Interview with SFSite

An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay, September 2000

Interview conducted by Rodger Turner. Reproduced from SFSite with kind permission.

RT: One idea that popped into my head, while reading Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, was the frequency with which you use a journey as a metaphor for a life change. There is the mosaicist, the ex-slave, several of the guardsmen, the doctor and even a queen, they all find that they are not the same person as they were at the beginning. Is this intentional? I ask because it seems to me many of your contemporaries leave their characters in about the same state of mind throughout their novel, trilogy or whatever and instead focus on other elements.
GGK: Well, the title of the first book pretty much answers that question. Yes, I’m treating travel as a life-changing phenomenon in the two books. It always has been, and in ancient times the implications of a journey were, of course, much greater than today. As to the ‘literary’ part of the question, I’d say it is simply an integral part of how I see characters in fiction: if the protagonists are static they begin to bore me. Fantasy and SF have tended to be (I say this cautiously) plot-driven and not character-based, and I’ve always been interested in looking for a synthesis of both elements.

RT: Have you noticed any significant differences in publishers’ approach to editing your manuscripts?
GGK: I’m very slow and somewhat obsessive, so have never delivered a book until I’m quite sure it is just about where I want it to be. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of editors who seem to share my sense of the books, and so I’m very lightly edited. In theory, one might have expected problems, given three editors in three countries, but in reality it has never worked out that way. Knock wood.

RT: You have a reputation for meticulous research, even travelling to places where certain elements of your novels are set. In a field that is famous for being careless with its history or, at least distorting it significantly, why should it matter?
GGK: The short answer is that it matters greatly, or not at all, depending on what the author is trying to achieve. For books that want only to be distracting entertainments, research can slow the writing, and even the reading. (Analogies to Hollywood, and films like Gladiator or Braveheart are easy and obvious.) For books where the writer’s ambitions are higher (or wider, deeper, whatever) then research, details, complexity, accuracy become increasingly important in helping to develop and sustain the themes and the credibility of the book.

RT: But doesn’t that presume readers has some sense of history? The English-speaking world is notorious for its neglect in imparting history through its schools. It seems to me that many readers have little or no basis to think “Yeah, this author has a handle on what happened.” Rather, they just shrug and continue reading. Or is there some basis to believe that “getting it right” leads interested readers to go a seek out further non-fiction details?
GGK: Depends what one means by the ‘credibility of the book’… I wasn’t talking about being credible to the extremely savvy reader, versed in a period — though, obviously (I hope, obviously) I’m delighted when such a reader approves. I was talking about the internal integrity of the work. Whether it can lay claim to being thought-out and consistent. Truth is, I’m entirely at ease with the idea that many things in a given book will not ‘resonate’ specifically for readers… why should I expect a reader to know as much as me about mosaics or Byzantine chariots, after five years of research, let alone as much as the people whose work I draw upon… who have spent a professional lifetime in these areas?
What I do believe is that the quiet, steady accumulation of detail and complexity reach out to readers in an almost subliminal way. Readers end up with a measure of trust in the author and the book, without necessarily being able to point to anything specific, and that trust is invaluable. I can’t prove this, but it is a conviction that animates my work. Again, though, the whole thing turns on what the author’s trying to accomplish… and, equally, what the reader is looking for in their reading. For someone seeking light diversion, the elements I’m talking about — even a care brought to the writing — aren’t necessarily helpful and can even be a drag. More people, after all, find their pleasure in John Grisham than in John Updike. When one gets to SF, there’s an entire segment of the genre’s history, in the 50s, involving an acrimonious debate about whether genre writers should even bother to write ‘well’… or if that wasn’t just selling out a genre of ideas to the literary standards of the ‘mainstream.’ In some ways, that split is with us still, very strongly.

RT: There is a phrase used in Hollywood pitch-speak called a fish out of water. A character is dropped into a seemingly unfamiliar spot and left to flounder about. There is an element of this happening with Crispin in Sailing to Sarantium, with Blaise in A Song for Arbonne and with Rodrigo in The Lions of Al-Rassan. Do you find that this helps set the scene for readers and allows for showing rather than telling as the novel unfolds?
GGK: I’d agree with the first two example, less for Rodrigo. Best illustration is probably all the way back to Fionavar with the world-crossing characters. There are always reasons why certain techniques endure… they are effective! A viewpoint character who is observing a setting for the first time serves wonderfully as a ‘window’ for the reader. The initiation of a character becomes the reader’s initiation. This also ties neatly to an earlier question: the character’s response to this new setting is what can trigger changes in him or her. The two motifs fit neatly together.

RT: I noticed that in Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, many of the characters seem transfixed with the idea of leaving a concrete legacy rather than the present day’s focus on the acquisition of property. They prefer to see the establishment of icons associated with their life and times and, by that, perhaps a transcending of time and memory. Would you say that this is something that seems to be noticeably disappearing in our times?
GGK: Nice line of enquiry. I’m suspicious of overstatement, because we do see evidence of the desire to ‘leave a name’ still, as the wealthy endow stadiums, concert halls, university or hospital buildings… and I’d guess artists today are at least as aware of ‘posterity’ as they ever were. I would say that the notion of one’s legacy (including heirs) was very much a part of the Late Antiquity period, and very specifically leaped out at me when I considered Justinian’s actions (and he was the inspiration for my Valerius). I was also engaged by the contrast between those art forms that can at least aspire to last (mosaic) and those (dance, athletics) that are by definition ephemeral. Then I started thinking about how what we know of the great figures of the past is so much shaped by (at the mercy of!) those who chronicled them… and Procopius’s malevolent The Secret History is a perfect example of that, vis a vis Justinian and Theodora. All of these elements (and a few more) came together to make this whole idea of what lives after us a central theme of the two books.

RT: Many authors let their agents handle the negotiation and sale of their rights in primary and secondary markets. You are one of the few who separate the Canadian, US and UK markets. Why do you do this?
GGK: Well, my agents still handle the negotiations for me, with considerable (and sometimes vexing) authorial input. But to answer the main question, I have absolutely no doubt that it works to a writer’s advantage, in almost all cases, to be published (as
opposed to simply being distributed) by a house based in each country. When a book ‘belongs’ to a given house, when it is theirs, then the editorial, publicity, sales and marketing people have a personal interest in its success. If the book does well, they have done well for one of their own properties. Local marketing and PR people know their territories. They can even end up feeling competitive with their peers (and rivals) in other territories, trying to do better with the book, proportionately. I am quite certain I wouldn’t be a national bestseller in Canada in the way that I am, if the books were simply distributed up here, as opposed to being published. There are undeniably economies of scale that can occur when one huge house acquires world rights, but even in those cases, one can make separate deals with each territory. Tigana, for example, was sold to Viking/Penguin everywhere, but in three different contractual negotiations, for England, Canada, and the United States.
On a completely different level, it pleases me, as a Canadian, to be published by a Canadian house. It makes sense to me. In the same way, we have just finished a fairly difficult battle to preserve Quebec as a separate territory for my French-language editions, because the Paris-based houses tend to regard Quebec as a fiefdom of theirs. We did succeed in separating the rights, and I’ll continue to be published by different houses in France and in Quebec.

RT: Notwithstanding royalties, have you observed many differences in how publishers try to position your books in their markets?
GGK: There are radical differences in market positioning, from country to country. Sometimes it simply has to do with the nature of the house. If a purely SF house buys a book of mine, they will work to their strength and stress (with cover and marketing) the fantasy elements. If a more literary house acquires rights, they’ll go to their strength and think historical, magic realism (a stretch!) or even straight mainstream. I suppose it is fair to say my work, being harder to categorize, offers both challenges and opportunities to publishers… and most of them address this by going with their own orientation as a house.

RT: There is a constant ebb and flow to the quality of SF and fantasy fiction. Some years are better than others. Do you try to keep up with who is writing what or is most of your fiction reading outside the field?
GGK: I do try to keep up, with increasingly little success, for the simple reason that I’m also trying to keep up with major writers outside the field, too. Most of my reading these days is actually non-fiction, historically-based work, as the research issues you mentioned above keep me busy with articles, essays, books and my note-taking from them.

RT: Is this non-fiction specifically related to your next book? Or do those themes and settings of past work still fascinate you enough to keep up with what is being published? Or are you like me, with a monster stack building up for the days when you can dive in with a hugh smile on your face?
GGK: May I say ‘all of the above’? It’s true. I’m still reading in Byzantine history, still subscribing to the Byzans-L listserv, though it really would make sense to unsubscribe and shift gears. Hard to let go, after so many years. At the same time I’m beginning to work down through the almost random stack of history books acquired that will (I devoutly hope) steer me to the next project, and I’m rewarding myself with pleasure-reading in those authors I kept deferring while I finished Lord of Emperors. This, of course, dates this interview: I’m obviously addressing these questions while in between projects!

Copyright © 2000 by Rodger Turner

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