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Engaged in the interplay
of myth, fantasy and history


By Alex von Thorn


[Guy Gavriel Kay was interviewed at the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal on November 2, 2001. Author photo by Beth Gwinn.]

You helped Christopher Tolkien assemble The Silmarillion, one of the great works of modern mythology. How did you come to be involved in that?

The short answer is that Christopher Tolkien's second wife was a Winnipegger, I grew up in Winnipeg, [and] our families knew each other. I met Christopher a couple of times in the early 1970s, and when his father died in the winter of 1973 and he was named literary executor in the will, he wanted and needed assistance. I think, in his mind, the working model was that of a fully-fledged academic and the bright graduate student associate, which is what I was at the time. And so rather than work with another academic, I think what worked for him conceptually was someone at my level and in my position, and because the families knew each other, I think he found a measure of confidence that he could trust me with the papers and the archival material.

One of the great strengths of Tolkien's work is the depth of setting, of geography and history. You're one of the few writers to come close to that level of achievement. How do you accomplish the texture and realism of place in your novels?

There's no short answer to that one either. Good writing takes time; I firmly believe that. The texture you speak of with The Lord of the Rings, setting and framework, emerged over the course of three or four decades of world-building. No one is going to sit down and do that in order to write a novel. At the same time, paying attention to details and research before you actually start the writing will pay off, I do believe, in providing the texture you're talking about.

One of the choices you make that's very different from the great majority of contemporary fantasy, and also that diverges from the Tolkien tradition, is that you often use elements which are easy to identify from Western history and culture. Why do you do this, and how do you think it contributes to your work?

That emerged gradually. After I did The Fionavar Tapestry, which was pretty much the statement I had to make in traditional high fantasy, I had a particular horror of the idea of repeating myself, of cloning myself. I know that it can sometimes be a recipe for commercial success, but it's equally a recipe for artistic stagnation. So I did want to move in a different direction, and the movement towards examining history and the interplay of myth and fantasy and history has been engaging me more and more over the past 10 or 12 years.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of using things that are very similar to Christian and Islamic characters and cultures in your stories?

That's a very complex issue. In essence, what you're asking me, I think, is: Why treat historical themes through a fantasy prism, as opposed to treating them directly and straightforwardly? There are a great many virtues, to my mind, why fantasy is a terrific vehicle for examining motifs of history. One of them is that if I write a fantasy instead of a straightforward history, you can't know where I am going. Even if you know the history of 12th-century Spain or Byzantium in the 6th century, because I'm not writing the actual history, I reserve the right to change events. It's an advantage for the reader and the author in terms of suspense. The other one ties into what we talked about a few minutes ago, which is fantasy. I've become more and more unsettled by the fictional use of real people, the authors feeling a complete licence to take a real person, sometimes a living person, and do whatever they want with them because "it's just a novel." One of the things fantasy has done for me as a method of working is that I'm not telling you that I know what the real Justinian and Theodora's relationship was like; I've invented a Valerius and Alexana that are inspired by the real people. But they're not them, and that's artistically liberating, that freedom from feeling that I'm poaching on someone's real life.

Your books seem to rely more heavily on research and literary allusion than many other authors. Could you describe the process of how you go from an idea to a manuscript?

It hasn't been a uniform process. Each book has developed along a slightly different line, which pleases me. I'm not functioning as a factory, as it were, for books. The organic growth has been a little bit different for each time. What I do say is pretty normal for me is that I start with setting and theme and characters before I figure out what the story is going to be. The starting point is to become deeply engaged in a different period, and the themes of that period that seem to me most interesting for our time and world. From that, characters tend to emerge, so far at any rate. It's only at that point that I seem to find myself teasing out the idea for the story that would take place with this setting and with these people. That seems to be the general pattern for me.

You use a lot of mythological symbols, or very close parallels. How do you use archetypes and mythic structure and plot in the construction of your novels?

You're asking me difficult questions, which is great because you're making me think about it, but one of the consistent threads in my answers is that each of the books have had a different take on that particular question. I'll give you an example: in Tigana, the magical is real. There are mages and wizards, even though it's a historically grounded work in the sense that it evokes the early Renaissance in Italy. The gods and the deities are there. By the time I get to A Song for Arbonne two years later, with the mythic and the archetypal, it's more about how organized religion controls and influences the behaviour of people through the impressed belief that the gods and deities are there. In other words, I'm using the archetypes in Tigana as the mythic made real, and in Arbonne it's a political religious framework where the mythic is a tool of the state and the religious hierarchy. So I couldn't give you a single answer with respect to both books.

The title Sailing to Sarantium invokes the poem "Sailing to Byzantium" by Yeats and the novel by Silverberg. How did Yeats, or Silverberg, influence you in writing the novel?

Silverberg not at all, much as I'm an admirer of Robert's writing. But the Yeats was integral, because when I started to read about Byzantium, I started to think about: If we think about Byzantium at all, how do we envisage it? Those of us who are steeped in literature come at an idea of Byzantium by way of these two magnificent poems, "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Byzantium." I almost called the second book "Sarantium" to echo the "Sailing to Sarantium"–"Sarantium" idea. The publisher feared, probably wisely, that people would think it was the same book with a truncated title.

Yeats introduces this wonderful presence of the mystic, the hint of the supernatural that hovers around our idea of the Byzantine court. The other component is [the idea of] empresses murdering or blinding their sons so they couldn't take the throne—this idea of what we mean when we say "the Byzantine." We mean deadly dangerous intrigue. That's what most people think. But the other component for me, and I know for many people, is that delicious hint of the mystical that Yeats attached to Byzantium.

I always want to ask writers what their next book is about, and I know you don't like talking about that, so let me try a more general question: What are your goals as a writer? What art forms, themes, subjects, or techniques would you like to accomplish or redefine that you haven't done yet?

That's a very good question. I hope I don't know the answer, because what's kept me going as an artist, what I think has kept me changing, has been the discovery from one year to the next that different things interest me, that something I had no idea engaged me suddenly becomes a consuming interest. I had no particular knowledge or interest in Byzantium before I started researching this book, and the motifs of the relationship between the artist and the state, the idea that each of us is trying to find a way to leave a legacy behind him or her—these themes, which are very powerful for me, are themes of which I was unaware before I started working my way into that book. So I can't really tell you what will engage me two years from now, let alone ten years from now. What I can tell you is that I hope it will be something I haven't even thought about yet.

Last year, in a speech at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, you cited philosophers, political leaders, and writers on the ethical value of privacy in an information society. As a student of law and philosophy, how do you feel the parameters have changed in the light of recent events, and has the ethical balance of the issue changed?

That's one of those questions we could spend the rest of the interview teasing out. I think the parameters have been changing for the last several years. I think there have been a number of elements of our society that have led to a general devaluing of privacy, not just in the level of governments looking to observe our conduct, but on the value we attach to being private. For many younger people today, the value attached is to being seen, not to being private. The whole idea of something like the Jennycam, the camera in the co-ed dorm or apartment, or the way in which something like Instant Messenger works among teenagers, which is to say that if you're expected to be there at seven p.m. doing your homework while you're on Instant Messenger, and you're not there, then the next day your friends want to know where you were. My brother is a child psychologist who's been exploring this with some of his patients, the idea that you are expected to be visible, and when you choose to be private and do something different, that's noteworthy. When I grew up, it was exactly the opposite. So I think there's been change for a while.

If you're asking specifically about change since September 11, it's too soon and too raw. I think it would be dangerous to make sweeping predictions about how things will shake down. I would say that, off the top, there would be reason to presume that there will be erosion of civil liberties and privacy as we need to gain increased levels of attention to security and confidence.

Medieval Byzantium has intrigued me as a setting where contemporary perspectives on multiculturalism can be explored. How has being a Canadian influenced what you write about, and how you write it?

On a conscious level, it doesn't. I don't even like thinking in those terms. On a subconscious level, I'm utterly convinced that there must be, what you said, that it ripples through my writing in a way that I'm not aware of. (That would be tautological; if it's subconscious I'm not aware of it.) But I'm quite certain that if I had grown up in the United Kingdom, or France, or the United States, my angle on the world would be different. So my angle on the world is shaped by having grown up in Winnipeg, in Canada, and living now still in Canada, and I'm quite certain that this ripples through my books. What I can't tell you is exactly how.

Have you ever written something and then discovered that it came out of your origins here?

My joke answer to that is that when I wrote The Wandering Fire and I'm dealing with the equivalent of the Nordic fimbulwinter, the great mythic archetypal winter, and my standard joke is that anybody who grew up in Winnipeg can write about that as realistic fiction, because I know about winter. But that's a joke, and I put it in the framework of a joke, because it would be misleading to think that because I grew up knowing 40 below zero in Winnipeg, that's why I became interested in that; I became interested in it because the potency and power of the Norse myths worked for me.

The closest example might be Tigana, where people in this province [Quebec] have asked me on a great many occasions over the last 10 years if, in that examination of a culture being destroyed deliberately, the taking away of a name and a language and a historical identity, I was writing about Quebec, and I wasn't. But I was aware of Quebec. I've been asked the same question in Poland and Croatia: "Were you writing about us?" It's just about the standard question whenever a great many cultures at different times in their history have faced a serious risk of being obliterated as a separate individualized culture. Tigana was an attempt to use fantasy to explore all of them, not just any single [culture]. That's one of the virtues, to go back to an earlier question, of working with fantasy to look at history, because it universalizes history.

If you have a fairy tale that goes "Once upon a time, the third son of a woodcutter..." We're all the third son of a woodcutter, or the only daughter of a fisherman; that's what the underpinning of the folk tale and the fairy tale and legend is. It applies to all of us, not just one strand of us.

Some writers are motivated by popular fame, by demonstration of technical or artistic achievement, by academic recognition, by credibility in fandom, exorcising personal demons, and so forth. What motivates you to write books the way you do?

Everything you just said sounded pretty good [laughing].

In a very idealistic-sounding way, I want to write as well as I possibly can. I want to impact on and affect people as deeply as I can with what I write. The underlying motivation is to reach an audience, not just in terms of the marketing person's "you've reached 100,000 readers," but reached into the audience. The simplest answer I could give you is that I want to reach into the reader and write a book that stays with them a long time after they've finished it.


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