Many thanks to Holly Ordway (Assistant Professor of Letters at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California), for contributing this biography.
photo by Beth Gwynn
Guy Gavriel Kay
(7 November 1954 – present)
Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, on 7 November 1954 to Samuel Kay, a surgeon, and Sybil (Birstein) Kay. He has two brothers Jeffrey and Rex, who are, respectively, a lawyer and a psychiatrist. Kay himself trained to be a lawyer, earning his LL.B. from the University of Toronto after his B.A. in philosophy from Manitoba. However, he now earns his living as a novelist. Kay currently lives in Toronto with his wife Laura and their two sons.
Kay’s love of literature came early since his parents, both readers, read to their son regularly. Kay’s introduction to fantasy came through reading Greek myths, fairy tales, and later, authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, and Fritz Leiber. As an adult, he is an omnivorous reader, consuming large amounts of non-fiction as well as fiction. A few of the fiction writers Kay particularly respects are Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Thomas Flanagan, Shirley Hazzard, Cormac McCarthy, as well as the earlier works of Dorothy Dunnett, Updike’s “Rabbit” novels, and George Garrett’s Elizabethan historical fiction.
Despite this literary childhood, as a teenager Kay had at least three quite distinct career aspirations: to play right wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team; to become a lawyer; and to become an author. [Jansen] A critical development in Kay’s career as a writer came from his acquaintence with Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, when Kay was a student of philosophy at the University of Manitoba. When Christopher Tolkien was named literary executor after his father died, he invited Kay to Oxford to assist him in editing Tolkien’s fragmentary and uncompleted The Silmarillion. Kay accepted; as he comments, “Who in their right mind would NOT have been interested in the project?” Kay worked on The Silmarillion for a year, from 1974-1975.
The year that Kay spent working on the Tolkien project reinforced his interest in writing, but at the same time he became aware that it was not a profession to be relied on, especially for someone young and inexperienced. Not expecting to be able to make money as a writer, he returned to Canada and earned a law degree at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1978. [Jones] His interest in writing did not disappear, however: after finishing his degree, he went abroad to write his first, unpublished, novel.
Kay received his call to the Bar of Ontario in 1982, but never actually practised. He turned immediately to writing, this time in a different medium. He had become friends with criminal lawyer Edward Greenspan, who was developing (with writer/producer George Jonas) a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio series, The Scales of Justice, which was to dramatize real Canadian legal cases. Kay became Principal Writer and Associate Producer for the program [Crew] and continued to work for the series until 1989. The series was highly successful, including an award in 1985 for best media treatment of a legal issue from the Supreme Court of Canada and the Canadian Law Reform Commission. Kay still writes for television or film at times, between novels.
1984 marked two important events in Kay’s life: his marriage on July 15th to Laura Beth Cohen, a marketing consultant, and the publication of The Summer Tree, the first volume of the trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry. Kay produced the two following volumes in fairly rapid succession over the span of two years. In The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay started his career as a writer and as a fantasist by consciously working within the traditional boundaries, both in content and technique, of the branch of fantasy literature that Tolkien founded. In part, he was paying homage to Tolkien, whose writing had inspired him personally, and in part he was working to revitalize the genre. Kay comments that in The Fionavar Tapestry, he consciously chose “to work squarely in the Tolkien tradition while trying to allow room for character development and plausibility that I tended to find missing in most post-JRRT high fantasy. In a way it was a challenge to the debasing of the genre” [Adams].
The first of Kay’s standalone novels is Tigana (1990). The detailed, authentic feel of the world is due in part at least to the fact that it was written in Tuscany, following what was by this point Kay’s typical practice of writing his books while abroad. The novel shows careful research; some of the influences that Kay acknowledges in the final product are Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles and the work of Milan Kundera, Gene Brucker, Lauro Martines, Jacob Burckhardt, Iris Origo, and Joseph Huizinga. While the setting is modeled on 15th century Italian geography, politics, and culture, the themes that Kay works with are clearly 20th century. One of these is the nature and importance of cultural identity, and the effects of the cultural obliteration often practiced by conquerors in our own world, as in the old Soviet Union, Ireland, China, and in Native American reservations in the United States. [Crew] Another major theme of Tigana is how oppression is not merely political, but affects all aspects of personal interactions, including sexual relationships. The working out of this particular idea in the novel was inspired by Kay’s reading of Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves. [AA]
In 1990 Kay lost his beloved father. The birth of Kay’s first son later that same year brought a different emotional effect, and while his next novel, 1992’s A Song for Arbonne, is tinged with sadness, it is predominantly hopeful. Written during two visits to Provence, the novel is set in a world that clearly reflects medieval France. Kay credits sources of inspiration in the French historians Georges Duby, Phillippe Aries, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie; the work of Urban Tigner Holmes, Frances and Joseph Gies, and Friedrich Heer; and, for his knowledge of the history and the work of the troubadours, Frederick Golden, Paul Blackburn, Alan Press, and Meg Bogin.
The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), which is based on the story of the Cid, continues the trend toward the use of real historical events. Kay knew little of the history of medieval Iberia before starting work on the novel. While this meant that the project required a great deal of research, it was also an indication that the story would be a fresh one for many of Kay’s readers. He was able to take advantage of this by following his historical and legendary sources more closely than in previous novels. For the background information and inspiration for The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay particularly notes the work of Richard Fletcher, David Wasserstein, T.F. Glick, Nancy G. Siraisi, S.D. Goitein, Bernard Reilly, Pierre Riché, Rheinhart Dozy, and the writings of Manfred Ullman on medicine. The novel itself was inspired by a piece of art appearing in a book about medieval medicine: it showed a female physician holding a urine flask, urine samples being a typical method of diagnosis at the time. This image eventually became the character of Jehane. [Crew]
Kay’s newest project is his two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, consisting of 1999’s Sailing to Sarantium and 2000’s Lord of Emperors, set in a fantasy world modeled on ancient Byzantium.
© Holly Ordway
Works cited: Robert Crew. “Kay’s escapes aim at bringing readers home,” Toronto Star (29 June 1995): H13; Daniel Grotta. J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1992); Ann Jansen. “Castles in the Air: Guy
Gavriel Kay mixes history and fantasy,” Maclean’s, 105 (14 Dec. 1992): 56; Frank Jones. “Greek myths set his mind dreaming,” Toronto Star (7 Sept. 1990): F1; Robert K.J. Killheffer. Review of The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Tower of Beowulf, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 89 (Dec. 1995): 36-45; Henry Mietkiewicz. “Novelist brings touch of fantasy to epic,” Toronto Star (14 Nov. 1992): F11; Neil Randall. “Shifting Focalization and the Strategy of Delay: The Narrative Weaving of ‘The Fionavar Tapestry,'” Canadian Literature, 129 (Summer 1991): 40-54; J.R. Wytenbroek. “Fionavar,” Canadian Literature, 122-123 (Autumn-Winter 1989): 262-263.