From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay, author of the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Ysabel, is a writer steeped in myth and history. His books, deep and well-researched jewels that unfold like flowers as you read them, have earned him numerous awards, including a World Fantasy for Tigana and a Mythopoeic Fantasy for Adult Literature for The Summer Tree. Recently he talked with author (and fan) Alaya Dawn Johnson about his recent accolades, his writing process, and the fate of his Howie.


Alaya Dawn Johnson: First, congratulations on winning the World Fantasy Award for best novel. I think it was very well deserved. The Howie is a very dignified — and hefty — award statuette (in fact, from the back of the room, he looked like an Easter Island sculpture). Is he in a place of honor or holding down shopping lists?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Easter Island’s a cute description, Alaya! It is a substantial object, a good weapon, in fact. Colonel Mustard in the Living Room with the Howie. And, for the moment, he is on the living room mantelpiece, at my two sons’ insistence because, ‘That’s where these things go!’ Who am I to argue?

ADJ: I have been a huge Dorothy Dunnett fan for years, and when I discovered that you had not only known her but been very influenced by her Lymond Chronicles it was like a bolt of lightning in my brain. I discovered that there’s this fascinating genealogy of many writers I love that goes back to Dunnett’s masterwork and it makes a great deal of sense. Why do you think those books, though they’re not at all in the fantasy genre, have had such an impact on certain kind of fantasy novel — particularly writers like you and Ellen Kushner.

GGK: Dorothy was unmatched at the revelation of character through action, as opposed to stopping a narrative to ‘do’ the character-stuff, which so many writers (and that includes the serious ones) end up doing. She was also a role model in terms of the value, the necessity of doing your homework, your research. She exemplified as a writer the notion that entertaining stories are not remotely inconsistent with complex thought and character. All of these elements in her work (and more) will be noted by a wide variety of writers, and that extends far beyond and outside fantasy.

ADJ: I believe I read in an interview once (can’t seem to track down the source now) that at the end of Tigana you had drawn a map and marked it with the paths of your far flung characters, so you could visually map their route to the climax. Do you use those kind of visual/spatial plot techniques frequently in your writing? How do you usually go about constructing characters and their stories?

GGK: I did that towards the midpoint of The Darkest Road, actually. I had so many characters in so many places, so many narrative voices in play. And I was relatively young, and had taken on something hugely ambitious in those terms. That’s the only time I’ve ever done it, though. I don’t outline the books. Period and place, and theme, then characters. The narrative arc emerges from these.

ADJ: You’ve written one trilogy and one dulogy. Do you find the continuation of a story in the second or third book to be more challenging than writing a complete tale in one novel?

GGK: Different kinds of challenge, with some overlap, but not inherently harder or easier. When I did Fionavar, the formal trilogy, (I was embracing the tropes of the genre at the time, playing them, and ‘trilogy’ was one of these) I was intensely aware of the ‘middle book problem’ for so many series. I gave a fair bit of thought to how to address that, and readers of the books will know my solution. The Sarantine Mosaic was split in order to focus and intensify the shift from journey to arrival. The first book takes us from walls to walls, as it were, from west to east, and the second opens up into many more focal point characters, to echo and parallel the fact that we are now in the densely crowded, vibrant, dangerous city.

ADJ: One of your trademarks as a writer is your meticulous research into real historical time periods to serve as the basis of your fantasy worlds. The peninsula in Tigana, for example, is clearly the Italy of the Renaissance and the world The Lions Of Al-Rassan is deliberately evocative of Spain and the Alhambra. Often the “magic” is minimal. Why do you think you’re so drawn to these realistic historical settings, and why do you usually create fantasy mirrors of them instead of writing in the historical time and place itself?

GGK: This one needs an essay or a speech, and I’ve done both (you can find a couple of them on my BrightWeavings.com, particularly Home and Away). I absolutely see fantasy as an honourable and important way of addressing themes and motifs of the past, one that can avoid some of the traps and ethical dilemmas attached to more ‘normal’ historical fiction.

YsabelADJ: Corollary to that: Ysabel is your first novel in which the fantasy and historical time period coexist in Earth’s explicit past. Was it a natural choice? Did the modern day part of the story influence it?

GGK: Ysabel is and is not a departure. Obviously, by setting it today, in our world, injecting elements of the mythic and historical into our time, it is a different sort of book. But it continues my fascination with the ways in which history does not go away. It allowed me to write about the past, to comment on it. It is a book that was intensely shaped by the fact that we were living in Provence. I didn’t go over there that year intending to write Ysabel. I had something else in mind; Ysabel forced itself into my awareness.

ADJ: Does that happen often — when the book you were intending to write morphs into or is replaced entirely by another one? Are you one of those writers with a long list of future projects or does the right idea tend to present itself in due time?

GGK: No, it is unique for me with Ysabel that the book-in-mind shifted, and that was entirely a consequence of our arriving in Provence and my being intensely and powerfully exposed (again) to the collision of past and present there. In retrospect, I was obviously ‘ready’ to be affected by this, not something one can plan. As to the second query, I am profoundly envious of colleagues who get four good ideas between waking up and first coffee. I get one good one every two or three years. That means a lot of coffees.

ADJ: All of your novels seem to exist in the meta-universe you introduced us to in the Fionavar Tapestry — a suspicion of mine which seemed to be confirmed upon finishing Ysabel. The basic concept of a central, fundamental reality (a fantasy world) creating echoes through space time of which our (real) world is only one tiny part is actually reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Have those books had any influence on your conception of your meta-universe? How would you say Fionavar differs from Amber? (I’ll submit that it’s more logically coherent).

GGK: For me the ‘linkage’ between novels and worlds in the later books is truly meant as a grace note, a small nod back, not anything substantive or significant. The idea of the two moons is a metaphor, as much as anything, a way of saying ‘we are not here’. In Fionavar itself the notion of a prime world allowed me to work variations on some elements of myth and legend in different ways, and I liked that.

ADJ: Ysabel has many of the hallmarks of a YA novel — a young protagonist comes of age in the midst of a dramatic upheaval, during the course of which he finds himself to be the unlikely key to a world’s (or at least, several people’s) salvation. But I have read you make an important distinction between Ysabel and a more typical YA novel: the adults are not jettisoned as quickly as possible, but play a central role in the story. Defining YA by the role of the adults is an interesting concept, but I still wonder to what extent you set out to write a novel that would have a more distinct appeal to younger fantasy readers. Incidentally, why do you think YA always tries to get rid of the adults?

GGK: No intention at all. I dislike the whole concept of books ‘aimed’ at anyone, and in particular the notion that a 15 or 16 year old (or even a bright 12 year old) has books that need to ‘target’ him or her. Of course this is contrarian of me, there’s a massive post-Potter YA market, but if every book that has a child or teen protagonist is YA, that covers just about every coming-of-age book ever written! In Ysabel, one of the motifs I wanted to tease out (and expose readers to) is that very notion: that it is a very recent idea that ‘teens’ are a separate age-group, that they are still ‘children’… the novel discusses this explicitly a few times, comparing roles in the past for quite young people.

ADJ: I have had several discussions with my friends over the years about how the relationship between Brandin and Dianora in Tigana is one of the best romances in literature. And in general, your writing has a certain sincere yet epic emotionality, which it seems to me many romance novels strive for, yet never achieve. To be frank, I rarely encounter male authors who write like this. I wonder what it is about your development as a writer — your influences, your dislikes — that has led you to such a deep appreciation of the nuances of human emotion. Going back to Zelazny for a moment, one of the starkest contrasts between his Amber books and your Fionavar series is his utterly tin-eared portrayal of women, versus the incredibly nuanced and strong portrayals of Kim, Jennifer and Jaelle.

GGK: Alaya, this entire topic is a tricky one for me. When I was younger I’d feel immensely flattered and pleased to be told the female characters were well-done. Then I started to ‘hear’ the subtext implied: how the hell could a Y-chromosome carrier ever get a woman right??? I’m still, obviously, honoured and grateful when readers (especially readers who are writers) admire or enjoy any aspect of my work, but this topic gives me pause. In the end, if you think about it, isn’t this what good writing, imaginative empathy, is all about? If not, how could I (or you, or anyone) ever create a geriatric, a psychopath, a grieving widow or widower… until and unless we were one? If you follow the implications of your question far enough, none of us can write anything but autobiographical characters!

ADJ: You’ve been writing for a long time, and probably have one of the most loyal fanbases in the industry. How has your relationship with your fans changed over the years, especially with the changes wrought by the internet and expectations of more immediate and personal interaction?

GGK: Another good, hugely complex question. The short, short answer is: yes, of course the internet has changed author-reader interaction, just as it has changed so much else. I have had people write me (usually by way of BrightWeavings) saying variants of, ‘I finished your novel (whichever one) fifteen minutes ago, and I have the following questions…’ And a list of queries follows. Then a day or two letter comes another email asking ‘I haven’t heard back, did you get my email?’ Aside from a personal issue with spelling things out in block capitals, and a culture that seems to need that done, there are vast shifts in the landscape in this regard. Writers contribute… every author who blogs regularly, has fans posting to his or her site is reducing the space between writer and work and reader. Good or bad? Elements of both. Different? Very much so.

ADJ: Rumors have been swirling for a while about a Lions Of Al-Rassan movie. Any film-related news you can safely disclose?

GGK: ‘Safely’ is a sagacious modifier! There are three projects in various stages of development for three different books. Lions has the most firepower (and star power, with Ed Zwick attached to direct and steering the process) but Hollywood is such a complex, baffling, hilarious place… as and when anything can be said from my end of things, about any of the projects, it’ll show up first on BrightWeavings.

ADJ: Any upcoming projects we should be excited about? Or will that kill the magic?

GGK: Working away on the new book now. Hope to be done by spring/summer next year.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Year’s Best Fantasy 6 and Year’s Best SF 11. Her first novel, Racing the Dark, was released last October and she has a forthcoming urban fantasy novel from St. Martin’s Press. Her hobbies include eating vegetarian Indian food and reading YA novels.

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