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by Sandy Auden

Guy Gavriel Kay mixes fantasy and Tang Dynasty history to create a heady cocktail of war and strife in the 8th Century; while John Meaney blends science fiction and history into a long refreshing tale of spies and deep-seated desires for power...

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May 2010
Guy Gavriel Kay On Fighting the Creative Process And Online Developments

Under Heaven (UK)

Sometimes it seems like Guy Gavriel Kay is on a grand world tour of history, because his stories breathe life into a previously the dry and dusty corners of all sorts of international cultures. In Under Heaven, he takes on the rich history of China and gives us an insider's view of the 8th Century.

Kay shared some details with SF Site about his story, his research and his thoughts on the online community...

What's your new story about?

Under Heaven is a big picture epic told through a specific window: principally, one family and their involvement in some world-shaking events. Shen Tai, the son of an illustrious general receives an overwhelming, life-changing gift that immediately renders him important in a deadly game of power. With importance comes peril: some people at court want him on their side; others want him dead before he even reaches the emperor. The period that inspired me was dramatic beyond belief. Rich, glamorous, sophisticated and very violent.

When did you start working on the novel?

I started thinking about a "Silk Road book" in 2003, and did some reading and notes. We went to the south of France, as a family, in 2004-05, to spend a year there (again, but with over ten years since the last writing stay) and my expectation was that I'd be researching and writing that book. I took a suitcase of books with me to read.

I was hijacked by the idea for Ysabel and, after fighting it vainly (fighting never works), I surrendered and Ysabel became the next project, a book set in that part of the world. After this was done and began to recede from me, I returned to the earlier idea, but in the intervening years the concept had grown, moved eastward, and became not a Silk Road story as such, but one inspired by Tang China itself.

So in a real sense, as I type these answers, I've been living with aspects of Under Heaven for seven years or so.

Why did you decide to write about the Tang Dynasty?

I had an email from one Asian Studies academic, after Under Heaven was announced, saying "I knew you would get to the Tang!" and I wrote back saying, "I'm glad one of us knew that!"

Truth is, once I began to think seriously about this book, and dig more deeply into my research, the period of the High Tang became utterly compelling. There's a melding of grand sweep history, art, a culture in (violent) transition... all of these are things that draw me, as a reader and a writer.

For Kay, research always precedes and inspires his themes, characters and narrative. So what was the most enjoyable aspect of the research this time?

Honestly, I enjoy just about all the research, for every book. The hardest thing for me is to... stop. I have a bad case of "graduate student syndrome"... the feeling there is always one more article or book or person to chase down before I start writing. And there always comes a point where I know I am stalling, that I need to begin the novel and continue to research while writing.

I have to say that learning the work (and the extraordinary lives) of some of the truly great Tang poets was a revelation, something that will continue to be in my own mental and emotional life. I was also humbled, almost overwhelmed at times, by the scale of the wealth and opulence at the higher end of Tang society. A book specifically about material culture in that time, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, was hugely influential.

Poetry and music are significant presences in the book -- why?

The easy answer is that they tend to be, for me. I've often explored the relationships between art and power in a society, and this particular setting made it irresistible because of how vivid the connections were. One of my "doorways" into the book was through the role attached to poetry and poets, and the very romantic figures of some of them. Music and the "pleasure districts" (think Japanese geisha culture) also became a large part of what I was working with here.

Under Heaven (US and Canada) It's a quiet and easy (if a little spooky) opening to the story. Why did start in the isolated Kuala Nor location?

This may be the quietest opening of any book I've written, yes. I knew that I wanted to lay in, right away, the contrast between the solitude Tai finds there, and the tumult, the dust-and-noise (as the phrase went), of the capital and court.

The tension in educated men, often very powerful ones, between their need or desire to withdraw to a quieter life and a sense of duty (or excitement) associated with a stupendously complex and volatile court is a major theme of the culture -- and the book. I need that spookiness (or fear) also, to underscore the extreme nature of what Tai is doing by the lake... how it is regarded by others. Because that leads to events that drive the main engine of the plot.

You like to experiment with your prose -- was there anything specific you tried in Under Heaven?

Many things, always. I'm always trying to engage myself as a writer (and my readers) by pushing some aspects of narrative technique (prologues of different intent, deferred information, shifting focalization, effects achieved with very minor characters). I've played, for example, with shifts into present tense before, with different purposes in mind.

In this book I use that again, and it has to do with thinking about the role of women in this culture, and how amazingly tuned to their setting some women had to be, to achieve any kind of (indirect) power, or even to survive. This idea of being in-the-moment so intensely is discussed directly a couple of times, and I looked for a language to reflect it in the use of present tense for scenes told from a woman's point of view.

As well as experimenting in his books, Kay always keeps a beady eye on new ways to share his writing experiences online and once again has done an online journal about the publication process around Under Heaven. Why did you do the journal again?

The "tour journals" on have become, I suppose, a bit of a tradition by now. I'm very uneasy with ongoing blogging, let alone tweeting, and really don't love the current shift of focus from the work to the author. Having said that, I do find a comfort zone in the focused purpose of these journals: my underlying idea is to clue readers in to how books emerge from manuscript to something they buy off a shelf (or online).

And there's a long, funny tradition in Canada of authors on a book tour writing later about the trials and tribulations thereof (I grew up reading some of these in weekly magazines here). I felt at-ease when I started the first journal (with Last Light of the Sun) with being online for a fixed period and with a set purpose in mind. I'll end it after the major elements of touring are done.

What sort of feedback has it generated?

My favourite part of the feedback is when people who have been lifelong readers offer comments to a post that indicate that they've just learned something about the book world (editing, cover design, jacket copy, publicity, interview processes) that had never even occurred to them. I like the notion of lifting the curtain a bit.

This time around I've had "guest posts" from people involved in the process for Under Heaven, and those have been funny and revealing and elicited really positive responses (perhaps because everyone teases me in them!).

How important is the online community for an author these days?

A complex question. If you go by fast, even glib views you'll decide: hugely important! But I'd add that "important" can also operate in a negative way. It takes time to be a steady online presence, for many writers it cuts against their own personality (private, shy, inward-focused) and their space and intensity for work. It can also be a too-easy distraction for the social or unfocused ("I'm still working. I'm... networking!"). The lure of instant feedback and fun may reduce quality of work. There's an aspect of art that does require some withdrawal, and too much interaction in progress can produce, perhaps, something more commercial and less valuable.

And the back-and-forth between authors and readers online has shown us, in the last year or two, a few dramatic (and messy) flare-ups. Either authors treating their readers as foot soldiers in a war ("Why should the meanies dominate the amazon reviews? Go forth and write good reviews of me, my children! Here is how to log-on and do it!") or readers feeling an exaggerated sense of closeness to an author because the author has told them so much, is "present" so often... and they feel empowered to berate (sometimes ferociously) the writer for sins, such as being late with a book.

None of this is going to go away, though there may be backlashes or pendulum swings... but I do believe it needs some careful thinking through, by all of us.

For more information about Kay's journal on Bright…

For Kay's Penguin Canada website with free (and gorgeous) pippa music…

John Meaney On A Trip Across Space And Time


A highly imaginative writer, John Meaney's new Ragnarok series maintains his pattern of creating strange and wonderful stories, as the first volume Absorption deftly demonstrates...

600 years in the future, on the world of Fulgor, Roger Blackstone aches to see the mythical city of Labyrinth, in the fractal ur-continuum of mu-space. In 8th century Norseland, a viking called Wulf kills a man, watched by a mysterious warrior who bears the mark of Loki the Trickster God. In 1920s Zurich, Gavriela Silberstein enters the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule where Einstein so recently studied. And on a nameless world, not knowing his human heritage, a silver-skinned youth tries to snatch back an Idea -- but it floats away on gentle magnetic currents. There are others across the ages, all with three things in common: they glimpse shards of darkness moving at the edge of their vision; they hear echoes of a dark, disturbing musical chord; and they will dream of joining a group called the Ragnarok Council.

The new series overlaps slightly with Meaney's world created in To Hold Infinity, so how necessary is that people read the previous books to understand Absorption?

Anyone can read and enjoy Absorption fully without prerequisites. The most important strand of the story begins on the world I used for To Hold Infinity, a century after that book's events. But it is a century later, and things have changed.

...Including the quickglass architecture, which I'm rather fond of, and everyone seems to like.

How many volumes will the Absorption story be told in?

Three in total -- Transmission and Resonance will complete the story. As for how long they'll be... I'm not sure. If you take a look at Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, or Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, you'll see the volumes get progressively meatier. It might happen with my Ragnarok books -- or it might not. I'm being ferocious in cutting down long first drafts.

My goal is for these books to be easy to read -- like my Tristopolis books -- with the depth of characterisation from my pseudonymous Edge, with the world-building and physics of my hard SF.

What was the first image that came to you for the story in Absorption?

I can't answer this accurately (although I could for two of my previous novels). The crystalline people waking up in an airless hall that is decorated with shields and spears, who then walk out onto a balcony to stare across the Lunar surface, while seeing a changed Earth and different colours in Orion's belt, which means a million years have passed since their normal lives... that was probably the first visual sequence.

Although the opening chapter of the Viking timeline came early, also. And I have clear ideas about the Darkness that pervades the story in all its timelines, including the galactic jet that is glimpsed in the prologue. These visions will not be realized until the concluding volume. By the end of the first volume, the reader's appetite should be whetted... with the answers still to come.

To Hold Infinity Absorption features four main strands plus several central characters in each strand. What issues did you have to overcome to handle that many story threads successfully?

Right up front, my issue was going to be keeping some kind of resonance and parallel progression among them. In a sense, whenever you write about a group of people, especially if they are becoming a team, it's the composite group that is the protagonist. Yet my guys live centuries apart from each other, and meet only in what might turn out to be delusional dreams. (OK, we know it's real. Somehow.)

I just trusted myself to resolve it during the big second-draft rewrite. Each time period is different, and plunging from one to another was -- and is, as I write the sequels -- great fun.

Which of the characters did you enjoy writing the most?

It varied. The Viking, Ulfr, was terrific to write. I enjoyed being in his mindset. But then again, writing the scenes with Gabriela as a student in the 1920s -- that brought back memories of my own student days. (That demonstration of Faraday cages happened pretty much as described, just fifty years later, and not in Zurich.)

Who was the hardest to write?

In some ways, Roger Blackstone, even though he features as the protagonist of the main timeline (nearly every other chapter is in his thread). He's at an exciting time of his life, leaving home (while trying not to reveal that his parents are spies and not entirely human). But his personality is a little unformed at the beginning -- it's only in the crucible of later events that he (and we) learn what he's capable of. So I had to keep interesting things happening around him.

His yearning to visit his true home -- the strange, fractal, living city-world of Labyrinth -- gave me the underlying tension to keep him interesting.

The story is packed with lots of imaginative details -- what did you enjoy creating the most?

If I had to pick one thing... Arrgh, no, I have to pick two. Three. One was the part about Pilots getting their ships. I don't know exactly why. Another was Labyrinth and its layers of reality and fastpath rotations.

And of course, the quickglass architecture on the world of Fulgor, and what happens to the city in the end. Can't mention details of course, without going into major spoiler overload. But that was so much fun.

How did your expertise in Neuro-Linguistic-Programming (NLP -- "a model of interpersonal communication chiefly concerned with the relationship between successful patterns of behaviour and the subjective experiences (especially patterns of thought) underlying them") contribute to the process of the story evolution itself?

It didn't, as far as I know. Every writer gets lost in their story on a daily basis; that's how it works. Being trained in autohypnosis means I can use formal techniques to shut out the world if I really need to -- but that's rare. No one who isn't already motivated and passionate and comfortable with the imaginary worlds in their head gets published in the first place.

The two NLP language models are irrelevant, and the visualisation techniques are far too limited, to be of use in writing fiction. Writing is ongoing lucid dreaming, with continuous perceptual shifts around people and surroundings, in subtle and complex ways -- not to mention the complex rhythm and shading of words.

How much did the NLP influence the content of the story?

There I had something to draw on. The nature of primitive magical belief systems becomes obvious when you study hypnosis, which is a straightforward neurological phenomenon that even a crude EEG displays: the precuneus nucleus goes into overdrive, while the anterior cingulate takes a rest. In Absorption, the Viking priestesses spend time in their dreamworld, which to them seems real; and they use hypnotic techniques that -- as I've written the story -- are common nowadays in the medical profession, being the Ericksonian model.

Clearly shamen and witch doctors have always used psychological techniques to produce results that to untrained minds appear magical. In a pre-industrial society, a warrior learns autohypnosis to deal with pain and injury far from help -- and security/military personnel still do -- while nowadays, for most of us, there's a better form of trance: getting lost in a book.

And yes, I had fun with the mind control used by the agents of the unknown power, not to mention Sigmund Freud as a character.

How much research did you do for the 1920's Europe and Viking story threads?

I rarely perform directed research -- I write about what I know or ponder over often, and I research whatever takes my fancy. I've read biographies of Einstein, and during my long IT training career I taught in Munich and often in Zurich, where he lived. During one of my Zurich trips, I wandered through the ETH where Einstein studied and taught, imagining he was there.

Contrary to the usual myth, by the way, Einstein's teachers considered him a mathematical prodigy. The way to be a genius is to start young.

As for the Vikings, when I was young, the kids' version of Norse myths fascinated me (I'm thinking of the Padraig Colum book in particular); and a decade later, I read the Elder Edda and came across the some dark paradoxes. What happens to the homosexual warrior in Absorption is the kind of thing they did; yet Odin was a gender- and shape-shifter, more evil than Loki, despite being the All-Father.

I did learn some Old Icelandic for Absorption, mind you -- luckily I speak German -- which is why the Norse names are written as they are in the book (e.g. Stígr). The normal convention is misleading.

And how much research into the science quoted in the futuristic strands?

The entire trilogy is underpinned by physics, in ways which are only hinted at in the first book. I read at some level in most fields of science, while being fascinated by what we don't know. Call it poking around the edges.

My "orthogonal photons" -- a partial explanation for the cross-time communication between people living in different eras -- derive from two things: a wonderful maths teacher called G.A. Dickinson, who taught me the power of symmetry as a concept; and a throwaway sentence in one of John Gribbins' books. The sentence was about photons, and how they experience no time. From relativity, you know the duration of a journey at light speed is zero -- but we rarely stop to think about all those photons being created and destroyed, perhaps crossing the universe, yet experiencing zero duration (provided they remain in vacuum) in their "lifetime."

But that's new speculation (just as I buried hypotheses about the nature of time in Paradox) and pretty wild, requiring no detailed research, just general understanding.

Such neuroscience as appears in the book -- like the neurology of writing, as in ideogrammatic languages always being vertical, while alphabetic languages without written vowels are read from right to left -- comes from reading books that are not deeply technical, though I'm bracing myself for the plunge into heavy textbooks right now.

But the co-evolution of cognitive models, technology and language is a subtext in many of my books. It derives from building hypercubes at school (in Mr Dickinson's class) and from teaching modelling techniques (diagrammatic and mathematical) to software engineers. Given a conceptual "vocabulary," we can create intellectual models easily, when without the vocabulary we struggle.

In other words, my research extends beyond reading books. Gosh, that's all a bit intellectual and serious, isn't it? Unless the story's enjoyable, the rest counts for little.

Absorption is packed with content -- it's a spy thriller, an alternate history, Fantasy, SF, and a love story. How did so many aspects creep into the story?

There's just so much going on, and I'm trying to bring all the characters to life, including the ones that might not seem so important. The one thing it isn't, is a martial arts story. (That's a deliberate reining in of my personal obsession.) Of course there's an occasional violent confrontation.

It's the most ambitious story I've ever worked on, so all I've got to do is keep my nerve for the sequels -- and hope everyone likes them!

Absorbtion is released on May 20th 2010 by UK publishers Gollancz.

For more information…

Copyright © 2010 Sandy Auden

Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit

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