Interview with New York Review of Science Fiction

New York Review of Science Fiction: Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

This interview appears courtesy of Peter Halasz, who interviewed GGK for the New York Review of Science Fiction during 2000.

Guy Gavriel Kay, for those as yet unfamiliar with him or his work, is a family man, a lawyer, a radio and television scriptwriter, a poet, and a best selling novelist with over 1.4 million books in print translated into 14 languages. David Ketterer’s landmark Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy refers to him more simply as “a storyteller of genius”.

Kay generally begins publicity tours with a reading at his alma mater, the University of Toronto. I went to the reading at Hart House last Fall which kicked off a cross-country tour for his then new novel, Sailing To Sarantium. A crowd of mostly university students overflowed the capacious quarters of the Hart House Library for the event. And, to judge by the anticipation in the air when Kay walked to the podium, an event it was and not merely another reading.

A slight, elegantly spare figure, Guy made a few opening remarks and then read to the enraptured crowd. Unexpectedly, I became witness to a literary love-fest; quite remarkable actually in this day of the vicarious, and often vacuous special effects thrills found on cinema screens.

In the days when I was at university, students were a tough and unforgiving bunch. If our attention wasn’t captured, and held firmly, we’d think nothing of talking amongst ourselves or even of getting up and walking out. I know mores have changed since those antedeluvian days but students are still students and I was struck by how attentive and respectful they were.

Those who’ve met or talked with Guy Kay will know that he’s an interesting and convivial conversationalist; a smile usually lurks at the margins of his mouth and every once in a while it beams forth. But one of the more notable aspects about talking with Guy is that when engaged he is fully engaged. When you have his attention you have his undivided attention. That is flattering as well as a touch disconcerting.

We met and talked after he returned from his promotional tour. The interview below is excerpted from our discussion.

PH: The first three books you wrote, the Fionavar Tapestry, are high fantasy but your subsequent work took a real turn, and to me, a much more interesting turn, can you tell us a bit about that?

GGK: I wrote Fionavar, in part, as a response to what was happening with the genre since Tolkien; that is, the genre had become destructive to any sense of development and creativity. It was my attempt to respond to what I saw as the barbarians invading the temple of high fantasy. After The Lord of the Rings became such a commercial success, so many people were doing lazy, derivative and purely commercially driven works in the field.

Afterwards, I felt that in a really strong sense with Fionavar I had said what I had to say; and that I’d added what I could have added to the high fantasy genre for that time. There had been certain elements that, when I looked at the genre, seemed to me to be missing from it and certain elements that seemed to me to be over-identified with it.

PH: Can you amplify for us….

GGK: The genre was coming to be identified with the tropes and not the underpinnings, not the motifs. In other words, the enchanted stuff, the weapons,the battles the magic systems were coming to be the definition of the genre and I saw them as simply elements that are employed in the genre.

What was missing in general, for me were two significant things; one was the real sense of character – and you know you’ve never had a writer who didn’t say that – but the genre didn’t have it … with the exception of Stephen R. Donaldson. He made what I think was a gallant and ambitious attempt to play with some post-modern elements of the anti-hero. The second was that the notion of interweaving post-Freudian awareness of myth and legend was never embedded within the genre. Tolkien and many of the others writing fantasy, in his time, were pre-Freudian in their consciousness. My generation, and all those after us, cannot be so. Nevertheless the genre seemed to be lacking any real awareness of the psychological underpinnngs of myth and legend forms. Fionavar is …….

PH: Although Tolkien wrote in a pre-Freudian era I think he was very aware of mythopoeic stereotypes; although not Freudian…….

GGK: Completely so, but not in a psychological way, not Freudian at all. There’s a difference between being clued into myth, to legend, to our myth and legend while being very uncomfortable with the notion say, with the sexuality that underlies myth and legend. That’s what I’m getting at; the contribution of Freud is to suggest that these myths and legends are powerful for reasons with which Tolkien would have been very uncomfortable. Freud gives us another doorway into why they have endured and where their power comes from. That’s the added element; the post-Freudian element, if you will, in modern awareness.

PH: Getting back to the change in direction from high fantasy to historical fantasies, as distinguished from alternate histories, or, as you’ve previously described them “variations on a theme”….

GGK: The departure was firstly very conscious in the sense that I didn’t want to repeat myself and secondly an awareness that my own reading in the period after Fionavar, before beginning Tigana, was increasingly a reversion to something I was always interested in – which was history. My own original orientation was resurfacing, as a student of history at least as much as a student of myth and legend.

PH: Did you study history formally?

GGK: Not formally. I took courses, but my degree was in philosophy.

PH: I see your work as fantasy which appeals to mainstream sensibilities. Do you know anyone else writing in a similar fashion? I know several mainstream writers who write fantasy, but that, I think, has a sensibility all its own.

GGK: The name that comes to mind and who is someone I respect, is John Crowley, author of Little, Big, Aegypt and Engine Summer.

PH: OK then, that just begs for the next question. Who do you read in the genre?

GGK: I read much less fiction than I used to because I’m spending so much time researching. My reading time is becoming increasingly constrained by how much I have to do. The fact that my fictional reading time is being narrowed forces me to become increasingly selective in what books I’m going to read. But there are a certain number of writers I’m intensely interested in. Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Cormac MacCarthy, a brilliant writer, to name a few. But ….. my whole thesis is that the borders and boundaries start to become counterproductive after a while, so I don’t like thinking, necessarily, in category terms.

PH: You used to write for radio, you’ve written for television. You still write scripts do you not? Didn’t you write the script for Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone?

GGK: That’s right.

What’s Bred in the Bone is in financing limbo right now. The producers are looking for offshore money. It’s a very expensive show, a two-parter – and the kind of funding needed to do it properly can’t be generated within Canada alone in the current economic climate.

PH: Writing for radio and television, I think, would be very different than writing novels whether they be mainstream, romances or historical fantasies. I haven’t thought whether or not that would also be true of short story writers…….

GGK: It’s still different because short stor
y writers remain autonomous. The story is a story. The script, like a play, is going to work through other artists. Now sometimes you get a revelation; you write a radio or a television script and the scene that you wrote, that you thought might be OK … you get an actor and a director who do something with that, with your words and it’s spectacular – they bring the gift of their art to you. That’s sometimes the big upside. More often you get the complication, well a complication for me because of my disposition, of having to deal with too many layers, too many people, between what you write and what emerges. Perhaps I’m spoiled as a novelist; I find that too frustrating.

PH: Does one form of writing inform the other? Does one enrich the other, and, is it a two-way street?

GGK: For me, I would say that the way it works is that the script writing serves wonderfully well as a bridge out of one book to getting ready to begin the next one. I’m always worried that the last book will bleed into the next one, the diction, the style, the rhythms.

PH: Rhythms?

GGK: Well, for example, the prologue of Sailing to Sarantium was written as a mosaic. It was written to be a strong “tile” of a charioteer, a strong “tile” of a senator…strong contrasting “tiles”. That’s the art form of mosaic; you don’t blend colours – you contrast them to form an illusion of blending when you back away. When you get too close you can’t see it clearly, which is a feeling the reader should have in the prologue. The style of this book, is influenced by the metaphor and the protagonist as a mosaicist. If I were to start a new novel right after Lord of Emperors I’d have the vestigial worry that the rhythm and style I’d evolved over eight or nine hundred pages might bleed into the next. For me, script work serves as another part of the forest that is so different …. the demands and the structures are so different, that to have a script to do when I finish a book is wonderful. Because first, it’s lucrative; second it’s distracting, three it’s not that difficult. Writing novels is very hard for me; script work, in relative terms, is significantly easier. And the time commitment….. there’s no comparison; a book takes me three years to write sometimes. A script takes me two months.

PH: Have you ever interrupted a novel to do script work?

GGK: I’ve interrupted research to do scripts. The research for Sarantium was interrupted to do the Robertson Davies script. I wasn’t actually writing yet, but getting ready to, when they made the offer.

PH: Before you had your sons Matthew and Sam you used to travel extensively to do your research. Obviously you can’t do that anymore, so……

GGK: (smiling) No, but I can’t kill the children either so there’s no way out of the conundrum.

PH: Has that changed your writing in any sense?

GGK: It’s changed my pace. I don’t think that there’s a literal change in writing. I think each book is different. The style and tone changes. Arbonne was written as a love song; the title gives it away. The formal, brief lives of the two troubadours at the beginning and end are meant to signal that the whole book is a song. The over-the-top flamboyance of Tigana, which was meant to capture the colour of the Borgia and Medici courts during the period of the emergence of Italian culture, is in a different tone and style. Lions is elegiac in nature because it is really, as much as anything else, about the demise of a civilisation. The demise of the Arab civilisation in Spain.

PH: And here I was looking at it as……..

GGK: The rediscovery of a northern civilisation?

PH: Not the rediscovery necessarily, but of the process of nation-building.

GGK: But what dies when a nation is built? That’s the “why” of the last, the very last poem in the epilogue, the one that Ammar improvises and recites in the garden. Improvisation was an art form in that culture and that improvisation is the tone. Anyway, the point is that that the writing changes in every book.

The speed of my writing has also changed, I’m slower than I used to be. When I was single, and before the children, I could go away with a relatively uncluttered brain pan and sit down and write two or three thousand words a day. Sometimes six days a week. That doesn’t happen any more. It’s not just the children, to some degree it’s the responsibilities that come with a measure of success, such as sitting here right now with you, on a “writing day”.

PH: I think you know that I love your work; I don’t think that I personally could pay you a higher compliment than to say that I slowed down to read Sailing to Sarantium. To savour it. I didn’t want to leave this universe, this creation. I had the feeling, an impression, that the diptych will be a unitary work in two parts.

GGK: Well, I’ll tell you about the splitting. It’ll be clearer, I think, when the second book is out. But some things, I think, are clear right now. Sailing To Sarantium is a journey, it is one man’s story basically. All the other crowd and cast of characters play subsidiary roles to his journey. It begins with one man behind walls, ie. city walls and personal walls; he’s in grief and mourning and he’s walled himself off from personal interaction. The story takes him outside of those walls. Walls had a hugely significant meaning in late antiquity, the period I’m writing about.

The story takes Crispin, a pampered late Roman who likes bathhouses, wine, good conversation, massages and so on, out into a near wintry wilderness – a desolate forested place, dangerous and empty. Where, when you come to an inn, you don’t order the sausage because it actually might be someone’s aunt. He’s out from the walls, and certain things happen to him in the wilderness. He finishes the journey coming to other walls where there are a completely different set of dangers. The book describes the arc of that journey and ends at the finish of it. There are other things, just offstage, that the reader knows will happen to these people. But the second book in the diptych, by the nature of where it takes place, cannot be so much about the one man. There are too many people; he’s now in a crowded, walled-in, bustling city. Too many people need to share the stage once he gets there. The narrative devices will have to change, the structure will have to change. So, there are many reasons why it falls into two parts.

PH: OK. I’m reassured. There are many different aspects to writing a novel. The research, I suppose the outline …..

GGK: (headshake.)

PH: You don’t outline? You just start?

GGK: I know the characters, the setting and the overall themes. I have a general sense of where I’m going to take them but I don’t know the stops along the way. It’s a discovery for me as well as the reader.

PH: So you write in sequence, one chapter at a time.

GGK: I write in sequence, yes.

PH: Reading your work, the punctilious choice of word and image, I assume that you must do major rewriting.

GGK: A tremendous amount. It “layers up”. My writing method, to use a metaphor, is a painterly one. I “layer up” the story, because I’m discovering where the scene is going; the first time through is essentially to write the scene. Then I’ll stop and take a deep breath, and the next morning or that afternoon, I’ll look at the written scene and ask myself: “How do I flesh this out?”. “What details do I need?” Details are critical. “What nuances will make this work?” And it’s layered up, sometimes ten or fifteen times for a scene. It’s that thing of a brush stroke on top of a brush stroke, sometimes even removing brush strokes…. I think some of the reason for the successful realisation of secondary characters is this layering.
Because, in the process, I find ways to add detail and dimension to the supporting cast.

PH: What aspect of the writing process do you enjoy most?

GGK: I hate writing. The actual writing process is not pleasurable, it’s stressful, anxiety-provoking, draining and intense. And, the sense of responsibility to myself, to the story, to my readers grows with each book.

At least I no longer go through what I did at the beginning of my career which was feeling every morning when I sat down that I’d never again write a coherent paragraph. That would be a daily occurence early in my career, feeling that I had written the last good paragraph of my life. It doesn’t happen any more. By now, I’d have to be pretty insecure and pretty masochistic for that to still be the case. But I do have an underlying anxiety that sharpens me. By the way that applies as well to the stage and public performances like readings and talks and so on. I never work out exactly what I’m going to say at the beginning. When I get up in front of a microphone in front of an audience I do not know what I’m going to say.


So, to some extent, it’s impromptu?

GGK: To a large extent, because that’s what keeps me from getting lazy. The feeling that “Kay”, if you don’t figure out something to say in ninety seconds you’re going to be in front of the microphone doing a Marcel Marceau routine. So, think fast. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing; certain levels of stress sharpen us. It’s also the way I operated as a student. I was your classic Sunday night, 1:00 am essay writer.

But you really asked about what I enjoy. I actually do enjoy the research. In fact if I have a danger as a writer it’s a variation of what they call graduate student syndrome. When you’re writing your thesis there is a resistance to begin writing … ’cause there’s always one more article, one more reference, one more thing to chase down in your research …

PH: Guy, were you “bookish” as a child?

GGK: Yeah. But it was balanced; I was a jock too. I did everything as a kid. I grew up with a brother who was fourteen months younger and two best friends my age. We were all ferociously competitive; all keenly into sports. We played football, baseball, basketball, hockey, we took up golf when we were nine or ten; we went bowling every weekend – we played everything. And the “bookishness”, which was also extreme, was, I think in a fortunate way for my development balanced by this intense interest in sports and games. I played a lot of board games. This is way before Dungeons and Dragons, I’m talking about Risk and Monopoly and Careers, and later, Diplomacy. A lot of make-believe while growing up.

My niche, or role among my circle of friends, in some ways, was as the one to say on a boring Saturday: “Well, OK, let’s play Wagon Train – going through Apache territory – you, you’re a scout and you’re ‘Cookie’.” The joke of all of this is that in exchange for being the one who got to write the script, I would willingly take an unglamorous role. I ran the show but I didn’t do anything dramatic. So I was Ward Bond. If you remember Wagon Train, he was the actor who guided the wagon train to California or to wherever and he was just a grizzled, sober, judicious guy. The other men were the reckless, shoot the bad guys, get the girls, run the raging rapids or put out the forest fire types. Ward Bond just kept everybody together, and I was willing not to be racing my bicycle-cum-horse around doing the exciting things if I could say what exciting things the others were to be doing. That’s a writer at eight years old.

PH: What did you read at that age?

GGK: Everything. I was a vacuum cleaner, totally indiscriminate. I’d read Little Women or Little Men, put them down and grab some comic books right after, next might be a collection of Clarence Darrow’s speeches in court… I had a very early draw to both historical fiction and science fiction. Fantasy not so much; that came later. The early Heinlein and Andre Norton books were attractions, but even more so were books by Rosemary Sutcliff, and Geoffrey Trease. The British writers of juvenile historicals captivated me at a very young age.

PH: Coming back to the present, I believe you are one of the few writers who has cover art approval……

GGK: Consultation. Next to no-one gets cover art approval because the publisher is putting themselves at your mercy.

PH: You are also one of the few, and one of the earliest, who insisted that Canadian rights be split off from North Americam rights. These are similar issues although one I think is a business decision and the other an artistic one……..

GGK: Cover art consultation is simply a matter of seniority and leverage. You get to a certain point in your career and to a certain level of success and you’re in a position to bargain for some things. Writers in some ways define their status by whether or not they get this just as they define their status by whether or not royalty points break. For instance when you go from ten to twelve and a half per cent, or do you start at twelve and a half per cent instead of ten – these are pecking order issues.

PH: Somehow, I thought you got cover art consultation with your first book……

GGK: No. Not with Fionavar. What I got with Fionavar was something different, accidental and better — I got a wonderful artist, Martin Springett. I met Martin only after The Summer Tree was done. It’s a funny, long story but, in a nutshell, I thought it was a wonderful painting. I had only two small notes. He was anticipating huge demands, ended up thrilled to get the notes because he was conscientious and didn’t want to make a mistake. His paintings, for books two and three, were picked up by both the American and British publishers. So by implication, I didn’t need cover art consultation – I was a friend of the artist by then and everyone liked his work. Thus, for The Wandering Fire and for The Darkest Road I had something better than consultation, which was the artist himself soliciting my input! By Tigana I got consultation, although they chose another artist.

Tigana was my breakthrough financially because it was auctioned off and it turned out to be an expensive auction. When you auction off a book one of the things that is routinely put in by the publishers bidding for rights is cover art consultation; so by Tigana I got it [cover art consultation] and it’s rare that you roll back from it. Sometimes it’s practically meaningless; for instance if they don’t get the art to you in time your choices are to either scream and yell and delay the print run – which hurts you as much as it hurts them – or you simply bite the bullet.

PH: Have you been happy with the art chosen for your books?

GGK: Extremely happy in Canada, generally happy in the United States, and generally unhappy with the last few books in England but pleased with the newest Earthlight covers in the UK. Foreign language editions are a complete mixed bag … usually I’m amused by them. You take a deep breath and you pick up the book … someday you’ll see the Polish cover for The Summer Tree

PH: Guy, you’ve given numerous interviews and by now they must be old hat. Have you ever been surprised by an interview question?

GGK: Yes, as a matter of fact just last week there was a fellow in Edmonton who asked: “Sailing To Sarantium was clearly about a journey, about someone stepping off into the unpredictable and the unknown. What were you [Guy Kay] stepping off into?” It was a radio interview and that took me straight out of automatic pilot!

PH: What did you answer?

GGK: The answer was so
mething you raised before in a different context, which was parenting. I’ve been stepping off in the last few years into a life shift, a life change that comes with and has to do with the raising of children. Also to do with the adjustments you make, the revisions of how you view the future, how you view real responsibilities and how you view society. These things have been chronicled ad infinitum, but they’ve been chronicled because they’re true. To a significant degree my own “sailing” in the last seven or eight years has to do with aspects of parenting.

PH: Thank you.

© 1999 by Peter Halasz

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