The Next Chapter

Guy Gavriel Kay on writing about civilizations on the edge

The fantasy author on writing "about information, espionage, spying and the value of knowledge.”
In 2014, Guy Gavriel Kay was appointed to the Order of Canada "for his contributions to the field of speculative fiction as an internationally celebrated author." (Samantha Kidd)
Listen16:50

Guy Gavriel Kay is an internationally bestselling author. He is known and beloved as a writer of historical fantasy, but his books transcend genre. His latest book, Children of Earth and Sky, is set in the 15th century. The five heroes of the story come from disparate backgrounds — an artist, a merchant, a warrior, a bandit and a potential spy. Their stories entwine as they strive to live free and independent lives along the edges of their clashing empires.

Shelagh Rogers spoke with Guy Gavriel Kay onstage at a special event in Victoria, B.C.

WHY HE SETS BOOKS IN DANGEROUS TIMES AND PLACES

Most of my books begin with the setting. The characters start to emerge from the setting, and the narrative emerges from the characters. That's usually the sequence, and somewhere in there, the themes that I would like to draw out of that period start to crystallize. So I'm drawn to the kind of context where you're on the edge — you have a state that might be falling, you have people living on an imperilled, endangered border — because you have drama embedded in the setting. It is inherently dramatic.

ON THE ROLE OF THE OBSERVER 

When you have someone who is slightly askew to what's happening, someone who's a bit of an outsider, it gives you opportunities for both the chronicling and observing of events. In The Sarantine Mosaic, where I have a mosaicist journeying from the West to the imperial court of the East, it's not an info-dump. It's not impossible for him to be observing it as something new, unexpected, glorious, frightening. His responses become the window through which the reader is given an opportunity to respond as an outsider, because we are outsiders. When we enter the world of any book, characters like that, for me, are a natural gateway.

TELLING THE LESS-TOLD STORIES

In the time periods ​where we tend to know of peoples' lives, two things are required. One is that it is a literate society. One of the unfairnesses that history imposes upon the present day, in terms of historians and others who are interested in the past, is a huge prejudice in favour of the cultures that wrote things down. The other is that within that literate society, you need to be of a class or social level where things are being written about you. Which is why most writing about history has tended to be about the upper class. There's more material. But it's the unrecorded lives, or the less-often recorded lives, that tend to interest me at least as much as the ones where we have easy access to a lot of information.

Guy Gavriel Kay's comments have been edited and condensed.