Guy Gavriel Kay: 'We all write the books we would like to read'

Guy Gavriel Kay: 'We all write the books we would like to read'

The prolific writer of historical and fantasy novels shares what he learned from working with J R R Tolkien’s archives, and explains how Canada’s books scene transformed into one ripe with literary talent.

Your last two books, Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago , and next May’s All the Seas of the World, are broadly set in an alternative version of near-Renaissance Italy and the Balkans. What made you decide on this area and this period?

After every book, I never have  a clue what I’m doing next. I am  very jealous of peers who have lined up their projects for the next several books. I’m jealous of people who get up in the morning and get good ideas while brushing their teeth. I got one good idea about every three years—but it tends to be a bedrock idea. But these three go back to my Croatian publisher, Neven Anticevic [c.e.o. of Zagreb-based Algoritam]. 

On a book tour there several years ago, we were driving on the Dalmatian coast—he’s a terrible driver, by the way, but a remarkable man—and he was talking about how you can tell which bits are the old Roman roads because you can race more easily through those dangerous curves. We were going around one when he turned fully to me and shouted: “You know what you should do? A story about the Uskoks.” I said: “Keep your eyes on the road—and who are the Uskoks?” Turns out they were pirates from the Dalmation coast who, from the late Medieval period, used to raid everybody from Venice to Istanbul. So I filed that away and a few years ago started thinking of them again; from there it opened up a lot of channels to the world they lived in. 

You are unique in fantasy  as your worlds are very  close to our historical past, with places renamed, and very light on the fantasy.

I write between categories, which means I am exceptionally challenging to the marketing departments at all my publishers. Challenging to book-review editors in figuring out who should review my books. Certainly challenging to art directors about book covers: “Do we make a fantasy cover or a historical?” I’m neither squarely in fantasy, nor in history. Nor in literary fiction, as I have those fantasy and historical elements. A while ago, a critic said that I’m a historical novelist with a 20-degree turn towards the fantastic. I’ve co-opted that and use it all the time. You won’t learn about the Treaty of Utrecht if you read my books. But I hope, through that 20-degree twist, you might learn about the psychological backdrop to certain major events in history.
Do you ever get the  urge to turn those 20 degrees and write a fully  historical novel?

No, and here’s why. We all write the books we would like to read if somebody else wrote them. I don’t mean to sound like I’m bidding to get into Bartlett’s Quotations. I enjoy books with multiple protagonists, with complex political interactions. I enjoy reading those—historical or contemporary. What I do, I think, creates an ethical space to imagine,  to embed, to have your own  attempt to think how things might have been without saying, “This is how it was.” And this is for me, I’m not suggesting other writers shouldn’t do this. But I would never be comfortable suggesting that I knew, say, the marital relationship of [Byzantine emperor and empress] Justinian and Theodora. I would not want to be in the head of either of them under those names, presenting to the reader as if I have some research or intuitive understanding of them.  I’m much happier when the reader and I share from page one the awareness that we don’t know, and we jointly embark upon an exercise in fiction and imagination inspired by real events. 

Famously, as a young  man you worked with Christopher Tolkien for a year in Oxford, sifting through his father’s papers to create The Silmarillion. What did you learn from that experience?

It was such a long time ago and you are always learning new things, sometimes discarding others. So knowledge is not a through-line. But some things have stayed. One is that J R R Tolkien was a fanatical re-writer. He was nothing if not patient—and I know this because I was working with all the false starts and the drafts that he polished incessantly. That was a lesson for a young writer: a brilliant work doesn’t emerge fully formed from the drop. The number of revisions and scrapped approaches that were in the Tolkien papers subliminally made me internalise the idea that it is normal, even in a work of greatness, that you need time and you will make mistakes en route. That’s how I am: a tinkerer, a reviser. When someone asks how many drafts I do, I have no clue as I’m always revising. I’m actually at a point I really hate—I’ve just done final proofs for All the Seas of the World, which means I can’t revise it any more. Another aspect I learned from Tolkien was not to be afraid of scale or going large. Which I did right from the beginning. But I suppose that also linked up with what I liked to read, which is books on a large scale. There is a certain amount of hubris you need in writing a big book which, actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had. But I think the Tolkien papers at least gave me the license to think that I could work on that size of a book. 

I do find it interesting that after you left the Tolkien papers you didn’t immediately try to become a writer, but went to law school.

Well, I’m Canadian. And an oldest  son, from the prairie—so there  was an embedded streak of pragmatism in me that had me thinking: “Who the hell makes a living from writing novels?” I didn’t want to be a lawyer then,  I really wanted to be a writer.  But the law was an interest for me,  so it wasn’t a desperate, terrible  fate. Criminal law was a very early passion and there is an overlap with writing in its intensity. When you are working as a defense attorney, you are with people in the most imperiled, frightening moments of their lives, and that intensity spoke to me. In the same way, I’ve tried to make readers both intellectually and emotionally engaged with my books.

Since this is Canada’s  second go at the FBF Guest of Honour—what do you make of the state of Canadian literature  at the moment?

With the caveat that we are in our silos and different categories, when we are talking about what the Canadian approach to fiction is right now, Canada is really established in the literary landscape. A dear late friend of mine once said that when he began his writing career, Canada was a bad literary address, it was dismissed as being just about moose and polar bears. It gradually became a good literary address. There are people who obviously helped with that: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler. The country’s literary culture grew in general, too, encompassing a staggering variety of people doing a wide variety of things. Does Canadian literature have bedrock themes? One of Margaret Atwood’s first books said that a theme in Canadian literature was surviving a harsh landscape. And it is true that for a while that became a trope: the harsh prairie winters, bleak smalltown Ontario. Now it has expanded, and is no more circumscribed than any other country’s literature. 

Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Saskatchewan in 1954. He was called to the bar after studying law at the University of Toronto but soon began writing radio and TV scripts for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before his first book, The Summer Tree, was published in 1984. His 15th novel, All the Seas of the World, is out on 17th May 2022 in the UK, US and Canada, published by Hodder, Berkeley and Penguin Canada in those territories, respectively.