Interview with Kristin Centorcelli

SF Signal: An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

This interview was conducted online by Kristin Centorcelli and originally appeared at SF Signal in February 2013. Reproduced with kind permission.

Guy Gavriel Kay is the #1 internationally bestselling author of ten previous novels and an acclaimed collection of poetry, Beyond This Dark House.

Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and raised in Winnipeg. In the 1970?s he was retained by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien to assist in the editorial construction of Tolkien’s posthumously published The Silmarillion. He returned to Canada from Oxford to take a law degree at the University of Toronto and was called to the Bar in Ontario.

Kay became Principal Writer and Associate Producer for the CBC radio series, “The Scales of Justice”, dramatizing major criminal trials in Canadian history. He also wrote several episodes when the series later moved to television. He has written social and political commentary for the National Post and the Globe and Mail and for The Guardian in England, and has spoken on a variety of topics at universities and conferences around the world.

In 1984, Kay’s first novel, The Summer Tree, the first volume of The Fionavar Tapestry, was published to considerable acclaim in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, and then in a number of countries and languages. In 1990 Viking Canada’s edition of his novel Tigana reached the national bestseller list, and his next book A Song for Arbonne debuted at #1 in Canada.

Translations now exceed twenty languages and Kay has toured and read on behalf of his publishers and at literary events in Canada, the United States, England, Poland, France, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Mexico and Greece, among others, with his next international appearance being slated for June 2010 in Shanghai and Beijing. He has been nominated for and has won numerous literary awards including the World Fantasy Award and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Prize (presented in Mexico City) for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic. Guy Gavriel Kay’s work has inspired artists and writers around the world to create original music, verse, and art.

Guy was kind enough to take some time and chat with us about his upcoming novel, River of Stars!


Kristin Centorcelli: Guy, you have an extensive list of credits and your name is synonymous with quality fantasy. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about your background?

Guy Gavriel Kay: First of all, thank you. Nice way to get on an author’s good side (I do have one) from the outset of an interview! I usually say I became interested in writing around when I collided with the grim truth that I was never going to make the NHL or play second base in MLB. In fairness to me, this shattering self-awareness arrived around the age of nine or so. I am, however, currently working with a trainer to mount a late push to make it to the Bigs in baseball. Stay tuned.

Um, no. A little more seriously, writing always appealed as an interest, but I never thought I would be able to make a living at it. As an oldest son I prudently took a law degree (criminal law fascinated, Clarence Darrow was a hero) and my call to the bar, for the classic ‘something to fall back on’… no idea what people thought would happen if I fell forwards. I never practised law. Became involved in radio and then television drama here in Canada while the first books found their readers and I dropped most of the media work around the time Tigana became a commercial break-out. I wake up every morning feeling genuinely fortunate that I can write the books I want to write, at the pace that lets me do them as well as I can.

KC: Your new book, River of Stars, will be out in April and takes place four centuries after Under Heaven. Will you tell us a bit about the research you did for these novels, which take place in ancient China?

GGK: Well, small caveat, but an important one. As always in my work, it is not ‘in ancient China’ it is in a setting meant to evoke ancient China (the Song Dynasty this time). I do this ‘quarter turn to the fantastic’ for many reasons, and can be quite startlingly boring on the subject. For those with a tolerance for pain, there are essays and speeches over at in the ‘GGK’s Words’ section.

The research for each novel is, put simply, my favorite part of any book. I am just learning things, reading, travel sometimes, corresponding with experts in a time and place. And in the early stages I have no duties, no responsibilities yet. Eventually the nagging voice becomes really assertive and I know I have to shift gears and begin to produce something from that year or two of preparation. But by now it is clear (to me) that my creativity flows best when grounded in a lot of detail. Indeed, I believe that grounding has to be so secure that the vast majority of the research does not enter the book except subliminally, or does so very quietly…or else you get what I hate as a reader, which is the ‘info dump’ meant to show off that the author did a bit of background stuff!Quite a bit of fantasy features characters that are very black and white, with nothing in between, no gray. Your stories feature very gray characters much of the time and challenge the reader to judge for themselves the “right” and “wrong” of their actions. Do you personally find it to be more challenging to write “gray” characters? Was this a conscious choice on your part when you started writing or was it a more organic process?I honestly think we write the books we’d like to read if someone else wrote them. Since I tend to be bored by the absence of subtlety or nuance, I suppose I am always trying to achieve that in my work. It is for the reader, obviously, to decide if a) they like this idea and b) I succeed. So it isn’t so much ‘conscious’ or ‘organic’ as a matter of my own aesthetic, I guess. I have been teased that I’ve never met a secondary character I didn’t like…and there’s truth to that. I often find that through the peripheral figures I can achieve my strongest effects, whether of character, emotion, or shaping depth to a setting for the reader.

KC: You’re undoubtedly a huge influence to many writers. Who, or what, are some of your biggest influences in your writing?

GGK: That question makes me feel old! There goes the good will you established off the top.

The ‘influence’ question comes up for all of us. I sometimes worry it betrays constrained understanding of the creative process. We internalize so much. I am influenced by games I played in the neighbourhood with my brother and friends as a kid. By seeing ‘Old Yeller‘ at six or seven and crying so much. By the Yankees losing a World Series (also when I was a kid) and my…crying so much. Ysabel was influenced by Cezanne and his mountain more than any book I ever read. Under Heaven by the great Tang Dynasty poets in translation (and hearing a deeply moving story about a translator’s father). I am influenced hugely by fatherhood. By being Canadian. By being a western-born Canadian. By being a male Baby Boomer.So if we narrow the focus to ‘other books’ it seems to me to risk over-emphasizing that aspect of things which may not be central for a given person (or given work). For sure there are some writers who are stamped or imprinted by one other author’s books. My own sense (this may be harsh) is that if that doesn’t change or evolve, their own art won’t be substantial.I think all of us writing seriously in English have to come to terms with Shakespeare as best we can. His influence on some of my characters, literary devices, and themes is strong and probably pretty obvious in places. (One example: I enjoy using what I call the ‘porter in Macbeth’ idea, holding back the revelation of something, or the moving forward of the main plot, to heighten drama.) All serious authors have to navigate their alignment on an axis of Tolstoy and Flaubert. Those linked to fantasy must ‘process’ Tolkien, and my own involvement with the Tolkien materials actually made that easier for me. From Tolkien I also learned the importance of patience and then of courtesy to readers. From Dorothy Dunnett I learned something I mentioned above: how critical it can be to do your research, ground yourself in it. From many writers I admire I learned the core notion of respecting your readers with the books themselves.

KC: What are a few of your favorite novels?

GGK: I am all over the map. (This question leaves out non-fiction, and I’ll follow that here.) I’ll name some writers. George Garrett. Dorothy Dunnett. Mary Renault. Hilary Mantel, all in historical fiction. Jane Gardam and Penelope Fitzgerald, sublimely clever, sly, moving UK writers. Beyond JRRT, I love E.R. Eddison and T.H. White in fantasy, and the brilliant, challenging Alan Garner. Roger Zelazny and John Brunner among many in sf. Sherlock Holmes, Moby Dick, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Love in the Time of Cholera. Gatsby. Philip Roth (later Roth, mostly). Song of Solomon. My book-of-the-year last year was HHhH by Laurent Binet, about the assassination of Heydrich in Prague. The early Woody Allen stories in Getting Even make me laugh out loud, even now.

More? How much time have you got? I’m a ‘hard’ reader, but the books I love I love passionately, and I want that to happen to me.

KC: When you manage to carve out some free time, how do you like to spend it?

GGK: Doing online interviews?

Travel remains a passion, and it is getting easier again to explore, with older sons. I prefer ‘travel’ to ‘tourism’ and I suspect people know what I mean. I am a helples, hapless baseball fan, waiting for the season to start all winter. The great columnist Thomas Boswell called a book Why Time Begins on Opening Day and he said it for me, too. I’m a film buff, though a cranky one (what a surprise, I know). The best cable television (The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad) can hook me alarmingly. I used to play a lot of tennis and keep swearing I’ll get back to it and my wife keeps laughing at me. I am a politics junkie, and spam friends with articles I find (often that means blood pressure-raising articles). I have a core of brilliant friends, and weekend brunches are a ritual. I am now on Twitter, cautiously. God help me.

KC: What’s next for you?

GGK: I never know what a next book will be when I finish one. The only exception, ever, was Under Heaven, because I was researching a China-based book when our family went to the south of France again for me to write it, and I was hijacked by the history there (again) – and Ysabel insisted on being written. So when that novel was finished I already knew what was up next. But every other time (as now) I need an incubation period. In the short term, as I type these words, this is the beginning of the marketing stage for River of Stars, with its energy, stresses, demands. Some time in the summer or fall I’ll start being irritated with myself that I haven’t figured out ‘what’s next’ and that irritation (think oyster, seed, pearl) will produce an idea. I devoutly hope.

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