Books·In Conversation

Guy Gavriel Kay on why writing fantasy fiction about destiny, dominion and deceit will never go out of style

The legendary fantasy author and Order of Canada recipient discusses why themes such as power, abuse and ambition are prevalent in his bestselling books.

'Power, uncontrolled, can bring degrading and uncontrolled behaviour.'

Guy Gavriel Kay is a celebrated Canadian fantasy writer. (Ted Davis)

Prolific, thy name is Guy Gavriel Kay. Known and beloved as a writer of historical fantasy, the Canadian author has published 14 novels — his debut being 1984's The Summer Tree — and is a mainstay on bestseller lists around the globe. 

In 2014, he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His Fionavar Tapestry fantasy series has sold over a million copies worldwide since being published in the 1980s. Some of Kay's other titles include Children of Earth and Sky, Tigana, River of Stars and his most recent novel, A Brightness Long Ago, set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy with themes of destiny, love and power.

 The Toronto-based author discussed his work and career with CBC Books.

The opening chapter of A Brightness Long Ago features a bloody and fatal encounter with a vile sexual predator and warlord known as The Beast. What did you want to say with this chapter, and by extension, the novel?

"There's an irony about that opening chapter and my publisher noted that there will be readers and reviewers who say this is Kay's #MeToo scene. They'll say I was obviously reading current news events, traumas and ugliness in a post-Harvey Weinstein world and incorporated it all into a Renaissance setting. I'm not that attuned because I wrote the scene almost a full year before the #MeToo drama broke. The point and takeaway is that these types of occurrences have always been out in the world. We are more aware of it today. We may be finally exposing and addressing more of it than we ever did. When you give people relatively untrammelled power, abuses will happen.

"One form of those abuses did occur during the Renaissance period of history. There is a book I recently read about historical events in 15th-century Italy, written by a 19th-century writer. The book is about how unchecked even the small city despots were at that time — and the way they acted when they realized no one was going to stop them.

"There's another aspect of the book that interested me: in a time where people are afraid of starvation, being invaded and the depredations of winter, if you are a warlord or a minor duke of a minor city — and you and your army were strong enough — you could protect the citizens of your city and they would let you get away with anything. There's that's a sad but necessary correlation in most people's minds: 'He's a sadistic strongman beast, but he is my sadistic strongman beast.' 

"It's a human nature thing, where societies will and have made that trade off. That's sad and grim and disturbing and real. That was one of the things I wanted to explore in A Brightness Long Ago: that power, uncontrolled, can bring degrading and uncontrolled behaviour."

Given your career spans decades, do you think about your legacy at this stage of your professional life?

"Some of my most recent books have been about that very thing — the issue of legacy. When I wrote The Sarantine Mosaic — which is a pair of books set in the equivalent of 6th-century Byzantium — one of the themes of the book is the ways in which people try to leave something behind. For most people, the way we're remembered is through our family and friends. It's about what sort of person we were and how are we remembered by the people who knew us.

I have appreciation, gratitude and a certain amount of wonder that I seem to have done some work that is still going great.

"We live in an increasingly ADHD society, where an author sticking around is getting harder and harder. I'm deeply appreciative of my readers and my publishers worldwide. The Summer Tree came out way back in 1984. Most of the books, and in English all the books, are still in print and still selling. I have appreciation, gratitude and a certain amount of wonder that I seem to have done some work that is still going great."

Do you feel pressure to sustain your literary standard for excellence?

"I am aware and conscious of that. I'm going to come at this question with an expression of gratitude; my readers have allowed me to write on different themes, different motifs, different things I've wanted to explore and have stayed with me.

"The pressure for me is to not let myself or the body of work down. I don't want to write a slack book. It's one of the reasons I'm a slow writer, in relative terms. Yes, I'd like to try to keep satisfying and rewarding readers. But it's also more internal by now. It has become about getting to a point where you are thinking more about the book and your responsibility to the characters, the story and the themes of the book."

Do you feel you need to pay attention to what's happening in the world when you write?

"I don't think it's a matter of feeling that I have to pay attention to what's happening in the world, it's a matter of inevitably feeling impacted by what's going on around me. That can mean one can't write for a couple of weeks, where something had happened that was so traumatizing in the wider world or the personal world and one can't work for couple of weeks, couple of months or even a year. The world around us will filter in.

"I don't write any 'one to one' allegories. I'm not writing books about the past that I mean to have the reader feel that's exactly what's happening now. There are always people quoting the books to that effect, but I'm not writing for that specific a connecting point. But there is absolutely no doubt that the way we think will be affected by what is happening in the world. That will affect how we write."

The first part of the writing process is figuring out what I'm going to do next. This involves a lot of reading, a lot of brooding and more swearing than I like to admit.

What does the perfect writing day look like for you?

"It depends on what stage I'm at, because the writing process for me is several different things. I never know when I'm writing next. I have friends who get five ideas between waking up and having breakfast. Me, I get one good idea every three years. It's not a productive process!

"The first part of the writing process is figuring out what I'm going to do next. This involves a lot of reading, a lot of brooding and more swearing than I like to admit. I'm in an armchair a lot of the time with an old fashioned notebook and pen, reading and taking notes. Or I might book a trip and travel somewhere to see what what energy and ideas I get from the places I go to.

"The next stage will be one that gets closer to knowing what I want to do. The note taking gets more specific toward a project, a character that I would like to lay out or traits I would like to give them. And it's still handwritten most of the time.

"Then the last part is what is more traditionally thought of as 'the writing day.' Which is, you're at the desk and the computer with intravenous coffee and you're writing. The writing day is about treating it as a marathon, not a sprint. It is a matter of putting in the hours and the miles, pretty much every day, once I get to that phase."

Canadian writer talks about the new directions he sees ahead for fantasy fiction. 3:58

What is your approach to storytelling? Do you outline first?

"It's mostly internalized. And writers find the way we work best: Don't let anyone else tell you how to do it. We're in a culture where we're looking for gurus and tips and secrets. When I talk about process and method I always preface it to say this is anecdotal, not prescriptive.

I can't help but find a book as a discovery process.

"I don't outline. I have friends who outline the whole thing before they start. I can't help but find a book as a discovery process. For me, it's about the energy, the adrenaline, the anxiety of not knowing exactly where it's going. That gives me an energy that has, over the years, translated into working at my strongest level. I can never prove this, but I believe that when a writer is engaged in a process of discovery, that energy conveys itself subliminally to the reader. But not only can I not prove that, I'm probably wrong! 

"There are a lot of writers who meticulously lay out everything before they start, and their craft does in fact convey that sense of energy and discovery. But for me, not quite knowing where I'm going gives me that added energy."

What advice do you have for emerging writers?

"We are in a very complex cultural moment now. While one can say, 'When is it not a complex cultural moment?' — which is legitimate — the complexity now has a lot to do with the competition for our attention and eyeballs. So you want to write an ambitious novel that solicits a reader's complete and focused attention."

So how does Guy Gavriel Kay define success?

"Response is one form of validation. I've always said the gift a writer can get is a really intelligent reading of their book. Readers understanding what you're trying to do is a really intense form of success. And on a mundane but fundamental level, success for a writer is being able to keep writing. It seems that what I do works for readers in now more than 30 languages, which is a lot of countries. That's a profound gift that readers give me because I'm able to do that, keep writing."

Guy Gavriel Kay's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the In Conversation series here.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated Guy Gavriel Kay had written 13 novels. He has written 14 novels in total.
    Jul 16, 2019 3:02 PM ET

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