Guy Gavriel Kay Interview

Guy Gavriel Kay was born and brought up in Canada, and he now lives in Toronto. In 1974-5 he spent a year in Oxford working with Christopher Tolkien on the editorial construction of J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumously published The Silmarillion. He returned to Canada, where he studied law and he was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1982, but he chose not to practice. Between 1984 and 1987, the three books that make up the award-winning fantasy series The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road) were published in the UK, the USA, and Canada, and were translated into eight languages. In addition to writing fiction, Kay served as principal writer and associate producer on CBC Radio’s The Scale of Justice, which aired from 1983 to 1989, and he has also worked in television. His most recent work is the novel Tigana.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Tigana is an attempt to break down the border between fantasy literature and mainstream literature. What I’ve done is tell a story in a setting that is recognisably similar to that of the Italian Renaissance — it’s not set in Italy, it’s not set in the Renaissance, it’s set in a world that I created myself, but I wanted it to evoke the intrigue and the political machinations and the Machiavellian manipulations of the Italian Renaissance, so that the reader who doesn’t normally read fantasy literature would find something to anchor their images as they read the book.

The story is about a conquered peninsula — the nine provinces of a peninsula that has been conquered by two foreign powers — and the secret struggle led by a very small band of people to oust the two conquerors and regain the freedom of the peninsula. So it is a war story, it is a story of intrigue, cunning and manipulation, and there are two or three love stories built into the plot.

Paul Tomlinson: It’s also a story about a missing place, isn’t it?

GGK: Very much. The theme of the book, essentially, is about freedom and identity in terms of countries. About how a conquered and occupied country begins to lose it’s essence, it’s identity, under the oppressors. And one of the reasons I made this a fantasy was because in a fantasy, if I told the story of the occupation of the province of Tigana, and I explored the human themes, and the tragedies and the sorrows and the dangers and the intensities that are associated with that, the readers, in their own minds, can relate that story to, for example, Czechoslovakia under the Soviets, or the Turkish occupation of Armenia, or the English occupation of Ireland under Cromwell. If it’s in a fantasy setting, and you do the people vividly enough, then in a way it can be about any and all of these places that have experienced the same sort of thing.

PT: It also relates in a way to the fact that the ‘global village’ is causing individual ethnic cultures to disappear…

GGK: Very much so. That’s actually a very perceptive comment, because I had two ideas in my mind for the ways that cultures disappear — one was the notion of ancient civilizations of which we have left only the names: we know so little about the Chaldeans, relatively little about the Babylonians, but they were once dominant, overwhelmingly powerful cultures. And I began to think how time gradually erases these cultures.

Then I was thinking about how, in this century, that process can be accelerated so much by the speed of information and the speed of transition. Do you know those famous photographs — from Czechoslovakia in ’68, from Hungary in 1956, where you’ll see a picture of six Soviet party functionaries, and then two months later that same photograph will show five functionaries and a potted plant. And that sixth person has not only been killed, but it has been made as if they never existed.

And the combination of those two things, the disappearance of cultures and the fact that it can happen so fast now, were starting points in the evolution to my writing Tigana. The other thing is that the surest way to destroy a culture is to begin destroying its names and language and history. In the novel, the most brutal thing that has been done to the province of Tigana is that the people who have occupied it have set about not only killing people, not only occupying cities, but also destroying and eliminating history and memory of the province. So that if things continue unchecked, as the novel opens, it won’t be very long before absolutely no shred of memory of Tigana is left in the world. That’s the crisis that my protagonists are facing as the book opens.

PT: Because it is only the memories of the last generation of Tigana‘s people that is keeping the place alive…

GGK: Exactly. Memory is a theme… The two major themes of the book are, in some way, spelled out by the two epigraphs: there is an epigraph from Dante that talks about the bitterness of exile — “You will come to know how bitter as salt and stone is the bread of others…” when you are forced to be away from your home, the idea of exile and loss is built in there. The other motif is in the quote from the great poet George Seferis, which is about the importance of remembering things, but also the importance of not remembering too much, because you can be paralysed if you only live in the past, the importance of finding a balance between the two.

PT: I have to admit to not reading much fantasy, by choice…

GGK: I don’t either, I don’t read much fantasy at all…

PT: My view of the ‘typical fantasy’ novel is probably unfair, but I see them as over-simplistic, Good versus Evil tales, where the villains are defeated in the end and the heroes live happily ever after. Pure escapism, more or less. Tigana is very different. It’s not Good and Evil, there are too many greys, and when it comes to the end, the final confrontation with the villains…

GGK: You’re not sure what you want to happen?

PT: Right! Especially with Dianora being in love with Brandin… you think, maybe he’s not so bad after all.

GGK: I really wanted that effect, that’s very much what I was going for. I’ve been tired for years of the simplistic nature of most fantasies, where the characters are two-dimensional, or even one-dimensional; where the situations are clear cut, as they never really are in life. I wanted to try and find ways of making it more complex, with more shades of meaning, more nuances of motivation. So the fantasy starts to become much closer to the reader’s actual perception of how people really act and behave in life. I wanted to start breaking down the border between Fantasy over there somewhere and Realistic Fiction over here somewhere, with no way the two can meet. I think they can, if you do it right.

PT: Do you think fantasy should, instead of being simple escapism, be tackling current and topical or controversial issues, in some veiled or allegorical form?

GGK: Absolutely. I think the most moving thing that any critic said about my first trilogy came from an academic who was doing a sort of global assessment of the trilogy, and the last line of the review described it as “the kind of escape that brings you home.” And the reason I loved it so much was because that is what I’ve been saying and believing that the best fantasy can do. I was never as concise as he was. He gave me the phrase for what I’ve been working for.

There’s nothing wrong with escaping — and all fiction is an escape of sorts — but good fiction, and good fantasy is in no way an exception to this, gives you something to bring back with you. That when you’ve been out there, when you’ve been turning pages until three in the morning — which I hope my readers do, not just the ones on a deadline! — you want people turning the pages to find out what happens, but I want something more. I’m reaching for the next step beyond just a fast page-turner. I want the reader, during the book and at the end of it, to have had an experience through my characters that illuminates in some way their own experiences and perceptions of the world.

By making this a fantasy, this story about conquered countries and the things that happen when good people sometimes have to do bad things in a cause that matters to them; or when apparently evil people actually turn out to be driven and tormented by love and grief as much as the heroes, I wanted the reader to come back from my novel, as it were, with a sense that the way they looked at things might suddenly have been altered.

PT: All of the characters in Tigana seem to have a past, they don’t just appear on stage as The Young Hero, The Wizard, whatever… and when the book finishes, you wonder what happens next, without wanting there to be two more books, you just wonder how things turn out for them.

GGK: The ending was very deliberately set up to evoke what you’re talking about. I don’t want to say anything about the ending that will spoil it.

PT: Another part of the book I liked very much was the sequence with the Nightwalkers. These people who must fight once every year in a kind of dream land so that the land remains fertile. Is this based on actual mythology?

GGK: There’s an acknowledgement at the beginning of the book to the work of an Italian scholar by the name of Carlo Ginsberg who did a book called the Night Battles, which was a study of the late Middle Ages religious cult that had some elements of what I later spun off into my chapter.

What I wanted to do with that chapter… That’s the one pure fantasy chapter in the whole book. That’s the one chapter that is out-and-out magical. In the middle of a night that turns out to be a night in another place, a very agrarian cult ritual is enacted. It’s almost dead centre in the book. In many ways the novel turns at that point and starts its movement towards a resolution.

I wanted to see if I could write a very realistic, human-grounded fantasy, as opposed to monsters and supernatural creatures, grounded in human characters, but see if in the middle of it I could put this one very beautiful, very mysterious and quite magical sequence. I was reaching for that in the writing.

PT: I thought it was quite topical too — a fight to stop something killing the …

GGK: … the health of the land. It’s a mistake to think that the crises of today are fundamentally different to the crises of yesterday. The emotional crises of people are always going to be the same: about love and fear and ageing and economic stress and parents and children, these things will be constant. So too will be anxieties about things like the health and fertility of the soil.

The earliest legends of Western civilization — and Eastern, if you go back far enough — involve the notion of this inextricable binding together of the health of the King and the health of his land. That’s what the Fisher King myth is about, the idea that if the king or the government, the state of politics, is malevolent or unhealthy, then the soil will not be fruitful. That as we are, so is our land.

It is a very ancient idea that is finding a very different kind of modern expression in some of what we are seeing in the ecology movement. There’s nothing new about that, there’s just a sense of crisis now because, perhaps, the stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been.

If you go back into the myths and legends that underlie the best fantasy, you will find… because a myth, after all, is an attempt by a culture to explain something or pacify something or come to terms with the world in which it lives. And Mankind has always been trying to come to terms with the same things: How did the world begin? Why must we die? Elements as large and as important as that.

PT: You’ve said that you wanted to capture the feel of Italy for Tigana, did you have to go to Europe for that?

GGK: I get teased by my friends for that; they accuse me of coming up with a self-fulfilling habit, which is: I write better when I’m away from home, that’s one thing. I work more efficiently. I’ve always found that when I’m off somewhere where I don’t know as many people, I get up in a morning and I write. I go to bed, I get up in a morning, and I write.

At the same time, I really wanted the mood of Tigana, the flavour of it, to evoke Italy. I really wanted that to happen. I live in downtown Toronto, in Canada. It’s difficult to evoke olive groves and vineyards and cyprus trees and the colours and smells of Tuscany when you’re writing with a streetcar running outside your window in the city. Now it can obviously be done, but it seemed to me that it would be a very good idea to try to put myself in the ambience I was trying to evoke.

I’ve just done the same thing again with my newest book, which is meant to evoke the south of France. Again I went over there for four months while I was writing it, to surround myself with what I wanted to capture on paper.

PT: Tell us a little bit about the book you’re working on at the moment.

GGK: I don’t like talking about works in progress too much because I always worry that if I say too much — not for the listener, but for me — if I describe it too vividly, I’ll lock myself in in my own thinking.

The main thing that I can say about the new one is that I’m trying to work the same vein as Tigana in one way: To do careful historical research in a given period of history — in Tigana it was the Renaissance, for the new book its Provence in the south of France, in the 12th and 13th Century of the Troubadours and Eleanor of Aquitaine — The Lion in Winter and all of that period. I wanted to evoke that period in a fantasy setting of my own. It’s a newish idea, one never wants to say its a brand new thing, there’s always someone who did something like it, but it is relatively new. What I’m trying to do is capture the spirit of the period, but leave myself free for the narrative, for the story and the characters to be independent and my own, so that I can explore the themes that interest me most in that flavour, without being tied to actual historical events.

PT: I sometimes wonder why Medieval and Renaissance Europe is so popular with American fantasy writers, when they have other closer cultures and histories to draw on…

GGK: I only half agree with you there. The culture of North America is astonishingly young — the past is fundamental recent history. The wellsprings which underlie European culture are the same wellsprings which underlie North American culture, because North America came from Europe. So if you go back far enough, the roots are the same.

You will see a new kind of fantasy emerging in North America that I don’t write, but that I’m reading with some interest, which is what they call ‘urban fantasy’. And what you’re seeing there is people writing books set here and now in Toronto or Seattle or Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the characters are very contemporary people moving through very contemporary lives, and suddenly, through some infusion of the fantastic element, the supernatural enters their lives. Not horror, not a Stephen King kind of horror, it’s a fantasy element. The Queen of Elfland enters a shopping mall in Minneapolis. Now it can sound very funny to describe it that way, but in fact the better writers are finding a very interesting way of balancing and marrying a contemporary setting with that infusion of the fantastic. That’s a North American innovation I think.

PT: You trained as a lawyer, what kind of influence do you think that training has on your writing?

GGK: Well, my joke answer always is that I’ve had better fantasies in the courtroom than I’ve ever read in books!

The more serious answer is that it takes a genuinely high degree of discipline to write a fantasy. It sounds paradoxical because one pictures fantasy as frivolous and irresponsible and dethatched from reality. But in fact, if you think about it, if someone writes a novel set in the middle of London in 1990, they know that Margaret Thatcher’s the Prime Minister, they know where Fleet Street is, they have no problem with the groundwork of their story, they simply — well, not simply, it’s very difficult — they have to focus on their characters and their story.

When you write fantasy, the groundwork is what you have to do yourself. You have to build up a vivid and convincing and fully fleshed out a setting for your novel, so that the reader will trust you and will find it believable and convincing and will walk with you into that world.

To do that convincingly requires an uncommon degree of organisational discipline, and for me I found the training, the mind set that law induces, enormously useful in that groundwork stage of building the novel.

PT: I suppose that if you’ve got to create everything, then you’ve got to create a framework, you have to have rules which you obey, limitations… if your hero can weave a spell to solve any problem, you don’t end up with much of a story…

GGK: You’re exactly right. That’s the biggest problem with most fantasies. It is, I think, also what leads so many people to turn away from fantasy -the image of arbitrariness. I think the arbitrary is death to fantasy. To any fiction. If the reader feels that the writer is just pulling something out of a hat at the moment of a crisis, and at the moment of the next crisis he can pull whatever he wants out of his hat, then you don’t really engage in the story — your emotions and your involvement aren’t there. So it’s exactly as you say  — you have to build the rules as precisely and carefully as possible, so that the reader will trust you not to be arbitrary and casual in any moment of crisis.

PT: The other problem I have with fantasy generally is that it is about things that don’t matter: it’s about a quest for an orb or a sword, or to rescue a princess you don’t really care about, and at the end of the (always) successful quest you think: So what? In Tigana, the fight to save the memory of a place, of a culture, is important. Something real is at stake…

GGK: It has become a tired genre in too many ways. But the truth is, in any kind of fiction, whether its detective fiction, whether its a spy thriller, whether its a mainstream novel of whatever sort, the truth is that most of everything is mediocre at best. Most practitioners of any art form are not pushing the envelope, working for the cutting edge.

What sometimes distresses me is that the serious practitioners’ fantasy literature, the people trying to work with the wonderful potential of the genre, are judged by standards based on our perceptions created by people who are simply writing in the genre to pay the next month’s bills; where fantasy novels are associated with war gaming or roll-playing games, and there’s nothing more to it than a kind of quick escape for two hours from whatever else is going on in your life.

Nobody judges the Booker Prize nominees by the standards of somebody writing contemporary fiction, a sex and violence novel for example, purely as hack work. Nobody says the Booker Prize people are writing in a debased genre because sex `n’ violence people also write mainstream fiction. But you will see people saying all of fantasy is a debased genre, without recognising that there is a wonderful, sometimes even an exhilarating, potential for pure story telling in the genre.

I’ve been enormously fortunate, the critical response to my first trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry — which was a pure fantasy in a way that Tigana isn’t, because Tigana is, I think, looking for the borderline between fantasy and mainstream; or the border between historical fiction and fantasy — was very good. The trilogy was pure fantasy, but reviewers were very generous in the attention they gave it, and in the generosity of their notices. So that it is possible, I think, to look for and find quality in any dimension, but it’s not necessarily easy to find, in any sphere.

PT: With crime fiction and SF, and more recently horror, people have taken it seriously, and there is academic writing on the genres, discussing it critically. That doesn’t seem to have happened with fantasy, except in the case of Tolkien…

GGK: One out of every ten works of fiction in the United States that are sold are fantasies. It is the largest selling single subset of fiction in North America, and it is almost there in the United Kingdom. That means two things really, one is very good and one is very bad. The very bad thing is that whenever a genre becomes commercially viable, whenever you can make a living at it, people will be attracted to it, not out of any particularly passionate desire to say what they have to say in that field, but out of a passionate desire to pay the mortgage or the rent. It will attract hack work. It will attract commercially driven hack work, when the field allows these people to make money. That’s the bad thing, which means there will be a lot of very mediocre stuff published.

On the other hand, when the genre becomes commercially viable, the good thing that happens is that people who write seriously and with passion, and with a respect for their reader can in fact sustain themselves by writing those things which ten or twenty years ago they could not have.

So it’s a double edged sword. It brings both quality work and the floodgates open and the low quality work will also emerge.