The OF Blog: Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

Scrolling down you will find an interview with Guy Gavriel Kay, the author of Tigana, The Fionavar Tapestry and A Song For Arbonne among many others. Enjoy.

What would you say to entice somebody who has never read your work to read your books?

Different answers for different books, actually, as I've been a bit of a moving target over the years. The Fionavar Tapestry is my 'take' on Tolkien-style high fantasy, an attempt to incorporate a great many of the classic elements of the genre, but interweave complexity of character and motivation. My later books moved slowly but surely towards a space I discovered or created marrying history with fantasy, to explore themes I think are hugely relevant to readers today. I've spent nearly twenty years trying to make the point that fantasy can be as important as any other form of literature. One reviewer described the books as 'the kind of escape that brings you home.' If that notion appeals, the books should.

Do you lay out the structure of your books completely before beginning to write, just in skeleton form, or not at all?

Not at all. I subscribe to the British novelist Graham Greene's notion that if he outlined is books he felt like a stenographer while writing them. The novels are a discovery process for me as much as for the reader. I do know the themes, and a general sense of character and destination ... but the route unfolds as I go.

What effect did your work with Christopher Tolkien on editing The Silmarillion have on your own writing?

I think, looking back, that the exposure to JRRT's drafts, notes, false starts, dead ends helped to make me less awed and intimidated, later, when I started my own large fantasy. At the time I began Fionavar most of the 'serious' writers exploring fantasy were working AWAY from the epic form, as if surrendering it. That was the period when, for example, 'urban fantasy' was being shaped. My experience with The Silmarillion and the papers helped me to avoid that need to 'go somewhere else' in fiction. Later, I did move elsewhere to a degree, but it was because I was testing my own boundaries as a writer, not because I was abandoning the form.

Being a fantasy author, do you believe in magic, aliens?

Not in any sense that the genre embodies. I do believe there's life elsewhere in the universe. I hope there's baseball out there.

Where do you think your characters come from? Are they based off of people you are acquainted with or did they happen to pop into your head one day?

Neither, actually, though I tease friends that I've used them for various villains. The characters emerge from an immersion in the periods I'm researching for the books. For example, when I was reading about Byzantine history for Sailing To Sarantium and then Lord Of Emperors it became flat-out obvious to me that a mosaicist would have to be a central figure (ultimately THE central figure) and the idea of a sharp-tongued, angry, gifted artist began to emerge.

Many of your characters are artists, musicians, scholars and the like. Does this focus on the arts reflect on your own interests?

This fits nicely to the last question! Which of us did that? I've always been interested in the relationship of art and power, a theme that goes back a very long way in history. Artists of all kinds are also exceptionally useful to a writer as 'window' characters into a culture as they are – by definition, almost - observers of the culture and sometimes a bit estranged from it. They help the writer (and therefore the reader) to get a view, a perspective on that society. The risk - which is easier to avoid in fantasy and historical fiction - is for a navel-gazing, self-absorbed character.

What do you feel are the prevailing themes throughout your work? Fionavar dealt with good and evil, Tigana dealt with memory, Lions dealt with religious and cultural strife... Would you say there are unifying themes underlying your work? What are they?

Well, in a way, your question cleverly answers itself. You've noted diverse themes (Fionavar is, in many ways, about the price of power, actually) and this is simply the truth: each book starts with a theme, a REASON for me to be writing it, and for readers to spend however long it takes to read it. I need something more than 'paying the mortgage' as a motivation to spend as long as I do immersed in a book (three years for each, more or less) and the varying themes offer me that. They keep me thinking, asking questions. There are overlapping motifs among the books, and various critics and academics have been adroit in spotting them - and sometimes spotting links that aren't
there ... but that's another issue entirely!

How did you decide to write about civilizations so closely based on actual history, rather than creating entirely new cultures? What advantages/disadvantages does this method provide?

I've actually written speeches and essays on this topic, and some of them can be found over on, the authorized site on my work. The answer is complex and many-faceted. One aspect of it is that over the years I've grown increasingly interested in the interface between fantasy and history, the ways in which making the past fantastical can (paradoxically) bring it closer to the reader, not more distant. This follows from the way that, in a fairy tale, we are ALL the youngest son of the woodcutter who goes into the forest, or the only daughter of the fisherman, who goes down to the sea one evening ...

Your recent books have been closely tied to real history. How do you decide when to stay close to what actually happened, and when to allow your characters and civilizations to follow their own paths, which may not so closely reflect their historical basis?

This has varied from book to book, Maja. In A Song For Arbonne I wanted to offer some hints as to how western history might have been different if certain events had fallen out differently in medieval France and Provence. In The Lions Of Al-Rassan I wanted to SHARPEN awareness of what happened in medieval Spain in and around the time of the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest of the peninsula) so I 'telescoped' events but didn't change the ultimate result.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Although I have been informed that several of my most esteemed colleagues and fellow-authors have leaped - nay, fallen all over themselves! - to reply to this delicate, probing inquiry, I am going to courteously pass, in order that we may both claim that no primates or vertically-challenged humans were injured or maligned in the making of this interview.

Thank you.

You're welcome.

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