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Photo: © Ted Davis Photography
Guy Gavriel Kay is the international bestselling author of many novels and a book of poetry. He has been awarded the International Goliardos Prize for his work in literature of the fantastic and won the World Fantasy Award for Ysabel in 2008. In 2014, Kay was named to the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages.
Essay by Guy Gavriel Kay
It actually feels strange to do the math, but I’ve been living with Under Heaven for over seven years now. Makes it harder, and more complex, to have it finally being published, no longer just ‘mine’ but out there in the world.
In 2003, around when I was finishing my tour for Last Light of the Sun, I started doing some reading about the Silk Road. I thought there might be a book for me in this, I saw it as a way of sneaking up on China, so to speak. I could use outsider characters to enter an eastern setting, to serve as ‘windows’ for the reader.
So I made the decision to explore this for my next book, and then my wife and I made another decision: we decided that it was a good year for us to live abroad again, with our sons, back in the south of France where we’d been before on writing trips, but not for a decade.
We sorted out (not always easily) the arrangements, and flew overseas. I took a suitcase of books (excess luggage, big time) about the Silk Road and about the countries along the way—in various periods. I didn’t know just what I was going to do, but it would focus on this.
Or so I thought. When we arrived back in Aix en Provence in the late summer of 2004 I was, almost immediately, overwhelmed by the sensory richness of the place, the history, even the changes in ten years. I was hijacked, kidnapped, abducted. The intensity of my response to where we were immediately started taking shape as a novel. I fought it for awhile. But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it is that you can’t fight a book that wants to be written. Or at least—I can’t. What emerged from that year abroad was Ysabel, generously rewarded with a World Fantasy Award.
What followed, as I began preparing myself in 2007 for what to do next, was a return to the ‘eastern book’. But something had changed. After those intervening years I somehow found myself more urgently moving towards China itself—treated with my own ‘quarter turn’ towards the fantastic, as one reviewer has described what I do.
The novel which became Under Heaven, was no longer a Silk Road book. Now, as I read and made notes and corresponded with scholars around the world, the new book was going to be inspired by and anchored in the glittering, glorious, sophisticated, violently dangerous Tang Dynasty of the 8th century. One of the absolute high points of civilization—anywhere.
Theirs was a world where the capital city, Changan, held two million people at a time when London and Paris were market towns of fifteen to twenty thousand. The imperial court received pearls and aromatic woods from the south, amber from the farthest north, music (and musicians) from the west beyond the deserts, and they believed the islands of the eastern coast were home to immortals and that fox-women could steal men’s souls at night. They feared tigers, with cause. Courtiers and courtesans mixed with soldiers and poets, astrologers and holy men, all circling the emperor, the ‘Son of Heaven’.
As always, I use the fantastic as a way of being up-front about the idea that there is a space between the novel I write (the novel you read) and the real people and time and place. There are gifted writers who try (often brilliantly) to erase this space. I celebrate it, I value it, I find it artistically and ethically empowering. And then, as the book appears, my hope—always—is that readers find both power and pleasure, and perhaps something as seductive as music heard late at night, in the experience of Under Heaven.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: Children of Earth and Sky is available today! Tell us a bit about it and its amazingly complex characters.
Guy Gavriel Kay: I like engaging characters, I want my readers caught up in them, and I’m bored (as a reader, too) by simplistic ones. So I guess as a writer I’m drawn to that layering up of characters. In this case, what’s a little different is that I intend Children to be a book about the non-powerful (though hardly ‘ordinary’). How they attempt to get on with their lives, take control of their lives (hardest for women) in a time of major war and political tension. So this is set in my quarter-turn equivalent of the late 15th century, with the doings of emperors and dukes and other powerful leaders filtering down to, and through, five main protagonists, three men and two woman, who are not power players. I’m suggesting that the lives of ‘the great’ are not the only lives worth our attention. Feeding our children can matter more than who succeeds to a throne far away.
PRH: This story features different cultures coming into conflict. When you write this kind of novel, is it hard giving both sides equal time and points of view? How important is that to you as a writer?
GGK: It has varied book to book (most things do for me). But in general, creating stock, obvious, good vs bad interests me less than suggesting the underlying humanity (and underlying violence, too) in much of history. The past is both astonishingly strange and remarkably similar, and I like to explore both. The hardest balancing act in Children was actually among my protagonists. I had to try to keep the reader engaged by all of them. People will have favorites (how not?) but that engagement with each person’s story is critical.
PRH: You have said in the past that you learned a lot about “false starts in writing” when you were given a glimpse at J.R.R. Tolkien’s process. Have you been able to avoid false starts in your work? If not, what happens when you have one?
GGK: You go back! Rewind the tape, find where you went astray. More often these days, because I take a lot of time and have done this for a long time now, it is more a matter of not starting a scene or section until I have thought through the implications. So, one way to not false start is to not jump the starter’s gun! Also: rewriting! You can fix things.
PRH: As a writer myself and an admirer of your work, how much do you attribute the high quality of your every novel to spending several years with it before publication? What does that process look like?
GGK: Thank you, first of all. I think I partly answered this in the previous question. I’m envious, I suppose, of those who can whip their books out, but I know I can’t make myself happy with a book doing it that way. I absolutely place value on novels that essentially just want to entertain or distract us on a beach, on an airplane, before dropping off after a hard day … we need that … but I also know I am, for better or worse, trying to give more, do more to readers, and that means taking time to pull together the threads of that ambition.
PRH: I know it is likely two or three years before we will be able to read it, but what are you currently working on? Got a title or something you can share about it?
GGK: You know I’d have to kill you, Shawn. In truth, as always, I never know what the next book will be when I finish one. A lot of random reading, conversations, correspondence with scholars, a due measure of brooding (with single malt sometimes) will happen over the next while. So far (cross fingers for me) something has always emerged to say ‘this is what you want to do’.
Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay is available today in fine bookstores! It is a fantastic read. If you haven’t read Guy’s work before, definitely go pick this one up. It will be a great way to be introduced to one of the best historical fantasy writers working today!
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