This was first printed in the advance reading copies of Under Heaven, 2010.
With Under Heaven – a novel inspired by Tang Dynasty China – about to be released, my editors have suggested I write a note about it and about some wider aspects of my writing method. Nobody writes letters any more, it is nice to have a chance.
For the last fifteen years or so I’ve been regularly asked why I am writing history-based fantasies, why not straightforward historical fiction? A halfway decent answer needs an essay or a speech (and I’ve done them!) but I’ll offer a couple of talking points.
I have come to dislike the hijacking of real lives as vehicles for an author’s guesswork or deliberate distortions. I don’t see saying, ‘It is just a novel!’, or offering an apology in an Afterword, as a ‘get away with anything’ card. I prefer to shape a character inspired by Spain’s El Cid or the astonishing Tang poet, Li Bai, in Under Heaven, rather than pretend I have access to the mindset of the real figure. And I don’t want to hitchhike a ride on the celebrity of a famous person. ‘Spinning’ the story a little towards an invented setting and characters feels ethically valid and creatively liberating. A win-win.
I want to keep readers turning pages until two in the morning or better (or worse!). So consider this: if I base a book on a slightly altered past the reader who knows what happened in that time and place does not know with any certainty what will happen in my story. In Under Heaven I’ve served notice with the shift to an imagined Kitai from real China that I reserve the right to change, or telescope events.
This, for me, generates energy, narrative suspense, even some after-the-book-is-done reflections on our own time – how today might be different if certain events had fallen out otherwise. The past isn’t locked in to a given time, it opens up in the reader’s imagination – and this is a large component of what I’m trying to do.
This approach also places front and centre the invention at the heart of all historical writing. I do not know what the real prime minister of Tang Dynasty China, thought about at night in the middle of the 8th century. I have a pretty good idea of what my prime minister of Ninth Dynasty Kitai is all about, and I am happy establishing a space between the invented character and the real man.
Using the fantastic as a prism for the past, done properly, means a tale is universalized in powerful ways. When I wrote Tigana, a novel about the way tyranny tries to erase identity in conquered peoples, the fantasy setting seems to have done exactly that: I’m asked in places ranging from Korea to Poland to Croatia to Quebec, “Were you writing about us?”
I was. All of them. That’s the point. The fantastic is a tool in the writer’s arsenal, as powerful as any there is.
My hope is that Under Heaven offers power and pleasure: an immersion into a world and its characters, but also material for thought when the last page is turned. And my belief is that treating the story in the way that I do might add to both of these.
In the end, always and for every writer, it is for the reader to decide. We place our work in your hands, and wait to hear.
Guy Gavriel Kay
© Guy Gavriel Kay