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An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

This interview was done over e-mail in January 1995. Copyright is jointly held by Guy Gavriel Kay and Andrew A. Adams. Reproduced with permission. To visit Andrew Adams' website, click here.

How did you become involved in editing The Silmarillion?

I knew Christopher Tolkien through connections to his second wife's family. The summer after his father died - when CJRT was named literary executor, he invited me to come to Oxford (from Canada) and assist him in the editing process.

Do you write with the whole story mapped out ahead in your mind, filling in the details, or do you just allow the story to unfold?

The latter. I subscribe to the Graham Greene thesis that if I know exactly where a book is going I get bored writing it. If the author can be surprised and engaged by the story, the odds are better (in my view) that the reader will be as well.

The Fionavar Tapestry is very Tolkien-esque (Dark Lord, Elves, Dwarves etc.) but Tigana and A Song for Arbonne are very different. Is this a conscious decision to write something different?

More an evolution of interest and a horror of repeating myself too much. The Tapestry was a conscious decision, however, to work squarely in the Tolkien tradition while trying to allow room for character development and plausibility that I tended to find missing in most post-JRRT High Fantasy. In a way it was a challenge to the debasing of the genre.

Are Tigana and A Song for Arbonne set on the same world?

I plant a hint to this effect (Tigana's world is southern hemisphere) but really did intend this to be a grace note (as were and are the glancing references to Fionavar in each book) and not, in any way a prelude to some grand tying-together of worlds. I actively dislike when authors start doing that. For me, the point was metaphorical and allusive, no more. The new novel also has the two moons, and again they are a metaphorical, thematic link, not a strictly geographical one. I may end up regretting this because so many genre fans are avidly searching for the connect points.

Arbonne is very obviously a French setting and The Palm an Italian one - is Gorhaut meant to represent Germany or part of France or be non-historical?

Northern France, or, more properly, France itself, with Arbonne as Languedoc/Provence (not strictly the same boundaries, but they were, at the time, separate from France). The inspiration for the book was the Albigensian Crusade.

Are the events in Tigana and A Song for Arbonne mirrors in other worlds of the war in Fionavar?

No.

The magic is very prominent in The Fionavar Tapestry, less so in Tigana and very much in the background in A Song for Arbonne. There is also a parallel between the strength of presence of the Deities and the strength of the magic in Fionavar, The Palm and Arbonne/Gorhaut. Is this because of the particular stories you were telling or a conscious decision?

There's a progression (extended now in LIONS) away from magic. Also away from myth and towards history (obviously linked themes). My interests have been moving that way the past number of years - which is not to say anything about where I might go next!

All your books include a mixed ending (some tragedy but greater good), usually due to the self-sacrifice of a major character. Do you think this affects the market for your books?

Hard to answer and if an author worries too much about this he or she can begin losing their control over their vision. On one level, certain readers turn to fantasy for clear triumphs as an asylum from the ambiguities of real life. On another, certain readers find simplistic characters and too-pat endings jejune. I'm likely to be less appealing to the former and more attractive to the latter.

How much research do you do on the countries (Italy, France, Spain) on which your books are set, and how do you decide which century the story is set in?

Quite extensive research - about a year's worth. Primary, secondary texts, and where possible travel and even write in the country that serves as my source.

Your books often contain fairly graphic sexual acts, sometimes violent. Are you criticised for this (as Stephen Donaldson is criticised for the rape scene in Lord Foul's Bane)?

The rape scene [of Jennifer in The Summer Tree] is so obviously fundamental to generating character responses and reader intensity that very few readers have ever complained. As for other sexual elements - how can a writer control a reader's threshold of comfort with such things? One of the THEMES of Tigana was how tyranny and oppression filter their way down to even the most intimate acts of human interaction. If you look closely at the sex in the book, you'll see that there is no 'healthy' or nurturing sex until the Ember Night - which is the 'turn' of the book. This was entirely deliberate, inspired by some musings of Milan Kundera in 'Laughable Loves'.

The end of Tigana with three men seeing a riselka suggests to some a hook for a sequel, to others merely an indication that "life goes on...". Do you have any plans to return to the Palm?

The second theory is entirely correct. To put it another way, I wanted the sense that this whole very long story is NOT the whole story of these peoples' lives. No sequel was planned or hinted at. I think most thoughtful readers picked up on the point, but there have been an awful lot who have been waiting for the next volume. This depresses me, actually.

Is there any significance to the recurrence of the name Delonghi in both Tigana and A Song for Arbonne?

No. I'm sure I'll repeat some other names before I'm done.

Did you feel constrained to avoid having a main character (the Duke who dies is important to the story but his character is not focussed on) die in A Song for Arbonne by the nature of the narrative? (Both The Fionavar Tapestry and Tigana contain more tragedy than A Song for Arbonne, where the tragedy is more in the past then the present).

Not constrained. As you note, the nature of loss and sadness in ARBONNE is different from TIGANA's. It was also intended to, in a sense, REVERSE the brutal results of the real Albigensian Crusade. TIGANA did that too, by the way - reversing the terrible history of Italy after the later 16th century.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is due out this summer. Can you give a resume of the background of this book?

Based on 12th century Spain and Al-Andalus. Closest book yet to tracking actual historical events - in part because fewer people are likely to know the actual events. The theme has to do with what happens to the space in which men and women can communicate and interact when ideologies harden towards holy war.

What is your next project, and on what country is it based?

Currently doing a 6 hour mini-series based on Robertson Davies's WHAT'S BRED IN THE BONE. Will take a deep breath after and start thinking about the next book.

How long do you expect this book to take you?

They seem to always take about a year to prepare and a year or a little less to write.

Do you expect to write any more books about crossovers between the worlds (all your books so far have obviously been set in the same 'multiverse').

Truly no idea about that at this point. As I mentioned, the linkage is metaphorical or poetic, not meant to set up some grand galactic interaction.

Are there any books which are so good you wish you had written them?

Too many to list.

What is your status at the University of Toronto (staff, researcher, what field, etc.)?

No formal status. I lecture occasionally at classes studying my books. I'm a lawyer by training, though do not, obviously, practice law.





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Bright Weavings: The Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay