This interview originally appeared at http://fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com/ in April 2010.
– In a recent National Post interview, you’re quoted as saying: “I’m not giving them fantasy in any sense that they understand,” he says. “I’m doing history with a spin from the fantastic.” Implicit in this is a sense that there’s a fragmentation of the readership for fantasy, with some reading only in particular sub-genres. At the same time, you’ve recently remarked that you may be benefitting from a blurring of the genre boundaries. What do you believe motivates both the breaking up of literature into genre — is it purely commercially-driven? — and the blurring we’re seeing today?
The context for that is readers of ‘now traditional’ 5-10 volume epic fantasies with the expectations those bring (magic systems, other races, good vs evil, mega-battles). One of the truly nice things with Under Heaven so far, in terms of response, is how many early reviewers from within the fantasy framework are so generous and enthused about it. I feel really good about that. It might be that by being stubborn (a western Canadian, what can I say?) and staying with something for a long time, a core part of the fantasy market has moved, or is moving, a little towards what I try to do. Early days, we’ll see. I entirely agree about fragmentation in the culture … I’d just not limit it to discussion of this genre. Our entire society is fragmenting and sub-dividing, and the online world plays a big role. It is so easy to find and select your cyber-neighbourhoods and talk essentially about what you like to read (or play, or listen to, or watch) with others who share that specific interest. What I also see is that in purely literary terms, a once-rigid membrane between mainstream and genres (of various kinds) is becoming increasingly permeable. I think Under Heaven may (repeat: early days!) reap some benefit from this, or play a role in developing it. I don’t think any of this is ‘purely commercial’, I think it is demographic … an entire generation of readers for whom the fantastic is a defining part of their mainstream.
– In the same interview, it’s noted, “Later this year, Kay will travel to China for the first time — he resisted visiting the country while writing Under Heaven.” What led you to hold off on paying a visit while working on the novel? In the past, your experiences living in certain areas — most notably Provence — has proved a rich source of inspiration for your work.
That was an interviewer’s shorthand. Essentially I didn’t feel it was imperative for what I wanted to do. I resisted the temptation to avoid starting the book while I delayed (stall tactics!) with a long trip. The overlay of the modern in what has been done there is so extreme (consider the Three Gorges Dam erasing a part of the world that’s described in the novel …). Remember, the period I am evoking is 1300 years ago. In Provence, when I wrote Ysabel, I was living and walking through the landscape and settings the novel employs. It was right there.
– You’ve explained in the past that you enjoy writing about extraordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances. What makes the extraordinary aspects of these characters so enticing to you as a writer, and how do you maintain believability when presenting these extraoardinary individuals to readers?
Tricky question. For the first part, as a storyteller (and I start that way), the combination of character and drama is just about a defining pairing for a novel I’ll enjoy reading (language is a third element). So, as I writer, I work in that direction. Along the same lines, I am drawn as a reader to intelligent characters, I get irritated if I feel too much smarter than the characters (unless that’s being done with purpose, and it can be). Finally, in the historical settings I work with, absent blood and birth (so to speak) intelligence, acuity, cunning (and sometimes sheer brute strength and endurance) were central elements of success (and so might physical beauty be sometimes). We live in a world where politicians are often expected to be ‘regular sorts’, the type to have a beer with … that’s a new dimension to leadership. It was rarely so in the past.
– There are a number of different perspectives as to the function secondary-world or epic fantasy carries out for readers. Le Guin once wrote that such fantasy deepened and intensified the mysteries of life, while R. Scott Bakker (a fellow Canadian fantasist) has put forward that humanity is neurologically ill-equipped for a modern, rationalist world and this leads some to seek access to a pre-modern worldview (or the fiction of one) where reality conforms to the mind’s irrational, evolutionarily hardwired expectations. Others have denigrated it as mere escapism, an alternative opiate for the masses.
What is your view as to fantasy’s function?
I resist, inherently, grand unified field theories. I back away from the examples you’ve offered as much as I am uneasy with someone explaining the ‘function’ of music, art, or novels as a whole (psychological, evolutionary, whatever). For one thing, as you noted above, yourself, the fantasy field is increasingly fragmented and it is also increasingly blended into mainstream fiction. Does someone really want to try to be definitive about the shared ‘function’ of paranormal vampire detective-romance and Robert Jordan and Guy Kay and Le Guin’s Lavinia (compared to her Earthsea)? Good luck to them. Take it even further: might not the ‘function’ for you be very different regarding the same novel, from its function for me, or someone else? I’ll suggest chances are good they are different, in smaller or larger degrees. Art serves many and varied needs, and the very same work can serve quite different purposes for different people – and for the same person at different times in his or her life.
– What comes first for you when it comes time to consider your next novel: themes you wish to explore, a setting you’re interested in, or characters you want to write about?
In general setting precedes theme (which grows out of learning about time and place), then character, and from this process a narrative emerges. But this isn’t set in stone for me, and different books have had different arcs of emergence.
– In Ysabel, you reintroduced certain characters from your first works, the Fionavar Tapestry. Before then, all your novels had a nod towards Fionavar, but only as a sort of grace note. What motivated you in pulling these characters into novel after so long, and is this something you’d consider doing again in the future?
I fought it, Pat. For one thing it gave me a huge technical challenge … the novel had to work, flat-out, for someone who had never even heard of Fionavar… and the trilogy was more than twenty years old by then. A lot of people wouldn’t know it, in 2006. By employing two earlier characters as secondary figures I was giving myself a huge headache to possibly very little benefit (and maybe some detriment). So, why? The two of them popped into my head one night as a just-about-complete formal solution to issues that vex me far more than most readers. I have a problem with the ‘random’ in fiction, and it was concerning me how I would explain (in my own mind) why this family connected as they did, through Ned Marriner, to the figures and events they encounter. If you’ll recall, right at the very outset of The Summer Tree this same issue came up (very start of my career!) regarding Kim Ford and how she’s the ‘hook’ for the five characters to Fionavar. The solution that came to me, by bringing two figures back to solve this randomness problem, felt both artistically elegant and ferociously worrying. I pushed it away for weeks before y
ielding and taking on the task. If you read Ysabel with an eye to this issue you’ll see how I dealt with the challenges. In a real sense (and I have said this before) it is a more perspective-driven book for someone who does not know Fionavar – because the reader is put in the position, regarding that part of the back-story, that the characters have regarding the millennial love triangle. We almost get it, but not quite … we are just a bit outside, it is a tiny bit past us. Which is Ned’s angle on the three figures from the past, and that of the others. The reader who gets hints of Fionavar mirrors the characters who get hints of the Ysabel story. For readers of my earlier trilogy it is a ‘different book’: they lose this ‘almost-heard music’ effect but (I hope) are recompensed by what some have called the ‘squee moment’. It was a very complex book to write.
– Some writers admit having a favorite book among those they’ve written previously, others say that their favorite is their current work in progress, and others still say it’s always the next book that hasn’t been written yet. How about you?
That’s the ancient ‘choose your favourite child’ question, and I’m one of those who just can’t answer it, Pat. It is never the work-in-progress, as I am always in a death-match with that book and always feel I am losing. Never the next book, because I have no clue what it will be or become. No ready or easy favourites among any of the earlier works. I have said before, arm twisted high behind my back, that Arbonne is probably the world I’d most enjoy living in.
– Will you be touring during the course of the spring to promote Under Heaven? If so, are there any specific dates that have been confirmed as of yet?
All appearances are (or should be!) posted on http://www.guygavrielkay.ca/ for Canada, and http://www.brightweavings.com/, off the home page, will have worldwide events for the foreseeable future. I think they’ll also be relayed to Locus magazine for their author appearances page. Essentially I am running around a fair bit from mid-April to mid-May, then doing promotion and media in China in the second half of June. I’m registered for World Fantasy Con at the end of October.
– Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. Now that most of your books are being reissued with new cover art, what are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the covers that grace your books?
It gets delicate to comment on various covers, Pat. I will say that the new Hungarian one for Ysabel is funny-bad – and they know I think that. The Polish Summer Tree, the original one, set the mark high (or low) for being the most unconnected and unexpected … had the most naked woman I’ve ever seen on a cover, mine, or anyone else’s. (Stampede to look begins?) I think the last several books in North America have had gorgeous covers, many by Larry Rostant, and that Under Heaven‘s is just flat-out terrific. I love it, and its beauty is deeply appropriate to the Tang Dynasty the book evokes.