Guy Gavriel Kay discusses fantasy, reality, character and his newest novel, Ysabel. Interview by Violet Kane
What happens when an email from your all-time favorite author shows up in your inbox one summer day at the library? As I recently discovered, such an event is followed by a classic double-take, an incredulous click, and finally much blinking. There may have even been a baffled grin that spurred fellow library patrons to question my sobriety. And what happens next? Well, I asked for an interview, of course, a request which Kay most graciously granted. So, what earns Guy Gavriel Kay "favorite author" status in my estimation? An exquisite interplay of history and fantasy, a dedication to character-driven storytelling, a willingness to experiment with new styles and settings... need I go on? With Kay's latest novel, Ysabel, set to hit US bookstores this February, I was interested to ask about his method and approach, especially in regards to character creation and his foray into a most revolutionary fantasy milieu—modern day Earth.
V: Your latest novel, Ysabel, scheduled to be released this February, represents something of a departure from your usual work. Not only is it set in present day, but also in real-world places. What spurred you to take this particular departure? What will your base of fantasy fans find familiar or surprising about this work?
GGK: A proper answer would be rife with spoilers and I hate those as much as anyone else, so I have to dance around just a bit here. One thing I can say: I've spent several books and many years using fantasy as a prism of sorts for looking at the past. On brightweavings.com there are a couple speeches of mine, and essays, that lay out some reasons why I do this.
But this time it occurred to me it might be challenging and interesting to shift the prism a bit, to think about geography, location, in the same way. To consider parts of the world (or one part, really, in this book) where the resonances of the past haven't gone away. It is a part of our world, of course, we see it all the time—from the Middle East to the Balkans to the Indian sub-continent. Ysabel is set in the south of France, because I was living there when I wrote it, and because as a setting it is absolutely wonderful.
And as I began thinking about the book another central idea emerged—the past isn't only the "long-ago" or the great events of a time and place. The past is our own family history too, on that scale, and it doesn't necessarily disappear, either. I wanted to shape a book that dealt with such things, and contained a few surprises, new things and old, for my readers.
V: Now that Ysabel is in the later editing stages, are you writing or developing any ideas for upcoming novels? Should fans expect new directions or a return to the familiar?
GGK: This is the question I always hate because it looks like I'm dodging it. But the truth is, invariably, that when I finish a novel I never know what's coming next. I need a period of time to lie fallow, let the last book and its style and character voices slip away a bit, before sorting out the next direction. I'll be busy with marketing and promotion, and with Hollywood issues for the next little while, but I suspect I'll start reading and note-taking fairly soon. In the early stages that process is almost random, all over the map, but so far, over time, a focus has emerged. Or a tilt for the prism.
V: Your novels are treasured by fans, including myself, in large part for their fascinating characters. How do you approach the development of characters and their stories? Does the character come first in your imagination, with his/her story following, or vice versa?
GGK: Let me begin with a disclaimer. I always have trouble with "global" interview questions that assume a fixed or entrenched approach to the writing of my books. They do not all emerge in the same way or from the same processes. So any answer I give to a question like this one needs a boring number of caveats to be strictly accurate.
In general, my work starts with a theme or motif that interests me, something I want to explore in a given time (or place, which is more the case with Ysabel). From immersion in period and place I end up with characters and from the interplay of those I get my narrative. That's "as a rule" but not set in stone. For example, I knew that the Sarantium books would have to have a mosaicist (hmmm, "set in stone" ...), and a chariot racer, and a dancer... but I also knew I wanted to work with the "iconoclastic heresy" wherein images were banned (in large part) in Christian religion as a form of idolatry. So that plot element was always there, even before the emergence of characters. I don't write to rules, in other words.
Well, one rule: I have always believed good fiction involves interesting things happening to interesting people. I try (as another answer to your question) to incorporate both elements, always. And I try to make sure I give myself (and the readers) room for secondary characters to take some defined shape.
V: Do you have any particular favorite characters from your body of work so far? Characters who were especially fascinating to create? Perhaps, characters who captured your imagination in rare and surprising ways?
GGK: Aha! A subset of "who's your favourite child"! (The other variant is: which book is your favourite?) I'm drawn to many of them, over the years, in various ways, and that can include minor figures. Darien and Dianora, in very different ways, feel the most tragic. Styliane surprised me in Sarantine Mosaic, Tegid amuses me in Fionavar (my Falstaff figure). I "understand" Crispin perhaps all-too-well and was unsurprised to find a "Learn To Swear Like Crispin" site on the web one year. In Last Light of the Sun, I find both Aeldred and Ceinion eliciting great affection from me, for the bravery of their cultural ambitions in a hostile world but Thorkell feels like the "heart" of the intertwined stories. I could go on. I won't.
V: I have noticed that the fantasy worlds of your successive books have tended to move toward less overt magic. Where magic occurs, it is left ambiguous, and its origins or causes are given less importance—sometimes being left unexplained entirely—in favor of granting importance to its effect on characters. Can you explain your thinking behind this movement from high concept magics to a more subtle use of magic in your fantasy?
GGK: I've said many times—and meant it!—that there has never been a "through line", a deliberate reduction of the fantastic. There has been a growing sense of fantasy and magic and the supernatural as tools in the writer's arsenal, along with all the others (another metaphor: colours in the paintbox). In some books—such as Lions of Al-Rassan, say, the tool felt "wrong", as if it would reduce the effect I wanted to achieve. In Last Light of the Sun there's much more of it (which undermines the general query of reducing the supernatural) because the Viking-Celtic-Anglo-Saxon world in which I set the story seemed to be much more suited to the presence of faerie. I wanted to explore a society where "new" beliefs jarred up against older ones in a dramatic way.
V: Your more recent fantasy worlds have been more closely rooted in historical places and events. Ysabel real world setting would seem to be a continuation of this trajectory in your work. What has been your motivation for this increasing role of "real world" elements in your fantasy?
GGK: Again, I'm worried about terms like "trajectory" as it suggests an overarching purpose or destination and I'm unaware of one! Certainly I've been intensely engaged by questions of history for a long time now, our general unawareness today, and the ways in which the past simply does not go away. No one, for example, can possibly understand the Kosovo conflict without knowing about the "Field of Blackbirds" and the role it plays in Serbian self-definition. The degree to which—as another example—troubadour poetry shifted perceptions of women in the west is simply not known widely enough. (And it is often misunderstood, or overstated by those who do write about it.) I'm fascinated by things like this (A Song for Arbonne was inspired by it) and I'm excited as a writer by the way fantasy can, and does, work to sharpen focus on these themes. I've written essays and speeches about this; some of them can be found at brightweavings.com if someone's interested enough to pursue this.
V: Any fantasy—I'm sure most authors would agree—must have elements of the otherworldly to ignite the imagination, and elements of the "real world" to ground the story. Fantasy authors, however, may disagree on how much "real world" is necessary for this grounding. What sort of balance between the "real" and the "other" do you seek to achieve in your fantasy? Can a fantasy story ever have too much of one element or the other? In other words, what are the boundaries of fantasy? How close can fantasy come to the real world before it isn't "fantasy" anymore, but rather historical or realistic fiction?
GGK: There's at least four questions in here, all good, all requiring an essay not an answer! I think the "boundaries" to which you refer are far wider than most fantasy writers and readers acknowledge. And I'd say that this means—in effect—that they'll blur and morph at the edges into many other forms and categories. And this—frankly—is all to the good. I have a deeply-rooted dislike of over-classification, the impulse to slot and rigidly define. Why does it matter, in other words, if a book is "fantasy" or "historical fiction"? Surely the real question is, "Is it any good?"
V: Many, if not most, of your novels are rooted in "real world" history. How do you approach researching a new project? Any particular methods you use to find the essential elements for bringing your worlds to life? Which sources have proved most useful?
GGK: Again, my sources have been quite different for each book, because the impulses behind the books are different. Tigana was inspired by writing in Italy, by the fall of the Berlin Wall that year, by an image I remembered from 1968 and the "Prague Spring" rising, by readings in 15th century history. Last Light of the Sun emerged from reading about Alfred the Great and the (overheated) historians' debates about whether the Vikings were savage raiders or misunderstood sea-traders and craftsmen (see: the category debate again! I'm exaggerating, but not a whole lot). I use the Internet a great deal these days for research, in good part to put me in contact with those people who have spent their professional lives working within a field. This gets me beyond the textbooks, as it were. But mainly I read, a lot.
V: How do you see the face of fantasy literature changing in the next ten years? I'm particularly curious, given your recent work, as to whether you see historical fiction having an increasing influence on fantasy.
GGK: My best guess, and it is only that, is that there will be an increasing convergence among various genres and categories. Some of that is demographic. I'm of a generation where a taste for sf or fantasy was still seen as eccentric (that's part of what gave rise in early days to "fandom," seeking comfort in others who shared an unusual taste). Today, though fandom flourishes it has different impulses and wider dimensions (manga, gaming) as there's no real way to claim that a genre that includes Harry Potter and Star Wars and Buffy is other than mainstream in the culture. I see the fantastic and science fiction becoming options and concepts available to all writers, and that's happening already. What won't change is what never changes: there will be slick, popular works, and ambitious, challenging ones—and the radar screens of the culture will pick up the former more than the latter. That has nothing to do with genres and much to do with human nature and the role of art.
V: Any closing comments?
GGK: Not without more coffee, thanks.
DISCUSS THIS INTERVIEW, KAY'S BOOKS AND YSABEL ON ARWZ.
Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.