Guy Gavriel Kay
Interview by Andrea Warner
Andrea Warner: What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Guy Gavriel Kay: I began as a poet, actually. My first published work in literary journals, and my first awards and recognition, were for poetry. I released a 'selected poems' about four years ago: Beyond This Dark House.
GGK: No single paramount influence or inspiration. It has been a case of writers rising and sliding in terms of inspiring me, over the years. I have loved Yeats, Dylan Thomas, George Seferis (Greek Nobel Prize winner), Tolkien, Tolstoy, Dorothy Dunnett, John Cheever, Mary Renault, E.R. Eddison, Robert Graves, Shirley Hazzard, numerous collectors and redactors of myth and legend ... it makes for a very eclectic list! When I was very young Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease (YA historical fiction writers) were among my favourites. The pull to exploring the past began early.
AW: Would you say your diverse background has helped shape the career you have today?
GGK: Attending law school isn't something I enjoyed (though I met some fine people there) but the training was of great help. Criminal lawyers have to become 'instant experts' on a wide variety of subjects. You need to be able to cross examine an expert and challenge him on terrain (pun intended) he's spent his professional life mastering. You need to learn that terrain very well, or a part of it, and very fast. A novelist's research can often be much the same.
When I was doing script work and directing for CBC in Canada it involved very different skill sets from writing fiction and has served me well as I begin to flirt with Hollywood. Also serving as an occasional editor, when younger, has made me slightly more patient with my own editors!
AW: The historical elements in your novels offer a sort of grounding to the fantastical elements. Could you talk about the marriage of these two, and how you are able to bring them together successfully?
GGK: I've argued, that the fantastic offers a profoundly honorable way to deal with or address the themes and figures of the past. By offering, as I did in Last Light of the Sun, a figure such as Aeldred - inspired by but not identical to Alfred the Great - I think the reader is given a clear heads-up that this is NOT the same man, that I don't KNOW what the king's relationship to his wife or children was, or the 'real' reason for his celebrated 'medical infirmity'. I find this use of fantasy liberating to my creativity and a release from the unpleasant notion that I am co-opting a real life to my own purposes.
I also find that working with and within fantasy allows a sharpening of themes, something as useful as a telescoping of events to serve that sharpening. The 'real' Spanish Reconquista took several hundred years. In Lions of Al-Rassan I can examine the implications in a generation. In addition, by setting a work as fantasy to reserve the option to change events, and this adds (for reader and author) an element of suspense, the page-turning 'what happens next' that all storytellers want.
AW: Do you ever think about your core audience when you're developing your novels?
GGK: The 'core' audience keeps changing. I used to think it was largely university students, but have come to realize how many baby boomers and senior citizens are part of that core. And in different countries around the world my work is packaged and marketed variously, which will also affect what a 'core' reader might be. They aren't the same, necessarily, in Korea and in Denmark. Given this, I don't spend time trying to 'target' readers. I write the books I'd like to read if someone else wrote them!
An exception to this can arise at a marketing level. For example, with Ysabel, the various publishers were at pains to make sure long-time readers of mine knew the book was contemporary in setting, well before it came out, so that it wouldn't come as an alarming shock. They wanted to create a sense of anticipation, not alarm. This will always be an issue when an artist of any kind shifts ground.
AW: Ysabel's protagonist is a 15-year-old boy. What kind of research was involved in getting inside the mind of a teenager in today's world?
GGK: Much less than I usually have to do! It was, in fact, far less of a stretch to try to capture such a figure (remember this is A teenager, not a 'typical' or 'representative' teen… I hate the idea of trying to do something so generic). Fifteen year olds are as varied as 25 or 55-year-olds. It has seemed more challenging over the years to try to get into the head of a grieving widow, or a slave in Late Antiquity, or an Empress, for that matter.
AW: How did you start developing Ysabel, it’s quite different from your previous works?
GGK: This one was very much a case of being guided and influenced by where I was. We went to the south of France for a year, but I did NOT have a book set there in mind when we arrived. Shortly after, however, I realized that I was almost tripping over history, and I started thinking about the apparent paradox of Provence: so much and so profound a physical beauty, and such a dark and violent history. A book began to emerge from the collision of cultures embedded there for 2500 years.
AW: Which character of yours have you enjoyed writing for the most?
AW: What is your favorite part about the writing process?
GGK: Unquestionably the research period is my favorite, and how not? I'm just LEARNING things, with no responsibility yet to DO anything with it! I end up corresponding or having drinks or coffee with brilliant men and women who are pleased to be asked questions about their fields of expertise (and who more and more often these days know my work and have some idea what I need from them). It almost feels like a luxury, this phase of a book. And this IS the first phase usually: I tend to begin (though it has varied from title to title) with period and theme, and from these characters and plotline emerge.
AW: What can we expect to see your next novel focusing on?
GGK: I honestly never know what the next book will be when I finish one. I need to let the last book recede, before I start shaping the next one. Right now I'm heavily involved in developing a couple of projects for film, and I suspect those will carry me through the next part of 2007.
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