Challenging Destiny Magazine

Challenging Destiny: Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

This interview appears courtesy of the magazine Challenging Destiny. The interview was conducted by James Schellenberg and David M. Switzer, and appears in the 11th issue of Challenging Destiny. Reproduced with kind permission.

CD: How did you get involved with editing J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion?

GGK: Christopher Tolkien’s second wife was a Winnipeg woman, and our families knew each other. So when they were visiting her parents on occasion in Winnipeg he and I met — when I was an undergrad at the University of Manitoba. My usual joke is that we got on about as well as an Oxford don and a University of Manitoba undergraduate are going to get along. When his father died in the winter of ’73, he was named literary executor and had the responsibility for putting together The Silmarillion. He invited me to come over in the winter of ’74/’75 to work with him on that. I think in the inception the model in his mind was that this would be academic work. The model was the classic senior academic working with the bright grad student who does a lot of the various kinds of legwork and research. The irony is that the Silmarillion editing ended up being at least as much if not significantly more a creative exercise than a scholarly one. The purely scholarly books are the ones that he’s been producing subsequently. The difference between those two is a measure of the difference in the nature of what the editing was all about.

CD: How did you enjoy that experience?

GGK: It was extraordinary. I was very young. It was unquestionably one of those seminal experiences. I’d always wanted to write, but I’d also always wanted to play right wing for the Maple Leafs. And criminal law had always been an interest. The year I was at Oxford working on the Tolkien papers crystallized pretty strongly a realization that I would always want to be working with writing. I didn’t expect — you can’t be rational and expect — to make a living writing fiction out of Canada or indeed anywhere. So it didn’t cause me to immediately go off to Paris or Nova Scotia and sit on a rock and write poetry. I came back and did a law degree. My expectation was that my best case scenario would be that I would be practising law and working as best I could to find time to write books in and around that practise.

CD: Do you think that your training as a lawyer influences your writing?

GGK: It has been an asset in the way in which law teaches you to become an instant expert on something. If you’re going to be a litigation lawyer and you’re cross-examining an expert in ballistics or tire skid marks in a case, you have to be knowledgeable enough on his terrain — his subject matter — very quickly in order to competently challenge him on his ground. You would never remotely hold yourself forth as a real expert on ballistics, but in a small aspect of ballistics as pertains to your case you need to be very knowledgeable very fast. In the same way, in the kind of writing I’ve done in the last decade which is very carefully researched and very intensely based on certain aspects and themes of history, I need to become quite knowledgeable on something like mosaics or Byzantine chariot racing and the hippodrome fans. Legal training has been a significant element in refining that skill.

CD: What’s the process you go through when you’re starting a new book? Do you read a bunch of history and then decide…

GGK: That’s pretty much it. It’s been a little bit different for each book, not surprisingly. I don’t have a formula. The last few years, at the end of every book I don’t know what the next book’s going to be. When people ask me I’m not just being coy when I don’t answer that because I don’t know. At the end of a book I start reading very widely. It’s a very expensive period — I buy a lot of books. Almost in a kind of random association through the bookshelves at the big bookstores, online purchases, scholarly books. I’m piling up books that appear to have no logical nexus and in fact probably don’t. Out of that reading I become tuned to things in the zeitgeist — in the air, the atmosphere around me. Certain things that happen today, happened 1400 years ago. At the time I was starting to research Sarantium the whole issue of English soccer violence was hitting the news. The parallels that leaped out at me when reading about the hippodrome fans — the chariot racing fans — in 6th century Byzantium and soccer fans today are extraordinary. The things that decent citizens say about how you can’t go to a soccer match today — people would say you can’t go to the hippodrome with your family because their wives will be insulted and their children abused or something. It’s exactly the same thing. I become somewhat tuned to finding correspondences in that way. So the method is primarily that I look to find a period that captures my imagination and then a theme to extract from that period.

Then I look for the characters. Only after that, out of the character and theme, does the plot start to emerge. With each book it’s been in that sequence, with odd exceptions. In Tigana, I knew there was a cabin in the woods. I had no idea what would happen there, but long before I had a book I had this cabin in the woods where something happened. The physical image of the cabin was very strongly there for me — I had no idea what I would do with it. Things like that happen. But in general it’s that four-stage process.

CD: How do you balance the nonfiction and the fiction in your books?

GGK: It’s not just the nonfiction and the fiction, it’s also the fantasy and the history. I’m doing a kind of four-way balancing act. That unsettles some people and excites some others. Which is all any writer’s going to be doing — you can’t work for everyone. There are certain readers for whom what they want out of historical fiction is to know what happened in the year 546 — they want to know the core facts. There’s a kind of pedagogic function that certain kinds of historical writers give — they assuage the guilt people may have for reading fiction instead of fact. So you read a James Michener or something like that and you think you’re learning what happened in South Africa, Hawaii, or Texas. You’re getting raw facts. And I won’t give you that. I’ll give you themes and motifs from a period, but I take the facts and I spin them quite deliberately. There are many reasons why I do that. I’ve written a couple of essays — if you look on the Bright Weavings site ( a couple of them are posted — about why I’m doing what I do. The balancing act of fact with fiction is an almost completely intuitive exercise for any writer — anyone who does their research is going to be trying to find some harmony. Where it could be a flaw is what could be called undigested research. The writer who’s so keen to show you how much they know about something that great gobbets of raw fact are tucked into the book like an undigested meal. You have to get over them in order to get back to the story. That’s failed fiction writing for me. Unless you’re Herman Melville — Melville got away with it in Moby Dick.

CD: You’ve often used European history in particular as a basis for your books. Why is that?

GGK: Pure personal fascination. It’s simply that it galvanizes me. It interests me. From the time I was very young — I took my first backpacking trip through Europe at 18 — I’ve been fascinated by aspects of Western civilization, European history. I’m comfortable with it. I have some slight discomfort with those writers who — not for a cultural appropriation issue, but they leap into a culture or pe
riod of history that’s completely alien to them, and end up superimposing their own values. Without naming names, I have a vivid memory of one novelist who wrote a book about Dynastic Egypt and was giving a reading from it at a convention once and explaining how her heroine felt gravely imperilled because they were expecting her to marry her brother. And of course that scandalized her. And somebody in the audience said, “Why?” “Because it’s incest.” “But she’s a Dynastic Egyptian princess. What’s her problem?” And the author said, “Well, it’s my problem.” “Well, then you shouldn’t be writing about that period.” That has stayed with me — it was about 15 years ago. To some degree, you can’t help but be a product of your own time and place. But when you’re writing about history you have to make an effort to be aware of your own prejudices, your own presuppositions, and filter for them as best you can.

Byzantium of course is a crossroads of Asia and Europe — the East-West thing is a big element in Sarantine Mosaic. Crispin’s personal movement from West to East, the background of the movement of the empire from West to East. The second volume begins with Rustem making a move from East to West. That whole East-West thing in Asia and Europe is central to the dynamic of the two novels.

CD: You often go away to do your research.

GGK: I used to. You have two small children, and to a certain degree you get grounded a lot more. I used to go away to research and to write.

I was in Greece for the first book in the trilogy, New Zealand for the second, I wrote Tigana in Italy, I wrote Song for Arbonne and Lions of Al-Rassan in France. It was very much in the beginning a case of going away to be undistracted. Phones didn’t ring. This was pre-fax, pre-email. It was going and working very intensely for four or five months at a time in a completely focussed way. Almost by accident I realized when we were in Tuscany and I was researching and writing Tigana — it wasn’t a planned thing, but the serendipity of realizing that I was writing about olive groves and vineyards and I was looking out at olive groves and vineyards. The fusion of being in the kind of environment I was trying to evoke made me realize how much that could help. But it’s not mandatory. Writers all over the world can sit looking out at a streetcar rumbling past them and evoke the glory of Rome. I would never say it’s necessary — and it’s not necessary for me now. But at the time when I was starting out I found it very useful to do that kind of detaching myself from my usual environment.

CD: Could you tell us what you were thinking about when you started The Sarantine Mosaic?

GGK: You have to take anything I say with a grain of salt. Working backwards and rendering rational and premeditated what’s very often intuitive and instinctual can be misleading. I don’t, for example, block out the plots of my books beforehand. So I’m discovering the story as I go along too. Very often the process of writing a book is a process of discovering what you’re writing it about. When you look back, anything I say makes it sound too firm and too set in the inception.

I was very interested in a couple of aspects of late antiquity — the period of Justinian and Theodora — that emerged for me. One was the tension of society on the cusp of change, the internal tensions in state religion. In our world the Christian heresies that were battling it out or being declared heretical. The tension between the carry-overs of paganism against the new sanctioned state religion. The tension of East and West — Rome fallen, Constantinople rising. Major military and cultural opposition with Persia in the East. All of these things engage me quite a lot. I got very interested in mosaics because I started to think: what do we envisage when we think about Byzantium if we do at all? And I think for most people if they have any kind of mental image at all it would be religious icons, mosaic images of those stiff, beautiful, formal faces. From that, the notion of working with a mosaicist occurred to me, and I started to research that and became quite fascinated by the possibilities. I discovered that in building Hagia Sophia, Emperor Justinian did summon artisans and craftspeople from all over the world to participate. He brought in marbles from all over the world — the marbles in Hagia Sophia are different kinds from everywhere — and he brought in craftspeople from everywhere to work on it. And that gave me a touchstone for a plot.

I was interested in the idea of how we try to leave a name that endures after us. It’s a central motif of the two books. The ways in which people try to say, “I lived. I was here.” For most people — the vast majority of people — the only way in which we can aspire to make that statement is in fact through children, grandchildren. A grandson given the name of a grandfather, an anecdote passed down through the family about Great-Uncle Henry and the day he did this or that, somebody’s recipe passed down through the family, a family heirloom. That kind of passage down through time is for most people tied in with children and family. For some people, a small minority — the monarchs and rulers, religious and political, and the artisans — there is at least a potential to do something that will endure. In the Mosaics, you’ve got Valerius attempting to do two things that will last, that will be his legacy. The one is the sanctuary. The other is the reclaiming of the original homeland of the Empire. A political statement and an aesthetic, religious one. You have other figures too. Crispin wants to do something that will last. He also wants to do a memorial to his family.

Then I started thinking about the difference between art forms that at least potentially can last — and those that don’t have a chance. Like dance, or athletics. Today we can look at a video of Michael Jordan — we’ll always have a video. But we have no idea what a singer or an athlete from 150 years ago sounded like or moved like. Their brilliance, their genius, by definition ended when they ended. Not just when they died, but when they stopped doing what they did. All we’ve got is a written record of what someone was like. As opposed to a writer, a painter, a mosaicist — in theory, what they do can last for a very long time. So that’s why in the two books you’re dealing with a mosaicist, you’ve also got a chef, you’ve got a chariot racer, a dancer. I became quite interested in this whole question of trying to leave something that will last. How do we remember the great figures of history? Fundamentally through what was written about them. What we know of Richard III is what Shakespeare did when he libelled him, for the Tudor’s successor regime. What we know of Justinian and Theodora are potently and forever affected by what Procopius the historian who chronicled their realm — who hated them — wrote in The Secret History. It was a vicious semi-pornographic libel for the most part. Who is the lord of emperors? Who controls how the emperor is remembered, while he is busily trying to leave a name? That’s part of what was going on, both when I started and as I began the writing — it unfolds as an awareness that this is what’s capturing me in that period.

CD: Are you working on a new book now?

GGK: I’m reading. I’m thinking, brooding, swearing a lot.

CD: Would you ever do any writing in any other genre?

GGK: I have — I’ve written radio and television scripts. I’ve adapted Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone. I spent eight years working on docudramas based on famous criminal trials in Canadian history, The Scales of Justice for radio and television. I’ve done a number of other things, but as I said before because I don’t know the very next book I can’t answer what the next or the next would be. I don’t tend to think in terms of genre in any real way. I think in terms of the nature of the story
I want to tell and what tools are available to make it work.

That’s why in something like Lions of Al-Rassan there’s essentially no magic, none of the supernatural. Because that particular story didn’t need it and might be undermined by it in my judgement. Whereas in The Sarantine Mosaic, you do have this presence of the half-world, the hint or flavouring of the supernatural. That came to me by way of Yeats’ poetry where he talks about the bird on a golden bough, the enchanted birds, the flames in the streets of Constantinople. The supernatural presence is in the Yeats poetry — that is a lot of how I envisage Byzantium. So the element of the supernatural came up more prominently in these books than it was in Lions. There were some people who were assuming that I was doing a straight line downward of magic and fantasy but that wasn’t it at all. It always will be I hope a case by case: what does this story need? The fantastic for me is a tool just like dramatic irony, the unreliable narrator, switching viewpoints, suspense, eroticism — all of these things are what you have at your disposal to make a story work. For me, the fantastic is another such tool that might work to improve the story.

CD: What about writing short stories as opposed to novels?

GGK: I’ve never done them. My joke is the shortest thing I’ve ever written is 300 pages. It comes up a lot, because various magazine editors and anthology editors are generous enough to want me on board. My standard response is I write fairly quickly but I think very slowly. I have some friends and colleagues who can get six ideas between waking up and showering and I get one or two good ideas every couple of years. But they’re big ones. That just seems to be the way my own creative process works.

CD: Do you think the idea of genre is helpful for classification?

GGK: When I was an undergraduate in English I wrote a paper for a Shakespeare course on Troilus and Cressida. I went into the library and I pulled out the first twelve or fifteen books I could find on Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida. I put them down in a carrel and started leafing through them for the articles and essays. One book was called Shakespeare’s Comedies and there was a piece on Troilus and Cressida, and another book was called Shakespeare’s Tragedies and there was a piece on Troilus and Cressida. I found the people being staggeringly vituperative and ad hominem and violently disagreeing with each other over the issue of classification. They weren’t writing about whether it was good or bad, or what was good or bad about it, or wherein its strengths or weaknesses lay. They were fighting each other over whether it was a tragedy or comedy. That impressed me — from that day on, before I was thinking about actually writing, I was deeply suspicious of the incredibly wasted energy that gets put into trying to slot something. It’s endemic in science fiction and fantasy. Even the energy spent on whether something is science fiction or fantasy, or subcategory — is it heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery or high fantasy. After a while this is really stupid. It’s a waste. The very fact that it’s debated about should end the discussion. The very fact that it can be seen in ambivalent or complex ways suggests that whatever slot you tag onto it, there’s going to be an element of square peg/round hole. Am I uncomfortable with categories? Only to the extent that they get in the way of evaluating the book. I’m not uncomfortable with the fact that when you walk into a bookstore if you like mystery it helps to have a section that says “Mysteries.” If everything were alphabetical, it would be very difficult to browse bookshelves. If you have a particular taste, and we all do. Obviously there is a consumer-directed virtue to broad categories that help us find what we like. If you go into a supermarket, and the vegetables aren’t in one section — if it’s alphabetical and you’ve got Ajax next to apples, it’s cumbersome shopping. The same thing in bookstores — it makes some sense to work with broad categories. But when actually trying to define or evaluate a specific book I find the energy put into categorization a mistake.

CD: How do you go about creating your characters?

GGK: There’s no rubric for that. I’m drawn as a reader to books that have interesting things happening to interesting people. The two halves of that. I think a lot of what would be called contemporary fiction is very much driven by the interesting people side of it, with the interesting things seen almost as a negative. A lot of what would be called genre fiction tends to be interesting thing-based, plot-based. Character slows it down. My own instincts are always to try as best I can to incorporate both elements of that. Somebody once said — and they didn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment — that Kay never met a secondary character he didn’t like. Their point was that for a certain kind of reader who’s plot-based the attention paid to the supporting or secondary figures is an impediment for them. You can’t please everyone — certain other readers, that’s what draws them. The layers of complexity you can react to, in even the supporting — sometimes even the minor characters. We all write — those of us who are serious about our writing — those books we’d like to read if someone else wrote them. I know I do. And I like books where the complexity of motivation, of morality, of interaction, is a big part of the story. I’m bored by books where I’m not engaged by the people in the story. There’s a layering up element to the characterization, simply because of my own taste as a reader.

CD: You’re not afraid to put your characters in very painful situations. Do you grow attached to your characters?

GGK: Sure. But that’s part of the compact with your story. There have been some much-praised novels, in fantasy for example, where for me the ending is a cheat because the book has pitched stakes very highly — this is a grand dramatic conflict — and at the end of the game it is won with no losses. And for me, the emotional engagement with the story demands a certain measure of awareness that if it really is that dramatic a conflict, that dangerous, that significant a situation, it is irresponsible to assume that it could be resolved with no consequences or losses to the characters. That’s one aspect of it.

The other is simply that emotional engagement with character and intensity of involvement is not going to emerge without some sense of being at risk, and that sense of being at risk will never emerge if nothing significant ever happens to them. It’s not just the movie trick, where you’re watching a Dirty Dozen-type movie and the joke is you can tell in the first five minutes who’s going to buy it at the end. It’s usually the second buddy of the lead guy, or something like that. It’s not the idea of picking a few people you have to knock off. It’s much more a sense of being faithful to the scale on which you’re operating — for me.

CD: How do you keep track of the complex elements in your books?

GGK: Part of what a lawyer does is keep a tremendous number of balls in the air at any given time — you may have 80 active files. Even in one trial you may have 20 or 25 things you’re trying to do during the course of that trial. You’re cross-examining one witness, you’re aware that you’ve got another one coming on your side a little later and you want to set that up. There is an element of multi-tasking that goes into legal training and legal thinking. Having said that, it gets perilously difficult towards the end of the book sometimes. You resort to time charts and tracking. I remember in The Fionovar Tapestry I literally did have a chart with each character and where they were and the distance on the map. Because everyone comes together at the end — I had to get them there. At the same time I had to find plausible ways to make
the convergence of characters work. So some of it is just the mundane process of blocking out where everyone is and what everyone’s doing in order to make it fit together.

CD: You started out writing a trilogy and then a number of one-volume books, and now you’re back to a two-volume series.

GGK: Nothing planned. Well, Fionovar was planned as a trilogy because it was a self-conscious, self-aware attempt to make a statement. In retrospect it’s amusing. But back then I was “shocked and appalled” at the barbarians in the temple — the post-Tolkien trivialization of fantasy that I saw happening. And the serious writers of fantasy — the people I respected — were it seemed to me turning away from epic fantasy to other kinds of smaller scale work. Urban fantasy was born around that time — people like Megan Lindholm, Charles de Lint. Small, precise, nicely done books. But they were almost a kind of abandoning of the field of the epic scale to the hacks. And it ticked me off a bit. It seemed to me a premature abandonment. I really felt that the elements of high fantasy — the elements that Tolkien had taken from myth and legend — not the elements he invented, the elements he took from primary sources — were still there to be taken and worked with. And they could be recombined in different ways — you could work with those same core elements and come to a different destination. And so Fionovar was very consciously a statement that I’m going to do a tremendous number of the formulaic things — it’s going to even be a trilogy. Back then a trilogy was standard, now it’s as far as you want to go. A trilogy was almost synonymous with big fantasy. I’m going to address the middle book problem — a specific creative dilemma you have when you’re doing a trilogy. I’m going to work with figures such as elves and dwarves and magic and prophecy. I’m going to consciously take these elements and try to add to them characterization, complexity of motivation, ambiguity of morality — and see if it’s possible to marry these things and produce something that can at least lay claim to having merit. And so that was a deliberate trilogy. The books that followed were simply stories that leant themselves to being one volume. The Sarantine Mosaic leant itself to two volumes — you have to look at the two together to see how and why, but it falls very naturally into two quite different kinds of book — but it is a pair. The next one, I have no idea.

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