I'm delighted to welcome Guy Gavriel Kay, whose new novel RIVER OF STARS was published this week. I've long been a devoted fan of Mr Kay's work; his adaptations of history through the prism of fantasy offer breathtaking new landscapes that feel both familiar and utterly unique. In his new novel, he returns us to historical China, following the events detailed in his previous novel Under Heaven. This time, it is four centuries later, and we journey into an epic rendering of a dynasty on a collision course with fate, featuring prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a woman who fights in her own way to find a new place for women in the world – all inspired by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty.
Please join me in welcoming Guy Gavriel Kay!
You are considered a master of historical fantasy, melding history and fiction into a unique setting. What inspired you to write within this particular arena? What are some of the challenges and/or delights about writing a fictionalized version of a historical era?
First of all, thank you. Good interview tactic to start with a compliment! The problem with answering a good question is that it takes, not a village, but an essay. I have written speeches and essays on what I see as some of the core strengths of this blending of history and the fantastic. You can find some of them on http://www. brightweavings.com under 'GGK's Words'.
I like grounding and controlling my art with research. I like not piggybacking on real lives, pretending I know what Justinian and Theodora were like in private. I like being able to sharpen chronology and themes. I enjoy the idea that even readers who know the history I am working with may feel suspense as they read because the books serve notice from the outset that they are inspired by, but not identical to the actual history. Pleasures for me are many, mostly in the research stage. I enjoy that enormously: reading widely, corresponding with some brilliant people who become friends, just learning things. There is a reward for me in finding themes, motifs, inspirations in the past and alchemizing them into a novel that doesn't 'cheat' by pretending to any literal knowledge. Elements of the fantastic also validate the beliefs of people in another time and place, take us away from modern 'smugness'.
I feel ethically and creatively liberated working this way. I know there are writers (and filmmakers) who say, essentially, 'It is just a novel (or a film') as an anything-goes excuse. I am not challenging their own work concept, merely expressing my own. I don't think there is anything 'just' about a novel. I think power and importance can reside in them. And I find a great deal of strength in what one critic called a 'quarter turn to the fantastic' - and I am happy to see more and more people discussing and exploring these issues.
Tell us about your reasons for writing RIVERS OF STARS? What drew you to this story?
I suppose I began learning bits and pieces of the 11th-12th c Song Dynasty as I read and interacted with scholars while researching and writing Under Heaven - which is inspired by events in the Tang period, 350 or so years before. I have an ongoing fascination, something of a recurring theme, regarding the power of the past to affect us, the way it 'doesn't go away'. Faulkner's 'the past is not even past' (paraphrasing). The Song, in many ways, was a period shaped by an intense reaction to the past of China, and felt perfect to me as a chance to delve deeply into a motif I love. In addition, there are some glorious figures that emerge from any reading of the period, and I made full use of some of these as inspirations for my protagonists and supporting characters. I am always drawn to times and places of transition, flux, the great chaos these sometimes cause - and this story is locked into that, too. The many and varied layers of conflict gave me the complexities I seem to be drawn to exploring.
What process did you use to transport yourself (and readers) to your realm? How do you go about your research?
I have always believed a writer needs to know far more about his or her material than ever gets into the book. The reader needs to be made intuitively, subliminally confident in their 'guide'. This means, for me, a horror of 'info dumps' that operate mainly to declare, 'See, I did some googling!' Details need to slip in as quietly and naturally as possible, and there are various narrative devices that make that possible if you do know your source material well. I would never, ever presume to say I am anything like a scholar in the periods of history I have worked with, but I do spend a lot of time on it, and in some targeted areas, I suppose I do end up knowing an awful lot. A few years ago I could have bored you, big time, on Byzantine mosaic technique, or where the best horse in a chariot racing quadriga was placed (it is actually a dispute! I checked with modern harness racers, along with historians!) So I suppose the answer is I start with research, and I take my time. I think that idea of a 'trusted guide' is important. As readers we are forming responses to a work below the conscious level, along with our surface reactions.
Do you believe your novel conveys a message or theme relevant to our world today? If so, what do you think it is? If not, how do you think readers can find common ground with the characters in your story?
This is tricky. I dislike didactic novels, and I always prefer to 'get' you with a stiletto in the ribs, quietly (you don't even know you're being stabbed), than with a heavy hammer to the head (alliterative or not!). I do have themes, motifs, for each novel and some that recur in various forms. I need reasons to spend as long as I do with a story, and a reason for readers to spend as much time with me as a big book demands. So the answer, 'entertainment' isn't quite enough, for me. Of course I want you awake half the night turning pages, but - foolishly or otherwise - I also want you thinking about the book after, remembering it when you encounter something in your reading or your life, afterwards.
So, yes, I do have themes and elements that I feel are deeply relevant to our times in each book, but I am reluctant to spell these out. And there's something else: very often, since every novel is a journey of discovery for me, the evolving narrative and characters show me themes I have obviously been preoccupied by, but hadn't known when I began. Small example: River of Stars has a motif of how a relationship with a parent shapes a child. I didn't plan or anticipate that. It also has a sibling relationship I am very happy with, and I didn't have that as a note or purpose at the start. Despite what I said at the top of this answer, books are organic for me, in some ways I write them and discover why I am writing them and I think readers, on their own journey through a book, can respond to that process, consciously or subconsciously.
Can you tell us about your next project?
Never can, because I just about never know. The only time I ever knew what the next book would be was when I began Under Heaven. I'd had a Chinese-inspired book in mind, and a trunk full of research books, when I went with my family to the south of France in 2004 to begin researching and writing it. I was, as I have been describing it, hijacked by the past of Provence (our fourth long stay there, but first in many years) and the ideas and themes for Ysabel became more and more insistent. So I eventually stopped fighting those, shifted gears, and wrote a Provence-inspired book there. But did know what would follow when that one was done.
Otherwise, as now, I don't know. Can be an anxious feeling, in fact it usually is, but some stress and anxiety I can be good for an artist. Think oyster, seed, pearl. Or at least a writer dreaming and hoping he ends up with a pearl.
Thank you, Guy. Best of success with River of Stars! To find out more about Guy and his work, please visit his website.