On Writing Sailing to Sarantium

This piece was written for Earthlight, GGK’s British publishing house.
At the end of every novel I write, a journey begins with no known destination. I never know what my next book will be. In order to find out, for each of my past four novels, I read history. Random periods, varying styles of scholarship and narrative, books I’ve meant to read for a while, books just published, books encountered in reviews or by simply browsing the stacks of bookshops. And from this eclectic process, so far, an idea, a concept, a framework has always emerged.

For Sailing to Sarantium the process was slightly less random and I suppose this can be acknowledged as a case of reviewers and readers impacting on an author’s progress. For years, it seems, one of the most common adjectives attached to my fiction has been ‘Byzantine’. I treat it as a compliment, since my own taste as a reader tends very much towards books with complex plots and equally complex characters. It occurred to me, after reading yet another such assessment of my most recent book, that I might as well do some exploring in the real thing — and find out something about the Byzantines.

I was hooked, like a fish. The vibrant, dangerous gorgeous city that the Emperor Constantine named for himself and made his capital in the fourth century AD offered the promise of a setting, plot twists, characters, themes and motifs . . . all the elements that spur and motivate my use of fantasy to examine our own histories.

That last might need explaining. For me, fantasy has never been in its essence about constructing elaborate magical systems for duelling sorcerers or contriving new versions of an enchanted ring or further variations on the use of hyphens and apostrophes in invented names. Fantasy is — at its best — the purest access to storytelling that we have. It universalizes a tale, it evokes wonder and timeless narrative power, it touches upon inner journeys, it illuminates our collective and individual pasts, throws a focusing beam on the present day, and presages the dangers and promises of the future. It is — or so I have argued for years — a genre, a mode of telling, that offers so much more than it is usually permitted to reveal.

In Byzantium — which became my own alchemized Sarantium — I found magic and mysteries, sexuality, dazzling art, chariot racing in the magnificent Hippodrome (with partisan brawling in the streets before and after), warfare, political intrigue, and the ageless clashes between east and west, secular and pious, artist and soldier, walled city and open countryside. I found, in short, and in the glorious words of Yeats who gave me both my title and my access to the supernatural in this dazzlingly rich setting, ‘whatever is begotten, born and dies.’

What more, really, could a writer desire? Well, one thing more I suppose: that his own art be worthy of the inspiration. And that, for all my books including Sailing to Sarantium and its sequel to come, will be for the reader to judge — which is as it should be.

© Guy Gavriel Kay

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