We asked Guy Gavriel Kay about his writing…
1. How much did reading Tolkien in your formative years vs. working with Christopher Tolkien on The Silmarillion influence you as a writer?
I loved LOTR enormously, and I am of the generation that moved from him [J. R. R. Tolkien] to other giants and classics (Eddison, Dunsany, Cabell, Morris, Peake. . .) rather than to the clones and afterbirth books. Having said that, my own passion when young, and continuing today, was for history and historical fiction. The year working on The Silmarillion was hugely influential in many ways. It laid down a lesson I’ve never lost – how much patience and rewriting matter, not rushing your work, staying with it.
2. What literary works have influenced you most, and why?
I’ve loved so many books, from the time I had just turned six and read Little Women (grade 1 teacher told my mother I was ready to read it over the Christmas break). But ‘influence’ is another matter, and a tricky one. If I say Shakespeare, Yeats, and Dylan Thomas (when younger) it is utterly true, but (I know this) not really what you want! Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell. Mary Renault and Dorothy Dunnett and George Garrett – all writers of superbly envisaged historical fiction. Influence can also be specific and short-term, on a single book. Milan Kundera’s early writing on life under tyranny had a major influence on themes of Tigana. So did some superb histories of the Renaissance. The Icelandic sagas are in every page of Last Light of the Sun. The incomparable Tang Dynasty poets, Du Fu and Li Bai, infuse Under Heaven. And on. . .
3. Why history? What attributes does a historical figure have to have in order to draw you to them?
No formula, no template. I am usually drawn first to a period, rather than figures. From reading about a time and place, people emerge – both the ones I’ll invent, and the real ones I’ll use as inspirations for some of mine. One exception, in a way, was the Mosaic pair, where I knew I was going to ‘work’ with Byzantium, but wasn’t sure when I wanted to set a story. The more I learned of Justinian and Theodora, the more I wanted to explore that specific era.
4. Would you ever consider revisiting epic fantasy, or do you feel you have covered that with The Fionavar Tapestry?
I’m not (I hope!) so foolish as to ever think anyone could ‘cover’ something as prodigious as epic fantasy. I did feel that in terms of classic high fantasy, Fionavar was my statement for a period of my life and work, and (perhaps not wisely) I dislike four volume trilogies and authors sticking too rigidly with a setting or themes. You stop growing when you do that. So I’ve tried to be a bit of a moving target (with history as a unifying motif). Having said that,Ysabel was certainly a return of sorts to exploring the supernatural and legend, and Last Light was all about the interaction between faerie and a monotheistic denial of it! I’ve never entirely left some of these elements behind. The degree to which they enter a given story is dictated by that story and setting. I won’t do ‘magic’ just to do it, I have too much respect for the material (and my readers, I guess).
5. The artist always plays an integral role within your novels. What is it about an artist that moves you to write about them?
Artists of one sort or another are the great interrogators of a culture. They, almost by definition, are examining and observing their own time. They can (and should?) position themselves at an angle to power, to great events. In other, more specific ways, they ‘fit’ some settings I’ve explored. In Tigana, for example (and Arbonne, actually) I have a society where mobility was relatively limited, and it was musicians who had the license to travel, and that plays a role in both plots. Lions of Al-Rassan is, in good part, about the demise of an extraordinary culture, and the art of that culture is a key, so it made sense to have a poet there, just as it did in Under Heaven – in the Tang Dynasty skill in poetry was just about required if you wanted to rise in court ranks!
7. Are there any of your works that you wish you could go back and do differently?
Every time I deliver a book I have the sense that if I had another half year I could make it better. This may not be true, we can ‘overlove’ our own work, worry it, fuss with it. But given that I am one of those who believe a work ‘is never finished, it is abandoned’, I could probably spend the rest of my life fine tuning and revising already published books! If I had a do-over I might put back in a bit I excised about Sharra at the end of The Darkest Road. My instinct (and even as I type this I feel I was probably right) was that it was going to be too obviously a tying up of a loose end, that readers would know from what they had learned of her, what she would do after the story ended. But too many people over the years have queried it specifically, so I might bend (not easy!) here. There may have been something more powerful going on than I had realized, a need for specific closure. As a rule, I dislike overly-precise closure, readers will know I favour the idea that lives go on after a story ends, and we don’t know everything that will happen, but with Sharra I might put that reference back in.
8. What are you currently reading?
All over the map. I give book recommendations in the Forums on brightweavings.com at (random) intervals, and they are always echoed on the Bright Weavings FB page and Twitter feed (done for me by some wonderful people, so I can concentrate on writing books). This year I’ve enjoyed, among other books, and in no particular order, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Lord of Misrule, The Tiger, Dervish House, The Sisters Brothers, Motherless Brooklyn (got to that one late!) Alone Together … disliked a lot of books too, but we won’t go there!
Victoria Rogers, SFFWorld