Guy Gavriel Kay on River of Stars

First aired on The Next Chapter (27/05/13)


Guy Gavriel Kay is a bestselling writer who's critically acclaimed as well as a fan favourite. He's written a dozen novels as well as a book of poetry, and his work has been translated into more than 25 languages. A number of his books have won prizes, too, including Isabel, which took the 2008 World Fantasy Award. River of Stars is his latest novel, and it leapt onto the Canadian bestseller list in its first week.

River of Stars begins with a 15-year-old boy, Ren Diayan, whose life changes dramatically after an encounter in which he kills seven men, while guarding an imperial magistrate. The act alters the path of his life and affects the entire empire. (The empire is a fictional one called Kitai Empire, and is based on China's 12th-century Song Dynasty.) Lin Shan, another pivotal character, is well educated, a favourite of the emperor's and not afraid to speak her mind despite the fact that she lives in a society that doesn't value independent women.

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Kitai was also the setting for Kay's earlier book Under Heaven. In a recent interview with The Next Chapter, Kay told host Shelagh Rogers that he returned to that setting because the contacts he made while researching Under Heaven persuaded him that there was more to be explored. "At some point for every book, I've been hooked, like a fish, by the ambience, the flavour, the themes, sometimes the people that emerge for me from a given period," he said. "In this case, part of it was very smart people saying, 'You really have to look at this.'"

Kay went on to say that he's interested in how the course of a person's life can change in a moment, and how "small moments and events can ripple outwards." Whether it's an individual or the life of a people, he pointed out, "significant consequences can begin very inconsequentially. That's one thing that fascinates me. The other thing that fascinates me is how accident can undermine something that's unfolding, something that might have played out differently otherwise."

To Kay, "the human condition is redolent with this aspect of randomness, and I try to work that into all of my books." In River of Stars, he spells out some elements of this more than in some of his other books.

Kay is renowned for the richness of detail in his books, which comes from doing in-depth research. Calligraphy is important in River of Stars, and so he set out to learn more about it so that he'd be comfortable writing about it. "The very best way I can make any reader believe in the nuts and bolts of an art to know the mechanics, to make the characters grounded in convincing detail," he said.

In the Song Dynasty, the military was regarded with distrust -- they were seen as a greater threat to the empire than external enemies -- and "no respectable family would let a son voluntarily enter the army," Kay explained, adding that the dynasty also restricted the role of women in society. "There was a perception that an empress from centuries before had led to disaster...and that emperors who followed her had been overly susceptible to the wiles of their concubines, that courtesans had too much influence over men of the court...and the dynasty decided that women should be kept out of the way."

That was Kay's starting point for shaping the stories of Ren Diayan and Lin Shan. "I wanted to write a book featuring two protagonists who, in their back stories, share a rejection of, a rebellion against, these constraints of the society into which they're born," he said. "They are set up in opposition to the norms of their culture."

Author image by Samantha Kidd Photography.

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