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October 27, 2010

Ten Questions with Jessica Day George, Featuring Guy Gavriel Kay

Photo Credit: Beth Gwin
Guy Gavriel Kay's books defy description.  Although they are shelved in fantasy, don't ever make the mistake of thinking, Oh, yeah, it's one of those things with a wizard and a ring and some little people.  The truth is that each book is based on years of research into a real and diverse historical period, and written so gorgeously that I have literally been brought to tears by a simple sentence.  (Please don't tell Guy that last bit, though, I will never live it down.)

In A SONG FOR ARBONNE, we see a vision of France in the age of courtly love that has never been seen before.  In TIGANA, it's Italy under the di Medicis as viewed through Guy's unique mirror.  Each one of his books is different, strange, and wonderful.  Do I have a favorite?  Well, it's hard to say!  A SONG FOR ARBONNE was the first one I read, and it will always have a special place in my heart.  His newest book, UNDER HEAVEN, simply took my breath away.  And sometimes, when I'm by myself, I like to read the last chapter of LORD OF EMPERORS, and have a bit of a cathartic cry . . . (Seriously, don't tell Guy.)

And so, without further ado, Ten Questions With Jessica Day George presents: Guy Gavriel Kay!

Jessica Day George: Almost all of your books (the exception being the FIONAVAR TAPESTRY trilogy) are based on historical periods in Europe that shaped those particular nations, such as Italy in the Renaissance (TIGANA) or Spain during the time of El Cid (THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN).  But your most recent book, UNDER HEAVEN, was based on Tang Dynasty China.  This is rather far afield for you; what drew you to this time and place?

Guy Gavriel Kay: In the broadest sense, I find the past itself, going back enough, to be ‘a far country’, so I didn’t actually feel I was doing something startlingly different by heading towards China with this book. 6th century Byzantium, Al-Andalus of the 11th century, or a Viking trading island are so remote from ‘us’ that they require just as much research and imaginative empathy to try to evoke. And of course the underlying idea that we cannot entirely escape our own time and place, as writers or readers, is one reason I use the fantastic: to share with readers the up-front awareness that ‘invention’ is underlying the story and history and characters.

JDG: You originally studied law, what was the catalyst that made you say, Never mind, I’m going to write instead?

GGK: Not so much a ‘never mind’ as the gradual discovery that I was able to make a living and eventually support a family in the scribbling trade. My original expectation was that I would be a courtroom lawyer and struggle to find time at the margins of that life to write.

JDG: Have you ever had moments when you thought: Oh, how I wish I’d stuck with the law?

GGK: Very, very rarely. Maybe when (as right now!) I am between books and facing the steep uphill climb of figuring out the next one!

JDG: Having once razzed me for purchasing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, pray tell what hockey team do you support?

GGK: Can anyone with a sense of history not be a Montreal Canadiens fan? Having said that, I really shouldn’t have needled you for having a Leafs sweater. In an American it is kind of endearing.

JDG: What is a normal writing day like for you?  (Do you have certain rituals, schedule, can’t sit down to write without a cup of tea and a bowl of gummi bears at hand, etc?)

GGK: Who tattled about the gummi bears? I soak them in Macallan single malt scotch. Ahem. Very few rituals other than the raw, cold fact of sitting down at the desk every morning, without fail, when in mid-book. I often start the day dealing with emails from overnight, I call it my typing warm-up exercises.

JDG: I know better than to ask for any details, but do you mind just answering yes or no: are you working on something right now?  Or taking a little break?

GGK: Researching. Brooding. Swearing rather a lot. What is this ‘little break’ concept of which you speak? Not comprehend.

JDG: You have never done a direct sequel to one of your books (as it’s clear that SAILING TO SARANTIUM and LORD OF EMPERORS were just one long book, THE SARANTINE MOSIAC).  Again, without asking for any details, have you ever considered returning to one of your previous “worlds” for another book?

GGK: I consider a wide variety of things between books. Nothing is ruled out, in part because when I finish one I almost never know what’s coming next.  In many ways it is commercially silly of me not to do more sequels, the market tilts in that direction, but I find it far more creatively exciting (and, alas, demanding) to head for a different part of the forest each time.

JDG: You spend a great deal of time doing research for each of your books.  How do your books take shape:  Do you begin with an outline of the book, or merely a germ of an idea?  Do you do any writing at all on the book itself while you’re researching, or wait until you’ve amassed all the information for the background? (Does this question make any sense?)

GGK: Never an outline. I’m like Graham Greene who, famously, said that he never outlined because if he knew where the book was going he started to feel like a stenographer. (Having noted this, I have many, many friends who do outline … no writer should tell another, or a would-be writer, how to go about things. This, I feel strongly about.) I tend to start with time and place, then theme, then characters, and plot comes last, emerging from the others. Research does continue once I’ve started writing (new things I ‘need to know’ keep cropping up.)

JDG: Do you prefer to keep your manuscripts under wraps until you feel they are complete, or do you have your wife or other trusted readers look at pieces and give you feedback? (I swear I’m not fishing to get a manuscript here, but I won’t even let my husband LOOK at something until we reach galley-stage.  I’m fascinated by writers who let people look at bits and pieces of unfinished manuscripts.)

GGK: Funny, I show your husband all of MY stuff early …

Actually, we’re alike in this. I don’t tend to show anything until I’m done. On occasion I have had to let editors see a partial manuscript so they can begin thinking about covers, marketing, etc. I hate doing it, though. I write, revise, revise again, and then again., then show it. But once more, those who like feedback en route … perfectly legitimate, if that is how their creativity works.

JDG: And lastly: You are to be buried in Egyptian splendor and must take everything with you that you will need in the afterlife.   What five books will you take to enjoy in the hereafter?

GGK: The Da Vinci Code. The Twilight series. Shopaholic …

Oh, God, Jessica. I cannot even begin to answer this one without wincing, and it comes up all the time. Try this: Shakespeare. The Greek dramatists (in varying translations for comparison). Dante (ditto for translations). A fat, fat world poetry anthology. Montaigne (a personal hero). Sounds miserably high-flying, but we’re talking eternity here, right? A fun novel ain’t gonna cut it.

Guy Gavriel Kay's books include: The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road), Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosiac (Sailing to Sarantium, Lord of Emperors), The Last Light of the Sun, Ysabel, and Under Heaven. Here is a bit more about two of these books:


A Song for ArbonneBased on the troubadour culture that rose in Provence during the High Middle Ages, this panoramic, absorbing novel beautifully creates an alternate version of the medieval world. . . . The matriarchal, cultured land of Arbonne is rent by a feud between its two most powerful dukes, the noble troubador Bertran de Talair and Urte de Miraval, over long-dead Aelis, lover of one, wife of the other and once heir to the country's throne. . . . Into this cauldron of brewing disaster comes the mysterious Gorhaut mercenary Blaise, who takes service with Bertran and averts an attempt on his life. The revelation of Blaise's lineage and a claim for sanctuary by his sister-in-law set the stage for a brutal clash between the two cultures. Intertwined is the tale of a young woman troubadour whose role suggests the sweep of the drama to come. Kay creates a vivid world of love and music, magic and death in a realm that resembles ours but is just different enough to enrich the fantasy genre. (from Publisher's Weekly)

And Guy Gavriel Kay's latest release, UNDER HEAVEN:

Under HeavenInspired by the glory and power of Tang dynasty China, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece. It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses. You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor. Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already... (Amazon Product Description)

You can find the author's website here: Guy Gavriel Kay


Annette Lyon said...

How have I NOT read any of his books?

(Jessica, you rock as an interviewer.)

Kim said...

Wow, these books sound amazing! I think I'll start with UNDER HEAVEN--sounds crazy-good. I really enjoyed this interview, Jessica!

Coral said...

What a great interview! I am excited to read his books. They sound amazing!

Amy Finnegan {} said...

Crap, I'm an idiot! I was on my iPhone and went to check the "want to read" box, but it's so small on my screen that my finger hit the "didn't like" box instead. I've already ordered one of these books and can't wait to read it!!