Interview in the Historical Novels Review

Parallel Universes: Guy Gavriel Kay reflects on twenty years of alternative history

This interview appears courtesy of The Historical Novels Review, and first appeared in their November ’04 edition. The interview was conducted by Teresa Basinski Eckford. Reproduced with kind permission.

The year 2004 marks twenty years since Guy Gavriel Kay published his first book, The Summer Tree, launching his career as a prominent writer of fantasy fiction. Born in Canada, he attended the University of Manitoba, earning a BA in Philosophy. A law degree was next, from the University of Toronto, but writing is now his full-time job. His most recent novel is The Last Light of the Sun. I had the opportunity to read it and ask its author some questions about his career and work so far.

The Summer Tree and its sequels, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road, comprise the Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy still in print and well loved in High Fantasy circles. It established Kay as an author to be reckoned with, one whose popularity has continued to grow among readers of both fantasy and historical fiction.

Of the changes in his focus following the Fionavar Tapestry he explains: “After that trilogy, there’s been a shift: an increasing interest for me in working with fantasy to explore history.” And that he most certainly does, choosing a variety of places and times within medieval Europe. Tigana takes place in an alternate Italian Renaissance, A Song for Arbonne clearly draws its inspiration from medieval France and the era of the Cathars, while the story in The Lions of Al-Rassan derives much from the history of the fall of Granada in the late fifteenth century. Justinian and Theodora’s reign over the Byzantine Empire serves as the backdrop for The Sarantine Mosaic’s two books – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.

His ability to world build is one that has brought him many fans. His thoughts on the topic intrigued me: “I actually think I’ve been world-building in a less formal way than many writers of more traditional fantasy. I’m doing variations on historical themes, not create-from-scratch worlds. That’s part of my ‘process’ I suppose in the last fifteen years, of using fantasy and history to sharpen the focus on themes I see as important today.”

One particular aspect of the worlds he created fascinates me: the Jaddite religion, an interesting combination of Christianity and mythology. I asked him about it, curious about what inspired it and how he came to use it as a common element in his work, starting with The Lions of Al-Rassan. He replied:

The Jaddite religion began as part of a sun/moon/stars set of faiths in Lions of Al-Rassan, where I was interested in the dynamic of three religions in a setting based on the Iberian peninsula before the Reconquista. I wanted the interplay of faiths, without the tenets, to strip the story of religious prejudice. When I came to do the Sarantine Mosaic and realised that I absolutely had to have a mosaicist as the central figure it seemed idiotic to abandon a religion built around a god of the sun and light – given that mosaic is an artform based on the play of light. That’s why I kept it for that pair of books. And it lent itself so well to many motifs for Last Light of the Sun (including the title!) that I didn’t want to surrender it (or the options I gained by keeping the same overall ‘world’) in that book.

Fans of straight historical fiction might wonder why he veils his historical setting, drawing from it but never actually using it directly. He has his reasons, including the following:

I can say that one large element for me is the distaste I feel for appropriating real figures and making use of them in fiction. I am much happier with a Valerius and Alixana based on Justinian and Theodora: this seems to me to offer an up-front admission that we have no idea what the ‘real’ people were like in private with each other. Using fantasy in this way feels both ethically and creatively liberating, for both author and reader.

In an essay on his website, he expands on this theme:

Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?

The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient

The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? [Guy Gavriel Kay. “Home and Away”. Retrieved September 16, 2004 from]

Speaking as one who reads a lot of historical fiction and enjoys seeing real people from the past brought to life, I can say that despite the fantasy elements employed by Guy Gavriel Kay they do not interfere overmuch with the historical atmosphere or disguise too heavily the historical people upon whom his characters are based. In The Last Light of the Sun, it becomes evident early on that King Aeldred shares much with Alfred the Great, from his childhood, unforeseen rise to the throne and legendary burning of the cakes, to his love of scholarship and academic debate. This book is completely different from Kay’s earlier works in terms of setting. His reasons for the change reveal much about his method:

In this case, one thing that drew me was an awareness that the three previous novels had all been about exceptionally sophisticated, even decadent cultures. I thought it would be challenging and interesting to go to a setting and peoples where that kind of urbane civilization wasn’t even a dream yet for most people. The northlands, in Viking days, offered that. I wanted to see if I could shape language and a form of telling the tale (using elements from the sagas) that would show that difference.

The combination of history and fantasy is so well-balanced that it’s easy for the historical reader to accept the subtle differences and revel in the richly textured world created by the author. Not that his ability to develop such a backdrop should come as a surprise, considering the writers and experiences that have influenced Guy over the years:

Harold Bloom has written that all writers essentially dance a dance with their artistic ancestors in writing. We are shaped as people and artists by so many different things: other books, friends, lovers, the times into which we’re born, music, teachers … Tolkien certainly sharpened my love of fantasy, so did E.R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany. Dunnett, along with Mary Renault, is my own nomination for the preeminent historical fiction writer of our time. In Lady Dunnett’s case, I remain deeply admiring of her ability to reveal and showcase character within and through action scenes. I doubt anyone’s ever been better. I can name other writers but they are almost a banal citing of giants: Shakespeare, Yeats, Tolstoy. In historical fiction, I loved George Garrett’s novel of Ralegh, Death of the Fox, and the early works of Cecelia Holland. As a child I read Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease.

Though known for his novels, his initial success came with verse: “My first published work was poetry, that gave me my first awards and recognition, though on a modest scale.” And he continues to write it today, having recently published a collection of his poems entitled Beyond This Dark House, which ranges from very personal observations to new and interesting interpretations of Guinevere, Orpheus and Cain, among others. They make for fascinating reading and are worth exploring.

Those readers unfamiliar with Guy’s work who want to learn more would do well to visit his virtual home on the web, Unlike many author sites, devoted only to blatant self promotion, this site is a treasure trove, including annotated bibliographies for some of his books, essays by the author, scholarship devoted to his work, news, reviews and discussion forums. When approached by a website designer interested in building a web presence for his work, he admits he was at first reluctant:

Deborah Meghnagi, who now is an editor in a publishing house in Israel, but at the time was employed by a high tech company, did some adroit arm-twisting (a mixture of English politeness and Israeli persistence) and got me to give her a go-ahead to design a site. My condition/request was that brightweavings be, as much as possible, a place to showcase other people’s talent and thoughts, spun out of what I’ve done.

I asked him if he thought it’s important for an author to have a website, and found his opinion refreshingly different from those authors who see cyberspace as yet one more place to sell their books without really interacting with those who buy them:

Is it ‘important’ for an author to do this? I don’t think in any larger sense it is, but it certainly does enable the shaping of a community, and the sections that offer basic reference/research materials have saved me a lot of time and made it much easier for students and others doing papers to get information they need. I remain deeply touched by the generosity and admiring of the intelligence of the community that has taken shape at brightweavings.

To conclude, I asked the following question: “Your work has been compared to that of J.R.R. Tolkien. Given the recent success of the film version of The Lord of the Rings, would you like to see any of your series/books brought to life on the big screen? Or are you content with your readers visualizing the characters for themselves?” Fans wanting to see his characters on the big screen can take heart from his response:

Film discussions continue, pretty much as I type this. Authors have to approach the possibility of film with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Economically it can be enormously useful; artistically it is an out-of-one’s-control exercise, especially when we’re talking about very expensive epics. For what it is worth, the Hollywood impulse to talk to my agents is driven more by the resurgence of historical epic films than by the Tolkien/Harry Potter fantasies. We’ll see.


About the Interviewer: A history junkie and writer, Teresa Basinski Eckford lives in Ottawa, Canada with her husband Sean (who she met in a History class at Queen’s University) and their two cats, Scotty and George. At the aforesaid Queen’s, she earned both a BA and MA in History before striking out into the real world. Unpublished in fiction, she reviews books for the Historical Novel Society and Richard III Society, writes articles for the HNS magazine Solander, as well as for a number of online magazines and maintains her own website, devoted to history, research and historical and romance fiction. Her favourite periods are the Middle Ages and French Revolution, but she’ll feed her addiction with information from pretty much any era.

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