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A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay
An interview with Alma A. Hromic
January 2004

© Beth Gwinn
Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn and raised in Winnipeg. In 1974-75, he assisted Christopher Tolkien with the editing of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Guy Kay studied law at the University of Toronto and was admitted to the Bar in Ontario in 1981. He worked both as script consultant and principal writer for CBC Radio's award-winning series The Scales of Justice. He and his family live in Toronto.

Guy Gavriel Kay Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Last Light of the Sun
SF Site Review: Beyond This Dark House: Poems
SF Site Review: Lord of Emperors
SF Site Review: Sailing to Sarantium
SF Site Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay Tribute Site
Guy Gavriel Kay Interview

The Last Light of the Sun
Lord of Emperors
Lord of Emperors
Lord of Emperors
Sailing to Sarantium
Sailing to Sarantium
Sailing to Sarantium

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Starting at the beginning... your first-born (The Fionavar Tapestry) is just about to graduate the equivalent of (literary) college with a special anniversary edition coming out. In the light of the 20 years of the writing career that followed its original publication, what is your retrospective vision of the trilogy right now? If you had it to do over again, right now, would you do anything differently?
Those are the sorts of opening salvos that can end an interview's dialogue feel, as they invite an essay not an answer! The short answer, though, is that Fionavar was and is my 'take' on the classic Tolkienic high fantasy tropes and motifs. It was a conscious attempt to declare vitality and enduring themes for the genre, in the face of what I saw, even then, as the encroachment of cloning and gaming-driven fiction. Both struck me as a reduction of the scope of the form.

I remain very proud of the trilogy, and perhaps that's partly a function of the fact that it remained a trilogy, there was no volume four. Or volume seven. It was conceived as three books (with my own solution to the notorious middle book problem) and it had its ending. The focus on myth and legend that underlies The Fionavar Tapestry (including the working-in of the Arthurian motifs, and Freudian and Jungian 'spins' on mythology -- which are modern forms of mythological 'work') gradually shifted towards an equally strong interest in themes and motifs of history, explored in the later books. That is, I think, at the heart of the difference.

As for your second query. I could rewrite every book I've ever written. There are always different ways of doing things, they just aren't necessarily better ways. In the Afterword to this new edition of The Fionavar Tapestry I do mention that after so many reader queries, I wish I hadn't dropped a planned scene providing a last glimpse of Sharra.

You have worn a lot of different hats in your lifetime -- poet, (non-practising) lawyer, screen writer, editor. How have any or all of these contributed to what you have subsequently become defined as an accomplished author in the field of fantasy fiction? Did your being involved in the editing of Tolkien's work, with the vision of someone who is arguably the foundation on which modern fantasy literature was built, influence the genre in which you chose to make your own mark?
I've said before that the primary impacts of my year working on The Silmarillion were twofold. One was a crystalizing of my own desire to write fiction, though my own first, unpublished novel that followed, 4 years later, was a mainstream picaresque work. The second, hugely significant impact was a measure of demystifying of Tolkien and his processes. I was able to shed a degree of the intimidation-factor because I had been so close to the materials of the creative process for him. I think many of the ambitious workers in fantasy in my generation then (and remember, we were younger) were angling away from high fantasy towards, say, urban fantasy anchored in this world, or smaller, precise works (Charles de Lint, Megan Lindholm, Roberta MacAvoy, Ellen Kushner, Rob Holdstock) leaving the 'high' fantasy terrain for the mega-volume clones. I suppose I felt empowered or inspired not to leave the field.

I think the varied careers and interests any writer has simply HAVE to have an impact on their work. Our lives shape us: what a staggering observation! But although I'm hesitant to toss off sound bite answers to just what the law or work in radio and television did to affect my fiction, I do think I'm a better researcher for my legal training.

There is quite a difference between the Fionavar books and the later worlds -- Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, the world in which the later books (including the new one) are set. The Fionavar Tapestry, in a sense, was a collage of existing ideas with your own spin put on them. The others are wholly yours, originally yours. How much research goes into creating a new world to plant a story seed in?
I worry about phrases like 'wholly yours' because no work is free of a myriad of influences and shaping elements. I don't actually see so sharp a break between 'influenced' and 'original'... in other writers' work, or in my own. In Tigana, the inspirations of Carlo Ginzberg or Milan Kundera or Brian Friel are as present for me (these are noted in the acknowledgments) as those of, say, Tolkien or E.R. Eddison or Joseph Campbell or Malory or Robert Graves are in the Tapestry... it is just that in the case of the trilogy, fantasy readers can more easily pick up on sources.

Yes, the later books are very different, though there is also an ebb and flow in them of connection to the fantastic, not a through-line of moving away (and the newest novel, as you have probably seen, involves moving back towards the presence of faerie). As I said above, I think the difference in my writing turns more on the balance of recorded history to primal mythology as a wellspring.

You have called The Last Light of the Sun your Northern Book. Was that something you set out to write, or did the story take you there unexpectedly? Are there geographical quarters left unexplored in this universe? (Would you consider writing a novel of Ferrieres, for instance...?)
To take the last part first, I'd consider writing anything, set anywhere ... I'll just reject 99% of such ideas. I never know, when I finish a book, what the next one will be, and that's the case as I shape these replies to you now. I did consciously choose to head north with The Last Light of the Sun. I hate repeating myself now as much as I did when I ended The Fionavar Tapestry and moved to something quite different with Tigana. This time around I was aware that I'd done several explorations of cultures of great sophistication and even decadence. It struck me as interesting and challenging to think about people who had no access to that sort of thing (yet). Every author needs a challenge, a spur, and this became one of the motivating factors that helped the new book take form.

Would you label the kind of thing you write as "historical fantasy"? There are very real parallels between our world and the world you write of, but it is palpably not our world. How much reality goes into your vision, and what is your feeling about reshaping such reality to fit the vision? There are writers who do similar work, and at least one of them has called the process "filing the serial numbers off actual history" and using the generic backdrop as setting for a fantastical tale -- but with your work there is a sense of underlying reality that goes far beyond this. To paraphrase Mr Spock, "It's history, Jim," but not as we know it. How close are the ties between the two realities, your world's and ours? How do you weave them together?
As many people know, for I've written essays about this, I hate an over-focus on categories or labels. I find they get in the way more often than they illuminate. I've been accused of inventing a genre, because what I'm doing with history and fantasy differs (it seems) from what others are after. I don't know if this is so, I'm not sure I want it to be. When you do things that are 'different' in a significant way, you do place impediments in the way of peoples' access to your work. You are glancing off expectations. I am very conscious, for example, of how differently a book such as Tigana is read and understood in places like Poland or Croatia, where there is an intense awareness of the issues of cultural obliteration, compared to, say America or English-speaking Canada. This idea of mine, to make use of fantasy as a tool for exploring certain themes obviously resonates in different ways for different people.

People do seem to spend an inordinate amount of energy categorizing writing by genre or by the target audience, and while all literature is equal there is a solid sense that some literature may be more equal than other literature. Fantasy and science fiction in particular seem to have acquired a sense of being "for kids," with the result that much of what is published as adult fantasy, for instance, is deliberately adolescentified. Intriguingly, some of so-called Young Adult (YA) literature is getting to be far superior in terms of complexity and intricacy than books written for "grown ups". What's your feeling on this?
There are layers to this question, too. For one thing, I'd say much of the bestseller list has been skidding downwards in terms of adult complexity and sophistication, so I'd not tar the genre specifically with any particular brush. In other words, if so-called adult fantasy has become more juvenile, I see that as part of a larger phenomenon, not unique to the genre.

It is no accident that a conscious YA like the Harry Potter series seems to have at least as many adult readers now. That boundary, among others, is getting blurred. Is this a good thing? Well, if writers such as Alan Garner or Susan Cooper gain wider exposure for their genuinely well-done fiction, usually seen as 'only' YA... then it is a very good thing. I'm dubious, though. I'm not sure it'll go that way, I see it as more likely that 'adult' fiction will continue to slide towards the emotional oversimplifications and fevered intensities of bad YA. Again, that's not a fantasy and science fiction issue, it's right across the board. There's nothing especially new about this, either. I do mean 'continue' the slide, not begin it. Jackie Collins and Tom Clancy will always outsell Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth, Bruce Almighty will vastly outdraw Mystic River. If we want to shift the optic a little we can be grateful that our culture does offer us Mccarthy and Roth and the Eastwood film. I think we should be grateful.

How do you feel about "bit players"? The folks who wander into the story and then straight out again, the folks whose lives intersect with the tale you are telling, the folks who are changed because of the encounter but who do not significantly alter the storyline as and of themselves except as a presence that reacts to something within it -- you have a number of them here. Cwene, Jadwina, Meghan, Meirion. But you touch these lives lightly with some sharp end of the story, skim over the aftermath to the extent that such a character lives a whole life in the space of a few paragraphs and grows old and dies changed because of that touch. In the light of this, do you feel that we change history, or that history changes us? And (whatever the answer) is there anything we can do about that?
Oh, dear. I'm not sure I really want to spell out all that is going on with the sidebar lives in The Last Light of the Sun. Doing that spoils or reduces an effect -- when it is dragged screaming into bright daylight. The characters you mention have something different going on than most 'secondary figures'... and I think I'm going to deflect this one and not be precise about it. I'll let myself be pleased that you noted it.

Of course you are generally right about my interest in secondary figures in general and the attention I try to give to them in all my books -- that's a reason the books are long, I get interested in these people! You are also correct about the way in which the novels examine not only themes of history but the theme OF history. That last is another of those questions that could spawn a dissertation if you aren't careful. In fact I've decided I'm going to be careful myself, and leave it at that! One of the things I always want to be careful NOT to do, in sometimes overly clinical discussions of my work, is blur the fact that what I'm trying very hard to do is write a book that keeps you awake turning pages until three in the morning.

Thanks!

Copyright © 2004 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves". When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Following her successful two-volume fantasy series, Changer of Days, her latest novel, Jin-shei, is due out from Harper San Francisco in the spring of 2004.


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