Today I’m excited to have an interview with Guy Gavriel Kay, the author of the upcoming novel River of Stars, to share with you! River of Stars will be released on April 2, and you can read the first chapter now.
Of course, Guy Gavriel Kay has written several books in addition to this forthcoming novel, including Under Heaven, a book set in the same world approximately 400 years before River of Stars. A few years ago, I read Tigana, and it became an immediate favorite with powerful scenes that stuck with me long after reading it. River of Stars is a beautifully reflective novel with compelling characters that also remained with me after reading it, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to ask the author a few questions. I hope you enjoy reading his answers as much as I did!
Fantasy Cafe: First, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions today. I recently finished reading River of Stars and enjoyed it immensely so I’m glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it directly from you. Like many of your books, River of Stars is set in a fantasy setting inspired by history, specifically China’s Song Dynasty. What was it about this particular place and time that inspired you to write a story using it as a foundation?
Guy Gavriel Kay: Happy to do it, Kristen, and a good set of questions here.
As I have often said (written, orated!) I have a fascination with the way the past works on the present. Both personal memory and personal history (as in Ysabel, say) and collective, for a nation or an empire. The Song Dynasty was obsessed with aspects of what had gone before it, some scholars ands collectors looking to discover or reclaim the past, while politicians were fiercely anxious to avoid the ‘mistakes’ made 400 years ago and more recently. The period was just about perfect for me to explore some of my own fierce interests. Add a complex, sophisticated society in flux and conflict, both internal and external, (something I always look for) and some spectacularly interesting men and women and … it was a pretty powerful lure.
FC: The Acknowledgments discuss the extensive and detailed research you did when writing River of Stars. What is the most fascinating or surprising fact you learned in the course of your research for this novel?
GGK: I love the research phase, my problem is always bringing it to an end. There are so many things I could share (and probably bore you with!). One unexpected discovery was how hot the Song is today among historians of China. There is so much being written and debated regarding that period, because it is seen now as the beginnings of the modern world there, the shift from ‘medieval’. That meant I had a great many new books and articles to read, and a great many people to contact, with topics of controversy and discussion (which I love to find). In reading and correspondence, I was especially engaged by the shifting role of women in this period. In general it was a difficult time, scaling back the scope allowed for women in some earlier centuries. But in the midst of this one of the very most beloved and influential woman songwriter/poets ever in China emerged. I was also really engaged by the intense political clashes of the day, the revolving door of exile and recall to power (assuming exile didn’t kill you!). It isn’t so much finding parallels to today (there is a risk in forcing parallels) but the sheer ferocity of the political battles is so dramatic.
FC: Since we’ve discussed the historical side of your writing, I don’t want to leave out the fantasy side of it! On your website, there’s an essay about fantasy titled “Home and Away” in which you state:
What I am offering is the notion that fantasy has the potential to be one such way of addressing the issues that the past so often throws at the present day. It isn’t just an evasion, an escape, a hiding from truths of the world: it can be an acknowledgment that those truths are complex, morally difficult, and that many different sorts of techniques and processes may lead to a book’s resonating deeply for a reader and a time.
What truths of the world resonate with you? Which specific fantasy stories have showed you these complex truths and made you think about them in a new way?
GGK: Well, excellence is rare – that’s why we value it so much, if you think about it. That means I’m more inclined to cite masterpieces. From The Once and Future King, read so long ago, I learned how elements of the fantastic are entirely consistent with larger themes of peace and war and good stewardship through all times and periods. I also will never forget the complexity of some figure, such as White’s Lancelot, gentle in the extreme because he so feared the anger within himself. And White is also masterful at switching tone within a book, from whimsy to deep sorrow – just as our lives switch tone. Tolkien is a master class in harnessing myth and legend to narrative and theme. Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is brilliant on the resonance of place in our lives and through history, something that remains important in my own thought and writing. And I’ll mention E.R. Eddison whose word-drunk glory showed me, very young, that language could be so utterly central to shaping mood and a sense of strangeness, the idea that we are not here.
I also like working with the fantastic in exploring history for another reason. It is way too easy for us today to be smug and complacent about our values, our insights, how much more we know than the poor fools of yesterday. I want to give value and resonance to what people believed. So if ghosts or fox-women (or faeries in the forest, in an earlier book) were part of the worldview of my characters, I will show that in the books, to try to help modern readers better see that world view. Using fantasy is a gateway to doing that. (I’ll also work with psychological elements and interpretations – we are all children of our own time, too.)
FC: Do you think that epic fantasy works differently than, say, science fiction (which has long had an explicit goal of putting a warped mirror to the real world) or fantastic fairy tales (which are repositories of parable) when it comes to casting the past and present in a new light? Does adding epic-ness to fantasy change how that works?
GGK: A tricky question, partly because your science fiction comment applies (I suspect you’d agree) only to a subset of science fiction. The ‘bundling’ of science fiction and fantasy is always problematic, a function, as much as anything, of American publishing history. I have a long habit of resisting obsessive categorization, so if we steer towards subdividing fantasy into epic, sword & sorcery, paranormal, urban, gritty … I’m going to need a drink or two and have to watch my inner curmudgeon. As a glancing answer I’ll say that ‘epic’ tends to imply (or demand) a focus on scale and narrative, and this often puts a negative pressure on character, language, and theme. This isn’t a rule, but it is a tendency. It dovetails with, say, the famous Hollywood injunction to ‘cut to story’. Cutting to the story kills nuance.
FC: The characters in River of Stars are inspired by people with great achievements, such as the female poet Li Qingzhao and General Yue Fei as the basis for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan, respectively. How do you balance inclusion of historic achievements and qualities with making them unique characters?
GGK: That’s a great question. It happens to make me feel good, too, as I just received a letter last week from a scholar in Chinese history who said really lovely things about ‘owning’ the material and finding a way to make the characters ‘them and not-them’, referring to those inspired by real people. But remember – only some of them, as with all my books, are inspired by the actual. Novelists invent, too.
Let me begin by saying that my expectation, always, is that the vast majority of readers will not know the templates and inspirations for such characters and that’s as it should be. No one should need to do homework to read a novel! At the same time, I take a lot of pride in trying to work carefully with the core material for my own satisfaction. My creative process seems to flow best when I do that, rather than allowing myself some sort of ‘it’s just a fantasy, do what you like’ out clause. The real figures of history often trigger my thinking and imagination, but the novels take place in Kitai, not China. There are many reasons why I do that (I have written speeches and essays on the topic.). This means that character interactions and plot elements can happen in my novel that could not (did not!) in history. I can offer those who know the period some grace notes, while giving those who don’t know a thing about the time what I hope will meet my permanent goal: interesting things happening to interesting people, written in an interesting way.
FC: You seem to have a great deal of respect for the people you are building from in your stories. Have you ever put a historical tidbit in just to honor the real person or removed an aspect of their life out of respect, even if the character might have worked better another way?
GGK: That one stopped me cold! I have certainly made some significant changes in the lives of characters inspired by real ones, in that their fates are not identical. But these are always in the service of the story being told. These changes can be for very different reasons, book to book. A Song for Arbonne reverses the result of the Albigensian Crusade, my hope being that readers might think a bit about how the potential for women in western history might have been different if that had happened. The Sarantine Mosaic involves the death of someone that precludes an invasion that really occurred, again shifting what we understand of western history. There are a couple of small grace notes in River of Stars that honor one or two magnificent figures (secondary ones) but I can absolutely say that this wouldn’t ever happen if the character or story would have been better without that! I will add that I have often wanted to avoid the death of characters (going all the way back to Fionavar) but the imperatives of the story were too damned strong.
FC: The power of words was an important theme in River of Stars, which seems like a logical value for an author to get behind. Are there words or writings that you go back to at different times in your life and find power in?
GGK: Endlessly. I am a believer in re-reading. I think, especially with fiction, we often push hard to find out what happens, and subtleties in language or character emerge far more a second (or third!) time around. With poetry it is so much about language that re-reading is simply a reaffirmation of love and pleasure. And one of the things that fascinates me is how changes in us, in our own lives and understanding of the world over time, make for changes in our response to works we’ve read before. Reading, as I often say, is a dialogue, not a monologue, readers brings themselves to the book, and what we are as people is not constant. A favourite quote from someone I know is that every time he read Shakespeare, Shakespeare seemed to know everything that had happened in his life since the last reading!
FC: In River of Stars, there’s reference to a single defining moment, one where if things had just been a little different or fallen into place a little differently, a person’s path would have gone down a different road and changed everything. Did you have one of these moments when it came to becoming an author or writing one of your books?
GGK: I do believe that ‘accident’ can play a role in our lives, on a macro or a micro scale. Certainly the early circumstance of my involvement with The Silmarillion played such a role in mine, in complex ways that would take way too long for an answer here. On a smaller scale, the fact that I went with my family back to Provence in 2004-5 led directly to Ysabel. I had a trunk full of research books, intending to read and then begin writing a book inspired by the Silk Road. But returning to the south of France after many years I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, history of that part of the world, and ideas and images began pressing hard. I resisted for a bit, but most writers are likely to tell you that’s fruitless and foolish (both). And then, because of that shift to writing Ysabel, came Under Heaven, because even though I knew I would go back to a China-inspired book after, in the period that intervened, I moved away from the Silk Road idea (I think it would have been too close to Sailing to Sarantium) and ended up obsessed with the Tang Dynasty. So two novels, out of an accident of geography. What if I had gone to Melbourne, instead?
FC: If you could read one book again for the first time, which one would it be and why?
GGK: Cute story: my youngest brother carried, for years, through high school and university, a card in his wallet that said: ‘If I am found with amnesia, please give me the following books to read …’
My caveat to this answer is that reading something for the first time in my fifties would be an utterly different experience from reading it first at twelve or twenty. So I’m actually not sure what to say. I think I’ll go with Shakespeare’s tragedies, and add Twelfth Night, because I love it so much. There is something almost overwhelming, trying to imagine the impact of those plays today, if I knew absolutely nothing about them. Of course I could also pick Goodnight Moon …
About Guy Gavriel Kay:
GUY GAVRIEL KAY is the #1 internationally bestselling author of eleven previous novels and an acclaimed collection of poetry, Beyond This Dark House.
Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and raised in Winnipeg. In the 1970’s he was retained by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien to assist in the editorial construction of Tolkien’s posthumously published The Silmarillion. He returned to Canada from Oxford to take a law degree at the University of Toronto and was called to the Bar in Ontario.
Kay became Principal Writer and Associate Producer for the CBC radio series, “The Scales of Justice“, dramatizing major criminal trials in Canadian history. He also wrote several episodes when the series later moved to television. He has written social and political commentary for the National Post and the Globe and Mail and for The Guardian in England, and has spoken on a variety of topics at universities and conferences around the world.
In 1984, Kay’s first novel, The Summer Tree, the first volume of The Fionavar Tapestry, was published to considerable acclaim in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, and then in a number of countries and languages. In 1990 Viking Canada’s edition of his novel Tigana reached the national bestseller list, and his next book A Song for Arbonne debuted at #1 in Canada.
Translations now exceed twenty languages and Kay has toured and read on behalf of his publishers and at literary events in Canada, the United States, England, Poland, France, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Mexico and Greece, among others, with his next international appearance being slated for June 2010 in Shanghai and Beijing. He has been nominated for and has won numerous literary awards including the World Fantasy Award and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Prize (presented in Mexico City) for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic. Guy Gavriel Kay’s work has inspired artists and writers around the world to create original music, verse, and art.
Kay lives in Toronto with his wife and sons.