When my family and I embarked on our own “year in Provence” in the autumn of 2004, I discovered that the well known seductions of the south of France could come with challenges that went beyond plumbing or the depredations of France Telecom.
It was our fourth stay there, much the longest sojourn, and my own task when we arrived was to sort out what my tenth novel would be.
I had two or three ideas jostling each other. I’d brought a trunk full of books for research purposes. But as we settled in to our villa and routines, I learned in cafés and over lunches more than ever before about where we were and what it had been through millennia. We stumbled one day upon a round, roofless medieval watchtower in the middle of nowhere (watching for what?) and walked alone a week later through Celtic ruins smashed flat by Roman catapults two thousand years ago. A different sort of tale started telling itself to me.
I actually resisted, briefly. Veteran novelists aren’t supposed to be so much at the mercy of time and place, of impulse, of the view from a terrace down a valley to a bell tower at sunset.
Or are we?
The books that work are rarely those we force into the light. They are the ones that want to emerge, that demand it, actually, pushing everything else out of the way.
That’s what happened with Ysabel. Where I was, the air I breathed, the paths we walked (or climbed), the historians I met, and the archaeologists and photographers-all conspired towards a novel that felt like a major departure.
But in many ways, as winter came to the south and the book began to take shape, it wasn’t such a departure after all. It was a shifting of the prism, a different way of looking at concerns I’ve explored for a long time.
Since Tigana in 1990, I’ve been engaged in using the fantastic to examine themes of history, to bring home to contemporary readers elements of the past that seem to me to be too important to forget. I’ve carried readers into many different periods-Renaissance Italy, medieval France, Islamic Spain, Byzantium, the hard northlands of the Vikings and Welsh and Anglo-Saxons-and tried to shape wonder and thought and passion.
This time, in Ysabel, I wanted to bring the past forward instead.
During that autumn in Cézanne’s countryside, I started thinking about how some parts of the world still carry the hard imprint of what has gone before. How “yesterday” in such places isn’t so remote in certain ways, though it might seem so. And it also occurred to me (not for the first time) that “the past” can mean so many different things. It can be twenty-five-hundred years or-in a family working through its relationships and scars-only twenty-five.
Out of these thoughts and images, in the brilliant light of Provence, Ysabel-the book, and the woman named in the title-came to me.
I hope you enjoy.
Guy Gavriel Kay