Under Heaven Author’s Letter


Sometimes a reader’s question stops you cold. Makes you cast an eye back over your own body of work and think about it differently. This can happen with an academic paper or a thoughtful review, but it feels more immediate when it is a direct query.

“What is it with exile in your books?”

That’s what one of my publicists asked last month in the midst of an email covering all sorts of things from the need for me to write some essays for her (voila! ) to new author photos (truth in advertising was hinted at), to timing the release of Advance Reading Copies of River of Stars into the blogosphere, to how many puns I am allowed to make on Twitter. (I won that one.)

She didn’t say, “Tell me about ‘exile’ in River of Stars“, which would have been fairly straightforward because it is a major theme there. (We’ll get to that.) No, she threw it out as an overarching thought across all my books.

I started to track back. (Some mild spoilers in this.) Right away, in Fionavar, we had Matt Sören exiled, and Aileron. And Torc’s father. Three in a row – in the first volume of the trilogy.

Tigana is so much about the implications and reverberations of exile, physical and spiritual. An epigraph from Dante sets it up:

All that you held most dear you will put by
and leave behind you: and this is the arrow
the longbow of your exile first lets fly.
You will come to know how bitter as salt and stone
is the bread of others, how hard the way that goes
up and down stairs that never are your own.

(You think I was going to miss a chance to quote those stunning words? That’s the John Ciardi translation of the Paradiso, by the way.)

In A Song for Arbonne the protagonist is in self-imposed exile from his homeland (very real, notwithstanding) and a woman flees that same homeland, later. In Lions of Al-Rassan, both of the male protagonists are exiled by their monarchs. The book came together for me in the research phase when I realized, from two different books, that the real figures who inspired my characters had been exiled by different kings to the same city at the same time. I don’t think anyone had ever noted it. It was a gift for me, as a storyteller.

The two Sarantium books have many characters leaving home for far away, sometimes by painful choice, sometimes under orders, one sold, one fleeing assassination. They all look at the city where they arrive through stranger’s eyes. Last Light of the Sun is anchored in the reality that an exile in that harsh northern world was utterly exposed and unprotected. One needed a framework of family and community to have a decent chance to survive. In Ysabel, the principle narrator is also a long way from home but he isn’t ‘exiled’. On the other hand, the two thousand year old love triangle at the heart of the book has three figures exiled in time, desperately far from their origins and their world.

In Under Heaven one of the female protagonists is ‘married to a far horizon’, sent into exile as a bride to a steppe tribe the empire wants pacified, and a different princess has set the plot in motion from her own marriage-into-exile. The response of poets to the sorrow of such women reverberates through Chinese literature and I wanted it in the book.

So, yes, I’ve been exploring this for a long time. The question nailed it. I owe someone a martini.

We all have our understanding of human nature and the world. Our themes as writers shift as we change as people and artists (or they should, I think). A motif might drift away, and later re-emerge to be explored differently – because we are different and the world is for us.

I find exile to be one of the most powerful ways to present and explore a character in extremis. The intensity of that. Longing for the homeland. The idea of exile also lets a novelist, if he’s done his or her homework, underscore elements of the society being evoked. Why are people exiled? What does it mean for them? For those left behind?

It also, from a technical, ‘writerly’ perspective, can set up a viewpoint for the reader: if someone is experiencing a new place (cynically, fearfully, arrogantly?), their observations and reactions become a way in for the reader who is, obviously, also ‘away from home’.

In River of Stars, my newest, the idea of political exile is a dominant one in the culture I’m shaping, drawn from harsh historical reality. As prime ministers and their followers came into and out of power around erratic emperors, the people that were ‘out’ were … well, they were way, way out during the Song Dynasty which inspired this book.

Exile could be mild – to your country estate or your home town. But it could also be, and more and more often it became, a way of killing a man (and his wife and children and extended family) without drawing blood. Exiling someone over mountains and through jungles to the steaming hot, malarial south had … predictable effects. A cycle of political revenge emerged in that dynasty (and in my novel) built around sending people to places where, as Goldfinger said to 007, ‘I expect you to die, Mr Bond.’

I don’t write novels inspired by history to offer easy parallels to our own time. That can feel lazy, or glib, or both. But I do find immense richness in seeing how the past is both startlingly similar and amazingly strange, and thereby giving myself (and the reader) something to think about in the midst of a story I hope will keep them turning pages late.

Let’s just say, as a conclusion, that I want you exiled from your own life in the world River of Stars creates. Then (extending the image) when you finish the book, you come home – with something gained from that time away.

In all the stories and studies of the mythic ‘hero’s journey’ it isn’t the adventure away that is critical, it is the coming home with treasure (of many different kinds, including wisdom), that is the key. I like books that take us away, and guide us back with something new. I try to write that way.

© Guy Gavriel Kay


This entry was posted in Essays, GGK's Words. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.